George Saunders

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

  • 62-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 6 story summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 62-page guide for “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” by George Saunders includes detailed story summaries and analysis covering 6 stories, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Dehumanizing Effects of Corporate Culture and The Doom in Ceding to One’s Ego.

Plot Summary

George Saunders’s debut collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was originally published in 1996. Comprised of six stories and a novella, the collection is satirical and interrogates late American capitalist consumer culture.

In the title story, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” the protagonist works at a CivilWar-era themepark. Due to slumping profits from an increasing gang presence in the park, the boss, Mr. A, decides to hire a psychotic ex-soldier, Samuel. Samuel winds up being a little too good at his job and kills both gang members and non-gang-affiliated park attendees alike. The protagonist, at the risk of losing his job, allows himself to be cajoled into disposing of the bodies. This still doesn’t solve the profit crisis, so Mr. A decides to burn the park for the insurance money. Samuel kills the protagonist, who concludes the narrative as a ghost.

The coming-of-age tale “Isabelle” follows an unnamed, male protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Isabelle, a neighbor who is physically and developmentally disabled, is cared for by her cop father, Split Lip. Split Lip murders a teenager, so the teenager’s brother vows revenge. But when the teen has the chance to exact this revenge, he chooses to kill himself instead. Split Lip eventually dies, and Isabelle is taken to a state-run home. The protagonist, with time, becomes Isabelle’s caretaker.

In “The Wavemaker Falters,” an unnamed, male protagonist suffers from massive guilt after selfish actions allow a child to die at the theme park where he works. Amid these events, the protagonist’s partner is having an affair with their boss. After the accident, the dead boy’s ghost shows up at protagonist’s bedside nightly, and the boy’s dad vows to kill the protagonist. In the story’s climax, the dad shows up at the protagonist’s house with a gun but chooses not to kill him.

The “400-Pound CEO” sees Jeffrey, a morbidly-obese employee of Humane Raccoon Alternatives, an ethical animal removal company, be made a fool of by a co-worker who is also a love interest. After this, he murders his boss, claims said boss has moved to Mexico to become closer to God, and makes himself boss. Jeffrey plans to exact a culture change within the company but has his murder found out and is sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” an unnamed protagonist who runs a virtual-reality shop is consumed by guilt extending from an argument with his wife on the day she was killed. The protagonist volunteers his time taking care of an elderly woman, Mrs. Schwartz, but doesn’t make enough to pay for the proper, live-in care the woman needs. He finds a way to by permanently offloading Mrs. Schwartz’s personal memories and selling them to a local school for gifted children. When the protagonist begins to feel guilty about doing this, he chooses to offload his own memories—every one of them.

In “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” 92-year-old Mary works at an interactive museum that has, among other exhibits, pickled babies, a functioning coal mine, and see-through cows. Mary has had a tough life; her brother was murdered when she was young. She was also married to the abusive Bud, who murdered Mary’s lover and killed others for his gangster bosses. Because she despises her boss, Mary kills each see-through cow brought to the museum with rat poison. She’s found out, fired, and attempts to take her own life by throwing herself into a river, only to be saved by sailors.

The collection’s novella, “Bounty,” is set in a post-apocalyptic, near-future version of America. There are two types of people in this world: Normals and Flaweds. Flaweds harbor physical mutations due to pollution. Flaweds cannot procreate, must wear a bracelet that identifies them as a Flawed, and have no voting rights. The protagonist (flaw: claws instead of toes) and his sister, Connie (flaw: small vestigial tail), work at BountyLand, a MiddleAges-era theme park for the wealthy somewhere in the U.S. Northeast. Connie meets a rich suitor and runs off with him to Taos, New Mexico; the brother, sans ID bracelet, leaves the castle in a quest to find Connie. Along the way, he’s enslaved multiple times and enacts numerous escapes before reaching Taos and his sister.

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