Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders

Even if I might not be a big fan of the short story form, there are three authors whose short stories are so incredibly arresting I will never pass on a chance to read them. George Saunders is one of them -- the other two are Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz. I was first introduced to Saunders’s work when I picked up Pastoralia many years ago -- and have been hooked ever since.

Saunders has been referred to as one of the greatest American writers and especially as one for our times. It is his ability to entirely grasp (and succinctly document) the fading American dream that makes his work so utterly compelling and yes, breathtaking. His latest collection, Tenth of December, hits the bullseye yet again.

In a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Saunders was asked why he liked to write short stories. “America likes big,” Colbert reminded Saunders, adding that he typically liked to pay for books by the pound. Saunders explained that he likes the short-story format because it compels you to get your point across with an economy of words. Interestingly enough, Saunders likes to compare a short story to a joke. It has the same genetic makeup, he argued on the Report. You have just a short amount of time to leave the audience exhilarated or let down. Saunders’s most recent short story collection achieves the latter. His stories are absorbing and incredibly touching.  

There’s the downright scary “Victory Lap” which describes the attempted kidnapping of a young girl, through the eyes of a teenaged boy across the street. What’s especially compelling about this story is that it paints the picture of not just one, but three tortured souls -- the girl, the boy, and the criminal. The slow extent of the crime creeps up insidiously and the reader can’t help but watch as the crime unfolds.

There’s also the fantastic science fiction look at contemporary love in “Escape from Spiderhead” when an ex-convict young man is given increasingly higher doses of various medications to make him love someone he might not be attracted to. “What a fantastic game-changer. Say someone can’t love? Now he or she can. We can make him. Say someone loves too much? Or loves someone deemed unsuitable by his or her caregiver? We can tone that shit right down.”

The best of Saunders’s work is a brilliant reflection about class in America. He achieves this not just through the stories he narrates but through the language he uses as well. In the absolutely wonderful, “Home,” a character named Harris says, “A boat could be for boys or girls. Don’t be prejudice.” This same story, one of my favorites in the collection, describes a washed-up court-martialed war vet trying to get back into his life. “Thank you for your service,” he is told wherever he goes, in what could be interpreted as a case in irony. Meanwhile, Harris’s mother and her new boyfriend are hanging on by the most tenuous of threads while his ex-wife and her new husband have a fancy house across the river. “Three cars for two grown-ups. I thought. What a country. What a couple selfish dicks my wife and her new husband were. I could see that, over the years, my babies would slowly transform into selfish-dick babies, then selfish-dick toddlers, kids, teenagers, and adults, with me all that time skulking around like some unclean suspect uncle.”

“That part of town was full of castles,” Harris points out, “Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts.” As Saunders so brilliantly points out, at its most basic essence, life can indeed be boiled down to a fairy tale. The rich get to live in castles while the poor languish in peasant huts. And in this fairy tale, poverty plays a very effective villain--one that is very, very hard to slay. 

Galley copy courtesy of Netgalley.

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