I’m always admonished by those who read literary fiction for my not having read much George Saunders. I’ve googled him and skimmed some of his stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, but that is the extent to which I have read him. When I pass by his name in bookstores and inevitably see what is there the first thing that jumps out to me is the names of the people who recommend him: Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon (!), Dave Eggers, etc. Are you kidding me? In old audio of Bookworm interviews that appear on YouTube, David Foster Wallace at one point plugs CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, calling Saunders the best writer out there or something to that effect. This praise is universal.
One day I walked into Hastings and found my friend Noah, also a heavy reader of the literary persuasion. We talked for a moment, I told him Gravity’s Rainbow was the craziest book in existence and that Infinite Jest is indeed all it is cracked up to be and then I mentioned that I had just finished Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Which so happened to be my first book of short stories ever. Usually I just find myself longing for a novel. Something big. I love books that stretch to 500 pages or more. I really loved Oblivion and recommended it to him, especially for the two stories “Good Old Neon” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” He recommended to me Inpersuasion Nation by George Saunders. This guy again, I thought. Yet I still didn’t check him out. Embarrassingly, it was only because Tenth of December was in the five-dollar bin, sitting out in the cold outside the doors of Books-A-Million with all the other books that nobody seems to read, that I took a chance and picked it up.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Bear with me here, but Saunders reminds me of Slavoj Zizek in that you can read the words on the page very quickly, as the density to their structure isn’t really there, but it’s only after you’ve been reading three of four pages, breezing through them at that, that it dawns on you that you don’t know a word that has been said. So with that said, let’s dig in.
Much like a good improv, I think great writing needs to answer everything with “yes and…” while also making sure to go not from A-B, but from A-F. This keeps readers (and watchers of improv) on their toes at all points. This was evidenced to me as a nature of Saunders’ writing with the first story in the collection. Two kids, a classic good-kid, listening to his parents, not causing any problems, etc. And a girl who lives next door, caught up in her own world, both interesting in themselves with unique voices. Suddenly the girl is held at knife-point and escorted to a van outside on the curb. The boy must choose whether or not to act. I kept trying to figure out the ending, and even then, Saunders took it to different place than I was quite expecting. If all the stories are this good, I thought as I finished it, then this will be a good book.
A personal favorite story of mine now, but about fourth best in the collection. Blends perfectly the tragic with the comic, revealing that they’re two sides of the same coin. “Sticks” kept me laughing with every sentence while also a little disturbed, feeling that I know the man George Saunders has invented. It’s great. Very short, thus no synopsis.
“Sticks” is funny because of the fact that you know it is dark and tragic, but it is so much easier and much more sane to simply laugh at it. “Puppy,” on the other hand, is simply dark. Parental stress, kids acting rotten, parents acting even more rotten, massive misunderstandings, and then sadness. I didn’t much care for this one. It just ended up not interesting me. Plus it followed “Sticks.” Which is outstanding flash-fiction.
“Escape from Spiderhead”
This is the first long story in the collection (thankfully Saunders doesn’t pull a DFW and disguise novellas as short stories and then make his readers suffer. I know it’s heresy to talk bad about DFW, but the man wrote some poor short stories, all sharing the same similarity: Being much too long). Anyway, “Escape from Spiderhead” is a story of a convict participating in a clinical trial for drugs that can make a human being love any other human, feel nothing towards any other human, or want to make passionate love to any other human. There exists a good amount of disturbing scientific positivism in this story (not from Saunders as an endorsement of it, just from one or two of the characters). I was engrossed in it, partially because I’m interested in what horrifies me. Saunders does this a lot in Tenth of December: That is, asking the reader what is horrifying.
If I were to sum it up in a single sentence: “It is not the words themselves, but what it is under them that is disturbing.” Not a bad story. Part of my experience of Tenth of December is simply experiencing Saunders for the first time. He doesn’t have one unique voice that pervades through the entirety of his writing. Instead he has a plethora of styles and mechanisms he employs. No doubt he is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, but at time it detracts from what exactly he is trying to get across. Each story is so vastly different from the one before it. “Exhortation” is once again interesting, but just not my cup of tea.
Suddenly the book returns to the level of “Sticks” with the tale of Al Roosten, a man who’s just down on his luck while we’re lucky enough to be stuck inside his mind. This, like “Sticks,” had me laughing out loud often, taken aback suddenly by the recognition of my own thoughts on the page. While Al Roosten is noticeably a bit on the kooky side of things, it’s not hard to see yourself in his thoughts. Pure ego drips off the page. Shower thoughts of becoming a hero or saving the day by pointing out some tiny little object in time pervade. A classic Lacanian Death-of-the-Big-Other-making-it-all-the-more-real exists. A brilliant story. My third favorite in the collection.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries”
Once again the sudden change in style just takes me out of it for a moment. This is a series of journal entries written in short hand by a man who is just trying to give his family a good life. He falls into all the traps that people tell you not to fall into (“If you come into some money, don’t spend it!”) and is burned by them as you would expect. The story is straightforward, but hidden by the lingo the character uses in his personal diary. Definitely a story that would have to re-read to make complete sense of, but honestly isn’t one that stuck with me enough to create that desire.
This is a story in which Saunders just nails something perfectly. A soldier returns home to a life full of nothing but chaos. No one seems to trust him and he can’t divorce himself from his military record. He seems to have PTSD and is just an outsider who doesn’t want to be an outsider. While he feels all these things people keep telling him, “Thank you for your service.” It’s wonderfully well-written and subtle. I would imagine that most people would think this is the best in the collection, and from a literary perspective, that is probably true. My second favorite, though.
“My Chivalric Fiasco”
A man who works at a medieval fair witnesses his coworker get raped and after being told to keep silent and paid off by his boss, he is promoted and given a chemical to make him act more “Knightly.” The story is quite short and noticeably zany. It flows well, but it just ended up not interesting me. I worry that this is the theme for me in Tenth of December. That it’s simply not interesting to me.
“Tenth of December”
This is clearly the best story in the collection for my money. A child loses himself in his imagination (this is hilarious writing, but feels so warm and sincere. He isn’t making fun of the child. It’s almost a longing to be the child) and falls into a frozen pond. Meanwhile, a man with cancer who has gone out into the woods to kill himself finds life worth living when he sees the little boy. There are lots of little metaphors to be made in this story, and with the echoes of a bookworm discussion on my mind about the difference between cold writing and warm writing, I believe I could write a small paper over them. In the end, though, this becomes probably the most straightforward story told in the book (that is arguable), but also the most endearing and the most real.
Tenth of December didn’t leave me longing for more George Saunders, but it didn’t leave me with a bad taste in my mouth either. I think Saunders ends up being a true Literary Writer’s writer, doing all the things most writers attempt to and end up not liking their voice with. I will certainly be reading more of him.
Recommended to: Those looking for high quality literary short stories that present unique voices on every page, those looking for a collection of short stories that are all remarkably different, and those who want to read what all your favorite authors are reading.
Avoid as if it’s the Gym on New Year’s day: Those looking for stories that develop themselves into easy answers and straightforward concepts. The stories here, while at times easy to read through and still enjoy, don’t lend themselves into an easy “what was the point of that?” most of the time. Like every good writer, Saunders requires that you be attentive to what he is doing.