Tenth of December by George Saunders – A Review

Tenth of December
George Saunders
Random House, 2013, pg 251

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of short stories from an American writer and enjoyed them. For some reason I’ve had some back luck-that and I’m tired of reading about middle class problems, or, at least, the ones that I find when I read short stories. Which is not to say Sanders avoids these themes but Tenth of December takes some more interesting approaches to the avoids the easy outs and self satisfying conclusions and takes his narratives in different directions. He, too, uses a good dose of humor and the fantastical to flip what otherwise might be conventional into something perceptive.

The first in that line is the opening story, Victory Lap, which uses a multiple points of view to describe an attempted abduction. What makes the story worth reading is the different voices he uses, especially the boy who has been so smothered as he has grown up that he doesn’t have any idea how to make a decision of his own. When he finally decides to save the young girl who is about to be raped he can’t avoid thinking about his parent’s rules:

Then he was running. Across the lawn. Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod);

And they go on that for sometime in a humorously panicked tone that at once makes fun of the parents and turns a story of heroism into a critique of it. The humor, the sharp edge that can descend easily into disrespect, is handled well in Tenth of December. And while the stories always have a knowing wink from Saunders, as if he knows this is all just a bit ridiculous, it doesn’t ruin them.

He is at his most successful when he keeps closest to the little defeats and accidents of everyday life, pulling from those the absurdity that is masked behind the common place. In the The Semplica Girl Diaries he creates a family that is trying to keep up with its neighbors, spending all its money on appearances. While it sounds familiar, there is something obscure, just off page, that is swirling around the family. The statues that they have bought, just like the ones everyone else has, have disappeared and now the family is at risk of arrest. Using the fantastical, the statues are more than stone ad to have let one escape is dangerous. It is in this play between the desire to keep up with your neighbors, the purchase of what ostensibly are tacky garden decorations, and the sentient statutes, that makes the story resonate with the absurdities and traumas of the lower middle class. Certainly, there is a lightness to the story, no dirty realism here, but that is what makes it refreshing.

The lightness comes at the expense of knowing the characters. Saunders is not necessarily a character driven writer but most of the stories in the collection revolve around their inner lives. Al Roosten is the best at looking inside the desperation of a man who doesn’t quite have it together, but is holding on as best he can. It is an internal monolog full of the desperate tropes that people use to convince themselves everything will turn out alright. Of course, for Roosten it probably won’t. Yet the story has a charm that keeps it from the looserus americanus style of writing. Roosten is human, his decisions are not fiat-acomplie, but the uncertain steps of a man who doesn’t know where he is going.

The sense that the characters don’t know exactly know where they are going gives Saunders a touch, not of hope, but an openness that evades the frivolous that is always wanting to enter his stories. He keeps that at bay by holding his characters close and giving them a life that resonates still, despite the absurdities that happen. I would like a little more complexity in his work, a deeper play amongst his character’s thoughts, but what he has on display here is still significantly interesting.