EW speaks with short story writer George Saunders. Satirist's new novella tackles the mind-set of war...but it's not about Iraq

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
Advertisement

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

type
  • Book
genre

Ask George Saunders what kind of writer he is, and you’ll get a tangent that would be perfectly at home in one of his short stories: ”If you were raised in a compound with 77 TVs, and every TV had footage of the world’s greatest sprinters, and that’s all you watched, you’d say, God, I wanna be a sprinter too. And then if one day they let you out and you saw you weighed 600 pounds, you’d be like, Oh, s—.” For Saunders, the sprinters were Hemingway and Kerouac. But lucky for us, he quit the serious novelizing and developed some darkly funny, deeply human tendencies, from 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline through 2000’s Pastoralia, as well as some spot-on humor essays for The New Yorker and elsewhere.

His latest novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, is the illustrated tale of two countries full of strange creatures, and what happens when one country gets taken over by a warmongering tyrant named Phil. It’s the fascinating result of six years’ work on what Saunders calls ”a feel-good kids’ book” that ”turned out to be about genocide.” Uh, what? ”When that Phil guy showed up, you could tell he didn’t mean any good to these people,” he explains. And while Saunders’ reputation as a satirist may lead some readers to find Phil’s war familiar… it’s not about Iraq. ”The parallel isn’t right,” Saunders says, emphasizing that he started Phil during the Clinton administration. ”The book is about our human tendency to separate into Us and Them, and then immediately start trying to kill the Them. I think I got elements of Hitler in there, and Idi Amin, and al-Qaeda, and Bush, and Rwanda.” And then he adds the usual Saundersian twist: ”But hopefully it’s just funny.”

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

type
  • Book
genre
author
  • George Saunders
publisher
  • Riverhead

Comments