The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
by George Saunders (2005)
Riverhead Books (2005)
130 pp

The last piece of fiction The New Yorker published in 2010 was a great short story by George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead.” In his interview that accompanied the short story, Saunders said he originally planned on that story being a novel. Honestly, I’m glad it didn’t go there. And now that I’ve read his novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, I’m glad that he generally produces short stories and didn’t force “Escape from Spiderhead” to be any longer than it is.

As implied in that last sentence, I’m not a big fan of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil — for reasons I’ll go into later — but I did enjoy reading it. Of course Saunders made me laugh, as always. It has its clever moments. So let’s start with the good things.

The world Saunders created is bizarre and fun to get to know, and Saunders introduces some aspects of it in the first lines:

It’s one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

Whenever the Outer Hornerites looked at the hangdog Inner Hornerites crammed into the Short-Term Residency Zone, they felt a little sick, and also very patriotic.

You read correctly. Inner Horner, one of the three countries in this novel, has seven citizens, and it’s barely big enough to fit one. And as weird as this is, it kind of feels real. I can see the Inner Hornerites standing “very timidly” just outside of their country. I can see the mix of sickness and patriotism the Outer Hornerites feel when they glance at their less fortunate neighbors. It gets weirder. Both the Inner Hornerites and the Outer Hornerites are beings made out of both organic and mechanical elements. Phil, for example, is some kind of machine that carries his exposed brain around on a tray. It sometimes slips off, causing his voice to become more stentorian.

Besides Inner Horner and Outer Horner, we also have Greater Keller, a country that is just a small strip of land (big enough that the Greater Kellerites can only walk in a single-file line in a large circle) that surrounds Outer Horner. The Greater Kellerites are always concerned about their happiness quotient, and it suddenly dawns on them that they might increase their happiness (which is currently at about an eight out of ten) by inviting the President of Outer Horner for a visit. Dale, who is in love with the daughter of Greater Keller’s President, gratefully accepts the assignment to go find the President of Outer Horner and invite him for tea. He travels in a “series of wide arcs” because since birth he’s spent his days walking in a big circle. However, what he finds when he gets to Outer Horner causes him to speed back to Greater Keller, “his shock and disgust at all he had seen causing him to inscribe what was, for him, a remarkably linear path.”

We readers have been privy to the horrors Dale has just witnessed. Not long after introducing us to Outer and Inner Horner, Saunders also introduces us to Phil. Toward the beginning of the book, Inner Horner inexplicably shrinks. Suddenly it is big enough to fit only a part of one of its citizens. Phil wanders on the scene and insights a furor at the sudden invasion. These Inner Hornerites just think that Outer Horner is supposed to take care of all of their problems.

“I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who gave away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect he big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

This introduces the book’s weaknesses. While I loved the setting and Saunders’ writing style, I was less impressed by the satire. Sure, it is funny and, at times, spot on; but it was all a bit too obvious and, frankly, easy. The errant nationalism Phil incites and the mindless way the other Outer Horners act is a bit tiresome when drawn out over the length of a novella. Plus, one of my favorite things about Saunders’ short fiction is that, though it might have aspects of politics and satire, the main aspects are usually much more subtle and inner. In this case, any sensitivity we might have to the characters is covered up by the polemics.

I can’t say they aren’t set up nicely, though. For example, when Phil becomes President of Outer Horner, he wants his citizens to sign a Certificate of Total Approval. When one asks what is being approved, that citizen is immediately criticized for being untrusting. Consequently, the other citizens say they don’t even need to read what they are signing. The end result is ridiculous, funny, and spot on in its criticism and its cumulative humor:

So Larry and Melvin and the Special Friends and all the Advisors lined up facing backwards, eyes closed, and signed the Certificate of Total Approval.

It’s not a bad read. There are several laugh-out-loud funny parts, which are remarkably rare in the fiction I read, but those are the main highlights. All in all I was disappointed in this book.

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By |2016-06-27T17:18:15-04:00January 10th, 2011|Categories: Book Reviews, George Saunders|Tags: , |8 Comments


  1. Lee Monks January 10, 2011 at 6:20 am

    ‘The errant nationalism Phil incites and the mindless way the other Outer Horners act is a bit tiresome when drawn out over the length of a novella.’

    Quite agree there, and this is his weakest book. Over here we had a copy of this tagged on to his last short story collection, which certainly rendered the comparitive disappointment of Phil as easily absorbed. I kind of take the position, though, that there is too little genuinely funny fiction out there and I perhaps therefore become a bit lavish when anything funny and clever actually turns up (Shteyngart, Lipsyte). Ultimately, though, you’re right of course: this is far too obvious.

  2. Trevor January 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Yes, Lee, I just keep thinking: even if Saunders said the jokes funnier than they’ve ever been said before, they are still old jokes we know by heart. I don’t see any subtlety to his satire here. But it certainly gets points for making me laugh, even if I knew some of the jokes.

  3. Phillip Routh January 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Trevor — Any idea why Saunders would use a title so similar to Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?
    Your review contains two words — “weird” and “bizarre” — that describe Saunders’ shtick. Though he’s not the only writer relying on it.
    I like the weird and bizarre, but it’s too prevalent in today’s fiction. It’s gotten very old for me.
    What happened to novels about people and situations that I can relate to? Such as Richard Yates’ Cold Spring Harbor or Evan Connell’s Bridge books. Or Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.
    The real world, the one we live in, once was a rich source of material for writers. Not anymore.

  4. Aaron January 12, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Phillip, are you sure it’s not the other way around? Saunders’ book predates Diaz’s by about two years.

    Also, although I’ve already told Trevor what I don’t like about Saunders (this novella being a really good example of what I see running through all his work, including “Spiderhead”), I would argue that Saunders *is* pulling from the real world in most of what he writes. He’s just exaggerating it.

    And really, I hardly think Saunders is the prevalent norm in fiction today; go read Franzen’s “Freedom” if you want a novel to relate to. Check out anything by Alice Munro. William Trevor. Maybe John Banville? If anything, I would say the market is glutted with the so-called “cultural” novel, in which a foreign setting is used to pass off the same old story we’ve read before and somehow think that it’s a novel novel.

  5. Shelley January 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Bizarre is so twentieth-century.

  6. Trevor January 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I’m with Aaron, here, Phillip. I think Saunders’ brand of bizarre (and Chris Adrian’s and Karen Russell’s — though I’m not sure 80 pages in how I feel about her new novel) is rare in contemporary literature (by which, I mean that doing it successfully — creating a story that flows and contains depth and humanity — is rare). Now, I also think that good literature about the real world is relatively rare, too, though again, I mean it is rare to do it well.

    My own problem is that many writers today focus solely on voice, whether they use a “unique” voice (those bizarre writers) or a “grave” voice (those real world writers). Looking at a sentence, it may be flashy, but under the words is a complete lack of insight and life.

    I second Aaron’s recommendations of Alice Munro and William Trevor, though both of them are in their 80s. For younger writers, they don’t get better than Maile Meloy.

  7. Phillip Routh January 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I didn’t know the publication dates of the Diaz and the Saunders (so it seems that Diaz was the copycat).
    I thought “Sea Oak” and “Bounty” had those valuable qualities of depth and humanity, so I don’t totally reject Saunders. But I read too much by him that was based on extemely odd premises. Since much of it wasn’t very good, it seemed gimmicky.
    No, Aaron, I don’t relate to Franzen. On the first page of The Twenty-seventh City there are a bunch of weird characters and a preposterous situation. The Corrections is full of bizarre people acting badly; I got sick of the whole bunch of them. I won’t be reading his latest.
    Trevor and Munro are excellent. I read one story by Meloy and thought it was very good.
    What about those three examples I gave — the Yates, Connell, and Updike? All use very different voices, all have insight and life, but I can relate to the characters and situations. Who is more real than Rabbit Angstrom? I can see him standing in the showroom of his Toyota dealership, I can see him in his final pickup basketball game. That’s an accomplishment.

  8. Trevor January 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I believe that Diaz was a copycat, but probably not of this title. More likely he’s pulling from Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

    I haven’t read a thing by Franzen, other than pieces in The New Yorker, so I can’t weigh in there, as much as I’d like to!

    As for Yates, Connell, and Updike, I don’t know. I’ll have to think on it!

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