There’s potential for a doctoral dissertation about The Rhetorical Use of Capital Letters in the Writing Of George Saunders. The usage comes in a couple flavors. There are the ineffable concepts, like Freedom and Humility. There’s the personalization of general categories, like Writers and the Little Guy. There’s the tongue-in-cheek categorization of human sub-groups, like, oh, People Who Analyze Capitalization. And it also appears when it’s simply more amusing, e.g. “Oversize Bright-Colored Toy Ships and Trucks.”
This was only my second try at Saunders. I aborted my attempt of In Persuasion Nation. Maybe it’s good. (I think I read so much non-fiction that I have trouble turning the switch every now and then.) And it wasn’t funny. But The Braindead Megaphone is funny. And it stays funny even though he writes about Serious Things and has a really earnest style.
To wander my way back to the Capitalization Issue, it reminds me of what Daniel Day Lewis said in a recent interview: “Perhaps I’m particularly serious because I’m not unaware of the potential absurdity of what I’m doing.” I think satirists like Saunders might agree. While the writing isn’t always serious, it is sincere, and I get the sense that he really kicks his own ass to come up with this stuff. Most of it is really, really good.
As for the meat of the book, the titular essay is a brilliant take on banal popular media. What’s really wonderful is the way he hedges and offers concessions along the way through his thought experiments. What could be a canned, all-too-familiar diatribe becomes a nice little Journey with George.
Another essay that I liked was about Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. In one part he talks about how Vonnegut gives up on detail:
“Vonnegut was skipping the lush physical details he had presumably put himself into so much danger to obtain. He was assuming these physical details; that is, he was assuming that I was supplying them. A forest was a forest, he seemed to be saying, let’s not get all flaky about it. He did not seem to believe, as I had read Tolstoy did, that his purpose as a writer was to use words to replicate his experience, to make you feel and think and see what he had felt. This book was not a recounting of Vonnegut’s actual war experience, but a usage of it.”
Later, in an essay on Barthelme‘s short story, “The School,” Saunders offers his own thoughts on the writer-reader relationship:
“The writer is right there with us—he knows where we are, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us. I think of this as the motorcycle-sidecar model of reading: writer and reader right next to one another, leaning as they corner, the pleasure coming from the mutuality and simultaneity of the experience.”
In addition to those gems, there’s some great writing on patriotism in a mock-academic “survey of the literature”; a welcome twist on the tired Letters To & From An Advice Columnist genre; reporting on Minutemen and border patrol; and probably my favorite of a bunch, an awesome essay on what’s so difficult and wonderful about Huckleberry Finn. The only real duds for me were the foreign reporting essays in Dubai and in Tibet. Skip those, and read everything else.