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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

George Saunders's new book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead, 2005), is a parable, but a parable about what? In the Book Review a few Sundays back, Eric Weinberger took it to be a no-longer-necessary warning against Hitler types. Sometimes, you'd think that Hitler invented genocide!

The genocide in Reign of Phil doesn't get very far, because there aren't very many people to work with. But let's not be silly. The tenor of this parable is every good writer's Topic A: language.

Did I say something about "people"? There aren't any people in Reign of Phil. There are creatures, sort of - amalgams of organic tissue and machinery. The author does not begin to describe them coherently, and that's part of the fun. (I do wonder about the sinister illustrations that don't appear to be credited to any artist. Does this mean that Mr Saunders has a sideline?) Phil, the bad guy, has a problem with his brain: it slides, from time to time, off of its "tremendous sliding rack." And when it does, Phil's manner of speech changes from bullying but understated sarcasm to blaring Victorian oratory. Here's Phil with his brain in place:

"You know what?" said Phil. "After spending some time with you folks, I am tempted, in terms of our most important National Virtue, to replace 'Generosity' with 'Remarkable Intelligence'."

This self-congratulatory nonsense is amusing because even ordinary intelligence is barely in evidence. Here's Phil with his brain in a ditch:

"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 give 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 the Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big beautiful land God the Almighty gave us!"

Suddenly Phil didn't seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with such certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

Note "under-appreciated." Phil's political advance in the notional land of Outer Horner owes almost entirely to his willingness to appreciate the dickens out of his compatriots. Reign of Phil is at the same time a hornbook of demagogic language and a critique of it. Mr Saunders's ear for the unconsidered language of ordinary people is equally pitch-perfect.

Not too long ago, I wrote about Harry Frankfurt's little treatise, On Bullshit. I admired Professor Frankfurt's argument that the liar is more interested in the truth than the bullshitter is. The bullshitter speaks only for effect. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil was probably not conceived as an illustration of Prof Frankfurt's theories, but it certainly reads like one. The irreality of Mr Saunders's setting is nothing compared with the reality-free speech of almost everyone in his book. Even the nice-guy Kellerites are bullshitters. Everyone is focused on the emotional impact of what he or she says, not on its truth or utility. And reason simply doesn't function. When you get there, a paragraph or two from now, consider the exchange that I have marked in italics. You can see that it's ridiculous, easily. But in a climate of everyday bullshit, we make the President's mistake all the time. Unless we've been trained as lawyers - which is why everybody hates lawyers. Say what you will about us attorneys, but we are taught the hard way to pay attention to what's said. 

Is Reign of Phil an updated Animal Farm, as some critics have suggested? Not really. Reign of Phil is much too playful. Mr Saunders is a virtuoso of dark games of the imagination, of "what if" situations that are always surprisingly worse than anything you've ever thought of. Reign of Phil is a dystopian romp through alien territory, a comic book in which words take the place of pictures. Aside from language (and the psychology behind it), we have nothing in common with the citizens of Inner and Outer Horner. They may think like us, but they can't act like us, and trying to imagine what the Hornerites look like when they do what they do is oddly entertaining.

Phil effects a coup with the aid of two obedient but not very bright giants. After they have moved the dome and the walls of the Presidential Palace to Phil's place, the vacant (soon to be former) President grumbles. (I quote the passage at length because, as we await the Fitzgerald indictments, it seems so timely.)

"Well, Phil," said the President. "As President I, you know, sort of need my Palace, otherwise..."

"Actually I think I'm going to keep the Palace awhile," said Phil.

"Well, Phil," said the President. "I don't know how I feel about that. You're not the President, I'm the President. I'm the one wearing the Presidential Cravat, and so, it would seem to me that I would be the one to decide when you should bring my Palace back. Right? Am I right in that, Al?"

The mirror-faced Advisor said nothing.

"That's a nice cravat," said Phil.

"Yes, yes it is," said the President. "Would you like to see it? If I let you see it, will you think about returning my Palace?"

"I'd love to see it," said Phil, and took the Presidential Cravat off the President and put it on himself.

"Well, it looks nice on you," said the President.

"Looks very nice on him," said the mirror-faced Advisor.

"Super on him," said the very smiley Advisor.

"Oh, I remember the time when I used to wear that Presidential Cravat," mumbled the President. "It seems like ages ago. But it was just minutes ago, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was," said Phil.

There among the President's many mustaches bloomed a slow look of understanding.

"We won't see the likes of those days again, will we?" said the President.

"No we won't," said Phil.

"Mr President?" said the mirror-faced Advisor. "Mr Former President? May I just say what a pleasure it's been serving you, even in this time of twilight and diminishing strength. Although I would be remiss, sir, if I didn't add that I feel it was somewhat injurious for me, in the prime of my career, to have been serving you, someone growing increasingly weak, when I could've been serving someone strong and getting stronger. Strength is, sir, and I expect always will be, a lure for the ambitious and clever. Phil here has, sir, I think you must admit, a great deal of strength. He is not only strong, but getting stronger. I think you must agree, and - "

"Are you leaving me, Al?" said the President.

"I'm afraid so," said the mirror-faced Advisor.

But take heart. The frightening reign of Phil is indeed brief. By the time I neared the end of this small, one-hundred-thirty-page book, it struck me as ideal reading for bright high-school students, the younger the better. The bizarre physiognomy will catch their attention and hold their interest. They will find the story funnier than their more experienced elders. And then the ending will leave them thinking. That's why you'll have read the book first, before giving them your copy. (October 2005)

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