BY CHRIS LILLIS MEATTO
The short fiction of George Saunders has focused almost entirely on how to be a functioning person in contemporary society, and in Tenth of December, his latest collection, Saunders appears at his tender, moving best. The worlds here—his typical smallish, graying suburban strip-mall towns—are populated by characters who will also seem familiar to his readers: strivers hectored by financial hardship and Sisyphean home-lives; dreamy outcast kids assailed by ridicule; jargon-y corporate personalities; and in general, people who know that the system depends upon their being a total loser but nonetheless struggle to overcome their fates.
What has changed, however, is Saunders’s reliance upon his trademark sincere absurdity, carefully honed over three short story collections, four novellas, and a book of essays all published in the last two decades. . In earlier work, Saunders often introduced ludicrous, perverse elements that not only added stylistic oomph but also allowed him to create space in the narrative, via distraction, to address otherwise ordinary topics with empathy rather than sentimentality. Thus, we have stories about domestic upheaval, an idiotic boss, or the pressures of providing for one’s family centering around an actor playing a caveman in a pre-historical theme park (“Pastoralia”), or a guy stripping at a low-rent club because his zombie aunt came back from the grave and told him to get his shit together and start saving up (“Sea Oak”). The emotional valence is generated in part by the way Saunders joins the everyday with the dark and ridiculous. Often enough in Saunders’s earlier stories, the weirder things get, the more they start to click into place. And that’s when you start to feel that small ache start to bloom deep in your gut.
Despite recognizable characters and settings, however, the stories in Tenth of December are uniquely wonderful and often devastating. Indicating a new phase for Saunders, for once the most powerful stories in the collection do not depend upon outlandish premises. In the title story, a pathetic young boy indulging his imaginary life on a walk through the winter woods discovers a cancer patient bent on suicide-by-exposure. In “Puppy,” a mother takes her two kids to buy a dog from another woman only to leave, horrified, after witnessing the woman’s impaired son scamper and play in the backyard while tethered to a stake. “Sticks” is a brutal two-paragraph sprint through the odd life of a family whose overbearing father would festoon a metal pole in their yard, while “Victory Lap” features a pair of high school kids and neighbors caught in the middle of a violent home invasion. And in “Home,” a tough portrait of a nation unable to properly acknowledge or accept its returning soldiers, a veteran with PTSD comes back to his childhood town and family to find his life irredeemable. In this grouping, Saunders proves that he is unafraid of tackling deeply emotional issues head-on. This is a bold shift for him, and a pleasure to read.
The PR and critical response for this book so far (including a major spread in the New York Times Magazine) has invoked David Foster Wallace a lot—for their joint history with Syracuse, contemporary fame, affinity for fusing high- and low-brow culture, and mutual regard —and to that I would add their shared overarching concern for how to write meaningfully about that “damaged American heart,” as Stewart O’Nan called it; about how to produce work brimming with compassion that is also immune to criticism for being sappy or pretentious. .This is a mammoth formal undertaking given that both writers partially call out our culture’s fraught relationship with irony as a referent for our current hyperactivity and emotional disengagement. For Wallace, the way to do this rested in cosseting the emotional cores of his work beneath heaps of information and technical brilliance, a practice he termed the compulsion to “reach out for and recoil from something at the same time.” But he couldn’t manage it: in large part, what undid him as a writer was trying to maintain this posture when confronted not only by his own expectation of maturing into a lucid stylist, but those he imagined the reader having, as well. Wallace constantly questioned whether or not he was actually getting through to anyone, even and perhaps especially as he gradually began to simplify towards the end. Similarly, the solution for Saunders historically took the form of what has become immediately identifiable as a Saunders Story: an everyday scene complicated by a bizarre or fantastical incidence, the presence of which would offset the author’s main interest in exploring universal topics like loss, love, and survival in the modern world. In Tenth of December, finally, Saunders appears to have realized a way to write powerfully and without device about the human condition.
All of this is not to say that Saunders completely abandons his familiar farcical mode and tone. In “Semplica Girl Diaries,” for example, a hard-luck dad tries to please his daughter and redeem his self-worth by getting her the latest coveted item as a birthday present: lawn displays featuring women from impoverished nations who are strung up and joined together, dangling, by a wire through their heads. Or witness “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which a convict finds himself enrolled in a prison drug-testing program whereby brand name pharmaceuticals that inspire extravagant reactions are directly administered while scientists and guards watch on, noting their effects. The stories in this vein are no less sharp or appealing for their comic peculiarities; but in the end, they tend to come off as bravura set-pieces which highlight Saunders’s puckish overlays, rather than help frame his uniquely poignant and disquieting portraits of those, as he has written elsewhere, who have been “sainted by pain.”
Beyond the candor, what distinguishes Tenth of December is Saunders’s sentence-level craftsmanship. While the sorry title character of “Al Roosten,” a junk-store owner, remarks, “the world was beautiful,” he watches as “a dense ball of birds went linear, then settled into the branches of a lightning-blasted tree.” Impelled to act quickly, the title story’s cancer patient finds that “suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks.” And in “Home,” the narrator notes, “That part of town was full of castles…By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts. Inside one peasant hut were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch. Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.”
After a successful career spent fine-tuning his voice in order to cut through what makes our time so funny and bewildering, it is wonderful now to read Saunders as he shifts into a new phase of earnest storytelling. The best artists are always the restless perfectionists, constantly tinkering with ways to close the gap between themselves and their subjects.
Chris Lillis Meatto is an archivist in New York. He previously reviewed Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue.