Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (New York: Random House, 2013. 288 pp)

MacArthur “Genuis Grant” fellow George Saunders is the acclaimed author of several collections of short stories, including Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a collection of essays, a book for children, and a new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

From Long-Form Narrative to Short Story

Over the years, my previously devoted followers—”the devoted few,” might have noticed a trend to my reviewing habits. My reading consumption skews toward the novel. I review a book of poetry here and there, but largely my mental capacity focuses on long-form narrative.

Certainly, elements of this focus coincide with my specific disposition. I’m the kind of person willing to enjoy the long payoff, reading a story in installments over the course of a month, or more.

But secondarily, the novel is imminently reviewable. The self-contained story goes in one direction and builds from discernible themes.

Collections of short stories, on the other hand, bounce around. The author has the ability to play with reading rules, reset characters, introduce wildly varied setting, all within the same ISBN. Granted, an author ought to collect short stories in such a way that the sum is greater than the parts. Who would buy an album of eclectic music going from genre to genre without any sense of rhythm or flow?

Given the aims of the short story art form and my interest in compressing a narrative to its most necessary components, the short story strikes a chord these days.

In particular, George Saunders’ Tenth of December illustrates a high-water mark of the form.

In his collection of stories, Saunders explores a diverse set of characters, settings, and even fantastical/sci-fi elements from story to story.

Thematically, the stories link in a few specific ways.

For starters, despite Saunders’ varying prose designs, the stories in the Tenth of December explore the deepest questions of identity and the fine line between life and death.

Most of the protagonists in this story collection approach life from a marginalized status. One character is the down-on-his-luck, agoraphobic high school nerd with a tendency toward the profane.

“They thought so highly of him, sending weekly braggy emails to both sets of grandparents, such as: Kyle’s been super-busy keeping up his grades while running varsity cross-country though still a sophomore, while setting aside a little time each day to manufacture such humdingers as cunt-swoggle rear-fuck—” (“Victory Lap,” 13).

Another emerges as a parent wanting the best for his children, even though his credit cards are maxed out.

“Note to future generations: In our time, are such things as credit cards. Company loans money, you pay back at high interest rate. Is nice for when you do not actually have money to do thing you want to do (for example, buy extravagant cheetah). You may say, safe in your future time: Wouldn’t it be better to simply not do thing you can’t afford to do? Easy for you to say! You are not here, in our world, with kids, kids you love, while other people are doing good things for their kids, such as a Heritage Journey to Nice if you are the Mancinis or three weeks wreck-diving off the Bahamas if you are Gary Gold and his tan sleek son Byron.
Limitations are frustrating” (“The Semplica Girl Diaries,” 125-126).

A Pinch of Sci-Fi for Flavor

Juxtaposed with these viewpoints from the margins, Saunders introduces subtle macroeconomic sci-fi elements. In one story, prison inmates take drugs to encourage them to procreate all in the name of science.

“Everything in my drip felt Grade A. Suddenly I was waxing poetic. I was waxing poetic re what Heather was doing, and waxing poetic re my feelings about what Heather was doing. Basically, what I was feeling was: Every human is born of man and woman. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love. As I watched Heather suffer, a great tenderness suffused my body, a tenderness hard to distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain” (“Escape from Spiderhead,” 69).

In another story, a different infested drug provides a lowly worker the ability to have courage and improvisational skills with customers while on shift. Hydration required.

“Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred milligrams of KnightLyfe™. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe™ is, you’re going to way to stay hydrated” (“My Chivalric Fiasco, 208).

Or, another story introduces immigrants taking low-paying jobs as garden gargoyles to decorate the yards of the affluent.

“Suddenly occurred to me, w/little gust of relief: Eva resisting in part because she does not understand basic science of thing. Asked Eva if she even knew what Semplica Pathway was. Did not. Drew human head on napkin, explained: Lawrence Semplica = doctor + smart cookie. Found way to route microline through brain that does no damage, causes no pain. Technique uses lasers to make pilot route. Microline then threaded through w/silk leader. Microline goes in here (touched Eva’s temple), comes out here (touched other). Is very gentle, does not hurt, SGs out during whole deal” (“The Semplica Girl Diaries,” 142).

In this way, Saunders introduces oddball concepts while playing the narrative straight.

Ultimately, Beautiful Writing

Beyond these themes, Saunders produces beautiful prose, like this section from the eponymous short story.

“Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet” (“Tenth of December,” 230).

If Tenth of December is any indication of a typical reading experience for short story collections, I will put many more on my TBR pile.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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