Reviews

“Fascinating…Darkly funny, deeply human….Phil is the illustrated tale of two countries full of strange creatures, and what happens when one country gets taken over by a warmongering tyrant named Phil.”
—Entertainment Weekly

“Reminiscent of vintage Vonnegut with a dash of Dr. Seuss, this tale of an absurdist border war captures the aggrieved jingoism of Bush’s America without ever preaching.”
—Details

“Many critics refer to Saunders as a satirist, and though the term is often used in conjunction with names like Swift and Twain, it can also be a trap. The world a satirist creates, some charge, is only a prediction or, at best, a distortion, as though all successful art isn’t about distorting, or bending, reality. Another word that gets fastened to Saunders is moralist. These two terms are often intertwined, of course. At the core of much satire is some kind of prescription. Still, even if correct, these two labels, the limitations of the first and the taint of the scold in the second, don’t do justice to Saunders. His bleak but merciful stories contain a great deal more than satire, or at least the toothless send-ups that often stand in for satire, and they are never preachy…The message of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, delivered with great wit, isn’t overtly political…But there is no denying the noble rage at the heart of this book.…Stunning…Brilliant.”
—Sam Lipsyte, Bookforum

“The timing and panache of George Saunders’ new novella, a parable called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, could not be more appropriate. If we must live in an age where everyone is aggrieved to some degree or other, the always clever Saunders seems to have realized that his only comic redoubt is to find comedy in a story concerning the most offensive things possible: fascism and genocide….Saunders, whose prose is never stronger than when he adopts the humorous fatalism of the career dead-ender (see the classic Pastoralia), proves more than up to the task of giving voice to an entire geopolitical region, from devious presidential advisers to doubting soldiers, funny-walking foreign neighbors, and, best of all, a marvelously self-important and obsequious media, ‘squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles…The book is a riff—and a very amusing one, I hasten to add—on any number of 20th century monstrosities…Madly inventive.”
—Boston Globe

“In The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders has sketched a parable about the abuses of power than has an unlikely sting in its whimsy…its imagery and perverse cruelties linger in the mind after you’ve read it.”
—Seattle Times

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a political fable of a world unbound from the physical laws of our own, but not so unlike it for all that….One of the many pleasures of this little book is the sheer physical weirdness of Saunders’ characters; take Phil’s flirting techniques, which involve, ‘inflating and deflating his central bladder in order to look more manly and attractive.’ Saunders also has a perfect ear for political rhetoric, and so we get the National Life Enjoyment Index Score, the Certificate of Total Approval (signed by Phil’s cronies), and the Peace Encouraging Enclosure (a jail, of course.) Phil is more than a send-up of the machinations of power than a direct satire of our country…but it doesn’t feel so unfamiliar, either.
—Esquire

“A comedic sci-fi tale about a one-person country whose outer borders are controlled by an all-powerful jackass named Phil. Yes, it's another Bush-bashing book, but Saunders is too smart to deliver anything like what you'd expect.
—Cargo

“Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Saunders finds a backdoor into our conscience through surrealism, albeit of a more ironic stripe. Characters get kitschy names like Vance and Freeda, and non-humanoid features—one ‘man’ is a tunafish can with a blue dot on it- and yet this draws out their essential human features. When Phil proposes to disassemble a harmless old Inner Hornerite named Cal ‘in the interest of preventing further violence,’ an essential line is crossed. So many real-world events can be seen here, but the genius of this book however is not its applicability, but rather how it convinces us to care for a beleaguered people—without allowing us the cozy certitude that they are us.”
—Newark Star-Ledger

“Extraordinary...Saunders' fable of imperialism and exceptionalism is some parts Orwellian caustic vision, some parts shaded Dr. Seuss whimsy, some parts Pynchonian satire but mostly Saunders' own original, bemused take on the world as he finds it.”
—The Morning News

Saunders’ first two works of fiction, Pastoralia and CivilWarland in Bad Decline, both consisted of stories, many of which appeared in the New Yorker, noted for stylistic hijinks and visionary grace. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is a departure of sorts, or an evolution: wackier still, and less grounded in reality. It suggests an obvious question: Yes, it's funny, but is it literature? Like judges we might search for signs of precedent, and there are many: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, that 18th-century darling of the postmoderns, has a similar antic style and imagination, a mixture of high intelligence and comic bathos. Saunders’ fiction also resembles the best of Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme and Mark Leyner. It's daring and different. It laughs at the absurdity of imagination itself, which is what our own world needs most when things look bleak.”
—Houston Chronicle

“Saunders’ story collections (Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) were praised for their ‘wicked’ humor, earning comparisons to the absurdist satire of Vonnegut, Pynchon and Beckett….The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is arguably Saunders’ most surreal work yet…but also his most sympathetic. Even if the most identifiably ‘human’ of his characters has a tuna fish can for a head and a blue dot for a heart, when that ‘sad blue dot’ expands and contracts all night long, ‘as if hyperventilating, or sobbing,’ it works.”
—Newsday

“Although the war in Iraq is quickly brought to mind, the novella's message is a broad and timeless one about conflict and human nature... The book's moral center, however, is anything but simplistic: to what lengths will an individual go to be told that he or she is appreciated?... Although Saunders’ work is easily labeled satire or science fiction, his real gifts are literary ones. No matter how masked by experimentation, Saunders has a soaring command of language that he uses for the most important element of fiction: building character.... His words move quickly from mundane to futuristic to poignant to sarcastic.... Saunders' dialogue, in particular, makes for easy and humorous reading while grounding scenes in everyday emotion.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A scary fable for our dark, unwittingly absurd times.”
–Rain Taxi Book Review

“George Saunders’ daring satire is…often witty, if ultimately unsettling… Like Animal Farm, which used talking animals as a vehicle for scathing social commentary, …Phil uses nonhuman characters….But the fantastical nature of Saunders’ creatures doesn’t dilute his depiction of dehumanization…The humorous touches, and his detailed descriptions of his bizarre creations, ensure that despite its heavy message, Phil never feels like required-reading burden.”
—Orlando Weekly

“With an absurdist wit as playful as Monty Python’s and a vision as dark as Samuel Beckett’s, a postmodernist spins a provocative parable of political power and its abuses…A mind-bending work.”
—Kirkus (starred review)