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Dark, dazzling sketches of 21st-century malaise

In Persuasion Nation
By George Saunders
Riverhead, 228 pp., $23.95

It's grueling work, being the toughest guy in the room, even in literature, but I suspect George Saunders volunteered for the task. He's the shock jock of contemporary fiction and has held that position since his first story collection, ''CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," got thrown on the scene a decade ago like a Molotov cocktail. Well, maybe a stink bomb. Saunders is more disruptive than he is downright dangerous. He's a wicked satirist who prefers to go way, way over the line to make his point (a reality TV program where the participants eat their mothers!). He is ludicrously funny and outrageously prescient, and his targets -- which needed somebody trained on them with a bazooka -- are those twin bete noires of American mass culture, marketing and consumerism.

A few of the stories of ''In Persuasion Nation" highlight Saunders at his most original, but the collection is uneven, and probably suffers from its themes repeated back to back -- what can seem brilliant at the beginning (''I CAN SPEAK!{trade}") can also become a weary march of send-ups by the end. Still, how many writers can envision what turns out to be a tender story about parental ghosts with attic insulation in their hair? Saunders's finest gift is a high note no one can hit very often, which is to construct a story of absurdist satire, then locate within it a moment of searing humanity.

''Jon," a first-person narrative of a couple of kids taken hostage by a permanent focus group, captures this brilliantly. Jon speaks in cliches and awkward advertising jingles, having been snatched at birth from a loser mom who didn't want him. He's grown up with the rest of his young and proto-hip brethen in a sealed community -- they're fed and clothed in the latest accoutrements of mass culture, and they're given daily doses of a drug that makes the world beautiful, especially a world of Gap and Cheez Whiz and Trojan Ribbed. Then somebody dies, and somebody else breaks free -- all very tasteless, real-world stuff, and it sends the marketing czars into apoplexy. Jon himself has to figure out whether he can stand to leave the glass kingdom -- a place where drugs will forever keep you happy, replacement-emotions are always available, and the big-screen TV is always sweeter than that thing called life.

''I CAN SPEAK!{trade}" is an unctuous letter from a product service rep at KidLuv, defending the company's latest Cabbage Patch merchandise -- in this case an ''educational tool" that makes baby speak in full sentences before she is, oh, 6 months old. That it is a mask placed over the infant's face, so that she can burble in various languages -- well, hey, baby gets to like the mask after a while! Also, you can program it for personal messages: ''MOMMY AND DADDY, REMEMBER THAT TIME YOU CONCEIVED ME IN ARUBA?"

Saunders is something of a minimalist, and this can work to spooky advantage. In ''The Red Bow," which won a National Magazine Award two years ago, a father's internal narrative concerns the loss of his daughter to a pack of feral dogs. But while the father's laconic grief offers a first layer of supposed sorrow, the story is in fact a brutal portrait of commuity vigilantism -- the ambiguous public support that can wind up more murderous than the violence perpetrated. ''Bohemians" works to a similar gradual effect. A brief sketch of two neighborhood women of Eastern European descent, the story winds into a luminous moment of connection between one of the women and a scared boy. Because Saunders never wastes a breath on elective adjectives or pearly sentiments, the subtle grip of this story has all the more resonance.

When Saunders falls for his own outrageousness, the result is less infectious. The title story of ''In Persuasion Nation" is a long-winded tale of cartoon-violent absurdities, and while there will be those who find this story brilliant and can happily deconstruct it until the setting sun, I found it impossible to care about. ''Brad Carrigan, American" has moments of hilarity in its send-up of reality TV -- when those participants eat their moms, it turns out they signed releases beforehand. ''I don't know that I'm all that interested in the moral ins and outs of it," says one happy viewer. ''I guess I'm just saying I enjoyed it." And the Extreme Surgery show, with its accidental arms attached to heads, is a personal favorite. But these are one-note jokes and do not a story make -- they zap your soul instead of touching it.

''Commcomm," about a PR lackey at a dying Air Force base, begins with the usual flotsam of diplo-speak, but emerges as a story about the man's real haunts -- the souls of the parents he cannot release. There's something wonderful about the sheer strength of emotion buried here, ascending, finally, as ''something light-craving within" -- something bigger, kinder, and less flashy than all the preceding dazzling pirouettes of ''In Persuasion Nation." Saunders has a whole modern world of dirty mistakes out there waiting, and his vision is dark, brutish, and swift. His fiction may not wrap you in the sweet cloak of redemption, but it will sure as hell make you think before you shrug off another larva-eating contest on prime time.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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