Ext. Montage. A Ride on the Reading RailRoad to Mt. Real
Scene I: NYC to Montreal (reading Sentence 3 and Eye Against Eye by Forrest Gander)
Scene II: Around Montreal (reading Motorman by David Ohle)
> Scene III: Montreal to NYC (reading The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders)
Trains are good places to read. Reading in motion makes the sentences feel more real, like they are being realized cinematically with time. The stream of words (if they are the right combinations) induce fleeting associations on the fly, leaving a sticky residue in its wake made up of nostalgia for places you have never travelled to or people that you have never been. The letters and words are dried brine shrimp that are magically activated with passing time like sea monkeys are brought to fruition with water. The blurry landscapes of branches and power lines in the corner of the eye are a good supplement to punctuation. It gives narrative streams a sense of progression.
And the singing rails of the train make for a good soundtrack to any book, especially in conjunction with some sort of device that will play your favorite music in random shuffle mode (to make up for the lack of free will you experience on a train as you are confined to the destiny of the tracks). Right about the time I was writing this, somewhere in upstate New York, I was appropriately listening to Radiohead's How to Disappear Completely. A flock of snow geese was taking off from a fallow grain field. I didn't even try to capture that on film. But these other pictures to the right I tried to capture before they got away. I even pieced some of them together in this montage of moving pictures.
I finished reading David Ohle's Motorman, then hopped aboard The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders, an unintended but appropriate follow up to Motorman as both share some common ground. Both are in a sense psychological science fiction--tales of absurdist satire in worlds that throw suspension of disbelief out the window (of a moving train).
The supposedly frightening world that this Phil guy comes to briefly reign over is Inner Horner, a world so small that it can only accommodate one denizen at a time. Encircling Inner Horner is a buffer-zone, the Short-Term Residency Zone, which is all encompassed by a larger more expansive country, Outer Horner. If this all sounds silly and gimmicky, it is.
Saunders has contrived a satire much like Animal Farm but stripped of any obtrusive or fleshy superficialities that might get in the way. In case you were blinded by the drama and thought Animal Farm was a nice story about farm animals, you can't get derailed with The Reign of Phil because all that is left is satire. It is a bare bones conceptual world with intentionally and geometrically (literally) flat characters that only serve out their roles, role-playing in a world not unlike Edwin Abbott's Flatland, but not nearly as thorough or revolutionary in its acquired mathematical revelations. It's no surprise that the book started out as a dare (see the more conventional review in bookslut) to write a book where all the characters were abstract shapes. But the question is, did Saunders win this boys club bet at the expense of the poor readers that were subjected to such frivolous nonsense? Perhaps. Is this some sort of inside joke that implodes in on itself? Absolutely. That is perhaps its best merit and what it sets out to accomplish--literary implosion.
Those that enjoyed Saunder's previous Pastoralia or Civilwarland in Bad Decline might be a bit disappointed with The Reign of Phil. It is nowhere as rich or complex, but in another sense its playful simplicity is a welcome relief. It is hard to fail based on such a silly premise. And those that read for the sheer language of it might also be disappointed. Saunder's sentence to sentence writing gets the job done, that's about all you can say (which is not necessarily a bad thing in this case). It moves the story along, and with such an absurdly abstract premise, its probably a good thing the language is simple and fablesque. Much of it is dialogue-driven, with Mametesque one-liners that come in their right places.
An obvious parody of the reaction of the haves to the havenots of our own country. And if you are having trouble visualizing some of the cowlicked descriptions like the one above, the book is illustrated by Benjamin Gibson (who seems to only be credited on the copyright page, which if you ask me, someone who has worked on both ends of text/art collaborations, that's kind of lame). Some of the surreal and diagrammatic illustrations were the highlights for me, and they definitely enriched the otherwise bland text (though the story and concept is rightfully Saunders'). The illustrations act as a map--for example, in case you have a hard time understanding what it looks like when the country of Inner Horner shrinks, the following illustration is provided.
As you can imagine, a book that takes place within such confining borders can give you an unsettling and claustrophobic feeling. Or maybe that was an inevitable carryover from the environment I was reading the book in? Train cars are self-sufficient worlds within the landscape with all the other fellow passengers confined within the same space-time fabric, breathing each other's air. The heat (reduced to molecular motion) was radically different than the outside world. When we stopped at stations (state ions), our space-time temporarily docked with the rest of the world. A flux of passengers got off and others got on. I'm losing my train of thought...
Reading The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (in conjunction with traveling on a train) made me rethink the meaning of borders and countries and the sense of property. The dialogue from Phil's interrogation of the Inner Hornerites was not that much different than the interrogation the customs officials gave each pair of passengers on the train:
A few people were actually singled out and taken to the diner car for further questioning. And this was only Canada? These are the times we live in and the parody of Bush living in the inner sanctum Oval Office of Inner Horner and his cabinet in the Short-Term Residency Zone is not far from the truth except for the fact that those in Inner Horner live at the mercy of those in Outer Horner. And then begs the question, who is Phil?
I'm sure it all means something, but I don't know if I care enough to figure it all out. All I can say is that it was a fun read to pass the time on a train. And in this case the roundtrip train trip from NYC to Montreal was the best part of the trip. It's not always about the destination but the process of getting there.
*** Get The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil from Powell's
DNA or the Borealis? Actually, the G.W.B. at night.
(c) 2005 Derek White