Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury - January 2013)
Any new collection of stories from George Saunders is going to be an event surrounded by a whole lot of hoopla. The concern is that the throngs of Saunders devotees will evangelise with increasingly hyperbolic praise, no matter what he does. This one was six years in the making and six of the ten stories have been previously published by The New Yorker.
I have on occasion, although I admit,very, very rarely, had pause to think Saunders is sometimes being too clever; too snap, too crackle, too pop, and that one after the other, the stories err on the side of over-kill. One at a time, in The New Yorker for example, they are perfect, but as a collection, come dangerously close to an overload. Or, as a tweeter explained recently in relation to Saunders: “too much awesomeness!” It is true that stories are to be savoured one at a time, but the collection needs to work as a whole too and bring together all the themes and voices into a satisfying meaty mealful. In Tenth Of December, that is exactly what you get. From start to finish the words whip and crack across the page. Sentence after sentence made me blink and re-read, if only to re-experience the thrill of surprise I had just felt.
In this collection, Sanders seems to have invented his own literary style within the confines of the short story form. I could offer some dazzling moniker, but it comes closer to Very, Very Exciting Writing. And it has nothing to do with content (although that will make you sit upright too, and more on that later) rather, it comes down to a sense of confidence and swagger as the the words tumble out across the page. This is cock-sure, loose-limbed writing that plays fast and loose with formal expectation and then proceeds to have its way with punctuation in a way which might soon be illegal in 48 states. This is not to suggest this is all style and no craft. Style is a slippery eel and can for the most be an amalgam of influences updated and barely refined. This is something else. This is to do with dangerous linguistic territory and Saunders has nailed it.
There are larger themes thundering under the collection. Cruelty of every sort bleeds off every page. Not just the obvious physical excesses of torture or scientific experiments on the living, but often the familial cruelties of parents. An insanely optimistic mother is tarred with the same brush as a mother who chains her son to a tree. They are both just doing what they think is right, and with the consequences still around the corner, they can only do their best. Saunders political agenda is around authority - parental, corporate or moral and he pushes boundaries and buttons at every turn.
What Saunders does so masterfully is represent the consciousness of 'self' as a rolling, messy tangle of an entity. In many of the stories the narrator takes us, via a slightly shambolic often angry, often vain and righteous route, to a terrible realisation about the character’s place in the world. The prose lilts and deviates through non-verbal interior conversations that wind and deviate, yet never stray from the strictures of the form. The narrator in 'Puppy' for example chatters to and chides herself as she drives and 'Al Roosten' indulges in all manner of vengeance and justification though not without the aching insecurities of Eliot’s Prufrock, as we spend some time with him on the stage of a local fund raising event).
What set this collection so far and beyond the competition is that behind all the wise cracking, fast moving bravado we have come to expect from Saunders there is also the inescapable heartbreak that he brings to his work.
Of course, there are the mad, even zany escapes into other worlds; be they corporate worlds where workers are cheerfully encouraged to keep positive to hit targets and quotas even though it is intimated that the company’s business may be torture (the star performer of the previous month is "naturally" suffering terrible depression for all his "good" work), or the surreal 'Spiderhead' where drugs are road tested on prisoners. (One named Darkenfloxx magnifies the subject’s worst and darkest thoughts). Child kidnapping, cult-like parenting and children chained to trees are all fair game for Saunders’ pen.
Saunders delights in placing characters of mediocre talents and ambitions (eg. 'The Semplica Girl Diaries' in which a lower-middle-class paterfamilias makes notes to remember to "forget feeling of special destiny") and constructing scenarios in which the very banality of their lives render them Technicolor.
But, and here is the true genius, for all the flash and wit and way with words underlying these funny, strange, and most times, cruel stories, there is always a character whose life is always a nano-second away from heartbreak. These are people on the brink of spiritual collapse. The heart breaking 'Home' about a soldier returned from war, is the most obvious example but 'Tenth of December', which gives the book its title, offers an aching portrait of terminal suffering. Strangely it was this story that, for me, seemed to strain at the margins a bit. While it is as clean as the frozen landscape it inhabits, I felt that this was potentially a bigger story waiting to be told. But perhaps this was simply a reader disappointed to be coming to the end of such a dazzling collection and hoping for more.
Buy this collection for thrill-seeking writing and for the sonorous bass note of pathos that anchors it. It is frequently funny, shocking and wise, often in the same breath. Under the sting and swagger of the writing, Saunders’ stories hold up a murky mirror to the human condition. The power of these stories and the collection as a whole is a suggestion that behind every door, there is someone who is just one wise-crack away from an inconsolable tragedy.