Phil is a terrifying creature. He is bitter, vindictive, opportunistic, petty and his brain regularly falls out, which leads to some of his more outlandish moments and thankfully, his ultimate downfall.
And unfortunately, reading this novella within the context of the current presidential election, Phil is an all too recognizable figure. You can hear a distinct voice as Phil begins to rant about border protection and keeping those lazy, puny Inner Hornerites out of the vast, good and generous Outer Horner. Phil speaks in simple, passionate, fear-mongering language meant to evoke an immediate, emotional, knee-jerk patriotic response.
But Phil isn’t Donald Trump. Except that he is. And, according to the author, so am I. And so are you.
Originally published in 2005, “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” wasn’t meant to represent a specific person or dictator or ideology, and certainly not Donald Trump. In fact, as George Saunders has said, Phil came to represent humanity itself in that he encapsulated us all and the terrible people we can become doing horrible things, whether out of fear or malice or self-preservation or whatever other justification we cling to.
“The story came to be about the human tendency to continuously divide the world into dualities,” Saunders wrote in his essay, ‘Why I Wrote Phil’, “and, soon after, cast one’s lot in with one side of the duality and begin energetically trying to eliminate the other.”
Taking more than five years to write, the ghost of an antagonist that haunted Saunders’ subconscious while he worked on ‘Phil’ changed forms constantly, from Hitler to Stalin, the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust and, as time progressed, “Islamic fundamentalism, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, red states vs. blue states, Abu Ghraib, Shia vi. Sunni, as well as smaller, more localized examples of Us vs. Them.”
Some characters try to fight back against Phil, and some recognize that what he is doing is wrong but are afraid to act. Others follow along, kissing up and betting on what looks to them like the winning horse. After all, Phil has the loudest voice. He’s speaking his mind and the people really like that. He knows how to manipulate those around him, including the media.
Not all are fearful or cowardly and the world at large begins to fight back, but it’s ultimately Phil’s own ego that brings him down (with a little divine intervention) and saves the world of Inner and Outer Horner. Even then, that tendency to see “us” and “them” comes through, and you understand that this was probably not the first and would not be the last time a scenario like this would play out.
Check out Saunders’ own essay that gives a little more background into how the novella came to be, even though I’ve quoted a good amount of it for you already. If you have read the book already and enjoyed it, or if you’re interested in the craft of writing and how one gets from Point A to Phil, you should read it.
(And if it’s the latter reason, go and watch his video from the Atlantic)
Saunders has mentioned how at one point the book was over 300 pages. Eventually, he found it necessary to cut it down for reasons of pacing and tone, but sometimes an author just can’t let go. On ReignofPhil.com you can read what hit the cutting room floor in the outtakes section, with a little background on the scenes and why they didn’t make it. It’s a great behind the scenes look you don’t always get with books, and it’s a pretty cool website, so take a look.
An untitled article in which I confess that, apparently, I like to lie in bed late at night and think about Christopher Moore… and I’m not sure that isn’t as creepy as it sounds.
I’ve mentioned this before, but while I’ve been trying to figure out this story idea and get up the nerve to actually write it, I’ve been reading some Etgar Keret who, as I’ve said, has been exactly what I needed to read style-wise but not I was looking for in terms of content. It’s also been an excuse to read more Christopher Moore, as if anyone has ever needed convincing to do that. For anyone not familiar with Christopher Moore, the simplest way to describe his writing is to say he’s the American Douglas Adams, but that may be oversimplifying things. However, for anyone not familiar with Douglas Adams, I must politely ask you to fuck off.
Moore is hilarious and absurd but no less a great and gifted storyteller for that, and completely right about everything while being utterly tragic and sad and really just perfect in so many ways all at once. I may be man-crushing a bit. Or is it… author-crushing?
It’s in his humor and absurdity that he truly hits his stride in the sense that he uncovers a truth about life or some fundamental, universal and completely overlooked fact of existing in this ridiculous world in such a way that, while not expecting the moment to come from him (because he’s a funny man, he can’t be sad and real), and not expecting it to be delivered as it is, he makes even an insignificant line or description stand out to you. Because in dealing with the funny or the absurd, and these comic characters, his imagination is able to look at the simplest things in a fresh way. A way someone focused on writing realistic (depressing, cold, boring) literary fiction never would.
As a reader, that moment creeps up on you while you read and uncover the words and the world and his meaning and what he’s really saying to you. As a writer, should you like to believe yourself to be one, you die a little inside because this guy just described something beautifully—more beautiful and true and original then your talentless-serious-literary-fiction-ass could.
“They stopped when he spoke. One of them hissed—not the hiss of a cat, a long, steady tone—more like the hiss of air escaping the rubber raft that is all that lies between you and a dark sea full of sharks, the hiss of your life leaking out at the seams.”
Well, maybe I’m being a little hard on myself, and maybe that isn’t even that great a line. It’s late, I should get some rest. I couldn’t sleep and this is what came out. And really… No, you know what? That was perfect. The way he said it and when he said it and just everything—everything about it. I needed that. I needed that reminder…