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Books: CivilWarLand In Bad Decline and Eastern Standard Tribe

Note: These reviews are part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

The Queen read CivilWarLand In Bad Decline before I did, and when I finished the first short story in the collection I was eager to discuss the book with her. "What did you think of it?" I asked her.

"Eh," she said. "It was kinda repetitive."

"Repetitive?!" said I. "Are you kidding? This is one of most original books I've read in a long time, and the author, George Saunders has a remarkably distinctive voice. I'm really enjoying it."

The Queen just shrugged -- her way of saying, "Come talk to me again when you realize I've won this argument."

So I read the rest of the stories. And, yeah: kinda repetitive.

The stories in CivilWarLand remind me of those found in Barrel Fever, the first book by humorous David Sedaris. Before he started writing exclusively about himself and his family, Sedaris cranked out a couple of very funny fictional stories (including one of my all-time favorites, "Glen's Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2"), full of cynicism and characters that act in widely inappropriate ways. But unlike Sedaris, most of Saunders' narratives have a science-fiction cast, set in a near future where business life and American life have become synonymous and the public vernacular has become infested with self-help affirmations and corporate jargon.

In almost all cases, the protagonists in the tales are average people struggling to stay afloat in Saunders's dystopia. And while each provoked me to laugh out loud a time or two, I did feel like I was reading the story over and over again by the time I reached the novella "Bounty." It didn't help that, halfway through "Bounty," I realized that I had read it before, ten years ago when it first appeared in Harper's.

An Amazon.com reviewer advises suggests that you read no more than one CivilWarLand story per month, and while that might be a little overboard, I'm inclined to agree that spacing them out somewhat is probably wise. Still: very funny in small doses.

Also set "five minutes in the future" is Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe (which you can read for free, along with all of his other works, at craphound.com). While humorous, the setting for EST is much less absurd than that found in CivilWarLand, and the author seems more intent on provoking thought about the ramifications of our current technology than in waylaying the reader with non sequiturs in the hopes of generating belly laughs. But then, having laid the groundwork for a philosophical thriller, the book abruptly becomes conventional, alternating between a rather standard swindle story and a conundrum lifted straight from 'Catch-22' (so much so that even the novel's main character remarks upon the similarity).

EST is short, which is both its failing (in that it doesn't deliver on the promise of it's opening chapter) and its saving grace (as once the plot devolves into something unremarkable, the hasty conclusion keeps it from outstaying its welcome). I quite enjoyed Doctorow's writing style and there were plenty of great ideas to be explored in this book (even if, ultimately, I felt like they got the short shrift), and I look forward to reading more by him. If Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom is as good as I've heard, EST will have served as a nice appetizer.

Posted on June 06, 2005 to Books





Comments

I thought you said Gringos & The Time Traveler's Wife were next?!

Posted by: Anonymous on June 7, 2005 8:15 PM

Next for me. I read these two books a while ago, and have been meaning to review them for some time.

Posted by: Matthew on June 7, 2005 9:00 PM

I don't know if I liked EST better than you, but I liked it different.

Posted by: Carny Asada on June 9, 2005 9:12 AM

Although it's not a new book, just finished The Cleft by Gahan Wilson and thoroughly enjoyed it. It reminded me of Lovecraft in all the right ways.

Posted by: Big Wang Glick on June 9, 2005 7:17 PM