Tenth of December by George Saunders

April 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

I stumbled across George Saunders quite by accident in the days before I really knew how to describe, much less how to find, the sort of books I really wanted to read. I read In Persuasion Nation and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil in quick succession, captivated by both content and form, plot and sentences. Being such an uninformed fan, I was taken aback by the strength of the hype, adoration, worship and so on that surrounded the release of Tenth of December earlier this year.

As I read the book I alternated between thinking how fantastic everything was and deciding it wasn’t all that different from other stuff I’d been reading recently. Both opinions remained with me throughout, although after I’d read a few other novels and short-story collections I did concede that Saunders truly is a master. One real ability he has that a lot of people writing in a similar genre lack is the power to stretch the ridiculous just far enough without pushing his characters over the edge (after which there’s an unsurvivable drop to the ground, with the characters’ smashed pieces revealing that they were never living and breathing in the first place). He shows the private details of lives, details that could be from our own lives, details we’re perfectly happy about while they are private, but embarrassed about when they become public. Kyle Boot and his family, for example, in the first story, “Victory Lap,” are a little unusual. Their house has a wooden indicator to show how many of the three family members are at home (but why is “All In” even necessary, Kyle wonders?). There’s also a system of points (Work Points, Usual Chore Points, Total Treat Points), which allows Kyle to cash in points for treats (TV minutes, yoghurt-covered raisins). So it’s a little over the top, setting the characters up to make his point, but far from impossible. And who doesn’t secretly find that appealing know plenty of people like that?

Kyle is supposed to be doing a job for his father, but is instead getting mud microdust on the carpet and making up swearwords in his head, when he notices–because he has to fill in the Traffic Log—an unusual van. Because the driver is a stranger, Kyle is duty-bound to stay in the house until his departure. Then he realises this man, dressed as a meter-reader, is threatening and trying to abduct his neighbour Alison (whom he considers a national treasure and the dictionary definition of beauty). We’ve already met Alison, and seen her curtsying in front of the mirror, dreaming of {special one} and appreciating her lovely normal family—and we’ve seen how she pities and even despises Kyle. Can Kyle disobey his father’s directives (Major and Minor) and help Alison, or will he stay on the deck, watching helplessly as she’s dragged away? For several long seconds, he doesn’t know, and neither do we. The story is, I suppose, a commentary on all kinds of things—on helicopter parenting, infantilising children, the loss of a sense of community responsibility. It’s hopeful in several ways too, that despite the mind-your-own-business-unless-you’re-posting-photos-of-the-event-on-the-web-instead-of-helping world we’re supposed to live in (which is partly true, but only partly) these teenagers can still drag enough decency out from somewhere.

As well of exploring imaginary places and worlds, Saunders is also interested in investigating the inner minds of all kinds of “unusual” people, including teenagers, making them seem authentic, familiar and wholly unexpected all at the same time. One of my favourite stories was “Escape from Spiderhead,” a tale in which the narrator, Jeff, is given a drug that testers hope makes people fall in love. To control the test, Jeff must then choose which of the two women he has fallen in love with that day will receive a dose of Darkenfloxx–a drug that causes the patient to feel utter despair and is sometimes fatal. The characters in the quirkier stories (perhaps even in the more realist stories) turn out to be a little two-dimensional on a second read, but that seems oddly unimportant. A little stranger is the fact that a lot of the stories seem to have socio-political messages, but Saunders is sometimes puzzlingly disingenuous in interviews about these messages. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” for example, which shows an American family buying into status pressure and acquiring three SGs–impoverished immigrants who function as live lawn ornaments, you might assume the commentary was about, say, Filipina nannies or exploited immigrant workers more generally. But in an interview on the New Yorker blog, Saunders first agreed that such an interpretation was valid, but then said, “If the only thing the story did was say, ‘Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,’ that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already.” Of course that’s true, but we also know that fiction with a message has to have something much stronger than the message if it’s to succeed. Perhaps it comes down to being afraid of accusations of earnestness.

The persistent feeling that it wasn’t that different from other things I read is probably true, but it would not have been true if this book had been around when I first discovered Saunders. I enjoy two main features of his writing: his focus on sentences, and his portrayal of a world that resembles our own but is not our own. It seems to me that there’s a lot more of this around in the literary genre than there was, but there’s still plenty of space for it to develop.

Review copy

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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