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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
by George Saunders
(Riverhead)

George Saunders, author of the brilliant collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, is one of the premier short story authors of our time. Working in the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, T.C. Boyle, and A.M. Homes, his dazzling stories feature dead grannies who came back to life and won't shut up, Civil War reenactment amusement parks, and human zoos. For years, Saunders has been promising a debut novel, then recanting his tease, citing overzealous ambition. His first novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, has finally dropped, and it's pretty, well, lame.

TBAFRoP establishes its setting in the first sentence. "It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner." The Hornerites are small funny beings, like Q-Bert rejects. Carol is defined by her "glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membranes, the delicate curve of her exposed spine, and her habit of demurely scratching one bearing with a furry glove-like appendage." Old Gus "was shaped something like the letter C, if the letter C was bald and had two gray withered antlers." The dominant Outer Hornerites, who consider their prosperity to be evidence of God's reward for their superior virtue, decide to tax, invade, and enslave the weaker Inner Hornerites. The president of Outer Horner is a blundering fool, surrounded by a team of manipulative yes-men who passively rule the land by planting their agendas in the empty mind of the figurehead president. The masochistic Outer Hornerite Phil, who eventually usurps the presidency, goes on a reign of terror—using brute force and intimidation to gain power, while making criticism of his administration treasonous.

If this all sounds too pat and allegorical, it is. TBAFRoP reads like an updated, Cartoon Network version of Animal Farm for the 21st century. Gone are Saunders' subtleties, wit, and surprise, and instead readers are treated to an overly long exercise in how to rip off a sucky George Orwell novel.

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