A satire of modern America

A collection of stories by George Saunders examines what we're prepared to abandon in exchange for a secure life
November 3, 2022
Liberation Day
George Saunders (RRP: £18.99)
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George Saunders’s characters might forget who they are, but they know what they are supposed to be doing. The narrators in his new story collection, Liberation Day, enthusiastically strive to fulfil their inane duties: being driven to various locations and forced to shout “BastardTurdCreepIdiot” at unknown enemies, playing a squatting ghoul in a Hell-themed tourist attraction, chanting the story of Custer’s Last Stand while held captive and pinioned against the wall. Their desperation has led all of them to hand over their identities in exchange for a secure life of meaningless drudgery. You start to suspect there’s a metaphor somewhere.

As in much of his previous work Saunders, a 63-year-old born in Texas who won the Booker prize in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo, likes to mock corporate-speak and hypocritical earnestness. In “Liberation Day”, the opening story, the chanting captives are offered Danish pastries by their boss, but cannot reach them; the boss is upbraided by his son because the Custer story they’re chanting is “badly neglecting the Indigenous perspective”. 

Despite their absurd circumstances, the characters wrestle with real moral dilemmas: whether to forgive a man who refuses to sell a house, or to report a colleague who admits the forbidden truth—that the theme park will never receive visitors. Often, arbitrary cruelty undercuts moments of tenderness and makes bravery seem ridiculous: what good is protecting someone you love, only for her to keep you imprisoned? 

The book is a compelling satire of modern America. Of the stories, only “Love Letter”, where a country falls to fascism after a totalitarian Republican leader takes over, falls flat: here the world Saunders has imagined is just a little too close to the real thing.