December 2005

Beth Dugan


The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, the new book by George Saunders, was written on a dare from his friend, illustrator Lane Smith. He dared Saunders to write a story where all of the characters were abstract shapes. I don’t know what he won for the dare, but he achieved what he set out to do. Peopled by giant belt buckles stapled to tuna fish cans adorned with blue dots or “glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membranes, the delicate curve of exposed spine… a furry glovelike appendage…”, it's the story about the Little Hornerites, inhabitants of a country so small that the seven of them must take turns living in it. While they are waiting for their turn, they impose on their neighboring country, Outer Horner, and stay in the Short-Term Residency Zone.

The story, at first just silly and clever takes on an ominous political turn when Inner Horner shrinks and the titular power hungry and demagogic Phil seizes the opportunity to take control of both Inner and Outer Horner using deceit, flattery, and ruthlessness. Phil surrounds himself with brainless muscle, “mirror-faced advisors,” and sycophantic assistants. Phil’s brain periodically slides out of his brain pan and at one point, when an Inner Horner native tries to stop Phil from taking his wife as a “tax,” Phil rants, “You people... via shiftlessness and inertia, have forced us, a normally gentle constituency, into the position of extraction water from the recalcitrant stone of your stubbornness, by positing us a aggressors, when in face, we are selflessly lending you precious territory, which years ago was hewed by our ancestors from a hostile forbidding wilderness! When I think of my poor dead grandparents, how hard they hewed, and here you come, sneaking into their sacred former wilderness to murder us in our beds via stealth…” and on and on.

It is an allegory of the current political climate (a man of limited intellect who is fueled by self-importance who rants in a Stalinesque fashion about keeping people safe from themselves) and even harkens back to Animal Farm’s darkness. Though the spirit is light, funny and almost childlike, Saunders follows through on some of the darkness he hints at through the stripping of Inner Horner’s natural resources and grisly political murders. The Inner Hornerites lose their land, dignity, and freedom to Phil who stages a coup d’etat of the Outer Horner government and quickly takes control of the army, and media as well. Inner Horner is saved only by a deus ex machina in the form of a capitalist latte drinking neighboring country, Greater Keller, who invaded Outer Horner to stop the treatment of Inner Horner.

Saunders is known as a satirist, a pointer-outer of the absurd in our culture. I was looking forward to another of his sublime short story collections like Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline. The 130-page Phil, replete with a dozen or so black and white drawings, was disappointing. I wanted it to be more childlike and simple or more “real” and complicated. As allegories go, it’s a blunt object, a cudgel of a story. In an essay for, Saunders swears he isn’t directly pointing at America and the Bush administration but rather human tendencies as a whole, but it is the easiest comparison to make. Next time, I hope Saunders digs back into his magic bag and comes up with a story for adults.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
ISBN: 1594481520
144 Pages