Friday, February 15, 2013

Victory Laps: "Tenth Of December" by George Saunders



I end up writing pieces about a good 99% of the books I read, yet I had to decide if it was worth the time to explore Tenth of December, the latest story collection by George Saunders. I adored the stories and ended up finishing the book in record time, so it's not a question of me not liking it. My reservation was due to the book being celebrated and reviewed to the point that I was convinced I couldn't add anything new to the already diverse conversations. However, I realized this feeling was silly. It's rare that a short story collection, especially one published so early in the new year, immediately takes hold as a candidate for one of the top books (Joel Lovell's New York Times profile all but guaranteed Saunders a place on the bestseller list, and for very good reason). Saunders has been revered in the literary world for quite some time, with several collections in print. The opening story, "Victory Lap," begins with a teenage debutante receiving callers. In a way, this newest publication is Saunders' debut to a much wider audience. And while this review might not add any new revelations or details, it will be a small admiration and addition to his much-deserved whirlwind.

Keeping with the trends of my favorite story collections, Saunders explores a variety of ideas and genres, with equal parts humor and somber reflection. Even in the most extreme, fantastical scenarios, the emphasis is on emotion and human reactions to a wide range of possibilities and happenings. The aforementioned "Victory Lap" starts with the interactions between a girl and men, yet takes a sharp detour into the life of her neighbor, a sheltered, over-parented boy who is faced with an escalating series of tough choices and reactions. The climax is hilarious and tense at the same time. The boy swears constantly in his own head and is in the middle of placing geodes in his family's yard (one of his many odd chores) when he has to come to the girl's rescue.

"He imagined the guy bending Alison in two like a pale garment bag while pulling her hair and thrusting bluntly, as he, Kyle, sat cowed and obedient, tiny railroad viaduct grasped in his pathetic babyish--
Jesus! He skipped over and hurled the geode through the windshield of the van, which imploded, producing an inward rain of glass shards that made the sound of thousands of tiny bamboo wind chimes.
He scrambled up the hood of the van, retrieved the geode.
Really? Really? You were going to ruin her life, ruin my life, you cunt-probe dick-munch ass-gashing Animal? Who's bossing who now? Gash-ass, jizz-lips, turd-munch--
He'd never felt so strong/angry/wild. Who's the man? Who's your daddy? What else must he do? To ensure that Animal did no further harm? You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? 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 (Saunders 22-23)."

Saunders writes some stories set in suburban/rural settings, but the featured angst is not typical. The characters try to build their lives and make connections to their surroundings, often with unforeseen results and realizations. In "Sticks," a father builds figures for specific events and holidays. In the process, there's an overwhelming sense of futility and breakdowns. Saunders provides a terrific blend of physical and sensory details. The reader has to balance a sense of the visual and a sense of the intangible.

"We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day (Saunders 30)."

Until reading Tenth of December, I had no idea that Saunders wrote science fiction stories. There are two examples: "Escape From Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries." The former is a more standard science fiction narrative, but the complexity and philosophy are the true emphases, not the fantastical surroundings. In a futuristic prison, prisoners are the subjects of experiments and are given doses of medications that fully control moods and perceptions. Jeff, a prisoner, has controlled sex with two female inmates as a way to test medications that give the appearance of true love. He's then ordered to control the doses of a medication (DarkenfloxxTM) that gives the patient the most awful, lonely, harmful fears. Saunders explores a variety of questions and concerns and highlights the uneasy realization that experiments like these have actually happened, albeit in more "realistic" scenarios.

"The DarkenfloxxTM started flowing. Soon Heather was softly crying. Then was up and pacing. Then jaggedly crying. A little hysterical, even.

'I don't like this,' she said in a quaking voice.

Then she threw up in the trash can.

'Speak, Jeff,' Abnesti said to me. 'Speak a lot, speak in detail. Let's make something useful of this, shall we?'

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? Heather presented as a bundle of pain receptors. Heather's mind was fluid, and could be ruined (by pain, by sadness). Why? Why was she made this way? Why so fragile?

Poor child, I was thinking, poor girl. Who loved you? Who loves you (Saunders 69-70)?"



"The Semplica Girl Diaries" is science fiction in a very odd, unassuming manner. It's a diary kept by a struggling family man who only wants to provide the best for his family. He wins the lottery and has his yard remodeled for his daughter's birthday, complete with "Semplica Girls:" foreign girls strung together by brain wires to create decorative lawn ornaments. What Saunders carefully does is make this idea "normal" in the context of the story. It's a small piece of a larger puzzle, and while the notion is grotesque and absurd, the diary narrative doesn't put any extra emphasis on this, until necessary (the Semplica Girls become important figures in the sense of finances and family struggles). When Saunders returns to more "normal" plot structures, there's never a sense that he's showing off or attempting to inhabit too many genres. Every story in Tenth of December is linked by the connections made by people and the existential problems presented by these connections. Even when he does "show off," it's done for comedic effect. "My Chivalric Fiasco" is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, telling the story of an affair engaged in by two workers at a Medieval Castle/Theme Park. When the reader digs away the hilarious veneer, what's visible is a story about honesty and secrets.

"Glimpsing Martha's Visage--which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)--I grew, in spite of my recent good Fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to be softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It's cool, Ted. I'm over it. Seriously, I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a Woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to Thee, dear Lady (Saunders 210)."

I haven't covered all of the stories, but as I'm wont to say, it would be tedious and pointless to give brief synopses and quotations of every piece. Without being sappy or pandering, the acclaim received by Tenth Of December is exciting for Saunders' recognition, but also for the short story itself. Outside of literary circles and journals, it's rare to see a short story collection hit the bestseller list and even sell out in certain bookstores (for a solid week, my store would sell the book just as fast as it came in, and while it's been available for over a month, it's still enjoying steady attention). Really, it reaffirms something I've said before: someone as talented as Saunders should and must get attention from casual readers, and I think this has been true. His blend of genres and emotions are touching and beautiful, and it's impossible to not be moved by the worlds he creates. Even in the most absurd situations, there are moments reflected that every reader will recognize. However, there are challenges in these pieces: some of the stories are so careful in their execution that it takes a few pages (and even the occasional re-read paragraph) to realize what's going on. Saunders is never obvious about what he's doing or what he's trying to say. And that gives people who champion smart reading a good dose of hope. In addition to being embraced by wider circles, Tenth Of December requires rolled-up sleeves and careful attention. Needless to say, the work is worthwhile, and the stories reach for a staggering number of feelings.

Work Cited:
Saunders, George. Tenth Of December. Copyright 2013 by George Saunders.



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