Freak Out

Steven Robert Allen
3 min read
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I'm not sure what sort of drugs juice through George Saunders' veins, but I'd love to get a line on his supplier. His previous books—the short story collections Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the kiddie book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip—haven't exactly been conventional fare. Saunders has always had an enviable talent for controlled weirdness. In his latest project, he uses that talent to amusing if somewhat flimsy effect.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a bizarre satirical novella presented in the grand tradition of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Saunders' latest creation has already benefited from frequent comparisons to Animal Farm. There are some similarities between the two parables. This one has part-plant, part-mechanical, part-human creatures populating the tale instead of pigs, horses and sheep, but it attempts a similar kind of societal analysis masquerading as a fairy tale for adults.

At the end of the day, though, the comparison is a bit too flattering to Saunders. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is as entertaining as anything I've read in the last couple months, but it isn't exactly a laser-like dissection of contemporary society. It's not the kind of thing that will stick with you long after you've finished it.

Inner Horner is a nation that's so tiny only a single citizen can occupy it at any given time. The half dozen other Inner Horner citizens have to wait their turn to occupy their own country in a place called the Short-Term Residency Zone, located in the decidedly more spacious nation of Outer Horner.

One day, Inner Horner shrinks without warning, forcing the citizen in residence over the border into Outer Horner. This unfortunate event sparks a border dispute that ultimately leads to the rise of the titular Phil, previously a loudmouth nobody, who makes a successful power grab by appealing to the patriotic vanity of his fellow Outer Hornerites.

It's at this point that things get really ugly. Phil overthrows the boobish president. He imposes a devastating taxation plan on the invaders. He hires two thugs to “disassemble” anyone who opposes him. In other words, he becomes your basic dime store tyrant.

Nothing too surprising or enlightening in all this. The main appeal in the novella comes in the aesthetic details of the world Saunders has created. Phil's brain, for example, is attached to a rack. When it's jarred in the wrong—or right?—way, the brain detaches and slides off the rack onto the ground. If it isn't reattached, Phil begins to become disoriented. His speech starts to slur, and he gets really, really irrational.

This is just one tiny example of the madness that makes this story so engaging. Saunders satirizes the absurdity of leadership and politics, and the role xenophobia plays in motivating the masses to support all manner of idiotic, misguided governmental initiatives. If you're looking for a profound criticism of the modern political world, though, this really isn't it. As Saunders admits in an essay in the back of the book, his main goal was simply to create an entertaining story. In this, he's succeeded—and, hey, that's more than most writers can say. It's inventive. It's funny. It's ornamented with lots of psychedelic drawings and diagrams. There aren't many legal activities that will provide you with this much amusement in such a compact package.

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