Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

This book never made it onto my "to read" list, but while I was at the library helping my elder son find a good book, I pulled this off the shelf. I read the first paragraph and was hooked. Check it out:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

How could I not continue reading a story with such an outrageous setting?

And I wasn't disappointed. I'm not sure whether The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is satire, allegory, or parable, but it's obvious that Saunders has something to say about power, confidence, and human nature, and maybe even a little about literary tools, in this George-Orwell-meets-Dr.-Seuss novella. The story, like the characters, is simple. Phil, an Outer Hornerite who was shunned by Carol, an Inner Hornerite, draws upon the sense of Outer Hornerite national pride to first tax the Inner Hornerites into nothingness, and ultimately to eliminate the Inner Hornerites completely.

Phil's political doublespeak is both inscrutable and shockingly familiar:

"My people!" he shouted in the stentorian voice. "I shall speak now of us! Who are we? We are an articulate people, yet a people of few words. We feel deeply, yet refrain from embarrassing displays of emotion. Though firm, we are never too firm, though we love fun, we never have fun in a silly way that makes us appear ridiculous, unless that is our intent. Our national coloration, though varied, is consistent. Everything about us is as it should be, for example, we can be excessive, when excess is called for, and yet, even in our excess, we show good taste, although never is our taste so super-refined as to seem precious. Even the extent to which we are moderate, except when we have decided to be immoderately moderate, or even shockingly flamboyant, at which time our flamboyance is truly breathtaking in a really startling way, and when we decide to make mistakes, our mistakes are as big and grand and irrevocable as any nation's colossal errors, and when we decide to deny our mistakes, we sound just as if we were telling the truth, and when we decide to admit our errors, we do so in a way that is truly moving in its extreme frankness!"

Throughout this read, I tried to pin down a particular political figure that Phil represented, starting with George W. Bush, through Karl Rove, Bush Sr., and even Ken Starr. Eventually, I decided that they all applied, as well as a number of others.

Saunder's story is both poignant and outrageous, right up to the deus ex machina (which is literally both deus and machina) conclusion. This is a great airplane book, and a great little publication to leave somewhere for someone else to find and enjoy.