Random House; January 2013
Reviewed by Kim Miner Litton
I’m a big George Saunders fan. In college, his stories often ended up in the curriculum in my creative writing classes, and I found them to be a breath of fresh air. His stories were full of dark humor and, while the subjects were heavy, they’re accessible. Also, because he was teaching at nearby Syracuse, I met him a few times and found him incredibly inspiring.
But, as with every short story collection, each story stands or falls on their own before you can decide whether the book was worth reading.
1. “Victory Lap” – In many ways, this was a perfect beginning to the collection. Immediately, you get the crowded consciousness and neurosis typical of Saunders’ characters that is both hilarious and uncomfortable (his specialty). Then, it all takes a DARK TURN (also his specialty.) Because of the subject matter, it’s a hard story to “like,” but it does prepare you for the trends of the collection: dark subject matter with witless, neurotic characters. That makes it sound like I hated it, but in hindsight, it’s one of the stand-outs as far as character development.
2.”Sticks”- A tiny, micro story. Blink and you’ll miss it. Or, if you’re listening to the audiobook (read by Saunders himself), you might have to restart it several times because you lost focus for just a moment and it was over.) For me, however, I thought it a small, beautiful snapshot of loss (as seen through the eyes of quirky Saunders characters.)
3.”Puppy” – Saunders has always been interested the strangeness, grotesqueness of humans, and how they can commit truly heinous acts with complete good or benign intentions. However, I just couldn’t get behind this story. Saunders’ attempts to make his hapless, unlikable characters somewhat likable (or at least someone you can uncomfortably relate to) fell flat for me.
4.”Escape from Spiderhead” – I think another thing that draws me to Saunders work is that he does genre fiction that literary types like and even love. It gives us young genre writers so much hope that we can turn in a genre story to our creative writing professors and they will actually like it, (though those hopes are always dashed because we are not, in fact, George Saunders.) So here is an example of one of his stories that is basically pure science-fiction. It’s reminiscent of some of his other stories, like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, or The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil that always had a bit of strange, future technology present. Again, the subject matter is dark, but I like it a lot. In this story, Saunders explores some of his most familiar subject matter: unfeeling corporations, the darkest of human behavior, and difficult-to-like characters. But then, it also explores another favorite theme of mine, redemption.
5.”Exhortation”- Saunders has always found corporate environments a creative goldmine. They’re disturbing in both their attempts at outward cheerfulness for PR reasons and their callousness towards both their customers and employees. This story is simply a memo from a team leader to his underlings that explores both those subjects and hints at ominous corporate doings. However, because of the style, it’s a bit too tone deaf for me to love it.
6.”Al Roosten”- Oh, Al Roosten: Neurotic every-man character contemplating life in the middle class. Nearly every male character Saunders has ever written has a little piece of Al Roosten in him. Clueless, obsessed with image, selfish, full of bizarre-elaborate fantasies, too cowardly to be really, really selfish or to act on said fantasies. It’s an okay story, just reminiscent of others I’ve read.
7.”The Semplica Girl Diaries” – Another one that’s part sci-fi/part social commentary. (Which is pretty sci-fi-like in itself, isn’t it?) It’s a world where women from Third World countries are connected by a neural link and turned into lawn ornaments. Our hapless, middle class protagonist who is obsessed with appearances (sound familiar?) buys some for his garden with his lottery winnings. The theme of how we treat illegal immigrants is not subtle (though Saunders rarely is.) It’s a solid offering of dark humor and Saunders imagination.
8.”Home” – A story about a soldier with PTSD who, it seems, has done something dark and terrible while away. He tries to find a place back at home though his wife has left him, his sister has a family of her own, and his mother is being evicted. Not my favorite in the collection, and I notice it gets the least amount of critical love.
9.”My Chivalric Fiasco” – Readers of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia will have noticed Saunders is a bit obsessed with weird theme parks. Here’s another one! This one is a bit more like Medieval Times, but with a science fiction element of some sort of acting pill. It’s one of the funniest ones in the book, though it’s the second story that features rape (maybe third, the consent is dubious in “Spiderhead” as well).
10. “Tenth of December” – So, to this point I was really so-so on the book. Again, a lot was familiar Saunders territory, and the upsetting subject matter overpowered the quirky dark humor in many places. Then I came to this final story. A young boy stuck in his fantasy world embarks on a mission to return a coat to a man he sees on the trail he’s playing on. The man is terminally ill and has come to the woods to freeze to death. Yet another story with quirky characters overly invested in their quirky thoughts and elaborate fantasies, right?
It’s beautiful. It’s perfect.
This might now be my favorite Saunders story, and I own every book he’s ever written. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I think you should experience for yourself.
While the subjects are familiar to Saunders readers, there is still much to love about this collection even for the most diehard fan. Not everything will be your new favorite, but you won’t regret reading it. Tenth of December is worth the price alone, but I don’t think you should pass up the others (even Home, which has some interesting characters).
New readers will probably marvel, as I did, at his wit, humor, and vision. There is so much creativity in so few words. It is both literary and genre, the characters are despicable and lovable, the content is both slight and heady.