A REVIEW BY
In the final vignette of George Saunders’s newest collection of short stories, Tenth of December, we’re introduced to an unlikely protagonist, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms.” With typically loaded prose (think how much hilarity and sadness is captured in that one description), Saunders guides his reader through the lives of losers involved in a fight to the death for dignity in a world that constantly denies and defers it. Readers of Saunders’s 1996 masterpiece CivilWarLand in Bad Decline will recognize the accompanying tragic, light-handed surrealism that renders the familiar unrecognizable. In 2013, Saunders takes up the mantle of his friend David Foster Wallace, who wrote repeatedly of the dangers of cynicism, inviting and indeed demanding his readers to affirm his characters on their careening quest for something to redeem.
The stories don’t let us escape from the notion that the ugliest bits of postmodern routine are actually rooted in a basic kind of dignity. Am I really going to put myself through this shit day after day, working in a decrepit cubicle with a psychotic boss who wears flashy ties? Well, yes, Saunders’s downtrodden characters, who are stronger than they seem to know, insist. I am. Because I have my family to support, and my dignity to maintain, and the opposite of a rejection of the world is the possibility of grace. Sometimes money buys grace: In “Semplica Girls” this means being able to purchase the ceramic figurine (called “Hobo-Clown Fishing”) that your youngest daughter has inexplicably chosen from a catalogue and now demands for her birthday. The father writes in his diary, “Nice to win, be winner, be known as winner.”
This reads in a superficial way like some cynical, neoliberal surrender—be cheerful, slavishly grateful insofar as some system allows; let its forces dictate your self-respect, let them withhold it from you and dangle it just out of reach with a price-sticker. In terms of the political narratives offered by the book, certainly one of the most disturbing plotlines is that of the Semplica girls themselves, immigrant teens in white dresses who are hung (painlessly) from microwires as decorative displays, serving as status symbols for a desperate nouveau-riche clientele. Each girl is sold with a tragic story, a broken family back home who desperately needs the money. Saunders often shows his characters scrambling to negotiate these moral and almost metaphysical demands within a suffocating system. In this way, one is tempted to read the book as profoundly conservative, anti-revolutionary, particularly as one attempt at liberation after another leads to suicide, death, or unbearable, heart wrenching moments where some character is left devastated and, having made a failed gamble on their own pride, called out as a fool.
What saves Tenth of December from this fate is Saunders’s skillful insistence on the reality of the battle for meaning, how seriously he takes the ill-fated but not defeated desires of the characters to live up to their own expectations and what they feel their families deserve. The reader is never allowed simply to feel sorry for them—although some stories, particularly “Puppy”, a tragic tale of two mothers alienated from their children, are a struggle in this way, but the reader can at least enjoy Saunders’s immaculate and hilarious descriptions. More importantly the reader is not permitted to disdain them. In “Sticks”, a son looks back at his unadventurous father after his death, and focuses on Dad’s “one concession to glee”, a pole in the shape of a crucifix on the front lawn that he would ritualistically and adorn to mark special occasions. On Groundhog Day, “he draped some kind of fur over it…and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow.” The earthquake in Chile was commemorated, as was Mom’s death. After Dad dies in the hall with the radio on, the house is sold and the young couple that moves in puts the pole out with the trash. The story ends. And yet, somehow, Saunders gives the pole (and the man) its due. It was nothing less than the parade-float synecdoche for the tiny fragment of whimsy hidden in the heart of a man who measured out rations of ketchup and apple slices to his sons, glowering at any sign of excess. Saunders dares you not to take Dad seriously, but he also allows you to laugh with him, with the bit of humor the old man dislocated from his soul and planted in a cross shape on his front yard.
What makes these stories so impossible to pin down is their thorny relationship to action. Over and over, some character at his or her wit’s end will just do something. Eva, the sensitive daughter in “Semplica Girls”, cuts them down in an impulsive act of bravery and lets them escape, putting her family in a tenuous legal situation. In the course of a suicide in “Escape from Spiderhead”, a seemingly suspicious Saunders narrates the flight of his protagonist who reflects, “What’s death like? You’re briefly unlimited.” Kyle, the unexpected hero of “Victory Lap”, escapes the rigidity of his parents’ board game of rules and directives (“…added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins)…”) and breaks hundreds of orders when he looks out of the window and sees a stranger kidnapping Allison, his playmate and neighbor. Breaking free, he hurtles towards the kidnapper in a fury:
“You think I won’t? You think I—
Easy Scout, you’re out of control.
Slow your motor down, Beloved Only.
Quiet. I’m the boss of me.”
This moment of triumph threatens to turn sinister when the Allison escapes and the injured criminal is totally at Kyle’s mercy as the “beanpole” holds a rock over his head. It is Allison’s instinctive and anguished scream that brings Kyle back to himself, preventing a murder, reminding him that freedom and death exist in an uneasy equilibrium.
A kind of crescendo, begun on the first page, peaks in the closing story of the book, its namesake, “Tenth of December.” Saunders plays out a powerful argument against violence and especially suicide as the necessary extreme of a revolt against the monotony and cruelty of postmodern life. The story is an emotional end to a rich jumble of a book and ought to be read in its context; the miracle of the story lies in its ability to gracefully bring together the threads (or are they nerve endings?) left vulnerable as the reader comes to the end of Saunders’s work. The final emotion is one of exhausted gratitude, weaving the reader ever closer into kinship with the battle-worn and love-hungry characters of Tenth of December.