Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders

First of all, I have to admit that Saunders's name always makes me think of the Kinks song "Celluloid Heroes." Then I have to remember that song name-checks George Sanders -- though in Ray Davies' nasal London accent, so it's easy to be confused -- and not this author, who was fourteen when that song was released.

Then I have to get re-organized and start again.

The Braindead Megaphone -- as long as I'd digressing this much, let me also mention that I keep typo-ing the title as the Braindead MAGAphone, which makes me snicker, which maybe tells you something about my personal views, or maybe about my lack of typing skills -- is a 2007 essay collection by the modern American writer George Saunders, not by the mid-century British actor George Sanders. As is usual for essay collections in our fallen world, it doesn't explain where or when any of the pieces originally appeared, which is common but still annoys and depresses me.

Presumably, these are from the half-decade or so preceding the collection, but that's a pure guess based on their subject matter and my assumption that his profile was growing from his first collection in 1996 through his second in 2000.

They are very various: a couple of pieces on the kind of general topics that gently hint at political directions but give the writer plausible deniability by not standing for any particular candidates or parties, some travel journalism for GQ, literary introductions and appreciations. The first category has aged the most, especially the title essay, which comes across as sweetly naive about what propaganda is and does and is designed to influence and tries to be above the fray in that typical both-sides-ism by absolutely not engaging with the fact that both the megaphonism and the braindeadness are deeply purposeful. It's nice to be for civility and honesty and clear language and not killing people for abstractions, and it would be even better to live in a world where those were broad bi-partisan ideals.

We don't live in that world. It's arguable if we lived in that world in 2002-2006, when Saunders was writing these essays, but it was easier to believe we did, at least.

The three long pieces of travel journalism have that ping-pong Saunders style -- as if he has to dump every thought that comes into his head, as rapidly as possible, to show every shift of his thinking -- which can be exhilarating, but they mostly reminded me of how that whole model of journalism is dying. Who has the money these days to send a Famous Writer halfway around the world to give his Hot Take on some weird thing going on?

The literary pieces have aged the best, since they were about old stuff to begin with. Great books, as I'm sure someone said, more or less, are news that stay news. Reading this book made me want to re-read Slaughterhouse Five again (and then, by extension, Catch-22).

But most of it just made me feel old and tired and trapped in a world I never made, like some third-rate Marvel superhero. If you enjoy that feeling, boy howdy was 2019 made for you. And you may want to find this book.

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