I wasn’t familiar with the work of American short story writer George Saunders until a friend of mine here in Delaware (the father of one of my daughter’s classmates) recommended Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural Folio Prize, while it was shortlisted for the National Book Award (along with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), losing to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Saunders has a clear gift for speaking in tongues, using wildly different narrative voices from story to story, sometimes to the detriment of the story, while the vignettes themselves capture dark emotions through the eyes of ordinary (if a bit off-kilter) narrators.
The title story closes the book, and tells of a chance encounter between an adult man who intends to kill himself by allowing himself to freeze to death, and a teenaged boy who believes or is merely fantasizing that the girl on whom he has a crush has been abducted by the first man. When the boy falls into a frozen lake, the man is forced to abandon his plan if he wants to save the boy, while the reader hears his internal monologue explaining why he wants to take his own life. It takes a while to get going, which is true of most of the stories in the volume, but the pace accelerates once all of the critical elements are in place.
The real centerpiece of the book, both the most complex story and the one with the most irritating narration, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” written by a suburban father who’s struggling to provide a middle-class upbringing for his daughters. The story is told as a series of journal or diary entries from the father, who often dispenses with grammatical niceties like subjects, so the whole thing reads like it was written by a three-year-old (with a big vocabulary) or by Cookie Monster. The father has a Willy Loman-esque quality to his yearnings for more material trappings for his kids, especially his oldest daughter, who’s feeling the social impact of being one of the least affluent students in her school, while he and his wife (who don’t seem to be any too sharp with money) slowly rack up strangling consumer debt. An unexpected windfall allows him to splurge on a gift for his daughter, the Semplica Girls, whose plight – I won’t spoil it – should open his eyes to what real poverty and hopelessness are like, but don’t because he’s so caught up in his own internal rat race.
Saunders gets some comparisons to Vonnegut, although I think the latter was more wry and cynical where Saunders finds far more humanity in his characters and shows more empathy for them. “Escape from Spiderhead” describes the experiences of a convict in an experimental prison where the prisoners end up test subjects for a variety of drugs used to stimulate or repress feelings of love and lust. It’s a Vonnegut-esque view of the future, but where Vonnegut would have used the setting as a commentary on our increasing reliance on the pharmaceutical industry or the dangerous intersection of technology and the human condition, Saunders instead uses it as mere backdrop for the central character’s inner conflict when the warden/director administers a drug that delivers horrible mental and emotional pain to another patient while he’s forced to watch.
As in any collection, fiction or essays, one author or many, the quality within Tenth of December fluctuates. “Victory Lap,” the opener, takes a disturbingly distant, antiseptic view of one young boy, whose parents are strict to the point of abusive, facing an internal struggle whether to stop the potential rape of his young neighbor, a girl who appears to have thrown him overboard as a friend as she became more popular and his parents restricted him from any kind of socializing. “Home” may be a highly effective story of a young veteran returning from Iraq, struggling to deal with his own emotional trauma while he encounters an absolute mess in every aspect of his home life, but the story left me thinking I lacked the life experience (as in, I never served) to appreciate or evaluate what Saunders was trying to tell me. The ending of “Puppy” didn’t click with me at all, as it seemed like Marie would have made the opposite choice when confronted with the horrifying detail that turns her away.
Saunders’ facility with language, not so much his vocabulary but his ear for syntax, affect, the sound of words whether spoken or thought, was by far the strongest aspect of Tenth of December, making it easy for me to get lost in a story even if I didn’t find the plot itself terribly compelling. And the fact that he has empathy for most of his characters (aside, perhaps, from the two leads in “Victory Lap”) made it an emotional read as well, given his ability to get the reader into a character’s mind. When Saunders’ stories are more just stories and less with A Point, Tenth of December can match any anthology I’ve read.
If you’re intrigued and want to read a bit of his writing, Saunders’ nonfiction essay “Manifesto: A press release from People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction,” which appeared in Slate in 2004, is a marvelous read.
Next up: Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, which uses the word “cock” more often than any book I’ve ever read.