December 2, 2014

Dec 2

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

George Saunders


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SOLD: $12,500

Coming to annotate CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was a strange and wonderful artistic project in itself. Who was that guy, who wrote that book? What does he have in common with me, and how have we parted ways since? I’d never read the whole book since I published it, and probably wouldn’t have, but what a rich experience, to be forced back into contact with one’s earlier artistic self. It made me see the writing process in a new way—we are not making some sort of permanent carving in stone, but are, as best we can at the time, trying to be true to the way things seem to us—trying to emit a spontaneous joyful sound. The result is more earnest smoke cloud than monument. The real goal, I came to see, was not perfection or static beauty—but earnest, urgent communication. The book I’d made seemed to me, now, flawed, abrupt, telegraphic, weirdly hyper—but I could feel that guy trying to communicate something non-trivial to me. I ended up liking him (and forgiving his failings of technique) for this, and for his urgency, and feeling: “Ah, nice try, kid. I admire your spirit. Now get back in there and try again.”

First edition, signed twice on the title-page. This is among the most colorful of the annotated books—in the literal and figurative sense. Saunders has covered the pages of the book with marginal notes in green, blue, red, and purple inks. Several sketches adorn the pages. The notes provide the addresses of the residences where he write the stories, as well as the journals in which some of them originally appeared. On the table of contents he tells us about other stories written in this period, even some abandoned works, such as “an abortive piece of crap” about a “giraffe at an Africa-themed rest area. Blecchh!” His reactions to this earlier work are overwhelmingly positive. Of “400 Pound CEO” he says, “On this re-read of the book, I think this is my favorite story. I like how this young(ish) writer has his heart on his sleeve.” In the margin of “Bounty,” he recalls how he “was obsessed with brevity, speed, ‘non-literary’ language. Telegraphic = ideal.” These textual notes alone cover three-quarters of the book’s 179 pages. There are also 26 loosely inserted note-cards containing vignettes and observations like the following (on the title story): “Since 1997, Ben Stiller & I have been trying to make a movie of this story. One ongoing issue: what do these ghosts look like? I had one scheme where a ghost flickers between all the ages the person ever was: way expensive. Best ghost we’ve found: hamlet’s father in Mel Gibson’s version. The trick? Actor wears zero makeup – and is not lit.” Two cards at the end contain this “Closing thought: I like the audacity of this book. I like less the places where it feels like I went into Auto-Quirky Mode. Ah youth! Some issues: Life amid limitations; paucity. Various tonalities of defense. Pain; humiliation inflicted on hapless workers – some of us turn on one another. Early on, this read, could really feel this young writer’s aversion to anything mild or typical or bland. Feeling, at first, like a tic. But then it started to grow on me—around ‘400 Pound CEO.’ This performative thing then starts to feel essential; organic somehow – a way to get to the moral outrage. I kept thinking of the word ‘immoderation.’ Like the yelp of someone who’s just been burned.” And if all that were not enough, there is a separate packet of appendices, containing among other things photocopies of rejection letters. A Saunders feast.

SAUNDERS, George (b. 1958). CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Stories and Novellas. New York: Random House, 1996. 8°. Original cloth-backed boards; dust jacket.



© Chloe Aftel

George Saunders is the author of the New York Times best seller Tenth of December, which was recently awarded the Story Prize and the Folio Prize. His other books include the critically acclaimed collections Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a bestselling children’s book, and the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.