Arts : In the state of ennui

With his latest story collection, In Persuasion Nation, Saunders probes the spiritual emptiness that lurks behind our gadget economy.

One story, “I Can Speak,” describes a Velcro mask that can be attached to a baby’s head, allowing the infant to speak (and ask for products, of course). Another, “Jon,” portrays a world in which orphans are auctioned off to a market-research firm that uses them as “Taste-makers & Trendsetters.”

While the kids are being exploited, the adults are hooked on the products their research makes possible — from drugs to synthetic happiness. “And the Aurabon® would make things better, as Aurabon® always makes things better,” says the narrator of “Jon,” “although soon what I found was, when you are hooking in like eight or nine times a day, you are always so happy, and yet it is a kind of happy like chewing on tinfoil.”

As Saunders sees it, our experiment with psychopharmacology has created a population with a very tenuous connection to reality.

We expect good times, but have very few skills to deal with their opposite. As a result, our emotions fly from disappointment straight to rage, then flatline at paranoia: Fear of a lack of happiness, a lack of success — a lack of anything — pervades everything.

Saunders finds great humanity in this all-encompassing anxiety. Here are the parents worried that their child will be left behind at school; here are homeowners possessed by the idea that their castle will be invaded.

Even the violent can be articulate. In “Adams,” a father describes his struggle with a creepy next-door neighbor. “And I thought, If that was me, if I had that hate level, what would I do? Well, one thing I would do is hold it in and hold it in and then one night it would overflow and I would sneak into the house of my enemy and stab him and his family in their sleep. Or shoot them. I would.” It would be funny if it weren’t so terribly plausible.

John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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