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Humor and Anger in America: Survivor and Vernon God Little

People often tell me that the books I recommend to them are “off-kilter” or so fantastical that one must suspend all disbelief to get through them.

And I simply answer, “I know, and that is what I love about them.”
I recently read two books that were quite different in their style and story-telling, but strikingly similar in their themes, Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk and Vernon God Little by BDC Pierre. They share a cynicism and frustration with certain elements of American culture that are engulfing political and popular sentiment: religious extremism, reality TV, the culture of image, and the pervading violence of our nation. Through their distinctly bitter yet humorous voices and the creation of unrealistic settings, these two authors point out many of the problems facing modern America.

Survivor, brought to you from the author of Fight Club, is both gut-wrenchingly fun and painfully morbid. It is the story of Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult, who has spent years working as a house servant for a Yuppie couple seeking acceptance in a world of shifting styles and tastes. He is stuck in a life without control:

“They want me to account for the next ten years, task by task. Their way, everything in your life turns into an item on a list. Something to accomplish. You get to see how your life looks flattened out.
The shortest distance between two points is a time line, a schedule, a map of your time, an itinerary of the rest of your life.”

His life spins further out of control when he officially becomes the last survivor of the suicide cult in which he was raised and becomes a religious icon, actually a religion unto himself. Through mass media, pharmaceutical treatments and surgical enhancements, Tender becomes a larger than life religious hero offering Americans hope and entertainment at the cost of his own sanity, and eventually his own life. Palahniuk satires America’s overwhelming desire to find mass media heroes in the “Average Joe” and to discover answers to the religious tumult that continues to
command and confuse national and global politics.

DBC Pierre won the Man Booker Prize last year for Vernon God Little by focusing on the same issues. This first novel displays a wry, realistic, bitter wit that satires a physically bulging but morally confused America and its stumbling blocks.

Again, this writer uses an extremely unfunny premise as the starting point and back drop of his riotously humorous novel. At the start of the book, Vernon Little, is in jail being interrogated by a hefty deputy officer in Martirio, Texas – the barbeque sauce capital of Central Texas. His friend, Jesus, has just gone on a shooting spree killing sixteen classmates and then himself.

Vernon is now caught in the center of a community vying for media attention, surrounded by hack media wannabes, family members and friends who are willing to sell him out for a semblance of love, and an entire legal system that has evolved into a reality TV show. The poor kid is innocent and pathetic, and his saga is comedic and eye-opening. It is a great novel that will make your gut hurt, your spine tingle and stomach churn as you laugh at the revulsion and reality of our world.

To point out the absurdity in our world, both these authors have created worlds more absurd and more unrealistic than our own. They delve right into problems that surround us all, but that many of us are too confused or scaredto talk about. It often takes a dark humorous approach to subjects like these to make us comfortable addressing them. These two authors have done just that and entertained us at the same time.

February 17, 2004
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