31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 11: “CommComm” by George Saunders

August 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

From In Persuasion Nation.

persuasionI really liked George Saunders the first time I read him, when he was called Kurt Vonnegut. Saunders shares with his literary ancestor a penchant for satire that is steeped in American popular culture, but that eschews the viciousness of a Bret Easton Ellis or the cynicism of a David Foster Wallace. He also shares with Philip K. Dick the habit of devising brilliant premises for his fictions, then crapping out in the execution.

“CommComm,” from his 2006 collection In Persuasion Nation, begins with what looks like a brilliant, but ultimately doomed, premise. A military unit devoted to public spin is called upon to cover up the murder of “a shitload of beavers,” a poisoning that is explained away through a blatant and obvious tautology:

I say we don’t kill beavers, we harvest them, because otherwise they nibble through our Pollution Control Devices (PCDs) and polluted water flows out of our Retention Area and into the Eisenhower Memorial Wetland, killing beavers.

“That makes sense” says Jillian.

Well, it doesn’t, and the fact of its nonsensical nature is the first of Saunders’ clearly satirical jabs at American culture, with its affinity for acronyms and its illogical approach to rationalizing away anything that runs counter to its craven desires. So far, so underwhelming.

What sets “CommComm” apart from Saunders’ more reductive satires is its narrative turn, which occurs halfway through the story, and takes a reader aback in the manner of an M. Night Shyamalan film. But, unlike Shyamalan’s affected or unearned plot twists, the trajectory of Saunders’ narrative feels completely natural, as thought its inevitability should have been clear from the story’s first line.

“CommComm” brings together several concerns that run throughout Saunders’ collection: the unconscious religiosity that undergirds American society, the willingness to explain away moral problems through politically correct language or craven businesspeak, and the almost psychopathic imperative to get ahead at all costs. But unlike such tired allegories as “My Amendment” or “”93990,” “CommComm” begins as a straightforward satire of our modern militaristic society, then transforms into something entirely different – a heartfelt meditation on mortality and the debts we leave unpaid when we die.

“Heartfelt” is the positive way of spinning the manner in which the story unfolds; “sentimental” is the less charitable description. But, for this reader, what rescues Saunders’ story from charges of sentimentality is its pervasive perversity: the barbed wit that provokes lines such as, “He says this weekend’s reënactment was on the hill determined to be the most topographically similar to Calvary in the entire Northeast. I ask who he did. He says the guy who lent Christ his mule on Palm Sunday. Rimney says it’s just like Giff to let an unemployed Jew borrow his ass.”

But over and above the story’s trenchant wit, Saunders effectively counterpoints the militaristic, anti-spiritual predilections of modern Western civilization with the almost inescapable impulse to behave in a way that underscores our shared humanity. In so doing, he elevates “CommComm” above his other, less effective snapshots of our modern condition.


3 Responses to “31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 11: “CommComm” by George Saunders”
  1. Sina Queyras says:

    Saunders is a great storyteller, in the true sense of the word. But yes, you’re right: he has a “habit of devising brilliant premises for his fictions, then crapping out in the execution.”

    Thanks for these.

  2. Mark Sampson says:

    FYI – Coincidentally, the New Yorker fiction podcast series featured a Saunders story earlier this week – his piece “Adams”, which is a satire on the invasion of Iraq. Fun stuff.


  3. Sina Queyras says:

    Adams is my favorite Saunders story. I think it may be close to perfect.