three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
user_rating: 
0

Essays

A-The Braindead MegaphoneIn his first collection of essays, award-winning short story writer George Saunders has created something of a grab bag; the "essays" include everything from humor pieces to a literary appreciation of Huckleberry Finn, an examination of modern American media (the titular "braindead megaphone"), and a travel story on Tibet. Saunders thematically links each piece, however, with his obsession with capital-T "Truth" and its degradation. And rather than being just another divisive media voice, he documents the extraordinary moments that connect seemingly incompatible people. Whether he's describing off-duty U.S. sailors frolicking with Arab children in Dubai's indoor ice city or talking about ballet with boarder patrol vigilantes in Texas, Saunders illuminates our common humanity.
Riverhead. 272 pages. $14. ISBN: 159448256X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Saunders] doesn't pretend to be an expert, or waste his words quoting them. Instead, he proceeds into the breach as a regular dude trying to make sense of the absurdities presented by the modern world, forever vulnerable to their pathos." Steve Almond

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[R]ather than urge the dialogue lynch mob in specific directions, [Saunders] does an entirely more wonderful thing: He demonstrates how to write from the presumption that we're all more alike than we think. This sounds wishy-washy, but he makes it a powerful premise, especially because Saunders is one of the most gladdening writers alive." John Freeman

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"A practicing Buddhist . . . Saunders applies leftist, pacifist lateral thinking to our political and social problems. ... This book demonstrates that Saunders is more than a superb fiction writer: He's also a surprisingly empathetic essayist, a writer perfectly attuned to a world where the old paradigms of authority are breaking down, comedians deliver the nightly news and fiction writers, apparently, are finer reporters than many journalists." Edward Nawotka

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] representative and very welcome addition to the Saunders canon. That's because essay is given the loosest possible definition, embracing everything from lighthearted, wholly fictional verbal badinage to earnest, in-depth field reportage, and in every case the author's trademark bricolage of the fantastical and the familiar is very much in evidence." Jason Roberts

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If only Saunders's Soft Heart were accompanied by a Hard Head, then this report might tend more toward the Tragic than the Platitudinous. ... The sentiments are noble, the analysis solipsistic." Will Blythe

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Saunders tries too hard to like and be liked, and he loses his grip on what's at stake. Perhaps he's following his own anti-Megaphonic counsel, attempting to whisper rationally despite the clamor around him, but he succeeds instead in not saying much at all." Ben Ehrenreich

Critical Summary

George Saunders's Braindead Megaphone uses the fiction author's trademark ability to, as the Boston Globe puts it, "convert his sorrow about mankind into exquisite comedies of disappointment" and applies it to the sometimes surreal and often discomfiting world around him. While most critics appreciate Saunders's attempt to provide a counterpoint to America's vitriol-filled but ultimately meaningless media punditry, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times ridicule his humanistic approach as naive and overly optimistic. One's reaction to Saunders' essays seems to hinge largely on one's acceptance of his liberal perspective, his faith in the power of narrative, and his primary assertion that "the stories we choose to consume take our measure as a species" (Boston Globe).

Also by the Author

In Persuasion Nation Stories (2006): 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006. Polar bears perform Sisyphean tasks, focus groups hold children hostage, and reality TV is driven to even more grotesque extremes. Saunders's newest collection of 12 short stories balances the serious and the absurd as the author seeks out the soul that remains in a world gone mad with marketing.