Tenth of December
Random House: 254 pp., $26
George Saunders is often described as a satirist. That’s not inaccurate: How else do we account for, say, the title effort of his first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” with its bleakly absurd portrait of a Civil War theme park? And yet to read him exclusively on such terms is to miss the point.
Rather, I see Saunders as a humanist. Certainly, that’s the operative sensibility of his new book of short fiction, “Tenth of December.” The book has a sneaky coherence, as if it were less a group of isolated pieces than an investigation into what happens when we are brought up short by life.
“It wasn’t fair,” reflects one of the protagonists of the title story, a 52-year-old man dying of cancer. “It happened to everyone supposedly, but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/something was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.”
That’s classic Saunders, with its use of the vernacular, the specific language of a character, to get at material that is both elusive and profound. Such choices also mark his earlier books of fiction — not just “CivilWarLand” but also the collections “Pastoralia” and “In Persuasion Nation” and the novella “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” — which seduce us with their accessibility, their sense of individuals banging up against their limitations, while also hinting at deeper layers underneath.
It’s not that “Tenth of December” is without dark humor. In “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” Saunders gives us a world very much like ours — except for the women imported (from Somalia, Laos, the Philippines) to serve as status symbols in the form of living lawn ornaments. Here, he wields the satirist’s sharp pen to make vivid observations about wealth, excess and exploitation.
And yet, what’s most striking about “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” is how it reflects Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” in which an anonymous clerk’s existence is transformed, and then ruined, by his purchase of a coat. For Saunders, the life-changing acquisition is not a coat but a scratch-off lottery ticket, yet the windfall leads to similarly disastrous results. In the end, this makes the story less satirical than fatalistic, steeped in the bittersweet recognition that the one thing we can never escape is ourselves.
Other echoes arise throughout the collection, which gathers 10 stories from the last six years. “Escape From Spiderhead” — a darkly funny story about using criminals as guinea pigs for experimental drugs — recalls William T. Vollmann’s “moral calculus” of violence: “Do the math, Jeff,” Saunders writes, before a character is dosed with “DarkenfloxxTM,” which may make her suicidally depressed. "… A few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel, … years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks.”
Then there’s David Foster Wallace, whose fiction shared Saunders’ edge of heartfelt parody. In “Al Roosten,” Saunders seems to channel Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address with its unexpected plea for empathy. Saunders’ story turns on us: At first, it mocks a small town chamber of commerce, which is auctioning off lunches with local business owners to “rais[e] money for LaffKidsOffCrack and their antidrug clowns … [s]uch as Mr. BugOut, who, in his classroom work, with a balloon, makes this thing that starts out as a crack pile and ends up as a coffin, which I think is so true!”
Quickly, however, Saunders takes us inside the head of his titular main character, whose insecurities only make him more compelling and complex. Al is trapped running a failing store to support his sister and her kids. When another merchant condescends to him, his resentments bubble over and he kicks the man’s keys under a gym riser in revenge.
Yet here too, Saunders further complicates the action, revealing that the other man has worries of his own. Among them is a daughter with a clubfoot, whose treatment depends on him being able to find those keys. “Kid was solid gold,” Al hears him say into a cellphone, as the story shifts our sympathies. “They were running late,” he continues, “the auction thing had gone on and on. He probably should have skipped it, but it was such a terrific cause.”
What Saunders is evoking is compassion, which is, it turns out, the defining sensibility of the book. Al; the narrator of “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”; the two mothers in “Puppies,” in which what looks like child abuse to one is to the other (“Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?”) a necessary expression of love — these are conflicted people, in over their heads and struggling to stay afloat. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t always, or even often, know what that is.
It’s an idea Saunders makes explicit in both the opening story, “Victory Lap,” and “Tenth of December,” which bracket the collection and resemble each other in telling ways. Both deal with life and death and, more important, with consequences.
In the first, a nerdy teenager witnesses the attempted kidnapping of his 15-year-old neighbor and has to decide whether to intervene. “His heart dropped at the thought of what he was letting happen,” Saunders writes. “They’d used goldfish snacks as coins. They’d made bridges out of rocks. Down by the creek. Back in the day. Oh God. He should have never stepped outside.” In the second, the cancer-stricken protagonist faces a similar dilemma when he watches a 10-year-old fall through the surface of a frozen pond.
In both, Saunders deftly traces the back and forth, the debate to get involved or not to get involved, which every one of us has experienced. Talk about compassion: We are weak, flawed and frightened and petty, and yet every day, we have the opportunity to be strong.
“Tenth of December” is not a perfect collection; “Exhortation,” written in the form of an office memo, never rises above its gimmick, and “My Chivalric Fiasco,” which unfolds in a medieval reenactment center, is a pale imitation of his earlier work. Still, what the book at its best achieves is a vivid synergy between the ridiculous culture we have built for ourselves and the heartbreak and longing of our inner lives.
We want to belong, Saunders is saying, we want to be better people, and yet we cannot get out from under the day-to-day. Or, as the narrator of “Home” — an Iraq war vet on the run from unspecified crimes — puts it: “Then suddenly something softened in me, maybe at the sight of Ma so weak, and I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking, Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back … or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.”