not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
NOTE: This review was originally posted to my GoodReads page. I’m reproducing it here, in a shameful attempt to increase my post count.
I generally hate CD reviews that review the CD track-by-track, and I think reviewing a short story collection story-by-story is the literary equivalent of that, but there’s no other way I could think to review Tenth of December, especially no other way that reflects the care George Saunders seems to have taken in putting this together. So, track-by-track review begins:
1. Victory Lap- I have a theory that short story authors put their most representative story first when arranging a collection, because it’s the story you’re most likely to read if you pick up the book in a store. Whether that’s a rule or not, Saunders does it here: bizarre narration, humor derived from bizarre narration, a simple story (threadbare even) given dimension and weight because of how Saunders navigates it through the obstacles he has put in his own way. Read this story if you want to know whether you’ll like Saunders.
2. Sticks- This seems to be the story for you to read if you’re pressed for time in the bookstore, like maybe you’ve got an appointment in five minutes or one of the store employees keeps coming over and asking “can I help you?” in a pointed way that means “buy it or beat it,” or if the person you’re trying to convince to read Saunders thinks 24 pages is too long and so refuses to read “Victory Lap,” even though it’s not that long a story. One of two pieces in the book that I’d characterize as “flash fiction” – I’ll explain why when I get to the other one.
3. Puppy- With a title like that, you know it’s not going to be a happy story. Initially seems like a short-ish trifle, but grew on me when I’d read it a few times. Saunders definitely leans on the humanism in this collection, not in the general sense, but in the dictionary-definition, learn-to-empathize-with-people-or-else sense, and Puppy’s the first one that really smacks you over the head with it. On the whole the ingenuity of the device that Saunders uses overcomes the vague feeling of preachiness I felt.
4. Escape From Spiderhead- So I think I know why I did this like an annoying CD review. I’ve been listening to the new U2 album, and you know how, on every U2 album, somewhere in tracks 3-5 there’s always one song that sounds a LOT like “Where the Streets Have No Name?” You know, “City of Blinding Lights,” “Walk On,” “Staring at the Sun,” “One,” “Unknown Caller”- One song that always contains this sound that the band, 30 years later, keeps coming back to? Well, that’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” which will immediately remind any experienced Saunders reader of “Jon.” I’m not complaining- “Jon” is a great story, and “Escape from Spiderhead” does enough differently that it’s not just a retread. Instead, it gives you a stronger sense of Saunders’s identity as a writer, and the humanist moral contained within makes it a good companion piece to “Puppy.”
5. Exhortation- The second piece of flash fiction, though it’s about 6 pages long to the 2-page “Sticks.” I’ve never had a great idea about what separates short fiction from flash fiction, but this story and “Sticks” strike me as the latter because, whatever the length, they’re told in one breath, if that makes sense. There’s no interruption, no back-and-forth of dialogue… they seem to be singular in a way that escapes all the other stories, which (with the possible exception of “My Chivalric Fiasco”) all strike me as more…multifaceted? granular? hybrid? I’m not making a value judgment, just trying to figure out how to articulate the distinction I feel between the two. One’s a large pebble, the other’s a chunk of concrete with a bunch of little pebbles stuck inside. Anyway, this one is bleak and funny. Hand it to someone with a slightly longer attention span than the person you handed “Sticks” to.
6. Al Roosten- The second story, along with “Puppy,” to have no particularly surreal elements, either in the world or the narration. The narration does veer along the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness, but the protagonist is too mundane to really make it seem bizarre- he’s Walter Mitty without the imagination. Interesting formally in that it contains exactly two sentences that are written outside the limited third-person perspective of the rest of the story. Also contains the biggest gut-punch of a final sentence in the whole collection.
7. The Semplica Girl Diaries- My favorite story in the collection, and in a lot of ways it feels like the story to which the previous six have been building. You get the Carver-esque social miserablism of “Puppy” and “Al Roosten,” the sinister and bizarre dystopianism of “Spiderhead” and “Exhortation,” and the offbeat writing style that occurs everywhere in Saunders. There’s barely a single complete sentence in the story, which a) as with “Victory Lap,” hides the simplicity of the story a bit, and b) gives us a better idea of the narrator, making his attempts to overcome obstacles even more pitiful when we can see how difficult it is for him to even express them. Great, meaningful joke in how the narrator is writing for an audience that he assumes will not be familiar with his time and place, and so the only thing he does not describe at length is the thing we, the audience are not familiar with. Wins award for text I would be most tempted to assign to students, even though I know they’d just complain that it’s too long.
8. Home- I’d forgotten just how many of these stories walk the wire between sad and funny, refusing to fall all the way into one or the other, but here’s the third story in a row where I finished, laughed, and then had to go for a walk because I felt slightly depressed. Interestingly enough, I was mostly reminded of a handful of American Indian authors with this story- N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Sherman Alexie in particular have a similar way of making everyday life appear just unbelievably bizarre. Contains the second-biggest gut-punch of a final sentence in the whole collection, and if you wanted to place it above “Al Roosten,” I wouldn’t blame you.
9. My Chivalric Fiasco- Probably the weakest of the stories, though maybe I thought that because I’ve read enough medieval literature that Saunders’s fascimile felt a bit flat to me. Seems almost like a deleted scene from “Escape from Spiderhead,” and it will remind people of “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” even though I don’t really see the two stories as similar. It does make me want to see a whole collection of stories set in this alternate universe where people have easy access to drugs that alter their language centers in various ways. A really cool idea, but done better in “Spiderhead” and kind of an afterthought.
10. Tenth of December- Another one like “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” where the devices and themes and world-building that are dealt with one-by-one in the other stories seem to combine into something even bigger. Lots has been made of Saunders being a short-story specialist, but it’s stories like “Tenth of December” that make me think he’s got a novel in him (also, the post-book interview with David Sedaris, where he tells Sedaris he has at least one novel in him). The way the story evokes theoretical ethical debates under the much-more-tanglible urgency of its narrative suggests that this is what Saunders was reaching for in “Puppy.” Also, lots of short stories (including some in here) have the basic outline of “person has a plan”/”plan falls apart.” This is the only one I’ve seen that’s attempted anything like the inverse and been successful. Follows the example of Dubliners in ending the collection with a story set during winter, which seems to be important somehow.
Anyway, great book. Reinvigorated my interest in the short story- I might do a Cheever collection next. I’m resisting the fifth star for now, because I want to give room for other collections to improve on it, but feel free to imagine the fifth star if you really feel it deserves it. I wouldn’t contradict you.