Civilwarland in bad decl.., p.1
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       CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, p.1

           George Saunders
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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

  CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.)

  2012 Random House eBook Edition

  Copyright © 1996 by George Saunders

  Author’s note © 2012 by George Saunders

  Introduction © 2012 by Joshua Ferris

  Excerpt from Tenth of December copyright © 2012 by George Saunders.

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  RANDOM HOUSE and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Originally published in hardcover and in different form in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in 1996.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-82222-2




  Title Page


  Introduction by Joshua Ferris

  CivilWarLand in Bad Decline


  The Wavemaker Falters

  The 400-Pound CEO

  Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz

  Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror


  Author’s Note

  A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

  About the Author


  Excerpt from George Saunders’s Tenth of December


  By Joshua Ferris

  George Saunders doesn’t need an introduction. He’s not a dead guy whose work was and remains difficult to read. He’s not toiling away in obscurity or translated from the Chamicuro. He’s the future of American short fiction and has been for about fifteen years. He publishes in The New Yorker like Cheever and Updike used to publish in The New Yorker. He has won a MacArthur grant and a Guggenheim fellowship, four National Magazine Awards, and even something called the World Fantasy Award. I bet Cheever and Updike never won the World Fantasy Award. The man himself has appeared on The Colbert Report and the Late Show with David Letterman. He’s practically a celebrity, and you don’t find many of those in the literary world these days.

  Nevertheless, on May 24, 2012, at 3:07 P.M., I received an email from an editor at Random House that read, in part, “We’re publishing an ebook of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in November (it exists only in paperback now)… [and] I wanted to ask if you would consider writing a short intro to it.” I happened to be online when the email came in, and without giving too much consideration to what I might say, or to the compositional challenges inherent even in a short introduction, I replied seven minutes later, at 3:14 P.M., unequivocally: “Done. Give me the due date. Totally psyched.”

  And I was totally psyched, continue to be totally psyched, even as now, sitting down to write, I realize that Saunders needs no introduction, and yet I’m responsible for writing an introduction. Whatever I do or do not say about him will be secondary and beside the point, especially confined as it must be to one modest introduction and to only one of Saunders’s collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his first, published in 1996 and never out of print, still as fresh now as then, still as wholly original and startling and unsettling as it was then, when I was working as a clerk in a bookstore, broke, miserable, and desperate, and picked it up and couldn’t put it down again. And I sort of knew this when the Random House email came in, at 3:07 P.M., with me online and capable of responding at 3:09 or even 3:08, or even in the same minute as the email was sent. In the back of my mind, I knew that Saunders needed no introduction and that the collection, seven pieces in all—six stories and one novella—also needed no introduction, no clarification or commentary, because it remains as perfectly capable of conveying everything that’s necessary in and of itself. I knew in the back of my mind that enthusiasm is never sufficient reason to agree to write anything—that the greater my enthusiasm, in fact, the more vital it is for me to demur, because all that needs to be said has already been said by the work about which I feel enthusiastic. The work that stirs the greatest passion is also the work that creates around it the greatest silence, the strongest imperative to stand back and admire and let others admire, without interfering. I knew that an introduction would not allow me to adequately flesh out the many thoughts I’ve had about Saunders and his work since I read him as a clerk in a bookstore. It might not even allow me to flesh out what is, in this one collection, both immediately winning—the humor, the heart—and what remains more obscure and subterranean, like the layers of irony he uses in the title story alone, one centered around a history-themed theme park where one “good” war (the Civil War) is ultimately destroyed by one of our “bad” wars (Vietnam).

  But at the same time I was debating the difficulties, I also thought that it would be easy to talk about how the premise of any one of Saunders’s stories looks and feels a lot like one of Edgar Allen Poe’s, as it’s almost always a highly imagined premise, a premise limitless in its outrageous gothic possibilities, and yet somehow Saunders tethers the premise and makes of it something deeply affecting in a way that Poe never did, in a way more easily achieved with straightforward realism, as Melville did in “Bartleby, the Scrivener”—in other words, to position Saunders as the natural heir to both Poe and Melville. And because he uses the American vernacular with more ingenuity than anyone else—because he’s also like Whitman, who wrote, “I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard, / Nature without check with original energy”—because his stories speak with Whitman’s original unchecked energy, I thought, in the seven minutes it took me to respond to Random House’s email, debating whether or not I had anything to say about George Saunders that might go beyond hagiography, I could talk about how Saunders, in moral interrogation and clarity of voice, is as close to the nineteenth century as he is to the twenty-first, which is a little surprising when you read him, because he’s so absolutely contemporary. He is an entirely autonomous product of his own devising, aided by this new era in our berserk republic. At the same time, I thought, I could rectify the all-too-common mistake critics make when talking about Saunders, which is to call him a satirist in the early style of Mark Twain: while Saunders does satirize, or, in other words, render the real absurd, he also carefully and lovingly and artfully renders the absurd real, which is a much harder trick to pull off and, once done, moves the so-called satirist out of the pigeonhole and into the open air of the first-rate artist. But I also thought that all that sounded academic, and that Random House probably wasn’t really interested in what some guy had to say about George Saunders’s nineteenth-century roots and his divergences therein—and that I wasn’t really interested in talking about all that, because it wasn’t what made talking about George Saunders such an imperative. As I debated whether or not I could say anything about George Saunders, I thought that ultimately what I could do, if it came time to write and I found myself really stymied, was just do what’s kind of expected in introductions, which is to talk about what makes the book great and why I love it. Just talk about why you love it, I thought as I debated, despite knowing that talking about something I love is a recipe for disaster, as well as knowing that I would of course say yes to Random House. It took me seven minutes to respond to an email I could have answered in thirty seconds, or even ten seconds, after receiving it, knowing that I would seize any opportunity to talk about George Saunders—seven minutes because I knew how hard it would be to talk about him.

; Part of the reason it’s so hard to talk about him is the shared acknowledgment among writers that Saunders is somehow a little more than just a writer. Of course he’s only a writer, only predominately a short-story writer, and even though he established a new template for the short story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a template as influential as Raymond Carver’s was to his generation, and even Hemingway’s to his, hopelessly parodied by younger writers but belonging to Saunders alone—even though all this is big news, Saunders is still just putting one sentence in front of the other in the service of the humble short story. Sometimes those sentences revel in the purely comedic, as does this passage from the collection’s sixth story, “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”:

  A young girl gets extremely worked up on the honeymoon and the next thing she knows her new husband is scampering into the kitchen for a zucchini squash. Even through my crying he insisted, saying it would bring us closer together. Imagine the humiliation of being just eighteen and having to go to your family doctor with an infection difficult to explain. Finally he found it in a plant book.

  And sometimes Saunders’s sentences create a new world and toss you right into it. That’s when they crackle with a dizzying inaugural energy. Here’s a classic example from “The 400-Pound CEO”:

  At noon another load of raccoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron. Then he checks for vitals, wearing protective gloves. Then he drags the cage across 209 and initiates burial by dumping the raccoons into the pit that’s our little corporate secret. After burial comes prayer, a personal touch that never fails to irritate Tim, our ruthless CEO. Before founding Humane Raccoon Alternatives, Tim purposely backed his car over a frat boy and got ten-to-twelve for manslaughter.

  And sometimes the sentences, while funny, are tinged with a melancholy in a fashion that has come to be a trademark of Saunders, who has a genius for wringing laughter from the tragic. In “The Wavemaker Falters,” the unnamed narrator has accidentally killed a “sweet kid” named Clyde, who now haunts him at night:

  Even though he’s dead, he’s still basically a kid. When he tries to be scary he gets it all wrong. He can’t moan for beans. He’s scariest when he does real kid things, like picking his nose and wiping it on the side of his sneaker.

  He tries to be polite but he’s pretty mad about the future I denied him. Tonight’s subject is what the Mexico City trip with the perky red-haired tramp would have been like.

  And sometimes, when Saunders is really on fire, he imagines the afterlife. Take the collection’s title story, his first unequivocally great story. The unnamed narrator, complicit in killing a kid and burying his hand to cover up the crime, is being stabbed to death by the vigilante he’s hired to keep CivilWarLand safe from roving gangs:

  Possessing perfect knowledge I hover above him as he hacks me to bits. I see his rough childhood. I see his mother doing something horrid to him with a broomstick. I see the hate in his heart and the people he has yet to kill before pneumonia gets him at eighty-three. I see the dead kid’s mom unable to sleep, pounding her fists against her face in grief at the moment I was burying her son’s hand. I see the pain I’ve caused. I see the man I could have been, and the man I was, and then everything is bright and new and keen with love and I sweep through Sam’s body, trying to change him, trying so hard, and feeling only hate and hate, solid as stone.

  Here Saunders imagines for us what it’s like to die: “Possessing perfect knowledge.… [E]verything is bright and new and keen with love …” But the narrator doesn’t focus solely on his own death and all his terrible regrets. With an unusually expansive heart, with a uniquely inspired imagination, Saunders allows his narrator to inhabit the mind of his own assailant. Even as he’s being killed, Saunders endows him with an almost irrational empathy, and this empathy is the source of all humanity.

  I find it hard to talk about George Saunders and yet at the same time must talk about him because of this expansiveness, this feeling that he is inspired. It is hard to articulate what it means to be inspired, and yet it won’t do to shy away from it. It means, of course, that he has redefined the short story. Realism, if it is to reflect current reality, must include fantasy, computer simulation, rampant consumerism and corporate malfeasance, and futurism as a permanent state of mind, as well as all the old stuff: character, consequence, the thoughts and predicaments of regular people, the unmitigated exploitation of the weak by the powerful, the eternal possibility of the individual’s redemption. Come to think of it, it’s not just the short story Saunders redefines by bringing all of these disparate elements together in a satisfying whole. He redefines realism itself.

  But I mean something more by “inspired.” I mean that Saunders writes like something of a saint. He seems in touch with some better being. He teaches us not only how to write but how to live. He sets the bar and also the example. He hopes we might see the possibility of our better selves and act on it. He seems sent—what other way to put it?—to teach us mercy and grace. And it all begins here, with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.



  Whenever a potential big investor comes for the tour the first thing I do is take him out to the transplanted Erie Canal Lock. We’ve got a good ninety feet of actual Canal out there and a well-researched dioramic of a coolie campsite. Were our faces ever red when we found out it was actually the Irish who built the Canal. We’ve got no budget to correct, so every fifteen minutes or so a device in the bunkhouse gives off the approximate aroma of an Oriental meal.

  Today my possible Historical Reconstruction Associate is Mr. Haberstrom, founder of Burn’n’Learn. Burn’n’Learn is national. Their gimmick is a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the name of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller skates. As we walk up the trail he’s wearing a sweatsuit and smoking a cigar and I tell him I admire his acumen. I tell him some men are dreamers and others are doers. He asks which am I and I say let’s face it, I’m basically the guy who leads the dreamers up the trail to view the Canal Segment. He likes that. He says I have a good head on my shoulders. He touches my arm and says he’s hot to spend some reflective moments at the Canal because his great-grandfather was a barge guider way back when who got killed by a donkey. When we reach the clearing he gets all emotional and bolts off through the gambling plaster Chinese. Not to be crass but I sense an impending sizable contribution.

  When I come up behind him however I see that once again the gangs have been at it with their spray cans, all over my Lock. Haberstrom takes a nice long look. Then he pokes me with the spitty end of his cigar and says not with his money I don’t, and storms back down the trail.

  I stand there alone a few minutes. The last thing I need is some fat guy’s spit on my tie. I think about quitting. Then I think about my last degrading batch of résumés. Two hundred send-outs and no nibbles. My feeling is that prospective employers are put off by the fact that I was a lowly Verisimilitude Inspector for nine years with no promotions. I think of my car payment. I think of how much Marcus and Howie love the little playhouse I’m still paying off. Once again I decide to eat my pride and sit tight.

  So I wipe off my tie with a leaf and start down to break the Haberstrom news to Mr. Alsuga.

  Mr. A’s another self-made man. He cashed in on his love of history by conceptualizing CivilWarLand in his spare time. He started out with just a settler’s shack and one Union costume and now has considerable influence in Rotary.

  His office is in City Hall. He agrees that the gangs are getting out of hand. Last month they wounded three Visitors and killed a dray horse. Several of them encircled and made fun of Mrs. Dugan in her settler outfit as she was taking her fresh-baked bread over to the simulated Towne Meeting. No way they’re paying admission, so they’re either tunneling in or coming in over the retaining wall.

  Mr. Alsuga believes the solution to the gang problem is Teen Groups.
I tell him that’s basically what a gang is, a Teen Group. But he says how can it be a Teen Group without an adult mentor with a special skill, like whittling? Mr. Alsuga whittles. Once he gave an Old Tyme Skills Seminar on it in the Blacksmith Shoppe. It was poorly attended. All he got was two widowers and a chess-club type no gang would have wanted anyway. And myself. I attended. Evelyn called me a bootlicker, but I attended. She called me a bootlicker, and I told her she’d better bear in mind which side of the bread her butter was on. She said whichever side it was on it wasn’t enough to shake a stick at. She’s always denigrating my pay stub. I came home from the Seminar with this kind of whittled duck. She threw it away the next day because she said she thought it was an acorn. It looked nothing like an acorn. As far as I’m concerned she threw it away out of spite. It made me livid and twice that night I had to step into a closet and perform my Hatred Abatement Breathing.

  But that’s neither here nor there.

  Mr. Alsuga pulls out the summer stats. We’re in the worst attendance decline in ten years. If it gets any worse, staff is going to be let go in droves. He gives me a meaningful look. I know full well I’m not one of his key players. Then he asks who we have that might be willing to fight fire with fire.

  I say: I could research it.

  He says: Why don’t you research it?

  So I go research it.

  Sylvia Loomis is the queen of info. It’s in her personality. She enjoys digging up dirt on people. She calls herself an S&M buff in training. She’s still too meek to go whole hog, so when she parties at the Make Me Club on Airport Road she limits herself to walking around talking mean while wearing kiddie handcuffs. But she’s good at what she does, which is Security. It was Sylvia who identified the part-timer systematically crapping in the planters in the Gift Acquisition Center and Sylvia who figured out it was Phil in Grounds leaving obscene messages for the Teen Belles on MessageMinder. She has access to all records. I ask can she identify current employees with a history of violence. She says she can if I buy her lunch.

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