Fans of George Saunders’s luminously satirical short stories will not be surprised to hear that his non-fiction presents a vision of the modern world that is both off-kilter and spot-on. The sixteen essays collected in The Brain-dead Megaphone are sometimes as weirdly evocative of our strange days as Hunter S Thompson’s were of his own bizarre era. Readers might close the book feeling that they have just read a report about a distant planet.
Saunders is at his best here as a travel writer. In ‘The New Mecca’, he voyages from his home in snowy upstate New York to a place that is both literally and figuratively on the far side of the globe – Dubai. There, he finds an Oz-like, hyper-wealthy society that has abandoned any notion of decorum – a tiny nation that will soon have the ‘world’s tallest skyscraper (2,300 feet), largest mall, biggest theme park, longest indoor ski run [and] most luxurious underwater hotel’. Beneath that glittering veneer, however, Saunders finds a sub-stratum of overworked, impoverished guest labourers. ‘Dubai is, in essence, capitalism on steroids … the gap between Haves and Have-Nots [is] so wide as to indicate different species.’
But Saunders finds humanity amid the glaring injustice and consumerist glut. While an uneasy guest at the world’s only seven-star hotel, he slips his complimentary $200 bottle of wine to two tourists who cannot afford a room. At a massive water slide, hard feelings between Arab youths and American sailors