Tenth of December

  • George Saunders
  • Random House
  • 272 pp.
  • January 14, 2013

George Saunders is an undisputed genius in cutting eloquent slices of dark, odd, familiar and too familiar.

Reviewed by Rae Bryant

George Saunders is an undisputed genius in cutting eloquent slices of dark, odd, familiar and too familiar.  He is unapologetic about it. Imagine a Civil War general with bayonet, slicing the family turkey on Thanksgiving. Tossing out chunks of meat, a liver, a kidney. Saunders gnawing on the gizzard, laughing and spitting chunks of flesh at everyone. And everyone liking it. This is Saunders.  And here he goes again with more breadth than most writers would attempt in one collection.

In Tenth of December, humor and satire infuse dysfunctional families, dysfunctional sex, unsuspected heroism, realism and near future settings in 10 short stories from short-short length to full length.  With laughter, frequent shudders and always an accessible rigor that fellow writers have come to love and expect in Saunders’ work, this collection — mostly realism — does not disappoint.  For the most part.

The collection recently enjoyed a New York Times love fest discussing Saunders’ views of Syracuse, D. F. Wallace and a fateful plane ride.  It is easy to fall in love with Saunders, both his work and his personae, as portrayed in the article. Despite the Times’ suggestion, however, the stories are not equally matched.

Science fiction readers put Saunders’ work on a pedestal. Understandably.His storytelling tends toward characterization rather than the world-building ad nauseam stereotype of contemporary science fiction. In “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the narratives push past world-building and into a socio-economic focus on the exploitation of women, minorities, immigrants and the incarcerated. “Spiderhead” is the more solidly built of the two stories, as its speculative elements prove necessary. Futuristic sex-enhancement drugs form character impetus and provide ongoing momentum for the plot.  Here the science fiction element is more than outlier or overlay; it’s woven into the nooks and crannies of the inmates’ sexual and emotional interactions.

One might question the gender study in “Spiderhead.” Simply put, it’s male criminal tries to save female criminals, with all of whom he’s had sex and fallen in and out of love in mere hours. Or, put it this way: Boy gets girl, boy saves girl in hyper-drugged, hyper-sexed, near-future setting. It’s science fiction porn for the men, a moralistic bone thrown to the women. Still, the speculative elements certainly earn their keep.

Not so much in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” where poor female immigrants hover over a backyard pond, their brains lobotomized and hooked together by a “microline.” The story asks readers simply to accept the microline as they do the angel in García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” However, unlike a general understanding most readers would have of angels and wings, readers have little experience with how microlines fuse with the human body and brain to alter pain uptake and the basic human needs for movement, food, water, etc.

How does the microline work? Science fiction readers are apt to ask this question first but the narrator never really explains. On the flip side, realism and magical realism readers are left asking how does one accept this point blank? The microline, as used, is a concept not easily absorbed. The speculative element is not necessary to the theme or momentum of the story. The hovering girls end up something of a science fiction deus ex machina, which is problematic as the narrative style does little to offset the discrepancy and entice the reader. The broken syntax, journal form, purposefully lacks grace. So why the extreme exaltation?  If pushed further into some sort of Breakfast of Champions, the full absurdism and satire of the piece would play out, but in this story, it is lost. Thankfully, in “My Chivalric Fiasco” it is not.

Notable and hilarious, “My Chivalric Fiasco,” one of the few stories not originally published in The New Yorker, is science fiction/medieval-fused. The narrator, Ted, witnesses the rape, or rather the aftermath of the rape, of a coworker, Martha, perpetrated by their boss, Don Murray. All three work at what appears to be a futuristic Renaissance fair with fake pigs, fake pig feces, stage plays and a performance-enhancing drug — i.e., Knightlyfe, a syntax and chivalry-enhancing upper that triggers a conflict for Ted: should he out the boss or not?  The narrator’s internal struggle is something no one would ever find funny, except that Ted recounts his experience in medieval-speak laced with urban dictionary: “At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me. Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.” Even those who have never attended a Renaissance fair will find themselves laughing out loud.

The science fiction play is fun but Saunders is undoubtedly best in real and familiar dirt. Here he holds readers at gunpoint or lips — never know with Saunders — and whispers with a low grumble, Open your eyes, you sorry lot, look in front of you, see the dysfunction. The bargain is accepted because Saunders also shows his readers how to atone, or accept the inability to atone. Then he offers laughter at shortcomings, a way to pull through and a way to feel less alone. The best example of this is “Home.”

Mikey, Ma, Harris, and Renee are in many ways a familiar family on their worst day, the kind of day to hold thoughts privately because trusting oneself to speak would end tragically. And so the reader becomes confidant and accomplice:

“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.”

This is Saunders’ signature — everyone messed up a little and sometimes a lot, struggling, searching to connect, needing help and finding less than perfect help. It’s Everyman pulled into fine focus, twisted and offset just enough to make reading appear less self-absorbed.

The first and last stories of the collection, “Victory Lap” and “Tenth of December,” narrate the same struggle and cross-section of a bad day with bad circumstances ending on imperfect but salvageable points. A seemingly insignificant and socially awkward boy or a seemingly insignificant and socially awkward, dying old man can turn savior, which makes the reader imagine herself as savior, too, although Saunders’ saviors are categorically male, often in the position of saving their own or someone else’s female.

Each story pushes the reader to the next. Be warned. It is an afternoon lost, because once picked up, Tenth of December sticks. The stories are a fun and often gut-punching ride. They will make you question your manhood. Womanhood? No, but they are decidedly human. And they fulfill one of Saunders’ self-proclaimed goals, diversity of readership. From realism to science fiction, minimalism to medieval-speak, the breadth of voice and aesthetic culminates into an ugly-beautiful freak show. Come one, come all.

Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, was released by Patasola Press in June 2011. Her stories have appeared or are soon forthcoming in publications including Story Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine and Redivider, and have been nominated for the PEN/Hemingway, PEN Emerging Writers, and Pushcart awards. She writes essays and reviews for the New York Journal of Books, Puerto del Sol, The Nervous Breakdown, Portland Book Review and Beatrice.com, and is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. See www.raebryant.com.

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