An Abstract 'Animal Farm'

Columbus Alive | September 1, 2005
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia author George Saunders’ new post-postmodern parable, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead), is set in countries more absurdly fantastic than any visited by Lemuel Gulliver or invented by Dr. Seuss, though the inventions of both were certainly boiling on the backburner of Saunders’ subconscious as he crafted his highly abstracted allegory.

The nation of Inner Horner is so small that only one of its seven citizens can occupy it at a time; the others huddle around it in the Short-Term Residency Zone shared with the surrounding Outer Horner. The people of Inner and Outer Horner are not people at all, but a mostly random mixture of mechanical, animal and vegetable parts, like sentient art school sculptures, though they all have very human-sounding names and suffer human-sounding prejudices and predispositions towards war and genocide.

Capitalizing on those predispositions is Phil, a resident of Outer Horner fueled by daddy issues, impotent sexual jealousy and a removable brain, who seizes control of the country (and might as well be named “George”). Striving for Animal Farm-like political commentary, Phil seems to be more about the abstract forces that drive things like Bush America or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict more than those events themselves. But its dry wit sometimes gets awfully specific, especially during a scene where the Hornerites sign a document that sounds like the Patriot Act and Iraq War authorization rolled into one, or in its portrayal of the media, who blurt meaningless headlines out of one set of mouths, while their real mouths are located “near their rear ends.”

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