Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
While it may appear nonsensical to declare that a book released in the first week of January is the best of the year, it seems hard to believe that any other work of fiction will rival George Saunders’ latest effort, Tenth of December, in terms of both narrative innovation and emotional depth. Saunders catapulted to the centre of the American literary scene in the mid-nineties when he released his first work at age 37 after a career as an engineer and a technical writer, and has published a number of novellas and short stories since while contributing frequently to The New Yorker, Harper’s and McSweeney’s. He may not be prolific yet his work is always well worth the wait, and Tenth of December, his first collection in more than seven years, was among the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. Saunders has never written a novel, which is typically considered the highest achievement for any author, yet his deft handling of short fiction, and his reconceptualization of the form, has made him among the most compelling and innovative writers in American literature today. His dark, satirical stories that hover somewhere in the nebulous territory between reality and fantasy capture the perverse and unsettling aspects of our contemporary culture, and the implications of his tales will haunt you for days.
Tenth of December is a powerful compendium of ten stories that are told in a variety of forms – diary entries, corporate memos – collectively revealing the absurdity and alienation that characterize societal relations in the 21st century. Saunders has a knack for exposing how many of the things we take for granted are in fact rooted in irrational reasoning and unsound foundations, and he’s at his most powerful when exhibiting how our implicit acceptance of the social order can have harrowing consequences. His characters are faced with the dilemma of following the established order and preserving the status quo or acting independently in order to affect another’s fate. This quandary is eloquently probed in the first story, “Victory Lap,” among the most disturbing in the book, in which an adolescent boy witnesses the attack of his neighbor and is rendered paralyzed by a strict regimen established by his parents that rewards “good” behaviour. Here, the conflict between conformity and free will is at its most pronounced.
Despite the element of fantasy that emerges in some of the stories, they remain within the realm of plausibility which makes them all the more alarming. In the dystopian tale “Escape from Spiderhead” – which is Kafkaesque in its absurdity and biting satire – a prisoner is used to test a variety of new pharmaceuticals that have the capacity to make humans fall in and out of love and feel the most profound depths of despair. The story takes a sinister turn, yet it’s not impossible to imagine this scenario occurring in a not-so-distant future. An element of weirdness permeates each story and situations that may initially appear normal and familiar are slowly revealed to be quite strange. This is employed most powerfully in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” which details a society much like our own except that women are imported from other countries to be used as lawn ornaments. When questioned about the ethics of this by her daughter, a mother is able to excuse the practice by claiming that the women use the money to provide for their families. Saunders imbues all his characters with a level of humanity so that even when their actions seem inexcusable, the reader can relate on some level and can’t help but feel a modicum of compassion.
It’s a true testament to Saunders’ gift as a writer that he is able to pack such emotional intensity into short-form fiction. Each of these stories will leave you shaken and thinking for days about the nature of our society and how easy it is for us to rationalize the unpleasantness and injustice to which we all implicitly contribute. While this may sound quite dark and depressing, Tenth of December has many uplifting and funny moments as well and it’s the balance between the bleakness and the hilarity that makes the book such an absorbing read. With Saunders’ wry humour and keen observations of the inanity of our everyday existence it seems likely that Tenth of December will become a classic of early 21st century literature.