George Saunders | The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a fully loaded canon of fabulist diplomacy that spins its well-waxed political subtleties out onto a surrealistic checkerboard stocked with an oddball assortment of characters and places.

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(Riverhead; 134 pgs; $13)

Parable is risky business, but for more than a decade now, George Saunders has been carving out his own absurdist piece of American literary pie with a visceral and unbinding inventiveness. His earlier work, like the story collections Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and his bestselling children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, provides critics with enough material discussing Saunder’s work to leave him toiling in the same wordsmith shop as Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. While the comparisons have their place, Saunders torches his own landscapes, and his novella-length release, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, colors yet more satirical vibrancy to his growing repertoire of mesmeric stories.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a fully loaded canon of fabulist diplomacy that spins its well-waxed political subtleties out onto a surrealistic checkerboard stocked with an oddball assortment of characters and places. Even from its opening, the book’s quirks are playfully captivating:

“It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.”

Plenty of resentment builds between the two countries. Outer Hornerites feel slighted by the greedy looks of the huddled Inner Hornerites, who in turn feel unceremoniously burdened by not being able to stretch out into the vast spaces of Outer Horner. Compared with its minuscule counterpart, Outer Horner is a taunting oasis of leg room. One day, without warning, Inner Horner gets smaller, and the anxious existence between the two nations comes undone when the title character, “a middle-aged…slightly bitter nobody,” takes his revenge for watching his distant love for the Inner Hornerite Carol come to naught. Phil’s bitterness increased over the years as he watched Carol happily tending to parts of her husband Cal, who resembled a

“gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it, if a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it had been stapled to a tuna fish can,” and their Little Andy, a son Phil could imagine as his own, which would have left the boy “better-looking and more intelligent.”

Finally, with the turmoil spreading from Inner Horner’s shrinking, Phil is able to fill a leadership vacuum and exact a small amount of vengeance for his loneliness. He convinces his fellow countryman that what the Inner Hornerites really needed was to be taxed for their trespass onto the lands of Outer Horner. The other Outer Hornerites begin seeing Phil in an entirely new way. “Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty? What kind of nobody was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and underappreciated they were?”

Emboldened by his hypnotic and captivating bravado, Phil begins laying on the nationalistic jingoism, telling his newfound band of followers: “‘I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous.” The xenophobia Phil whips up is convoluted and tied to perceiving the Inner Hornerites as freeloaders who have taken advantage of another’s bigheartedness. “Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? …It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

Phil swiftly becomes more menacing, collecting taxes by stripping the Inner Hornerites of what precious few assets they have, from clothing to parts, before embarking on an overthrow of the sitting president, whose quickly fading memory makes him easy prey even for somebody like Phil. Even with a brain that is prone to slide off of its rack every now and then, Phil is able to overcome this tenuous circumstance and chart a rapid rise. He is able to round up a duo of giants to help with his dirty work, the former president’s staff is quick to change allegiances, and his fellow countrymen are easily duped, even as the occasional spark of dissent begins to creep in.

With The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders has captured a fluid zeitgeist of contemporaneous ideology. Outer Horner is surrounded by the thin, coffee-sipping nation of Greater Keller, which wistfully passes its time by walking around its territory in single file—the only possibility for a land so slim—while the president continually seeks updates on the countrywide mood from the National Enjoyment Assessor. In their own ways, each of the three nations has an unhinged sense of entitlement, but just as in real world diplomacy, some paranoia can get out of control when indignant exuberance becomes a national consciousness.

Saunders has masterfully filled his book with a curious batch of not-so-human inhabitants and guided them into a circumstance that has a handful of critics drawing parallels with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a turn that misses the point. Implying too much here hinders readers from fully grasping what Saunders really accomplishes in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which cuts across the board of civilization. Nothing in this book is entirely sympathetic or relatable, but the slow droning in the background of a decipherable apprehension can be quickly identified. The prevailing political breezes blowing through the book can be slightly whisked from one side to the other to touch on just about any current global circumstance, but the overriding sweep of the book is unmoored and cannot be easily stuffed into the nearest dogma. For such a quaint little book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil packs a pretty heady wallop.

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