The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

I am not an expert on George Saunders nor am I particularly knowledgeable about short story writers. But, as readers of this site know well, that has never stopped me from pontificating about anything. My previous exposure to Mr. Saunders came through the enjoyable children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip and a few stories from Pastoralia.

But as I am always on the lookout for short and interesting new reads – and those with intriguing designs and illustrations -, I recently picked up The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and last week I finally managed to read it. I have to say I was disappointed. It was clever in parts and I chuckled at the dialog and a couple of Phil’s speeches. But overall it was just a silly story that made fun of the human tendency toward cowardice, obfuscation, and that great bogeyman of the multiculturalist “fear of the other.”

I had vague recollections of hearing good things about it around the the Internets and Saunders has a impressive reputation. Perhaps, because of this my expectations were too high. I was looking for biting satire or insightful humor. Instead, I found it all rather odd – entertaining to some extent but odd.

For a moment I thought maybe my political or foreign policy views prevented my enjoy the allegory or satire. But reviews at Bookslut and The Elegant Variation admit to being disappointed as well. It turns out quite a few people didn’t care for it.

Barrett Hathcock, at The Quarterly Conversation, sums it up well:

Resolved, literally, by the hand of god swooping down to fix everything at the end, Phil is neither totally satisfying as a story or as a political allegory. Though there are covert riffs on everything from the Patriot Act to the lapdog media to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the book doesn’t teach us any lessons we haven’t already had seared onto our brains from actual, verifiable fact. It’s not translating our political situation into anything new, merely simplifying it. In the end, Phil’s reign isn’t that frightening, because his reign and his world are so obviously artificial, while ours outside is so frighteningly not.

Or if you prefer a harsher version, here is Chas Bowie for the Portland Mercury:

If this all sounds too pat and allegorical, it is. TBAFRoP reads like an updated, Cartoon Network version of Animal Farm for the 21st century. Gone are Saunders’ subtleties, wit, and surprise, and instead readers are treated to an overly long exercise in how to rip off a sucky George Orwell novel.

The New York Times I am afraid didn’t care for it either. Eric Weinberger thinks Saunders missed his mark:

What Saunders seems to have done, then, is devise a satire for 1938 – even earlier than “Animal Farm,” which, in 1945, was already looking past Hitler – and thus a satire that is not only anachronistic but unnecessary, lacking immediacy or urgency. Consequently only the bromides or generalities stand out: beware the power of demagogues and the manipulation of news (sometimes called the first draft of history); trust your initial, most human instincts. Homage is paid, via Phil’s speeches (which sound different each time), to Shakespeare, “A Clockwork Orange” and Thucydides. Phil’s Periclean oration on the greatness of the polis begins “We are an articulate people, yet a people of few words” and rises to “We can be excessive, when excess is called for,” and soon “Even the extent to which we are moderate is moderate.” Then there is a line on treating Inner Hornerites fairly (“Think how fairly we’d treat them if they didn’t behave like uncouth animals”), which is the author’s “some animals are more equal than others” moment.

All this can be amusing, even if it doesn’t betray much effort; this is just talent speaking, the comic voice without the woundedness or anger that truly animates the satirist, like Saunders himself in his earlier work.

Lest I be accused of be unfairly negative, let me give you a contrary opinion. Robert Tocalino, of the Egg Blog, disagrees with Weinberger:

It seems to me that he misses the point entirely ; the strength of fable is its ability to stand as cipher for any time and place by creating a milieu that is entirely fantastical. Maybe The Brothers Grimm or Italo Calvino had political motives for publishing their collections of folktales; that intent is irrelevant today. We read them for their wide-armed embrace of human folly. High school kids don’t need to know what each animal stands for in Orwell’s book to understand the relations between them, or the intent behind the fable.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a book about power in its rawest form, with a cast of characters composed of expanding bladders,exposed spines and, in the case of the title character, a detachable brain. It’s devastating in its simplicity and sympathy.

I think Tocalino makes a fair point about satire and fable, but I just don’t agree that the work is “devastating in its simplicity and sympathy.” Or at least in the way I think he means.

In the end, I found The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil to be an interesting experiment, but one that fell flat. The absurdity and the comic portrayal of human weakness via non-human actors has its moments, but it never quite adds up to much more than cleverness.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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