The country of Inner Horner is so small that only one of its six citizens
can occupy it at any given time, while the other five must stand in a Short Term
Residency Zone on soil loaned to them by the (relatively) great and powerful country
of Outer Horner. When an unspecified geological event further reduces the inhabitable
area of Inner Horner, much commotion over turf and taxes ensues, resulting in
the unfortunate rise to power of one Phil, a mealy-mouthed robot-dictator whose
brain always seems to fall off its “rack” into a bowl of chips before he gives
a speech.
For Hornerites, both inner and outer, are neither animals nor machines, but vaguely biomorphic assemblages of gears and organs. Take female Inner Hornerite Carol, whose allure sets off the political conflict: “Phil was captivated by her glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membranes, the delicate curve of her exposed spine, her habit of demurely scratching one bearing with a furry glovelike appendage…”Fabulist George Saunders’ trademark in his short-story collections, Civil War Land in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, is to portray the world as a theme park run amok, at once cartoonish and sinister. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, however, unfolds in the safe, lighthearted cadences of a children’s story. The inevitable comparison is to Orwell’s Animal Farm, but in this novella, Saunders’ droll brand of literary satire feels more like Lewis Carroll. Like Carroll, Saunders undoes evil by spinning it into clever “nonsense,” freeing us from fear by replacing it with laughter.
Books | 134 pages | $13 softcover

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