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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