A Mechanized Culture and its Equally Mechanical Population Meet


When the clones come to harvest our organs, they will speak to us like George Saunders—swiftly, smoothly, proffering bits of Pop-Tarts. The synthesized flow of their voices, combined with the promise of extra filling, will persuade us to lie back on their tables and focus—happily, productively—on what they say, not what they do.

Saunders has made a career out of hot-wiring himself to machines—the former engineer attaches fingers to the keyboard and spews out reams of tripped-out data on the intersection of a mechanized culture and its equally mechanical population. Those data, in turn, become the source material of some of the slickest, most relentlessly satirical stories yet produced on this planet. In his latest collection—In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead, April)—teenagers interned in a terminal focus group, the deranged star of a Truman Show screenplay, scientists, and product specialists speak, with disarming fluency, the language of the commercial voiceover artist in residence inside all our brains. The real question of the moment, as one character puts it, is “Well Who Will Be There, Will There Be Cakes?”

Do you take your cultural parody with or without sugar? As the platitudes the authorities feed us diminish in already wafer-thin logic, Saunders nearly takes leave of narrative—immersing his stories, instead, in the chocolate-covered nonsense of corporate and political speech. While previous works in this millennium— Pastoralia and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—consisted of tightly wound parables,
lets loose a series of hysterically smooth-talking voices. They hawk prosthetic baby faces; legislate the slaughter of dogs, cats, and primates; and recount Teddy Graham commercials as the sincerest professions of love. Their lesson, Saunders suggests, is that truth exists in inverse relation to eloquence—or so, at least, he says.

Saunders reads from In Persuasion Nation on April 27 at Barnes & Noble, 33 East 17th Street, 212-253-0810.

Listings by Kosiya Shalita

Colson Whitehead

March 27

Barnes & Noble, 4 Astor Pl, 212-420-1322

The nomenclature consultant hired to rename the town of Winthrop is the best in the game—”some might say a rose by any other name but he didn’t go for that kind of crap.” The deal becomes more complicated when he finds himself caught between the conflicting interests of the town’s three councilmembers, each backing a different name. Former Voice writer Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist, returns with Apex Hides the Hurt.

Marilyn Johnson

April 4

KGB Bar, 85 E 4th, 212-505-3360

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson kicked the bucket the same day as John Adams? Or that the actors who voiced Tigger and Piglet in Winnie the Pooh bit the dust only 24 hours apart? These sorts of coincidences abound in obituaries, and Johnson keeps track of them all. In The Dead Beat she describes her fellow deathwatch devotees as “members of the Church of Obituaries” and delights in opening the morning paper to read about the dearly, and not so dearly, departed.

Stephen McCauley

April 5

Barnes & Noble, 675 Sixth Ave, 212-727-1227

One year after September 11, Boston real estate agent William Collins realizes it’s time for a change. He’s spent the last few months screwing just about every guy with an internet connect in a three-mile radius connection, and now his life is a mess. In the comic novel Alternatives to Sex, obsessive cleaning and real estate lust stand in for more physical pleasure as Collins befriends a long-married couple looking for the one perfect apartment.

Yannick Murphy

April 11

Coliseum Books, 11 W 42nd, 212-803-5890

Here They Come is told from the deadpan p.o.v. of a 13-year-old girl living in 1970s New York, who spews “Fuck you” like a hardened pro and scores free hot dogs off a toothless vendor in exchange for some clandestine groping. She shuttles between her mother’s apartment and her father’s place uptown, staying just as long as his new girlfriend (“the slut”) will let her. In between she wanders the streets, keeping her eyes out for the mingled promise and threat of danger at every turn.

Chris Kraus

April 15

Miguel Abreu Gallery, 36 Orchard, 212-995-1774

In 1991 it’s post-punk and pre-grunge and everyone’s watching thirtysomething. Jerome and Sylvie are experiencing a similarly undefined moment in their lives: The couple has been priced out of their East Village tenement and now spend their time bouncing between rental properties. They decamp to the former Soviet Union, and hold on to the spurious hope that adopting a child will keep them together, as Jerome works on his book, The Anthropology of Unhappiness.

Rich Cohen

April 25

Barnes & Noble, 675 Sixth Ave, 212-727-1227

Cohen’s grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, had two great ideas. After the first (injecting sugar into individually sized sanitary paper packets) was stolen by the sugar industry he learned his lesson. When approached with the idea of using saccharine as the basis for a low-calorie sugar substitute, Eisenstadt saw the opportunity and ran with it. Cohen’s memoir Sweet and Low follows the rise of his grandfather’s success and the eventual destruction of the family along with it.

A.M. Homes

April 27

Barnes & Noble, 2289 Bway, 212-362-8835

Homes has established herself as keen observer of perversion in her previous work, from the epistolary creepfest at the center of The End of Alice to the suburban dysfunction of the short-story collection The Safety of Objects. Her new novel This Book Will Save Your Life finds a more hopeful tone. Set in Los Angeles, it tells the story of Richard Novack, a man so wealthy and withdrawn the only people he has regular contact with are on his payroll. After an attack of intense but mysterious pain sends him to the hospital, Novack meets a donut shop owner named Anhil, whose kindness helps Novack begin opening up the world he has sealed himself off from.

Etgar Keret

May 1

92nd Street Y, Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd & Lexington Ave, 212-415-5780

Israel-born Keret is a bestselling author back home and has been featured onSelected Shorts and This American Life, but is still little-known here. The stories in his latest collection, The Nimrod Flipout, should do a great deal to advance his reputation—they’re sharp, funny, and best of all, completely deranged. In the opener, “Fatso,” a young man learns that the problem his beautiful new girlfriend is so distressed over has nothing to do with a jealous ex-boyfriend or a slutty past. It’s that each night she becomes a short, squat, beer-swilling dude. Oddly, hanging out with him is a lot of fun.

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