Book Review: Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders

I peruse the yearly shortlists of the major awards in search of good reading material. I don’t read it all, or even most of it – only what catches my eye. But because I am always reading something and can’t stand finishing one book and not having the next one ready, that eye is always watching. Recently the winners of the National Book Awards were announced, so I skimmed the fiction and nonfiction lists and studied up a bit on the winners and nominees. Under fiction “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri was listed; that one I had ordered and read as soon as it came out. When it came time to make a trip to the local library (book buying being temporarily beyond my means) I went through the fiction list again in conjunction with the library catalog to see what the library had that I could inspect at close hand. Our humble local library is not large and does not have all the National Book Award nominees, and even those they have were almost all checked out. But this one was there: “Tenth of December”. I had never heard of George Saunders, but I figured any writer who could get a short story collection onto the National Book Award shortlist must be worth reading. (By the way, for your information, alas, it is not always so.)

Anyway, when I found the book the first thing that struck me was that it was very light and slim compared to most hardcover tomes these days. It’s a small book of only slightly over 200 pages. In fact, it took me just a few days to read it. The next thing that struck me were the blurbs on the back cover and first few pages. Such literary luminaries as Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers and others were full of praise for the stories of this guy of whom I had never heard. Okay, might as well give those stories a try.

To be honest, as I began to read, my first reaction was: What’s all the fuss? Okay, the guy can write, the stories are decent, but I’ve read better. As I read on I became more impressed as I encountered stories that turned my particular keys. It is the same as with any collection: some stories shine more than others. Interestingly enough, the best stories in the book are science fiction. My favorite, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, concerns a middle class family dissatisfied with their lot, a little behind their neighbors in prestige, who when they get a windfall of cash through a lottery decide to install third world women as mannequins on their lawn. It is the latest rage, it seems, to bring attractive young ladies from poor households, dress them up, thread microwire through their skulls, and use them as lawn ornaments. It’s a dark, nasty story that satirizes middle class American ambition and the ease with which some people dehumanize others when society turns a blind eye to their pain. Another story, “Escape From Spiderhead”, concerns a man, seemingly a convicted felon, being forced to ingest experimental drugs to devastating consequences.

After I had read the first few stories, the writer that sprung to mind was Flannery O’Conner, because she too had an extraordinary writing style, and her stories consist of really evil people and events intruding into common, mundane, humdrum circumstances. But when I got to the science fiction and fantasy I realized that the analogy didn’t fit. Rather, George Saunders ranks among some of the better science fiction writers I have read. The only difference is that he somehow became ensconced among the literati instead of relegated to genre purgatory. He does have range, I’ll give him that. His style is all over the place. And when he is good, he is very, very good.

George Saunders has had awards heaped upon him since the beginning of his writing career, including a half a million dollar MacArthur Fellowship. He’s one of those writers who, to the critics at least, can seemingly do no wrong. It makes me a bit curious to read some more of his work. But it also saddens me about the nature of the literary game. There are writers who have surpassed Saunders in brilliance who are not awarded all the accolades because they have been relegated to the aforementioned genre purgatory. Once in, it is hard to break out. There should not be such barriers and prejudices.

Curious to find out more about this writer I had somehow missed in the mix, I read the Wikipedia page on him, and then followed a link to a recent major article and interview with him from The New Yorker magazine, which incidentally is where most of his stories are published first before they appear in book form. It seems he and his wife had some extraordinarily hard times before he became a literary darling. I mean really tough times. And that resonated with me. Anyone who has survived abject poverty and come out the other side must have learned a few lessons. I can sympathize because I am extraordinarily poor myself right now. When you are in this state it grinds you down every day. It is an oppression, a weight. You feel like you don’t measure up somehow. You look around and feel that you missed the boat, that when favors were being granted you were off somewhere doing something else. This is brought out as a malady of middle class culture in the story I mentioned earlier, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, and it is the insight into this phenomenon that gives strength and depth to the story. The protagonist desperately wants to prove himself better in the eyes of his neighbors, to the point that he is willing to follow their foul examples and string other human beings up in his front yard. This interview enabled me to catch a glimpse of the real George Saunders. It’s not the awards. It’s not the fame. It’s not all the other hotshot writers saying you’re one of the best. No, it’s the living of life in all its vagaries, all its turbulences, all its pain and loss and confusion and uncertainty. It makes me appreciate George Saunders more to realize he was not always at the top of the world. He spent his time down in the pit of poverty just like me, and though now he has a nice estate in New York and a special office separate from the house and everyone considers him a master, he began in the pit in which I now sit, at the keyboard typing away, not knowing if anyone would ever give a damn but doing it anyway because that was what he was made for.

In a way I have to get past all that awards bullshit to get at the heart of a writer. It’s all superfluous when it comes to the words. It gets in the way, in fact. Some of the greatest writers the world has ever known have not won awards. Then again, some of them have. It is something separate, something apart from the act of writing itself. It’s nice if it comes, because it will increase your readership and your profits (and profits help you produce more by keeping you in health and comfort) but it is far from the heart of the matter. The real deal is when you sit all alone and call up from the depths the truest words of which you are capable.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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