I’m going on a school retreat for most of the upcoming week, and so won’t be around to post for a while … just so you know.
I’m about halfway through George Saunders’s book of essays The Braindead Megaphone and am enjoying it very much. When I picked it up I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve read some his short essays in the New Yorker and found them interesting and entertaining in their bizarre other-worldliness, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read an entire book like that. What I discovered, though, is a mix of seriousness and strangeness that is appealing.
The essays I like best are the more traditional ones, the ones that have more-or-less traditional essayistic elements such as a thoughtful, reflective voice and a mix of personal experience and social commentary. The title essay, for example, makes a point about the dumbing down of our culture caused at least in part by certain media figures blaring stupidities at us all day long — these figures are like a guy coming into an intelligent, literate party with a megaphone and starting to talk. He’s not necessarily saying the stupidest things that could be said, but in fact it hardly matters what he says because everyone is forced to listen to him and they find it hard if not impossible to keep their own conversations going. The smart people are drowned out and everyone suffers because of it.
I don’t find the argument of this essay particularly original, but his style makes it worth reading — it’s funny, conversational, insightful in a low-key, understated kind of way. Here are the closing two paragraphs to give you a taste of what it’s like:
This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.
We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.
This is so typically George Saunders (if I’ve read enough to make such a claim), with its capitalized “Total Righteousness” and the whipping of our own asses — the directness of it — and it’s inspiring and moving in a way I don’t see in his more satirical pieces. I like this more personal, intimate, sincere voice.
I enjoyed some of the later essays even more, though; the second essay is about a trip to Dubai in which Saunders describes the fabulous wealth on display, as well as all the poor people working to make those displays possible. His persona in the essay is that of a man who hasn’t seen much of the world and is thrust into an entirely new situation and left to grapple with it alone. His reactions vary wildly as he notices the extreme economic inequities but also the happiness with which exploited workers live out their exploitation, for their home countries offer much less opportunity than they can find here. All this sounds so serious, though, and while the essay has a serious point to make (and a very moving conclusion, but I don’t want to keep quoting his conclusions here), it’s lightly humorous at the same time. One of Saunders’s strengths, I’m seeing now, is using humor to make you want to relax and enjoy the ride, and then with the easiest, most natural of transitions hitting you with a moving scene or a profound thought, and then moving off in another direction toward another point that adds to or modifies or maybe even contradicts the first one. It’s a style that invites pleasure and contemplation both and that allows for nuance and complexity, as Saunders wanders here and there, exploring an idea or an experience rather than preaching about it.
There is also a wonderful essay telling how Kurt Vonnegut transformed his ideas about reading and writing and another one on Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain as an early inspiration to become a writer.
What matters most to me in an essay collection is the voice, the sense of the person behind the words (the extent to which this sense is an illusion doesn’t matter), and it’s this quality that makes me wish this book wouldn’t end. I’m a bit surprised to say that Saunders makes a good companion; I knew he was a funny, sharp social satirist, but not that he could write essays with so much feeling in them.