Imagine: George Saunders’ "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil"

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My dad doesn’t particularly enjoy reading fiction. Which is one of the reasons why I love talking about books with him. He’s actually well-read, and he remembers everything he’s ever read; he just doesn’t think it’s the best way to spend time. Which also makes it fun to talk fiction with him. He can break a book down to its essence in a sentence or two. He especially has no patience for allegory or moral stories. I remember his take on Lord of the Flies particuarly well. We we eating supper one night. I was home on break from grad school and probably spouting off a bunch of nonsense — probably even scolding him for not reading more fiction. He asked me what I had read recently, and I had just finished re-reading Lord. His summary was: those boys needed a good whipping.

Of course, that was the point, I went on to say, and readers of the story when it was written were the boys. Written just after WWII when there were a lot of powerful people making up arbitrary rules and killing people over these rules. It was easy to see the boys in Lord needed some discipline. Later that night (I’m really slow a lot of the time), it hit me that I was still one of the boys on the island — still arguing over things that shouldn’t matter as much to me as those I argue with.

So it is with allegories. It’s often easy to judge what is right or wrong within the story. It’s easy to see how other people fit into a story. And even if we know we should put ourselves in the story, that the story was written to make us think about something, well, it’s easy to just forget how we might fit into the scheme of things, how the actions of boys stranded on an island can relate to us.

(It’s also really hard, for me at least, to talk about an allegory without just giving everything away, so if you’re interested in the following book and/or don’t like having too much given away, you might wanna stop here.)

George Saunders latest book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, is a good example of how I found myself thinking how nice it was that I wasn’t the target audience for this particular allegory. The setting for the story is a fictional country, Inner Horner, and it’s much smaller neighbor, Outer Horner. The President of Inner Horner is an old creature who is very forgetful and makes decisions based solely on what the citizens tell him to do. Phil, an ambitious citizen, takes advantage of the President’s forgetfulness and usurps the Presidency. He’s so ambitious, he takes over while sitting in the President’s office. While receiving a blessing from the President. The now-former President doesn’t even realize it has happened, as he has no memory of events more than 3 or 4 minutes ago.

The dispute between the Inner and Outer Hornerites has to do with residency. Outer Horner is too small for all of its citizens so they spill over into Inner Horner territory. Phil will have none of this. He places taxes on the Outers, taxes so high that they have to pay with their clothes and eventually by sacrificing themselves. Phil surrounds himself with people who do not, will not, disagree with him. The citizens of Inner Horner love him and his tyrranical ways. Things go well until a third country, a peaceful, fun-loving country with citizens much larger than Inner Hornerites, eventually decides to step in and put a stop to Phil’s reign.

The problem is: things have gone too far. Inners and Outers no longer remember how their hatred began, they just know they hate each other and want to keep fighting. Thy MUST pay the other back!

While reading the story, I found myself smirking a condescending smirk. Wow, wasn’t Phil an awful lot like President Bush? Didn’t Inner Horner’s policy regarding outsiders with different beliefs seem alot like our administration’s policies toward other nations? Weren’t those Inner-Hornerites a lot like conservatives who just follow Bush around and say, yeah, that’s a great idea!

But then the kicker. Saunders reminds readers that this isn’t just a silly parody of our current administration. It is a silly parody that calls for us to be better people. The Inners and Outers in the story couldn’t resolve their differences, even with the peaceful, fun-loving diplomats. Why? Because lines were drawn that kept the citizens from understanding life from a different perspective. Geographical lines, ideological lines, historically-rooted lines. Because the Inners and Outers saw nations and ideas rather than people (except they aren’t really people — I’m not sure what they are, but they aren’t people) living in a different country. So Saunders creates a huge event in the history of these two countries that erases the idea of competing nations, competing ideologies. Erases the history of bad blood between the citizens of different countries.

As touchy-feely as this is, as unrealistic, as “Imagine if you can…” as it seems, the moral of the story is solid. Regardless of political leanings, nationalistic loyalties, religious beliefs, etc., peace and understanding and plain old just getting along with each other is almost impossible as long as we insist on maintaining long-established boundaries. Until these come down, there will always be verbal disputes, which at a national level, often leads to war.

It would be easy to read this novel and simply take away from it that Saunders is out to make fun of President Bush. If you stop three-fourths of the way through, that’d be a decent conclusion. But toward the end, Saunders reminds those like me that Phil isn’t the only problem in the story. He’s just the easiest to see. If we truly want peace, it may take some sort of huge intervention such as happened in Inner/Outer Horner. Or we could re-think the boundaries we’ve created. The boundaries between Liberal and Conservative, the boundaries between Nations, the boundaries between Religions. These boundaries may manifest themselves most easily in the leaders of our countries, but that doesn’t mean all citizens have to follow along and just say yes. Saunders reminds us, or me at least, that we are still the boys on the island who need to find a way to survive together, that we all need to put people before ideologies or theoretical differences.

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3 Responses to “Imagine: George Saunders’ "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil"”

  1. Duane McCrory Says:

    Michael,

    Thanks for your post. I find it curious that our reading of allegory usually says more about ourselves than anything. Here’s what I mean: as I was reading your description of the book, I was thinking in terms of Phil being Saddam who tyrannized his people and had to be removed from power, until, of course, I saw your take on it. Since I have not read the book, I assume your take on it is more in line with Saunders’ intent, but I just found that interesting that our views probably said more about us than about the allegory itself.

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    That’s a great point, Duane. That’s the hard part about allegory — is willing to admit that it says something about ourselves. I have to admit that my politics blinded me to the Saddam interpretation.

    What I really liked about this little book (seriously, it was an afternoon read and it’s worth the $10 or so) is that it challenged me to at least try to think about what it will take, and what we can do individually, to make the world better. And part of that is citizens of whatever country and religion rethinking the idea of nationalism or political parties, etc. And the ending, which I tried not to go into too much detail about, kind of makes who Phil represents beside the point. Even though the Outer Hornerites had a right to be angry and want revenge, fighting and revenging wasn’t doing much to help bring peace and make their world better.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    And I wasn’t sure, as I read Michael’s plot summary, whether the allegory was more about us or the Middle East. (The bits about Outer Horner’s citizens spilling across national boundaries certainly sounds like the Kurds.)

    The Inners and Outers in the story couldn’t resolve their differences, even with the peaceful, fun-loving diplomats. Why? Because lines were drawn

    When I read this, I thought of Pascal’s frustration with human beings — creatures so irrational they think everyone on this side of the river is my friend and must be trusted and defended, and everyone on that side of the river is my enemy and must be destroyed, just because there happens to be a river there.

    Oh, and was Lord of the Flies the book your dad distilled, “Park it or I’ll bust it,” from?

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