Monday, April 23, 2018
Books

Review: George Saunders' 'Tenth of December: Stories'

A mother's well-intentioned errand to buy her children a puppy plunges her into a kind of personal hell. A pharmaceutical testing subject falls wildly in love with a stranger in minutes — and then out of love just as fast. And in an upscale suburb, the latest fashion in landscaping is displaying half a dozen or so young women in white dresses — living, breathing women — suspended in midair by wires through their skulls.

Much of the emotional power of George Saunders' short stories comes from his uncanny knack for combining resonantly believable reality with the utterly strange.

That's certainly one of the strengths (and there are many) of Tenth of December, his wonderful new story collection and his first since In Persuasion Nation in 2006. Saunders, a MacArthur "genius" grant winner who teaches at Syracuse University, is a tough writer to categorize. He's certainly a satirist of contemporary consumer culture, but he treats his characters much more tenderly than most satirists do. He's postmodern in his compression of language and experiments with form; he often pushes into the realm of speculative fiction with stories set in dystopian near-futures. And he's the only fiction writer I can think of whose work shows touches of influence by his training as a geophysical engineer.

But what I can say decisively is that Saunders is a terrific writer. The 10 stories in Tenth of December add up to one of the best and most original collections I've read.

The book opens with Victory Lap, a story about a pair of overprotected teens. Alison Pope and Kyle Boot are neighbors who once shared a sandbox but are now inexorably separated by the caste systems of teenagers. Alison is a sweetly confident girl, whom we meet practicing her ballet steps as she daydreams about auditioning boys who might be her "{special one}" — she's too modest to say "prince." Kyle is not, she thinks, her {special one}; when she sees him through her window, coming home from cross-country practice, she thinks, "Poor thing. He looked like a skeleton with a mullet."

To Kyle's parents, though, he is "Beloved Only," and they regiment every moment of his life with rules and chores and logs and "treat points." So far his only rebellion has been the habit of swearing obscenely and robustly — in his head, but never out loud.

Both kids are so doted upon that, in a lesser writer's hands, they'd be smarmy or insufferable. But Saunders is such a master of voice that his narrative makes us feel we are inside their heads — first as they daydream, then, when the plot swings abruptly and chillingly into peril, as they try to find a way to recognize evil in the world, and resist it.

Voice is a key element, too, in Puppy, where Saunders alternates between the points of view of a woman looking for a dog for her kids — just part of creating a childhood for them much better than her own was — and another mother hoping to sell a pup. The collision between the two characters' views of the world around them is breathtaking.

Jeff, the narrator of Escape From Spiderhead, is a prisoner who serves as a subject for drug trials, wearing a "MobiPak™ ... surgically joined to my lower back" that injects all manner of behavior-altering drugs into his spine as needed: Verbaluce™ to enhance his vocabulary, NatuGlide™ to make the world look prettier, Vivistif™ to... well you can probably figure that one out.

It comes in handy when Jeff is tasked with testing a new drug that causes him to fall madly, lustily in love with a stranger — even though she looks plain to him before the drug is administered, and when it wears off after they have sex three times. Later that day, he falls just as madly, and briefly, in love with another woman.

But that's only the lead-in to the real experiment, which involves a depression-inducing drug called Darkenfloxx™. "Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times 10. That does not even come close to how you feel," Jeff tells us. Who gets the drug, and who makes that decision, takes the story in shocking directions.

In the thrillingly moving title story, Tenth of December, a terminal cancer patient named Don Eber goes out into a snowy wood hoping to end his life quickly. He has heartbreaking memories of his beloved stepfather reduced to a demented shadow of himself by illness, and Eber thinks that's the most important lesson he learned from the man — not making your death a burden to those you love. Thanks to a hapless young boy, Eber will discover how wrong he is.

The collection's centerpiece is The Semplica Girl Diaries, a stunning, almost novella-length tour de force of domestic comedy in a mostly recognizable near future. Its narrator, the keeper of the diary, is a harried husband and father, just turned 40, stuck in a pointless job and constantly struggling to stay a step ahead of bankruptcy.

He's happy, though, to do it for his three kids and his wife. Seeing how impressed his oldest daughter is by a friend's extravagant birthday party, which includes the "largest SG arrangement ever seen," he resolves to move heaven and earth, or at least his credit limit, to get some of those SGs for her.

Those would be Semplica Girls, and their very existence is utterly outrageous and outlandish: young third-world women who, to escape poverty, consent to being turned into lawn ornaments via surgery. Yet the skill with which Saunders embeds this idea in a fully believable story about a struggling, striving family, and what he does with it, renders it a sharply unforgettable symbol of aspiration and exploitation.

Tenth of December is filled with the bizarre and the believable, with terror and humor, with mortality and redemption, sometimes all in the same story. Saunders is an extraordinary writer at the top of his powers, and this is a book not to be missed.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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