The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

By George Saunders

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“”I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of his own. It is not my place start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why he gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used to many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?” (p. 10)

In 2005, George Saunders published a thin little novella called ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘. At the time, I thought its plot was charmingly weird:

The nation of Inner Horner is so small that it can only hold one of the six inhabitants of Inner Horner at a time. While they wait for their turn to occupy their nation, the citizens of Inner Horner occupy the Short Term Residency Zone of Outer Horner, the nation which total surrounds theirs. One day, however, a piece of Inner Horner crumbles, sending the momentary occupant of Inner Horner tumbling across the border into Outer Horner.

Unfortunately for the Inner Hornerites, this incursion is witnessed by Phil, a citizen of Outer Horner. Phil was once madly in love with a citizen of Inner Horner, Carol, and her rejection has made him bitter. Phil uses the sudden toppling of an inner Hornerite into his country to whip his fellow citizens into a nationalistic frenzy. He will co-opt the Outer Horner Militia and use them to terrorize, extort, and eventually disassemble the Inner Hornerites.

When I read ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ for the first time, in 2006 or 2007, I thought it was strange and dismal and funny. I love George Saunders, I love his whole vibe. I love his worldview, his dark, sad humanity. I love his sense of humor. I’ve loved George Saunders since the first short story of his I’ve ever read.

And I loved ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’, when I read it in 2006 or 2007. I thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.

But I read it again the other day, now, this year, 2016, not 2006 or 2007, and it isn’t funny now.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ is about the damage that a sadistic, brittle demagogue can do to a vulnerable population. It’s about how a cowardly population will cow-tow and appease that demagogue as long as he tells them that they are the best people on earth. About how they will overlook and excuse any cruelty towards people that they believe are different from them.

It’s not funny anymore.

This is yet another way that books are like people: you can lose them. Sometimes they turn into jerks as they age; sometimes you just grow apart. Things that you thought were hilarious when you were younger, stop being funny. Things that blew your mind the first time you heard them, turn out to commonplace. That’s pretty normal.

But that isn’t what happened here. ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ didn’t age badly – we didn’t outgrow each other. The world changed between 2006 and 2016: specifically, the line between ‘plausible’ and ‘absurd’ moved dramatically. And so my relationship with fiction premised on the absurd changed as well.

What I realized when I reread it this week is that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was only absurd in its details; its emotional message is completely realistic. People are small-minded, provincial, and cruel. We do display a near-total lack of empathy when we are confronted of the suffering of someone we have decided isn’t like us. It is possible to build a cultural movement premised on the degradation of other people. It is possible for that movement to gain traction in your country. It is possible for that movement to take over the government.

I think I assumed that, because some of ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was fiction, all of it was. That assumption was stupid and totally unwarranted on my part, but nevertheless: I think that I relaxed into the surrealist detail, allowed the weirdness to give me emotional distance.

George Saunders

I understood that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ was a parable, I understood that there was a moral point being made. I just figured, I think, that it was an exaggerated moral point. I assumed it was hyperbolic, satirical.

It isn’t though, not in 2016. It’s a deadly serious moral point wrapped in silliness. It’s not funny.

It makes me sad, either way. There aren’t so many beloved, brilliant, absurdist little parables that I can afford to lose one. It’s sort of awful to have ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ ruined for me by the changing of the world.

I wonder how Saunders himself feels about ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ now. I wonder whether he has startled himself with how prescient he was. I wonder whether he knew he was writing an almost literal prophesy, the future of my country and his.

I bet he isn’t surprised at all.

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