Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders

The stories in George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella (Random House, 1996) are set in an indistinct future, a time advanced in technology, but in many ways as full of human difficulties as our own.  One long story involves a time in which mutant humans, apparently the result of environmental pollution, are the victims of relocation camps and general discrimination.  The story especially connects to contemporary issues regarding undocumented aliens and other marginal groups, and it summons up recollections of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South pre-civil rights era.  (Is there a connection between this story and the X-Men?—the mutants in this story do not have special powers—they suffer physical malformations--for instance, misshapen toes).  Saunders takes a wry, disconnected yet engaged attitude towards his characters, for whom he expresses pity, empathy, and a certain I told you so attitude.  But the autobiographical essay at the end of the volume invested the stories, with their concerns about people struggling against unhappiness and economic hardship and personal failure, with a specific poignancy.  Saunders recounts his years of struggle to find a style and an approach that would work for him as a writer.  He says he often tried to imitate Hemingway.  But he discovered his true identity as a writer by channeling his own personal anxieties about failure and disruption in his family life—he had a good marriage, a family he loved, children he cherished, and though he was not financially secure at least in the early years of his career he had these things.  His worry about what it would be like to lose these reasons for happiness energized him, gave him a subject, and presumably led to the stories in this volume.

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