In a frenzy of eleventh hour book-buying at December’s MLA convention (“All paperbacks three dollars! Everything must go!”) I picked up The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders, which became my book of choice for the long flight back to Chicago. I’d read Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation, but this was my—and his—first experience with a book of essays. The Braindead Megaphone can be loosely divided into three types of essays: discussions of literature (Saunders writes about Slaughterhouse Five, Huckleberry Finn, Donald Barthelme’s “The School”, and even Johnny Tremain), travel writing (see Saunders go to Dubai, England, the Mexico/America border, and Nepal—often generously funded by GQ magazine!), and political satires.
Of these three, the satires were the least engaging—often hinging upon devices like a pseudo-fictional explorations of “people reluctant to kill for an abstraction” (the most troubling of the new ideological cultures Saunders sees emerging as national borders become more malleable) and fictional proclamations from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When Saunders writes as a persona, the effect is rarely as engaging as his authentic voice.
The literary essays and travel pieces, though, were first rate. The literary essays, in addition to being worthwhile explications, often emphasize what a particular piece/writer contributed to Saunders’ development as a writer/person, which gives them resonance. They are not dry analyses, but rather explorations about what writing can mean or do, when conditions are right. The real pearls, however, are in the travel writing. “The New Mecca” describes a trip to Dubai, Arab Emirates, and is one of the best essays I’ve read in quite some time—a heady mix of thought-provoking, touching, and funny. “The Great Divider,” which focuses on human dilemmas along the Mexican/American border, is similarly dense, an intricate, subtle portrait. A handful of essays defy these classifications, but these outliers struck me as weaker, with the worst being a dreadful essay from the POV of a dog who asks his master to stop humping on the kitchen table. It’s only a few pages, but I’d just skip it. I wouldn’t skip The Braindead Megaphone, however—particularly if you enjoy the rest of Saunders’ work. Most essays are entertaining and often moving, and the revealing glimpses of what Saunders values in and life in literature add a pleasant texture to the rest of his writing.