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

19 November 2008 4,005 Views 2 Comments author: Playtime Staff

Kiera: Saunders’ writing is also far simpler than I thought it was going to be. Deceptively so. I guess was expecting something more Pynchon-like [having read your comments before starting the collection].

Aye: “400-Pound CEO” was a laugh for sure. I loved this one. It was dark and satirical. In fact I laughed throughout most of it, as sick as that is, because I’m sure I work with that exact guy. And I love the visual of this huge man, doing a really shitty job of burying his boss.

Tracy: I’m quite glad to see that you enjoyed “400-Pound CEO.” While it wasn’t Saunder’s tour-de-force, it’s dark humour was pitch-perfect. The denouement is impossible to forget: Claude, in his pit of dead raccoons, trying to shovel out a space for the body of his dead boss. It reminds me a bit of some of the brilliant sitcoms–Fawlty Towers for one–where you have this insane premise (an office where co-workers kill raccoons with a tire-iron in the “burial site”) that spins wildly out-of-control in an inextricable, horrifying, yet completely satisfying way. You’re not sick for laughing; I was too.

Aye: “Isabelle” was my favorite of the bunch. Perhaps the ending sold it for me. Either way, it seemed as though there was something to cheer for. Maybe that was why I found the protagonists so hard to enjoy. However, here, I was truly able to connect to something and I loved the compassion he had for “Boneless.” Eventually.

Gender in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Tim: It’s not very progressive in terms of gender, I would say. Mostly, the women in the stories are there either to berate the men for not performing at the level society expects of them, or to be an object of desire.

Kiera: I’ve read up to the novella now – and I was also struck by the gender dynamic. It’s not that women come off worse than men – the male protagonists in the stories are pathetic, powerless, emasculated and full of anxiety, and frequently victimized by more alpha-male-like colleagues. It’s that women are largely portrayed as the adjuncts to a specifically masculine form of misery, piling sexual incompetence and lack of romantic connection on top of professional and moral failures. With the exception of a couple of severely handicapped individuals, Saunders’ women are cold to the point of brutality, impatient, and incapable of understanding the guilt of the agonized male protagonists (Freeda in The “400-Pound CEO” is probably the best example of the cruelty they can inflict). The most generous Saunders gets towards the gals is probably in the first story, where the protagonist is so desperately weak that we almost feel his partner’s exasperation. In an odd way, the stories remind me of a domesticized, futurized version of film noir – something like Double Indemnity shares the same cynicism, sudden eruptions of violence, and viciousness of the dynamic between the men and women.

On the themes of helplessness and bureaucracy
David: Just a quick question here: did anyone else feel that the first person narration utilised in all the stories helped create a sense of alienation? That is, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the stories felt more like they were HAPPENING TO the narrator rather than the narrator being an active participant in the events of the story.

Tim: I’m only three stories in so far, but I have the same feeling as you. It’s been striking to me how utterly helpless the main characters have been, and the first person narrative definitely serves to emphasise that. One interesting point is the one that Witless already raised – that of the general state of helplessness of all of the lead characters. I think with this Saunders is trying to demonstrate how trapped people feel by the advance of bureaucratic thinking. It’s interesting that the final story is the only one where the lead character intentionally takes an action designed to change things. In all the others, even when some kind of positive action is taken, it is usually accidental, or ‘just happens’ as in the “400-Pound CEO.” So the book ends on about the only positive note contained in its pages.

Reactions to Dystopic Themes in CivilWarLand
David: The stories, told in deadpan satire, depict a dystopic America, where wickedness is rewarded and virtue, punished. The “400-Pound CEO” follows that pattern well: the gentle, mild-mannered morbidly obese man is a source of derision for his co-workers, who openly mock him and humiliate him. It is only through an act of unexpected violence, followed by an act of deceit that he (temporarily) enters the winner’s world. It is also interesting to note that his downfall is precipitated by his generosity towards his co-workers, which arouse the suspicions of a fellow co-worker.

Aye: For me, all of the Names of Things that Are Important, drove the point home a bit too hard. The futuristic atmosphere was created in a very Orwellian nature and I enjoy the far enough, but not too far in the future settings. There’s a familiarity with places and events that make you believe that the time and place is not too far away. That hits you and hits you harder when you swallow this all up in 2 days.

David: I thought that the atmosphere depicted by Saunders was closer to Huxley’s Brave New World than anything Orwellian.

Tracy: I tend to agree with David–rather than have an oppressive single-party bloc controlling the masses of Orwell, Saunders envisions a much more pervasive and tacitly accepted dystopia of what seems to be a cultural and ethical wasteland. Yet the dystopia of Saunders exceeds even that of Huxley’s–it isn’t drugs, or any time of pervasive end-all entity that pushes the dystopia forward, it’s the natural configuration of capitalism, superficial McD’s type culture/society, and our personal willingness to chase the rabbit down the hole so to speak.

Kiera: Call me a skeptical panda, but these stories seem less dystopian and more like a description of the future that’s already here.

David: Maybe dystopian isn’t the right term, but I sure as hell wouldn’t call them utopic. It seems to me like he’s taking already existing features that he sees in his surroundings, and pushes them enough that we get a sense of absurdity out of it, but not to the extent that they become completely unrecognizable to the reader.

Tim: Saunders has a real skill in taking current trends and extrapolating them to their logical extreme. This creates situations that are both very funny but also quite sad and more than a little scary. He does an excellent job of skewering the mindless hierarchies created in many firms. By extending the logic of ‘fill out this pointless form because I’m your manager and I told you to’ to a situation where it’s ‘shoot those kids and don’t say a word about it because I’m your manager and I told you to’, Saunders effectively exposes the inanity of the situation that we often actually encounter ourselves. That said–nothing here is nearly as dystopian as “The Brief & Terrifying Reign of Phil.”

Criticisms & Final Thoughts on the Collection
Aye: I’m a sucker for optimism and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline isn’t rife with it. It’s not that I can’t stand an unhappy ending, but after so many stories like “Offloading Mrs. Schwartz,” or the “Wavemaker Falters,” you’re looking for some kind of hope. And I guess that’s why I’m glad the collection ended with “Bounty.” I really enjoyed the parts with his family, especially when he remembers his parents. There is something nicely bittersweet about his remembrances. They cut in all the right places throughout the story, which would have ran off a bit in it’s craziness.

Tim: Both stylistically and thematically Saunders covers territory similar to David Foster Wallace. Both are hilarious, and astute critics of some of the problems we’re facing these days. Personally, I have a preference for DFW, mainly because every once in a while in his work, a good deed actually manages to go unpunished. But that’s just me I suppose.

Kiera: To me (and this is a personal judgement only), if the stories have a flaw it’s that they’re not conceptualized at the level of ideas as tightly as they might be. Saunders is a lot more interested in picturing an emasculating society than in thinking about the philosophical ramifications of some of the ideas he’s raising. The result is compelling, but the danger is that after a while the stories begin to feel just a little bit similar. Whereas (from the little I’ve read) writers like David Foster Wallace and certainly Don Delillo manage to bring another layer to the game – a kind of rigour at the level of ideas which gives their stuff a strong backbone on which everything else can hang. This is a tremendously personal judgement though – I just happen to like very ideas-y books.

Tracy: To me, Saunders is the symbol of the consummate literary fiction short story writer. But when his work is measured against other “greats” that we’ve mentioned–Pynchon and Raymond Carver, to name two–I have to state my unambiguous preference for the latter. But if you’re going to be third-best, is that really so bad? Overall I find Saunders’ work to be darkly humorous and compelling in the way that it presents the first-person narration as the locus of helplessness within the system. The extent to which his short stories point up the bureaucratized nature of our external and internal worlds makes his work exceedingly relevant, given the daily march towards corporatization in all aspects of our lives. I obviously highly recommend this work to people who are looking to dip their toes into short fiction, or simply are interested in the themes presented in the collection. Thanks to all who participated. The rest of you — get reading!

Conversation taken from the monthly featured discussion on the Playtime Magazine forum and on .

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