Saturday, February 4, 2017

“The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, Memorials, and the Eucharist (1) - The Narrative


I happened upon this interesting tweet by David Congdon.  Check it out.

So I picked the book up from my local library - The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

It’s a short book.  130 small pages with big, double-spaced print, readable in 2 hours or less.  I’ve summarized the plot below, so if you don’t want spoilers you should read the book before reading any further.  This isn’t a book, however, in which the surprises are negated by knowing the story.

It’s a scifi-ish story of moral/political satire.  The main characters in this story are Hornerites - strange creatures comprised of any variety of earthly items sort of strewn together to create a living being.  Each Hornerite is either an Inner or Outer Hornerite, and Inner Horner is within the borders of Outer Horner.  Inner Horner is so small, however, that only one of it’s citizens can be within it’s borders at a time.  The remaining handful of Inner Hornerites live in the Short Term Residency Zone, a tiny overgflow area that falls within the borders of Outer Horner.  The Inner Hornerites rotate in and out of Inner Horner, where exists a stream with some fish, some dirt, and an apple tree.  These things keep them alive independent of anything provided by Outer Horner.

How did things come to be arranged this way?  We don’t know.

But this is really the story of Phil, his methods and rhetoric, his rise to and fall from power.

He’s a bad hombre.  Believe me.

Having fallen in love with an Inner Hornerite who had loved and started a family with another Inner Hornerite, Phil, in his existential dissatisfaction and feelings of not living up to his potential, begins to despise the current arrangement with Inner Horner.  He accuses the Inner Hornerites of ingratitude of the “generosity” of the Outer Hornerites.  They attack Outer Hornerite values.  He questions the patriotism of his Inner Hornerites in accepting this.  He asks his fellow Outer Hornerites if they are not the greatest and biggest country - given to them by God Almighty - and if their prosperity could not be even greater.  Through some clever rhetorical manipulation, Phil “legislates” taxation of the Inner Hornerites and annexation of their land and possessions.  Phil is able to characterize the Inner Hornerites as thieves and aggressors, and places them in a concentration camp like “Peace-Encouraging Enclosure”.  Finally, in the name of safety and prosperity, Phil resorts to “disassembling” (executing) the Inner Hornerites.

It is at that point that the nation surrounding Outer Horner invades, it’s citizens being larger than those of Inner Horner and being concerned for their own future existence in light of Outer Horner’s newfound imperialism.

Phil, through the invasion and some comical physical limitations, is effectively removed from power.  The country is left wondering: “How could this have happened?”

There is much that could be said about the book, but my reason for writing today has to do with the way that the book ends.  I quote it here at length:

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The two hands, working together, gently disassembled the Outer Hornerites.
Then they gently disassembled the Inner Hornerites.
Using the Inner and Outer Horner parts, they rapidly constructed fifteen entirely new little people.
The only parts they didn’t use were Phil’s parts.  Phil’s brain (retrieved from under his couch, covered in chip-crumbs and lint, giving off the hissing noise a Type C brain makes when off-gassing) they dropped into the stream, where several of the new fish, mistaking it for Phil’s body, they mounted on a platform, after first spray-painting it black and mounting a plaque beneath it.
“PHIL,” the plaque read.  “MONSTER.”

Then the massive hands lifted the new people up to a pair of giant indescribable lips and whispered, in a fundamentally untranslatable Creator-language, something that mean approximately: THIS TIME, BE KIND TO ONE ANOTHER.  REMEMBER: EACH OF YOU WANTS TO BE HAPPY.  AND I WANT YOU TO.  EACH OF YOU WANTS TO LIVE FREE FROM FEAR.  AND I WANT YOU TO.  EACH OF YOU ARE SECRETLY AFRAID THAT YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH.  BUT YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH, TRUST ME, YOU ARE.

Then the left hand picked up the green string that constituted the boundary of the Short-Term Residency Zone, and the right hand picked up the red string that constituted the Inner Hornerite border, and the left had took away the remnants of the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure, while the right hand planted a sign reading: “Welcome to New Horner.”
Then the hands did that dusting-off thing hands do when they’ve finished a difficult piece of work, and withdrew majestically, through a large white cloud.

Soon the fifteen new people woke up, stretching and yawning.  Where the heck were they?  And who the heck were they?  They felt sort of sore?  Apparently, the concluded, by looking at the sign , they were New Hornerites, and lived in New Horner.  Apparently, they concluded, reading the little name-tags around their necks, they each had a name.
They were, they all agreed, just amazingly hungry.

On the way to a nearby apple tree, they passed a hulking black mess on a platform.
“What is that thing?” said Gil.
“It’s a Phil,” said Sally.
“What is a Phil?” said Sally.
“A monster,” said Leona.  “Apparently,” said Fritz.
“Or maybe Monster was his last name?” said Gil.
“You know: Phil Monster.  Like: Hi, I’m Phil Monster?  It’s not entirely clear from the syntax.”
“Whatever,” said Sally.  “Let’s go eat.”

Leona looked at Gil.  Syntax?  What the heck kind of word was that?  What was Gil, some kind of big-shot?  She hated big-shots, she suddenly realized.  She’d have to watch Gil.  She’d talk to Sally about it.  Sally didn’t seem like a big-shot.  Sally seemed sensible and moral and down to earth.  Sally, like Leona, was compressed and ball-shaped, unlike the freakishly elongated Gil.

As the months went by, the new Hornerites took to avoiding The Phil.  Although nobody could exactly say why, The Phil gave them the creeps.  Soon the oath bowed out around it, weeds overtook it, and all that could be seen of the The Phil was the tip of Phil’s rack, which stuck out of the weeds like a bad flagpole.  Animals burrowed in on The Phil, birds nester there, balls accumulated there because the New Horner kids were too scared to retrieve them.

And that is where Phil is today: hidden in a thicket of weeds not loved, not hated, just forgotten, rusting/rotting, with even the sign that proclaims his name fading away.
Excepts sometimes Leona comes to visit.  She does no find The Phil monstrous, but strangely beautiful, and sometimes sits in the thicket for hours, dreaming, for reasons she can’t quite explain of a better world, run by humble, compressed, ball-shaped people, like her and Sally, who speak, when they speak at all, in short sentences, of their simple heroic dreams.

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As literally as possible, The Creator intervenes.  He/She disassembles both the Inner Hornerites and Outer Hornerites, removes the flimsy string border that divides them, and creates New Hornerites.  The Creator then disappears.

When the New Hornerites wake up, they don’t know who they are.  Not really.  They have no memory of how they came to be.  They just have names and a sign that says NEW Horner.  NEW.  (There is an "old"?)  And they have a strange memorial, one that gives them the creeps.

PHIL.  MONSTER.

“What’s a Phil?”

Whatever reasons there might be for it's presence, they take to avoiding it.  As the mere existence of the statue of Phil gradually fades from the collective memory (the notable exception being one New Hornerite who finds it “strangely beautiful”) the reader is left realizing that the cycle is bound to repeat itself.

As the story is written, how could it not?  Seriously.  That's not rhetorical.

What IS New Horner?

I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  It's worth thinking about.

In the next post, I’d like to talk about this memorial of Phil, what role it might be intended to play within the life of New Horner, and some ways that this matters.

continued

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