I had a rocky start with The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. Our reading relationship only got past the cover and first essay because I’d committed to read the book for outside reasons. However, I’m so glad I stuck it out because I ended up enjoying the book. Saunder’s collection of essays presents smart and complicated commentary on U.S. culture, while successfully walking a fine line between discussion and diatribe.
The first essay, the title essay of the book, is a well-built metaphor that compared the mass media in the U.S. (newspapers, television, magazines, etc.) to a stupid guy at a party that has a megaphone. Saunders argues that even though the stuff this guy says is dumb, because he’s the loudest person talking, everyone in the room ends up listening to him and responding amongst themselves to what he says.
I don’t disagree with Saunder’s premise. What worried me reading the essay was the tone he used; it walked a fine line between being smart and being a rant. I like reading smart political books, I don’t like reading rants. I went into the second essay, The New Mecca, a little skeptical about how I was going to respond. Thiss essay is about Saunders visit to the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a “pluralistic, tax-free, laissez-faire, diverse, inclusive, tolerant, no-holes-barred, daringly capitalist country… maybe.”
My whole perception of Saunders shifted during this essay because he showed his ability to see and understand many different sides of a situation, as well as acknowledge what he doesn’t understand. Dubai, through a ton of oil money, has grown into an oddly capitalist and touristy city in the middle of the desert. While there, Saunders is both thrilled and disgusted by the sense of opulence that divides rich and poor. However, even the poorest immigrants working in the city are treated thousands of times better than they would be in most other Middle Eastern countries. The place is, as Saunders describes it, “complicated,” and the essay seems to revel in that level of complication.
There are other essays in the book that do the same sort of balancing. In The Great Divider, Saunders takes on the idea of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Most journalism I’ve seen on this topic makes the Minutemen — men and women from the U.S. that guard the border unofficially — seem like nut jobs and villains. Saunders portrayal, on the other hand, shows them as real people just doing what they think is right and leaves it open to the reader to agree or disagree. I appreciate an author willing to leave such a difficult topic open to discussion.
It’s not that Saunders doesn’t have opinions on these issues — he certainly does. What’s cool about the book is that Saunders gives the reader enough breathing and thinking space to come up with an opinion on the issue instead of forcing his belief down your throat.
While a lot of the book is political, there are also a number of very good literary analysis essays that I found fascinating. His piece The United States of Huck: Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was excellent. In it, Saunders explains his feelings about the book and tries to explore some of our own modern perceptions of the story. I’ve never read that book, but Saunders close reading was so great that I’m tempted to try out Huck Finn for myself.
Once I finished the collection, I knew that my initial trepidation was unfounded. Saunders is a great essayist who makes a statement while still leaving the reader space to debate the issue. This makes the collection fun to read and challenging to think about — can you really ask much more than that?
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!