“Super. I admit it’s not the exact boat I was visualizing, but still its a boat, and I for one am going to try to focus on its boatness, and not on those kind of huge gaping holes in the sides there.”
—George Saunders, “Bounty”
I’ve just finished reading George Saunders’ 1996 short story collection Civilwarland in Bad Decline, which came out the same year as one of my favorite books ever, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Saunders’ stories share a certain kinship with Wallace’s novel, in that they tend to be set in a fictional, post-apocalyptic United States, and they are darkly funny critiques of certain aspects of American culture.
The title story, “Civilwarland in Bad Decline”, is about a Civil War-themed amusement park in a post-apocalyptic U.S. Like Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm, Civilwarland offers a commodified and highly misleading version of American history-for-profit which is guarded by a retaining wall and strict (and sometimes brutal) security. The main character is a mid-level employee tasked with giving special tours to potential investors. One such tour is interrupted when they discover that the simulation “Coolie Labor Camp” has been vandalized by a roving gang—an increasing problem for Civilwarland. The story is a really funny meditation on amusement parks and the commodification of history.
Other stories deal with other types of amusement parks and businesses centered on delusion and fantasy. In “The Wavemaker Falters,” a boy is crushed to death at a popular water park. “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” is set in a weird Natural History-type museum that is also hyper-patriotic and nationalistic. “The 400-Pound CEO” is about a raccoon disposal service. The story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” is about a virtual reality business which depends on people “offloading” their actual memories, which are then edited, sanitized, and re-packaged for mass consumption. This story explores, again, the commodification of history at the expense of actual memory. The suggestion is that Americans prefer sanitized delusions over complex truth, and that, when we willfully forget or manipulate the past, we are setting ourselves up for a scary future.
The collection ends with a novella called “Bounty,” which is also about an amusement park in a post-apocalyptic America. The park, called Bountyland, is staffed by mutants called “Flaweds” who are employed to satisfy every desire, fantasy, and whim of the wealthy “Normal” patrons. Bountyland gives its guests an experience of a “bountiful” world, which contrasts sharply with the actual world outside its high walls—a world full of desperation, violence, poverty, pollution, full-blown slavery, herds of feral dogs, and people living off the bombed-out scraps of the old world.
The action centers around a “Flawed” employee of Bountyland (he has claws on his feet) who goes on a desperate and dangerous quest to save his Flawed sister (she has a small vestigial tail) form the clutches of a wealthy “Normal” who has purchased her for sexual purposes. On his journey, the hero sees for the first time in years the awful world outside the walls of Bountyland. He narrowly escapes enslavement and death, as he surveys a world of abandoned tract homes, gutted-out Wal-Marts, and shantytowns where people eat raccoons, dogs, and each other.
“Bounty” feels like a commentary on Americans’ tendency to deny our real problems in favor of fantasy and delusion. Even those outside the walls of Bountyland speak in a weird cliched business-talk. A slaveowner says of his slaves, “I prefer to call them Employees. Either that or Involuntary Labor Associates.” Positive thinking and willful self-delusion based on corporate models disconnected from reality seem to have created a crazy dystopia that is, disturbingly, not too unfamiliar.