book review: In persuasion nation

Will Gillette '22

When satire hits too close to home does it become something completely different- like the truth? In George Saunders’ 2006 In Persuasion Nation, this feeling of humor suddenly becoming a reality was constantly prevalent. A comedian, professor, and social commentator, Saunders combines his holistic areas of study to analyze our modern world subversively and without a filter. 


While consisting of 12 different short stories, all are intertwined through common themes of politics, societal critique, and an overall very Orwellian vibe. The first of the stories is a letter from a salesman to a dissatisfied customer. The product here is a mask attached to a newborn that gets rid of the childishness and replaces it with proper thoughts and speech called an ICANSPEAK and the customer is upset that theirs isn't working. This invention in itself was very funny, but the way the salesman goes about it is hilarious, for example: “But now when childless friends are over, what we have found, Ann and I, is that there is something great about having your kid say something actually witty and self-possessed years before he or she would actually, in reality, be able to say something witty or self-possessed.” The way Saunders really emulates a desperate salesman but allows the irony to shine through is a perfect example of effective cynicism. He doesn't have to sacrifice his vernacular for humor, something that is further seen throughout the collection. 


But while Saunders' humor really made me laugh, it also allowed me to analyze the symbols and themes differently. While laughing, I often suddenly stopped because I realized experiences in the story are not as futuristic as I thought. His humor is sometimes so grounded that I find the fictional world so convincing. I watch repetition in the real world. For example, in the aforementioned story, I realized that the mask children wear to replicate developed speech is metaphorical to the real-world consequences of social media and other ills brought upon by late-stage capitalism; problems including immediate pressure of perfection, obsession with growing up, and hindered relationships due to focus on work. 


Furthermore, Saunders combines these truly provocative metaphors and critique but with nonetheless emotional, personal stories. My favorite story, “Jon,” is about Jon who works as a “TrendSetter.” His work conditions him to constantly surrender himself to consumerism: he watches ads all day and tests products so much so that throughout the story, his reference point for everything he feels, sees, or does is an ad. While I could write a whole essay on the message of consumerism within this story, it’s the personal note that stuck with me the most. Jon also goes through angst regarding love, his future, and not wanting to disappoint others. His relatability juxtaposed with his futuristic setting/thought process was a very interesting read- it gave me something to think about in our constantly changing world.


In conclusion, these essays, filled with witty humor, are tied together with serious metaphors and commentary about modern society. For every laugh, there was a moment of seriousness that made me question what it means to live today- a world filled with constantly new media, violence, and so much more absurdities that have become normal. This collection, however, proves that while all this may be going on, humor still is just as powerful as ever.