The OF Blog: George Saunders, Tenth of December

Thursday, January 10, 2013

George Saunders, Tenth of December

"Are we being honest?" he said.  "Or tiptoeing around conflict?"

"Honest," I said, and his face did this thing that, for a minute, made me like him again.

"It was hard for me because I felt like a shit," he said.  "It was hard for her because she felt like a shit.  It was hard for us because while feeling like shits we were also feeling all the other things we were feeling, which, I assure you, were and are as real as anything, a total blessing, if I can say it that way."

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted." (p. 177 e-book, from "Home")

George Saunders' latest collection, Tenth of December, is my first full introduction to his writing, although I am familiar with his name and have meant for some time to try his fiction after seeing several writers cite him as an inspiration and a help in their own writing.  What I discovered was a writer who can make the serious comic, the surreal feel ordinary, twisting and tweaking dialogue and narrative to shape the ten stories here (originally published in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The New Yorker, and Story Magazine) into forms that continually grab the reader's attention because of Saunder's gift for prose.

The characters that inhabit Saunders' stories have their own unique takes on the situations in which they find themselves.  In the first story, "Victory Lap," Alison Pope serves as a counter to some of the rather insecure and yet adventuresome male classmates of her.  It is one thing to voice her ambivalence to them, yet another to do it in vivid, sparkling prose in lines such as these:

She felt hopeful that {special one} would hail from far away.  The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, tell the truth, she was not très crazy about, such as:  actually named their own nuts.  She had overheard that!  And aspired to work for CountyPower because the work shirts were awesome and you got them free. (p. 10 e-book)

Here, Alison's pretensions are on full display.  The mixture of high school French with her later use of "ixnay on the local boys" feels like something that someone young, somewhat better educated than her peers, and who wants to escape from her mundane live might voice.  But even more than this, she also presents a hilarious and yet all-too-true portrayal of male teens, with their named junk and modest yet enthusiastic post-school work aspirations.  It is this attention to the little quirks of the characters that makes Saunders' stories a delight to read at the sentence level as well as at the larger narrative level.

There are plots within Saunders' stories, many of them revolving around the characters' desires to find their places in a world that at times seems to be dark and frightening.  It is no accident that many of them are adolescent or young adults, as their mindsets allows for a greater sense of urgency regarding the "important issues" that older adults might find to be quaint or overblown after the nth re-experiencing of these acute mini crises.  Yet Saunders never has a condescending attitude toward these characters and their situations.  He shows their confusion, their heartbreak (such as the scene quoted at the beginning of this review from near the midpoint of "Home"), and their desire to wrest some sort of meaning from life.  At times, this means little, quiet triumphs occur by story's end, such as this one from "Escape from Spiderhead":

From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward.  I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would. (p. 79 e-book)

But not all stories end on such a poignant, optimistic note.  Sometimes, the characters falter and are left searching.  There is a sense of looming disaster, perhaps due to some hitherto hidden character flaw or, as is more often the case here, the selfish action of others have dismayed, if not destroyed, the characters, such as is expression at the end of "Home":

Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known. (p. 190 e-book)

This may not be García Márquez's eponymous colonel saying "Shit" at the end of No One Writes to the Colonel, but it is close in terms of narrative power.  So much repressed anger and frustration is released in the final scene that this singular sentence encapsulates the entire narrative's power in a short, sharp burst of frustrated anger and depression.  Yet these moments of despair are balanced out elsewhere, such as the titular "Tenth of December," which contains a moment that is so strange, so odd, so surreal out of context that when read in context it cannot help but make most readers smile:

Allen had – Allen had said it was great.  Asked a few questions.  About the manatee.  What did they eat again?  Did he think they could effectively communicate with one another?  What a trial that must have been!  In his condition.  Forty minutes on the manatee?  Including a poem Eber had composed?  A sonnet?  On the manatee? (p. 235 e-book)

Some stories require a big bang, an explosive denouement in order to be memorable.  Saunders' stories here, however, work around those quiet moments where the characters face strange and baffling moments in which they must sink or try to swim.  His deft use of sometimes bizarre imagery and dialogue isn't done to separate the characters and their situations from our own, but instead to make us pay closer attention to what is transpiring.  Combined with plots that are effective in their subtle presentation, Tenth of December is a memorably poignant story collection that may already be of the best to be released in 2013.

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