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Dystopic Visions of the Future: A Roundtable on CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

19 November 2008 3,897 Views 2 Comments author: Playtime Staff
Skeptical Panda seems almost amused by Saunders' dark humor.

Despite himself, Skeptical Panda seems almost amused by Saunders

Playtime Magazine Forms a Book Club: A Play in Three Acts


A group of message board folk, emboldened by the prospects of communal discussion, decide to form a book club. Spearheaded by David Nguyen-Tri, the group quickly comes to a point of crisis when it realizes, having formed, it must now select its first book. The fledgling group is shaken to its very core.

David Nguyen-Tri
Does anyone have a problem with Liles picking the first book?

Brian Jewell
Just don’t let Alex pick.

Tracy McCusker
Famous last words? How does CivilWarLand in Bad Decline sound to you folks? It’s a fairly amusing, yet grim, short story collection by George Saunders.



The trials of Act I but a hazy memory, the group delights in its new-found certainty of its first book selection. Good times are had by all.

I got my copy and started reading it on my morning commute to work today. The other drivers weren’t pleased.

Why, can you not read in your head?

I’d like to think that Saunders would approve of this.


Realizing the end of the month is at hand, with little-to-no progress made on reading the selected book, resignation sets in amongst our weary heroes.

My failure to read this is EPIC.

My failure to comment on it, despite having read it, is also epic. Should we be picking the next book to not read soon?

Our merry revels now are ended…

Is this a bad time to recommend Saunders’ “The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil” ?



CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: The Reactions

On Reading the Collection
Aye: So, the first thing I’ll say about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is that it is best to read one story every few weeks. I read it in three sittings, but I think you really need to digest them for a bit. While I understand the connection that was being made between each story was purposeful, the recurrence of the same basic protagonist, with the same self-inflicted hardships, was trying at times…

Tracy: I tried to power through the whole collection in one day, and became too despondent to go on before starting “Bounty.” [to Tim] I’m not sure if you’re enjoying it or not, but I think we do agree on one point–it is a very well-written collection. Saunders’ prose is jaunty but smooth. Quite a bit smoother than the other end-of-the-20th century short story master, Raymond Carver.

Tim: I can’t read Carver at all. I just find him thoroughly depressing. Saunders at least writes something hilarious every now and again. I actually thought that “The Brief & Terrifying Reign of Phil” was pretty close to brilliant…

Kiera: I am crawling through the book at an agonizingly slow place. And the worst thing is, I really like the stories. It’s just that I’ve had a whole bunch of stuff to read for work which has pushed Saunders out.

Reactions to Saunders’ Style and World-Building
Kiera: Saunders is hilarious. Grimly hilarious, yes, but still hilarious. The first story is laugh out loud funny for paragraph after paragraph, largely due to the combination of desperation, personal inadequacy and helplessness in the narrator. So it comes as a greater surprise when you start the second story, and it’s sadder and more sympathetic in tone.

Aye: I enjoyed it. The title story I really enjoyed. I worked for McDonalds when I was in high school and I had flashbacks of the McOven Cleaner, McDe-Greaser and the McFloor scrubbers. Everyone has a role and everyone has a title. You can either file in line or fuck right off. I remember then thinking that it would be scary to imagine real life being the same. So much of this story and the rest even, remind me of that same world. But then this story goes into a different angle altogether. The parts with the McKinnon’s told another story of the changes we’ve made and the fact that even with all the fanciness that we’ve created, ie. A rubiks cube, civilization really hasn’t made that many advances. We’re still as murderous, vengeful and broken as they were.

David: I don’t remember ever seeing the sublime and the grotesque coexist the way they do in the stories and novellas of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

Tracy: I’d argue that Pynchon was better at juxtaposing the grotesque and sublime. Saunders does a well-enough job, but I think he only reaches for the sublime occasionally–the ending of the “400-Pound CEO” looms large in this respect (pun probably intended).

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