In the six stories and one novella that make up his debut collection, the inimitable Saunders pokes and prods at the nagging difficulties of living an ordinary life in an utterly insane world. The protagonists of these stories are people who for the most part just want to go about their day and provide for their families without running into too much trouble, but the zaniness and frenetic pace of American life, recognizable as a fractured possible future version of our own, complicate their lives and inevitably involve them in death, destruction and moral quandaries.
In the title story, which leads off the collection, the dangers of a decaying outside world lead the management and staff of a Civil War theme park to make unthinkable choices, while the ghosts of a real Civil War-era family look on. It’s a story that sets the pace for the rest of the collection. Nearly all of the stories involve amusement parks of some kind. In Saunders’s hands these places become nightmare worlds where the never-ending quest for fun, and the equally never-ending quest of corporations to exploit that urge for money bend reality.
In “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” a lowly worker at a kind of nostalgia farm (with a necessarily seedy side business in virtual reality sex) struggles to provide for an infirm old woman until discovering the monstrous capability of the machines at his disposal. The protagonist in “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” seeks retribution against her boss in a children’s museum featuring a real-life see through cow, with dyed intestines for ease of differentiation. The narrator of “The Wavemaker Falters” passively lets his marriage and his life fall apart as retribution for his role in the death of a child in a cheap mermaid aquatics show.
Each of the six short stories is an almost perfect pearl. Saunders is a wizard at rounding out the world of his creations, wielding the banalities of office life and the trappings of home to get the readers to buy into the crazier aspects of his fiction.
The novella that ends the collection, “Bounty,” suffers a little bit from the added length. It is less laser-focused than its predecessors and lacks the same wit. It takes place in a world gone to hell where those with physical imperfections are kept out of the gene pool by law. The narrator and his sister, both “Flaweds”, live and work in an amusement park where the few remaining idle rich can come to live like medieval royalty. When his sister, who has been getting by as a prostitute, is taken out of the park by a customer who claims to have fallen in love with her, the narrator suspects he may be a slave trader in disguise and escapes the park to save his sister. He has a series of misadventures while traveling across the ruins of America, and while these are fitfully interesting, the whole remains disappointingly less than the sum of its parts.
Still, the stories contained in “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” are a modern marvel and a must of anyone interested in contemporary literary fiction.