So, I decided I was in a surrealist mood and picked up George Saunders’ collection In Persuasion Nation. Needless to say, it was more than a bit odd. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, it frequently involves macabre images including zombie grandmothers, ghosts who die over and over, monsters you’re not quite sure are real and disoriented humanity. It’s the kind of work that makes you laugh and then go, “Oh, that’s a little too close for comfort.”

This book was an interesting collection of shorts ranging in topic from a grandfather trying to foster his gay grandson’s love of the theater to the lives of the characters in commercials. And the common theme running throughout is a biting commentary on commercialism, and in particular the advertising side of our society.

Arranged in four sections, each prefaced with a thought-provoking quote, this book really made you stop and think about certain subjects, like trendsetters. Who do we look to for the trends in our lives? What if we took in one step further and had designated trendsetters with collectable trading cards and everything? What kind of life would they have?

Or, what if the characters in our commercials had to do the same thing over and over all day long, trapped in their little violent world? That was what the title piece was all about. It followed some of the characters that tried to rise above the pat and painful roles they had been given.  Again, it made you laugh and wince all at once.

My favorite stories in this collection were “My Flamboyant Grandson”, “The Red Bow”, “Brad Carrigan, American”, and “Bohemians.” The first was the story about the grandson who wanted to go into theater. His grandfather just wants to take his son to a show so he can see what it’s all about and finds himself in trouble with the regulatory agency who controls how much advertising you see in a day because he inadvertently disabled their tracking system while in the city.

“The Red Bow” was an odd story about some sort of infection that was traveling among the pets of a particular town that caused them to turn against humans, and ended up killing a little girl. The girl’s family rallied around the image of her red hair bow, grossly enlarged and distorted, in order to get the town to help them kill of all of the animals.

“Brad Carrigan, American” was a bit harder to figure out what was going on, maybe because Brad himself seemed uncertain and lost as to what his role had become. He seemed to be a character on a reality TV show that was changing and becoming more and more shallow and commercial until he’s kicked off because he can’t play along any more.

And then “Bohemians” was a wonderful little vignette about two old women who lived in this town and the children’s perception of them based around what they’d been told about each of them respectively. I think this one may have been my favorite for the simple fact that it seemed to be the least gruesome tale of the collection.

And, as with all of his collections, there was on story I just didn’t quite get: “93990.” This seemed to be a dispassionate lab report on the toxicity test of a new drug done in chimps. All of them died quite horribly except for one, who, despite the fact that he had been given the highest doses, just didn’t seem to have the same negative effect that the other chimps experienced. I kind of secretly wanted some sort of explosion of intelligence from the creature or something, but the story just seemed to end and leave you at the same place you started. I just didn’t really have anything to take away from that one other than a shrug.

Overall, if you’re looking for an excellent and slightly gruesome satire of our advertising and commercial culture, this is an excellent read, as always. Saunders’ mastery of images and language immerses you entirely in his stories and leaves you feeling unsettled, as they rightly should.

Cover of In Persuasion Nation