Arts » Arts Etc.

Arts : In the state of ennui


With his latest story collection, In Persuasion Nation, Saunders probes the spiritual emptiness that lurks behind our gadget economy.

One story, “I Can Speak,” describes a Velcro mask that can be attached to a baby’s head, allowing the infant to speak (and ask for products, of course). Another, “Jon,” portrays a world in which orphans are auctioned off to a market-research firm that uses them as “Taste-makers & Trendsetters.”

While the kids are being exploited, the adults are hooked on the products their research makes possible — from drugs to synthetic happiness. “And the Aurabon® would make things better, as Aurabon® always makes things better,” says the narrator of “Jon,” “although soon what I found was, when you are hooking in like eight or nine times a day, you are always so happy, and yet it is a kind of happy like chewing on tinfoil.”

As Saunders sees it, our experiment with psychopharmacology has created a population with a very tenuous connection to reality.

We expect good times, but have very few skills to deal with their opposite. As a result, our emotions fly from disappointment straight to rage, then flatline at paranoia: Fear of a lack of happiness, a lack of success — a lack of anything — pervades everything.

Saunders finds great humanity in this all-encompassing anxiety. Here are the parents worried that their child will be left behind at school; here are homeowners possessed by the idea that their castle will be invaded.

Even the violent can be articulate. In “Adams,” a father describes his struggle with a creepy next-door neighbor. “And I thought, If that was me, if I had that hate level, what would I do? Well, one thing I would do is hold it in and hold it in and then one night it would overflow and I would sneak into the house of my enemy and stab him and his family in their sleep. Or shoot them. I would.” It would be funny if it weren’t so terribly plausible.

John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

San Antonio Current works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of San Antonio and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep San Antonio's true free press free.