(super minor spoilers included)
During my undergraduate degree at the University of Houston, I and most other creative writing majors were introduced to Saunders’ work through the fantastic ‘Sea Oak,’ included in many contemporary American literature anthologies and the occasional illicit PDF. In reading Civilwarland in Bad Decline (CBD), Saunders’ first short story collection that was published when he was still earning his keep as an engineer, it was evident after finishing the last story how representative ‘Sea Oak’ is of his style and voice.
In most of the collection’s stories the protagonists are employees of businesses, some mundane; other fantastical; and all soul sucking, who are struggling to maintain their meager positions as lackeys to assholes and sadists. Although his work is humorous throughout, Saunders never tries to be funny. Instead, his humor all comes out of tense situations and skewed descriptions.
Saunders gets plenty of laughs in the eponymous story from the ghostly family that interacts with the story’s narrator. Their anachronistic behavior made me momentarily forget the most likely heinous activity that forced them into eternal unrest, which makes the payoff at the end so much more pleasing than had the dire activities of the story continue throughout without the levity created by them and the narrator’s own obliviousness.
All of Saunders’ stories also revile in the ugliness of humanity. Most of his characters, including those with whom we are sympathetic, rarely act with concern for others. In the cases of those characters that maintain some kindness, they are beaten (often literally) until even I was screaming (rarely literally) at the characters to man-up, stop being a pussy and chanting at them “Real world! Real world! Real world!”
The collection culminates with Saunders’ first novella, Bounty, which is an apocalyptic saga unlike the many others I have read. In a future America divided along eugenic lines- Flaweds (people born with physical mutations ala Charles Burns’ Black Hole) and Normals (those without)- our Flawed narrator, Cole, starts out working at a medieval-themed resort where he was abandoned with his Flawed sister Connie following the repeal of the Abolition Act. Reading that sentence, I’m aware of the disservice I’ve done to this incredible episodic narrative that sees Cole escape the resort on a quest to free Connie from a Normal who bought her from the resort. What follows is a contemporary comedy of errors with each humorous and mortifying situation fueled by the state of future America’s new segregation. Arguably ending on the happiest note in the collection, Saunders sees that Cole is sent through the ringer before leaving the possibility for more abuse in the story’s final scene.
Read this book if you enjoy good stories that may possibly leave you tearing up in a university common room next to a beautiful hip couple making out.