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In Persuasion Nation Stories George Saunders Riverhead: 230 pp., $23.95.

April 23, 2006|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently on books and culture.

BACK when Philip K. Dick asked "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" who could have imagined that George Saunders would answer? Or that his reply might be, we are the electric sheep.

That, at least, is one implication of "Jon," the longest story (although not by much) in Saunders' new collection of fiction, "In Persuasion Nation." Jon, the title character, is part of a select focus group, segregated from the world and pumped so full of product advertising that his brain waves, alpha, beta and otherwise, register as copywriter's prose, and his perceptions play off commercials and products. His cortex is a bundle of product placements, and by extension, yours just might be too.

Jon is not alone, he's among a crowd of product testers who are the new celebs, featured on "TrendSetters & TasteMakers gum cards," all of whom have something called a "gargadisk" surgically installed in their necks, an e-wire implant and even false memories deliberately embedded in them -- just like the androids of Dick's novel (on which the film "Blade Runner" was based). To flee or not to flee, that is the question.

For Jon, one of those memories is of a red-haired mother baking a pie, who counsels him to "stay where you are, do not get distracted, have a content and productive life, and I will be happy too," although we learn that all imprints of Mommy Dearest, blond to brunet, were programmed to say the same thing.

Oh, yes, this too: If Jon wishes to leave the secure bubble of his world, which requires removal of that gargadisk, there is "risk of significantly reduced postoperative brain function." Or as Jon (a.k.a. "Randy," but you'll have to read the story to find out why) recognizes, "out of our mouths would the sputter be flying." Instead of agitprop, we get adverprop.

There is often a sci-fi component to a Saunders story, and a special place in his imaginative heart is reserved for consumerism run amok. Those elements course freely through several of the 12 stories in "In Persuasion Nation."

In "I Can Speak," the lead story, a product service rep for KidLuv writes to a disgruntled customer about the strap-on false face made by his company, which vocalizes for a baby through speech recognition technology and simulated lips, long before the baby can speak on its own -- "Which, you know what? Makes you love him more. Because suddenly he is articulate." In "My Flamboyant Grandson," a grandfather is frustrated taking his possibly gay grandson to the theater in New York City, where strips in their shoes are read by the sidewalks. Immediately, hologram advertisements and Sudden Emergent Screens are "out-thrusting or down-thrusting inches from our faces."

In a related vein, the madcap title story, "In Persuasion Nation," features products as characters, an extended spoof in which a Ding-Dong, a bag of Doritos, a Slap-of-Wack bar and a Wendy's GrandeChickenBoatCombo are among those warring against (mostly) people, including Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg. One of the products achieves symbolic status and acquires godlike properties after realizing that "the way to live righteously is to enact one's vignette with as much energy as possible, and oppose, as fiercely as possible, those who would undercut the proper enactment of the sacred vignettes."

Amusing as that slapsticky title story may be, it lacks the deeper bite with which Saunders' work is so often imbued; reading it feels like abandoning Lenny Bruce for Jerry Lewis. Fortunately, there are more powerful stories in the new collection, including "Jon," and several of them reinforce the excitement still lingering from Saunders' debut collection a decade back, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," and another collection published four years later, "Pastoralia." (Saunders has also written a children's book and a somewhat goofy but entertaining novella that appeared last year, a political fable titled "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.")

The qualities that mark Saunders' fiction have been evident since "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." Often his setting is a theme park or its functional equivalent, the world unavoidably a simulacrum, experience itself a themed progression, the synthetic and authentic nearly indistinguishable from each other. Spirits that appear are not necessarily embodied ones. Casual violence is common, sometimes surreally so, and when it appears, its taut energy is reminiscent of the writing of Denis Johnson ("Jesus' Son"). The noticeable warp of syntax in a Saunders story might remind readers of the effusions that issue from Barry Hannah as well ("Airships"). Hannah and Johnson are probably the closest literary relatives that Saunders has.

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