Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

Six short stories and a novella. Set in a dystopian near-future in which America has become little more than a theme park in terminal disrepair, they constitute a searching and bitterly humorous commentary on the current state of the American Dream.

Funny, sad, bleak, weird, toxic - the future of America as the Free Market runs rampant,the environment skids into disarray, and civilization dissolves into surreal chaos. These wacky, brilliant, hilarious and entirely original stories cue us in on George Saunder's skewed vision of the legacy we are creating. Against the backdrop of our devolvement, our own worst tendencies and greatest virtues are weirdly illuminated.

George Saunders is one of those wonderful discoveries I had last year. His Folio Prize winning Tenth of December blew me away and I knew I had to read more, if not all, of his works. I wanted to go down the line of his fiction books, with Civilwarland in Bad Decline being the earliest, published 17 years earlier than Tenth of December. The short stories from the former may not be as polished and potent as those of the later, but it still has everything I loved about Saunders' writing. It is unguarded and offhanded and very conversational. 

The protagonists in all the seven stories fit the downtrodden and the disadvantaged kind. Vulnerable characters that feel so real, I feel like my heart is being being skewered reading about their day to day lives of bleakness. He is a master at combining realism with surrealism. On one end, we have characters that are regular people, in terms of the voices Saunders lends them with. They are mostly rank and file employees: a wavemaker operator at a waterpark, an elderly museum worker, a raccoon trapper, a civil war re-enactment themed park assistant. And then he places them in a surreal setting of dystopian America, a picture of noxious wasteland, where the museum contains exhibits of pickled fetuses and a synthetic cow, a recreation center with mutants as slaves. He paints a pretty strange and terrifying landscape. Or he gives them claws instead of toes, or makes them weigh 400 pounds, or turn them boneless. But oh, their voices are so very human and real. He shows their capacity for stupidity, and revenge, and self loathing, but also their resilience and their gigantic hearts. And the humor, let's not forget to mention the wicked humor, and the biting satire, and the luminescent redemption (or epiphany) that cuts through the grim events like daggers of light piercing a dark room. Well, perhaps not the kind of redemption one expects, though. 

My favorites among the seven stories are:

1. The 400-Pound CEO - This is a story about Jeffrey, an obese worker of a raccoon disposal company. He is this amiable guy who always does the right things. And is kind to even his d-bag boss and co-workers who ridicule him about his weight and virginity, and plays cruel tricks on him. But then something happens that lands him in jail.  

“I'm not a bad guy. If only I could stop hoping. If only I could say to my heart: Give up. Be alone forever. There's always opera. There's angel-food cake and neighborhood children caroling, and the look of autumn leaves on a wet roof. But no. My heart's some kind of idiotic fishing bobber.” 

2. The Wavemaker Falters -This is about a wavemaker operator, living under a cloud of guilt as he is haunted by the ghost of Clyde, a boy he accidentally tore to bits by forgetting to put the filter on the wavemaker because he was busy watching group of girls in day-glo bathing suits.  Ghost Clyde visits every night and tells him of the future he's been denied on account of being dead. The senior prom he is missing, or that Mexico trip with a hot girl he is supposed to be having.

"Having lost what has to be lost, my torn and black heart rebels, saying enough already, enough, this is as low as I go."

3. Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz - This one tells of a guy who runs a virtual reality arcade with modules (games) as strange as "Legendary American Killers Stalk You", "Sexy Nurses Scrub You Down" and "Violated Prom Queen." He too is racked by guilt and unhappines from the death of his wife. He soon finds a way to extract his memory and place it on a disk.

"Your heart has never been broken. You've never done anything unforgivable or hurt anyone beyond reparation. Everyone you've ever loved you've treated like gold."

4. Bounty - This one is about a Flawed (mutant), a young, innocent boy with claws instead of toes, escapes from his workplace/prison in order to go after his sister (another Flawed) who was taken by a Normal. Only the outside world he escapes to isn't any better. Flaweds are looked down upon, forbidden to cohabitate with Normals, traded as slaves or killed. And he gets into some pretty tight spots and brutal situations. But ended up having another purpose aside from finding his sister.

"I think of Connie. I remember the autumn before the purge, when the Flaweds in our grade school were fitted with bracelets during a surprise assembly. Connie and I stood there blinking madly as a Normal janitor named Fabrizi fired up his welding tool. At home Connie decorated her bracelet with glitter glue. Dad called her a trooper and praised her gumption, then broke down in sobs."

Civilwarland in Bad Decline is a wonderful short story collection. As far as dystopian literature goes, it is an effective one because not only does it present a decayed world filled with greed, hate, corruption and ecological degradation but it underscores the fact that such a world is achieved by human choice. And I feel such a mad world is possible in the future too. Powerful stuff. 

Special Thanks to Meliza (aka Shadowcat) of Mecanism for giving me a copy.


  1. OMG I can't wait to read more George Saunders! I'm craving for that soft sci-fi-ish, literary tone that only he can create. :)

    1. Oh he has some short stories online! The New Yorker site has a couple and Esquire too I think. I've got a bunch of them bookmarked already. In case I need to get my Saunders fix. :)

  2. Oh, another anthology? I badly want to read Tenth of December so that I can also relate with you all. :D

    1. Oh read it Lynai! Please! Dali! Atat lang. Haha! :)

  3. I'm definitely going to read more of Saunders's stories. And it looks like I will love The 400-pound CEO and Bounty.

    1. Oh, I do hope you get to read this. I have a feeling your will take to those two particular stories too.


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