The title stories of George Saunders’s first two collections of fiction, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, are both set on the grounds of historical-reenactment parks. As in the recent HBO drama Westworld, the features of the parks are gradually revealed from the perspective of the people working there. But while the employees in Westworld are automatons who begin to act like humans, in Saunders’s stories they are economically or physically disadvantaged humans who are treated like automatons.
In “Pastoralia,” for example, the narrator plays a caveman who is supposed to skin a goat every morning as part of a simulation that sprawls across several historical periods. Apprised of a new “austerity” program by upper management, he reports his partner in the cave, Janet, for her laziness, only to have his plan backfire: Janet is replaced by Linda, whose apparent intent to report him forces him to work harder and longer hours than ever, in a familiar variation on the theme of contemporary capitalism’s dehumanizing fetish for efficiency.
“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” speaks even more directly to our present moment. The narrator is a special assistant to the director (formerly the “Verisimilitude Inspector”) of a Civil War–battlefield park built on the site of a former plantation in the South. After a series of incidents involving gangs of teenagers desecrating park property, the narrator puts Sam, a new hire with a shady combat record in Vietnam, in charge of security. Sam stops the gangs, but he does so mostly by shooting them. Revenues begin to pick up. Then Sam hacks off the arm of a high-schooler caught stealing candy from the gift shop. Then he picks off a group of bird-watchers he mistakes for gang members. Eventually he turns his attention to the park’s other employees, including the special assistant, whom he guts with a hunting knife.
Sharing themes with “Pastoralia” and other Saunders stories, “CivilWarLand” suggests that our tendency to repeat the traumas of the past goes beyond economic necessity. Read as political allegory—or, in this case, as prophecy—“CivilWarLand” is about a group of Southern white men who, having their historical fantasyland threatened by a gang of young gate-crashers, turn to a law-and-order sociopath. But the story also invites more macabre reflections on how we internalize the historical traumas of the past, especially in the scenes featuring the ghosts of the McKinnons, the family who lived on the plantation during the actual Civil War. Whenever the ghosts “wandered too close to their actual death-site,” the special assistant tells us, they were “compelled to act out again and again the last minutes of their lives.” Mr. McKinnon had fought for the Confederacy at Antietam before returning home and murdering his entire family during a PTSD-type flashback. The war, Mrs. McKinnon says, had planted a “horrid violent seed” in him. Sam’s combat record in Vietnam underscores the extent to which this horrid violent seed continues to bear fruit more than a century later.