Given that George Saunders' fiction is so incredibly strange, where protagonists are polar bears and robots worrying their ways through dystopia, one wouldn't think his nonfiction would be worth much or even be possible to write. Even when Saunders' stories have fairly obvious real-world parallels (homosexual marriage, the Bush administration), they're still wrought in detail strange enough to distance them from the depressing truth of reality.
But the MacArthur Fellow does write nonfiction, and his collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone, shows he's just as deft at telling the truth as he is at making it up.
Anyone who has read any Saunders knows that he's, first and foremost, hilarious. Saunders the Humorist comes out in a series of short essays throughout. He writes as an elderly man outraged by a fake TV show, HottieLeader, which features "computer simulations of what various female world leaders would look like naked and in the throes of orgasm." He also writes as a supremely unhelpful advice columnist, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad giving a lecture on English euphemisms, and as a dog tired of having to watch his masters in coitus.
The title essay, in particular, is a clever metaphor for the stupefying effect of sensationalist news media. Saunders imagines a party where everyone is talking pleasantly when, all of a sudden, a man with a megaphone comes in and starts shouting his opinions. From that point on, other conversation necessarily stops or, if it continues, it continues in response to whatever the megaphone-speaker is saying. The dumber and louder the megaphone speaker gets, the dumber and louder the party guests become, eventually rendering them "perma-children" screeching at one other.
Politics aside, the best essays here are the biggest essays here, and all three are travelogues. Saunders' travel pieces are sprawling accounts, as outrospective as introspective.
Desperate to distance himself from being "the embodiment of Western Triviality, a field rep for the Society of International Travel Voyeurs," he goes to see the gilded fantasy city of Dubai, finding the poor there just as contented as the rich, pleased to be able to labor amid such cartoon opulence. On the U.S.-Mexico border, meanwhile, he finds refugees and Minutemen, both groups lost and aimless, almost adorably ineffectual in their causes. In Nepal, Saunders investigates the "Buddha Boy," a teenager who has supposedly been sitting in one place meditating for seven months without eating or moving. Throughout the piece, Saunders tries to abandon his Western skepticism to see the boy for who he is.
The collection also shares Saunders' love of literature, with four pieces devoted to moments in his life when a book has found him through alienating circumstances. Though certainly for a reader crowd, these pieces are still compelling. Hearing the story of a young George reading Johnny Tremain to impress his third-grade teacher, Sister Lynette, is a rich narrative in itself.
As terrible a term as "essay collection" is, Saunders makes a damn strong case for it, with content, voice and wit, not just finding the best stories and topics but writing about them beautifully.
The Braindead Megaphone
Riverhead Books, $14/paperback