This is my first George Saunders, who is rumored to be one of the current funniest and sharpest. To judge by Phil, I’m not so impressed. It seems to me an obvious Swiftian/Orwellian knockoff that doesn’t belong on the same field with those classic satirists.
Saunders posits a kingdom called Horner—inner and outer. The inhabitants’ physical structure has little relationship to humans. They are constituted of earth, rivers, mechanical parts, and their composition differs from one to the other. When one is killed he/she is said to be “dismantled,” reduced to component parts and scattered. One almost hilarious aspect is Phil’s brain, which he carries on a rack that is rather unstable. The brain keeps sliding off and others have to be called in to rack it. Cha-ching.
Phil raises a number of socio/political issues—oppression, racism, immigration policies—as the Outer Horners decide the Inner Horners are “other” who need to be taxed, tyrannized, and, finally obliterated. All of this has obvious parallels in modern society and life, just as Gulliver’s Travels had with 18th (and 19th and 20th and 21st) century life. Ditto with Animal Farm in the 20th and 21st. I’ve left out a number of dimensions and characters, but they don’t seem to me worth discussing. Saunders’ novella adds nothing worthwhile to the genre, and if this is Saunders’ best, I wonder where his reputation came from.
I find myself often in that position, however, so it seems the world may never find itself congruous with my literary judgment and taste. Amen