November 29th, 2009
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
By Adam Bienvenue
Despots are bad. George Saunders’s novella, ”The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil,” employs Lorax-like imagery and Orwellesque allegories to make this point clear.
Inner Horner is a country so small that only one citizen can live there at a time, while its other six residents must wait in the Short-Term Residency Zone located in the surrounding Outer Horner. The story revolves around an Outer Hornerite named Phil (a non-humanoid being comprised of gadgets and body parts)who, through ambition, guile, and brute force acquires more power than the president.
He is the first to suggest taxing the Inner Hornerites living in the Short-Term Residency Zone. The issue of taxation is seemingly small and inane, but when the Inner Hornerites cannot pay, Phil resorts to excessive measures which parallel genocide. Phil manipulates his people through nationalism; his presidential acts (Border Area Improvement Initiatives, Peace Encouraging Enclosures) are merely euphemisms for cultural annihilation.
The people approve the acts unconditionally to show they are with the state and out of fear of being disassembled (they’re all widgets and curios and such). Throughout the book, Phil’s megalomania turns to paranoia, which leads to unilateral decisions and pre-emptive strikes upon the non-threatening Inner Hornerites.
Despite its silliness, the reader will glint truths about man’s nature and see allusions to the atrocities committed by men like Phil in the 20th Century. The story is obvious commentary on man’s desire to separate the “others” and establish power divisions. Though it’s pedantic at times and the ending is literally a deux ex machina, Saunders’s humorous prose and comical imagery make it worth picking up. Besides, the book is 130 pages and will take no more than 45 minutes to read.
I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
by Ruth waxman
Tucker Max is an asshole; he says it himself, on the back of his book, ”I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” and the very first page of his blog. Actually, this fact, with a few variations, is the entire basis for his book. It’s a collection of short essays about his experiences, or, to be more specific, his deplorable antics as a drunken, misogynistic creature screwing his way through law school and life in general. The title is appropriate; Tucker Max is not guilty of genocide or mass-murder, but if there is a hell, it’s hard to imagine him ending up anywhere else.
This book definitely isn’t for the conservative or anybody who would be offended rather than amused by Max’s accounts of getting obscenely drunk and leaving trails of distraught women wherever he goes. Even for those who don’t fall into such categories, it can get old pretty fast; the book contains twenty-seven separate short essays which almost all keep the same basic plot: Tucker Max gets drunk, Tucker Max meets a woman or several women, Tucker Max has a sexual encounter with at least one of said women, and it ends in a mess of defecation, police, injury, tears, hangovers, or some combination thereof. Granted there are some that don’t fit the pattern, but the vast majority come pretty close.
Its tough to get through the entire book; two or three stories at a time can leave you satisfied to put it down and find the whole ordeal funny, but more might start to grate on you. The outrage isn’t fresh for long, and Max’s self-indulgent bragging can get tiring, especially in conjunction with the less-than-varied collection. However, by the end of the book there is something endearing about his idiotic behavior, and some semblance of appreciation for his unapologetic admission of his own over-the-top narcissism. He even describes himself as “self-absorbed to the point of psychotic delusion,” which makes up slightly for the fact that this really is the case.
The book, too, brings up the strange new phenomenon of blogs becoming books, almost overnight; originally he wrote his stories on his website as a blog, and only after they gained a great deal of popularity did he use fifteen of his blog posts and twelve new stories to form a collection.
Does it belong on the shelf? There’s the fact that it was a bestseller for three years in a row, along with the fact that it became so popular it was made into a movie this year.
Society’s craze about confessional writings sells other books; Frank Warren, author of the website PostSecret, where previously untold confessions are mailed in anonymously on postcards to be selected for publication, has just released his fourth book of ”secrets”; Maxime Vallette, Guillaume Passaglia and Didier Guedj just published a book collection of entries from their website, Fmylife.com, where entries are anonymous descriptions of the writers’ unfortunate experiences.
There are hundreds of similar sites, where people tell either their most personal tales or their most taboo and hilarious. Tucker Max just happened to be writing the perfect combination of these two when he got his book deal. As he puts it, “I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. But I do contribute to humanity in one very important way: I share my adventures with the world.”