George Saunders’ melancholic narrators have often been expendable (easily downsized) in their uniquely American environments. After all, we are a culture that celebrates and expect everyone to be a “go-getter”, otherwise how does one explain the disgust often directed at the poor homeless man on the street. If the go getter go gets and successfully maximizes productivity and profit, what are you if you aren’t a go-getter? A loser? Poor you. And shame on us. Tragedy occurs in a Saunders story when the loser--an "average" citizen existing in a state of constant pathetic realism--is forced to do something against his nature in order to survive (re: keep a job), generally a task that always involves more than just being a good husband/boyfriend/worker—roles the narrators are failing outside of work. The outcomes are often catastrophic and gut wrenching. The choices made by the characters inevitably resulting in the loser losing more than he’s already lost. What then to make of Phil, the loser at the heart of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil? We'll see.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is the second Saunders novella (the first one, “Bounty”, can be found at the end of Saunders’ first collection, Civil Warland in Bad Decline, and is worth reading). More Fripp than Firpo, Saunders’ novella reads like a children’s novel hijacked and reconfigured for the adult reader. It is a tone that, given the subject matter, doesn’t exactly succeed. Fans of Saunders will probably love the book, as it is full of his trademark skewed humor. Even the book’s presentation seems geared for Saunders devotes: a tiny square paperback (more a booklet—very Mao) with black and white drawings by Benjamin Gibson (a kind of Jim Calafiore on shrooms) and easily lost amid the chaos of your average bookstore.
Once discovered, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a story about Inner and Outer Horner, two neighboring countries that, after a cataclysmic change of scenery (none of which is explained… and why bother), find themselves in a deadly (but funny!) border dispute. Inner Horner, now so small it only can accommodate one citizen while the remaining six wait in the “short-term residency zone”; citizens against (and sometimes across the border into) Outer Horner, a country that is made up of, well… largely anybody Saunders chooses to create to serve whatever purpose the narrative dictates. During this calamity emerges Phil, an insecure pile of garbage (literally—as all of the characters are made up of things one might find at a junk yard/medical waste facility, randomly assembled and ready to compete in an episode of John Carpenter’s Junkyard Wars: Organ Donor Edition), who is occasionally prone to speak in a stentorum voice when his brain slides off it’s rack. Comparisons to our current administration need not apply. Saunders is attempting a larger parable here (kind of). Phil, using fear and intimidation, as well as the desire to follow rather than lead (it’s so much easier), assumes control over Outer Horner and wages a genocidal campaign against Inner Horner, viciously disassembling Inner Hornerites at the smallest provocation.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil will depend largely on what your opinions are concerning genocide, particularly its historical context (or, in this case, its lack thereof). The best sequences in the novella serve as examples of what Saunders does well:
“This left only Cal’s blue dot, which per Phil, was placed in a glass case a few hundred feet from Inner Horner, as a warning and a reminder to the other Inner Hornerites, who all night long, from the Short-Term Residency Zone, watched the sad blue dot that had formerly been Cal’s torso expand and contract, as if hyper-ventilating, or sobbing.”
If, in the end, there is a problem with the above section (and the novella as a whole), it is largely due to the realization that poor
In the end, what conclusions can be made from such a book? If you’re looking for a moral, something clearly stated at the end of a good Aesop’s fable in case the point wasn’t made clear enough, then look no further than God, who makes a spectacular appearance at the end of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, casting an uncomfortable shadow over the rest of the novella. Wait, was the lone tree in Inner Horner—the one with the prominently displayed fruit—the tree of knowledge? Was Inner Horner some kind of Garden of Eden? Once Inner Horner finally seizes on an opportunity to defend itself and viciously turn on the Outer Hornerites, it is God who sweeps in and, with his wrist a “vast flower garden” and a “shimmering blue lake” in his palm (an uprooted paradise?), begins to spray the citizens of Inner and Outer Horner with a can (seriously), and later reassembles them according to his will (like play toys). Is this the old (testament) God—the shaper of the earth—or the new (testament) God—who Jesus assured us would love us even when we were bad? Both, actually. Neat. For when He speaks, “Each of you are secretly afraid you are not good enough. But you are, trust me, you are,” it is with profound sadness, disappointment, and optimism, even as he nobly dusts of his hands, ready for another go 'round. What’s most disturbing about this solution is that it introduces God’s role in genocide. His literal appearance can mean no other thing. and one has to wonder if God has ever been invoked for anything other than detrimental and dangerous affect in such things? The implications are staggering. If God can so easily fix the situation and reform Inner and Outer Hornner, then was he the one behind the traumatic geographic event (the novella never says)? And why does He make His presence felt only after Inner Horner rebels and is on the verge of wreaking havoc on their oppressors? Why get involved then? What of Greater Keller (a neighboring(?) country who gets involved briefly and is untouched by the grand redesign), where did they go? Where’s the editor?
The mere conception of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a testament to George Saunders inventiveness as a writer. No other current writer so consistently eschews literary conventions and subject matter as often as he does. As important and as powerful a writer as Saunders is (his recent collection—see review below—contains a story so stunning—Brad Carrigan, American—that it should be given freely to people who still hold onto the fact that there is such a thing as an American dream), The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil leaves the reader a bit hollow. This is regrettable since it seems that Saunders had to write about this subject matter. But is this how we are to understand? Is this how we are to deal? Is it necessary for us to simplify, distance, and de-terrorize genocide for the sake of narrative razzle-dazzle and religious allegory? And, in the end, despite the appearance of God, there was always Phil: Do we really truly believe that, in the future, threats against humanity will be so easy to spot? So conveniently displaced?