George Sauders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”


I just finished reading George Saunder’s novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. It is nothing like what you would expect, but yet is everything you could want in a political satire for our times. Instead of rushing headlong at the subject as I am wont to do (and did do in my own novella Homeland), Saunders started from a much more exploratory place and wound up with what is essentially a Dr. Suess book about genocide.

More from Saunders on how the book was written on the flip…

I think George’s own essay regarding his motives and method for writing the book give the best insight into this quirky peice of literature:

Phillustration6"The book began with a challenge from my friend, the illustrator
Lane Smith, who suggested I write a story in which all the characters were
abstract shapes. In the process, I found myself writing, "Once there was a
country that was too small for all its inhabitants to fit inside at once." Soon
the story was going off in an unexpected direction, and was becoming that rare
and not-so-sought-after thing, a kid’s story about genocide. The characters
evolved from abstract shapes to beings I thought of as Conglomerates, composed
of flesh and machine parts and vegetative portions. One group, led by Phil, was
soon trying to eliminate the other group, and Phil, talking in Stalinist rants
whenever his brain fell off, was consolidating his power a lá Hitler,
surrounding himself with brown-nosing Advisors, brainless needy henchman, and
groveling media spokespersons, and then murdering the opposition in gruesome
ways. Needless to say, all hope for marketing tie-ins vanished. Still, I was
interested, and wanted to see how things would turn out. There was a clash of
tones (Bullwinklesque) and content (slaughter) that intrigued me for some
reason, and also called to mind our current cultural moment, when public
language–reduced, dumbed-down, slogan-drenched, cliché-ridden–seems
created to under-describe horror and suffering, and bureaucratize massacre."

"To me, the story came to be about the human tendency to continuously
divide the world into dualities, and, soon after, cast one’s lot in with one
side of the duality and begin energetically trying to eliminate the other. When
writing in this fabulist mode, I try to avoid a specific referrent and instead
rotate various referrents in and out, hoping to locate some seed commonality;
in this case, some Greatest Common Denominator for tyrants. I had in mind, at
various times, Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust and, because the above-described
method of composition sometimes leaves a story becalmed or confused for long
stretches of time (this one took, finally, five years to finish, swelling up to
over 300 pages, then back down), Islamic fundamentalism, the war on terror, the
invasion of Iraq, red states vs. blue states, Abu Ghraib, Shia vi. Sunni, as
well as smaller, more localized examples of Us vs. Them, especially the one
that takes place entirely in one’s mind, where the thinker identifies so
strongly with one set of ideas, that he pretends other, contradictory ideas
don’t exist, and when they show themselves, tries to obliterate them, afraid of
the complexity and ambiguity these force upon him."

"In Phil himself I saw the embodiment of our tendency to turn our enemies
into objects, so that we can then guiltlessly destroy them. Happiness, in
PhilWorld, consists of the total elimination of the contradictory, the nuanced,
the too-complicated-to- decide-at-this-time. In the end, for me anyway, the book
came to be about the way in which the human ego seeks comfort in the
oversimplification of the world and the eradication of that which it perceives
as Other. We all have a bit of Phil in us, and maybe (though the part of me
that believes stories need to have a Purpose) seeing someone who is all Phil,
might help us recognize our own Philness when it manifests, and nip it in the

"But actually this is all after-the-fact conceptual window-dressing. What
I hope for this book is simply that it entertains, using the old fashioned
story-telling virtues: surprising form, charged language, humor, some truth
there amid the wackiness. I hope this alternate world flares up in the reader’s
mind for a time, and thereafter reappears every now and then, like a vivid
dream the reader once had, or, you know, a nightmare, of which he or she is
oddly fond."