George Saunders’ “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”

Having read this story two times, I am now an expert. Jesus Christ, I know a lot about this story!

Let me begin by sharing a colorful anecdote about the conditions whereby this collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, emerged into the world: George Saunders, its author, published this story just after he was released from prison after serving a 72-month term for corporate espionage.

A CIVILWARLAND reenactment.

In late 1998 Saunders was only 24 and became a member of an historical truthers movement located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania called HistoricalTruthNow! and, as a sort of homage to the founder with whom he’d fallen in love, decided to “correct” the industrial procedures of a small company manufacturing Civil War uniforms for re-enactors. In short, he broke into the company warehouse and destroyed all of the modern, and therefore anachronistic, sewing machines.*

While serving his term at a minimum-security prison in the heart of Pennsylvania, he began writing. Two features of modern culture exercised his spleen and thereby appeared in CivilWarLand.

First, the branding procedures of contemporary capitalism, by which all things are capitalized because they are proper names—or, more accurately, proper products prepared for monetization. Proper names mean to refer to a single individual and therefore be an admittedly fading grammatical expression of the idiom that each person or unique thing is. Yet when brands copyright names, they incrementally reduce the purchase of that idiom. Instead, the name becomes just a textual placeholder for a thing that is itself far from idiomatic. As well, and in this respect, Georgie-boy is a bit of a romantic: yo, not everything has a price, man.

Second, George would say, what have we done to memory? It’s true that we are never really done with the past, like dyspeptic bovine. Yet how do we memorialize the past. How do we remember the past? Do we honor the past in re-enacting its moments, or, in re-enacting its moments, do we fail to appreciate the ways in which the past is already living in the present and therefore dishonor it?

These concerns circulated through George’s nervous system and, when activated by the imagination, produced the stories composing the collection entitled CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The title story, of which I am passing on my monumental knowledge in this essay, is only some 25 pages, but more than suitable for the august task of beginning the collection.

A précis of the “CivilWarLand …”

Our narrator is a management figure at an amusement park of sorts called CivilWarLand, where visitors can escape from their contemporary moment and observe the view from late nineteenth century United States, in the midst of its most serious internal crisis. We meet him just as he’s attempting to pique the interest of a possible investor. He fails because of the intervention of a group of teenage miscreants, who have defaced an historical tableau and disrupted the investor’s growing ardor.

The “gang” is the source of the story’s conflict, yet the seeds leading to CivilWarLand’s “bad decline” were planted long before. As in many of the collection’s stories, the protagonists make dubious choices and suffer the consequences. In this story, the narrator and his boss decide to arm a shell-shocked Vietnam vet to address the gang and pay the price therefor. Although this plotline motivates the narrative, perhaps what is of greater interest is the narrator’s pathetic.

His character clings to what little dignity he has but without any chance of weathering the storm that approaches: His wife leaves him with his two beloved sons. The park goes bankrupt. His boss, the park’s owner, admits that he maintained the narrator’s employment merely as a sort of entertainment, not as a sign of respect or appreciation. And in the last moments he is murdered by his former employee Sir Vietnam Vet.

*Full disclosure: I used to haunt the fourth floor wing of the Syracuse University English Department, the very floor tread by George Saunders. I have it on very good authority that he has completely rehabilitated himself from his law-breaking past.

For more writings on short story collections, see my commentary on William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.