Monday, March 4, 2013

Tenth of December (George Saunders)

I don't think of myself as a short story reader. I am not a fan of their length; I think it's too often an excuse for the author not to develop his characters or premise into enchanting, realistic things. So what happens when I read a collection of short stories whose goal, it seems, is to repeatedly drop me into situations without a lot of context or explanation and see how fast I can grasp what's going on? That's George Saunders at work.

About a year ago, I read my first Saunders collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and was awestruck by how such minimalistic (and that is really the perfect word for what Saunders does) stories were able to inspire in me such devastation and heartbreak. Tenth of December is just as sad, filled with storyworlds that are at turns hyperrealistic and at other times are slightly different than our own.

The short review is that the book overwhelmed me with sort of unhappy feelings; for me, this was not a bad thing. Saunders is able to precisely capture human misery and distill it in 20- or 40-page installments that it feels like I myself am actually in a bad mood, and any book that is trying to get me to feel an emotion and then succeeds in making me feel that emotion is a victory in my mind.

The long review, in which I talk about each individual story, follows.

"Victory Lap": The opener is perhaps the most uplifting story of the collection (if, indeed, it can even be called uplifting). A neighbor boy watches a girl get abducted and led to a sex van and must battle with the internal voices of his overbearing parents, whose strict rules and protocols seem almost like a form of abuse in themselves.

"Sticks": This story is incredibly short (two pages!), but Saunders manages to convey to us the heartbreak of watching an old man mentally deteriorate after the loss of his wife.

"Puppy": This is arguably the best story at conveying human misery--a scathing blast at snooty not-white-trash people and how cruel they are to the disadvantaged while simultaneously criticizing the simple behavior of these very people. The entire thing just made me feel very, very sad.

"Escape from Spiderhead": The first of the stories in this collection that exists in a world somehow other. Convicts are involved in an emotions/chemicals experiment whose purpose seems to be to control or eliminate love. I suppose that the ending of this one, though devastating, is also uplifting? I think Saunders shines through best on stories like these, where we are seeing a slightly warped reality.

"Exhortation": Meh. This one takes the form of a letter from a boss to his employees, and it's an example of minimalism gone too far. No explanation and nothing to anchor me to the story. I was bored.

"Al Roosten": This story reminded me of "The 400-Pound CEO" from CivilWarLand in that it is a story which paints its protagonist very unflatteringly but still manages to make the reader feel pity for the character. Al Roosten is one of those guys that's just generally unlikable, but you feel bad for him, especially in the way Saunders walks us through his mental instability/mood swings that heavily alter his perception of those around him.

"The Semplica Girl Diaries": Another "alternate" reality story. This one is a slow build, but it's absolutely delicious; it took me almost half of the story (and it's one of the longest if not the longest in the collection) to figure out what was slightly shifted. It's written in a very sparse style (lots of omission of conjunctions, articles, etc., the way one might write a diary), and the choice grows a little stale by the end of the piece, but it is another scathing, heartbreaking portrait of economic class. In particular, this one is a middle class family living outside of its means, with the added twist of the Semplica Girls--I'll let you discover the bizarre horror on your own.

"Home": This one, I think, tries a little too hard to evoke sadness. The protagonist is back from a tour of duty and his wife and children have left him for another man. His family feels alienated from him because of some untold horrific incident overseas (and the family that doesn't alienate him, namely his mother, is out of her mind on drugs and stupid decisions). Still very good, but just a little too "look how sad I am" for me.

"My Chivalric Fiasco": This one reminded me of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline with its medieval theme park. It's simultaneously a critique of corporate hierarchy--somebody gets raped by a higher-up and she and the narrator are both paid off to pretend it didn't happen. A little too short to really explore itself fully.

"Tenth of December": Another look at sad, mentally (and physically) decaying old people. Man leaves home to die, little kid tries to save him. Not nearly as maudlin as my one sentence summary makes it sound. This one is centered more in the hyperrealism and Saunders manages to make the collection's last story really resonate emotionally with anyone who has suffered a family member's slow, long march to death.

Highlights: "The Semplica Girl Diaries", "Tenth of December", "Escape from Spiderhead"

Stay away from the book if you're looking for something lighthearted. I've seen a lot of negative reviews that rip the collection apart for being too dark, but I think that's the point. Strap in if you're ready for 250 pages of excellent, painful writing that will really make you rethink your understanding of people around you. A fantastic collection.

My rating: 4.5/5
Tenth of December on Goodreads
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