Sitting in the Sidecar
The Braindead Megaphone
By George SaundersPaperback (Riverhead Books)$14
Not long ago, some savvy editors at GQ and the New Yorker decided to send short story writer George Saunders out to see the world.
Five years and a few National Magazine Awards later, we have this sparkling new essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, which sends up a powerful warning flag about what the shouters and screamers of our contemporary mediascape are doing to American culture.
At first glance, The Braindead Megaphone resembles a grab bag book, with a literary essay on Mark Twain, a travel narrative about Tibet, a humor piece on talking dogs and a send-up of Americans in Britain. But all of these essays return in one way or another to the Truth—the word appears more than a dozen times—and how it’s being degraded today.
“In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession,” Saunders writes in the title piece. “‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’ This is not the same as asking: ‘Tell us the truth.’”
Saunders is plowing familiar terrain here—which, for purposes of shorthand, we can call the dumbing-down of America. But rather than urge the dialogue lynch mob in specific directions, he does an entirely more wonderful thing: He demonstrates how to write from the presumption that we’re all more alike than we think. This sounds wishy-washy, but he makes it a powerful premise, especially because Saunders is one of the most gladdening writers alive. Not a single sentence in this book takes its existence for granted, and Saunders’ metaphors come from the most unusual places.
In an essay on the writer Donald Barthelme, he uses Hot Wheels to explain how a short story works:
“When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track, or, more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.” Saunders suggests that the goal in telling a story is to put together enough “gas stations” to get the reader around the track.
And he’s very good at doing that. Each one of these essays is designed to be read to the end, with Saunders cleverly moving us through stations we would avoid in a more conventional piece. For instance, Saunders travels to the Texas border and visits Minutemen patrolling with their high-powered rifles. Then he chats with Mexicans who long for a better life for their children. He allows both camps their humanity.
In Dubai, the so-called Las Vegas of the Middle East, Saunders subjects himself to all the luxury a GQ expense account can buy, while keeping an eye on the underpaid workers who build the party palaces. He comes away with a beautifully fraught description.
It helps that Saunders is also a very funny writer. “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to,” Saunders writes in a wonderful essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Thus, by laughing, we continue on to the next “gas station” unaware, sometimes, that we’ve just absorbed a painful observation.
The Braindead Megaphone never tries to paste its observations onto real-world targets. This restraint earns Saunders points that scorch-and-burn writers never enjoy. As a reader, you feel you are riding right beside him. “I think of this as the motorcycle sidecar model of reading,” he writes, coining another winning metaphor.
In other words, we’re in this together. We created this polluted environment, and together we can help detox it, by lowering our voices and being a bit more creative. Indeed, as Vonnegut knew, laughter can help us see the most terrible things about ourselves.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.