BY LARA BUXBAUM
There’s a certain resistance you experience, as a reader, to a book that comes cloaked in praise: when it’s the winner of the 2014 Folio Prize 2014, has four pages of gushing blurbs and an introduction entitled “George Saunders has written the best book you’ll read this year.” There is always the risk that this publishing fanfare, necessary to sell a book, can backfire and be dismissed as fluff or hyperbole that fails to accurately describe the book in your hands.
And so it was with both excitement and hesitation that I approached Saunders’s fifth publication, Tenth of December – my first foray into the Saunders universe. The hesitation disappeared all but immediately, and the excitement built to include wonder and astonishment.
In Joel Lovell’s justifiably enthusiastic introduction (worth a read for its own sake), Saunders describes the revelatory experience of reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. He also relates his discussions with fellow writers about the challenge of writing “emotional fiction”: “about the possibly contrasting desire to: (1) write stories that had some sort of moral heft and/or were not just technical exercises or cerebral games; while (2) not being cheesy or sentimental or reactionary”. This tension is creatively and brilliantly explored in the ten stories in this collection which consider ethical dilemmas, the limits of compassion and the place of “moral courage” in a world seemingly depleted of morality, but not devoid of hope. The stories successfully strike a balance between weirdly intellectual and deeply moving.
Often short stories in collections are read one at a time, with spaces of weeks or months in between, sometimes lying forgotten on bedside tables or discarded in favour of a novel. Tenth of December is not that kind of collection. I devoured it greedily, barely pausing to catch my breath. But I also wished to live with one story at a time, re-reading to try to figure out how Saunders had worked his magic.
These stories seem to exist at the edge of now, in a world both familiar but also slightly off-kilter, in which there are drugs for shyness and verbal lucidity. The American dream is scoffed at by police officers, belief in it a sign of naïvety which deserves punishment and yet, the myth that “anything is possible” continually motivates and taunts the characters.
The protagonists include a frugal father whose “one concession to glee” is decorating a pole in his backyard; a janitor at a mediaeval theme park who is promoted to knight, “hooray, finally a medicated role”, but his consumption of KnightLyfe® and desire to be chivalrous proves his undoing. There is a felon who avoided incarceration by becoming a test subject for drugs such as “ED289/290”, the love drug. The longest and most disturbing story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, begins in the style of a Bridget Jones diary kept by a suburban father who prays: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers … for kids’ sake” (sic). His aspirational desire to “keep up” and thus “have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life etc., etc.” (sic) takes on grotesque forms and leads to chilling questions about justice, oppression and the myopia of the middle classes. The stories leave the reader, like the characters, “amazed and flinching”.
Saunders is a linguistic gymnast in his exuberant use of changing registers, style and dialogue. He has created a world in which language, exhausted and worn-out by platitudes, colloquialisms and clichés, somehow becomes shiny and new. This is a book I have been foisting on friends and finding ways to slip into conversations. In short: believe the hype! Do yourself a favour and buy the book.