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George Saunders’ 10th of December: Warmly Exhausting

tenth_of_decemberIf this review seems languid, it’s because my brain and I are cuddling—having just concluded a taxing but gratifying bout of intellectual intercourse with George Saunders’ 10th of December.

This is my first Saunders encounter and his fourth story collection since 1996’s critically-acclaimed CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.  The command of perception, humor, and satire he brought to his single work of nonfiction, The Braindead Megaphone, has been compared to Mark Twain’s in An Innocent Abroad.  This attracted my initial attention.

Right up front: I’m ineffably biased toward short-form fiction.  Tobias Wolff, the last such purveyor embraced, exalted, and discarded by our anointed literati, pronounced it “the perfect American form:”

Most of us don’t live lives that lend themselves to novelistic expression, because our lives are so fragmented.

I’m also biased toward a vehicle that floors the accelerator the instant you touch the door handle, forcing you to scramble aboard and hang on until the operator decides the ride is over.  Your challenge is to absorb as much detail and nuance from the onrushing scenery as you can, and decamp, jostled and rubber-legged, to apply some coherence and meaning to it.  I don’t remember this dense and tiring a read since Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, decades ago.  (Pynchon, by the way, is a fan.)

10th of December is hard.  It’s a jumble of crazed circumstances distilled from familiar contemporary experience and populated by a damaged, depressed, and distracted lot who co-exist in sustained, tragicomic proportions.  Three of the 10 stories—“Escape from Spiderhead,” “My Chivalric Fiasco,” and “Tenth of December”—unify around unsatisfactory ingestion of substances, from a whacked-out, penal (pun intended) clinical trial, through chemical Medieval-speak, to the pursuit of eternal liberation from chemotherapy.  A fourth, “Home,” might, but I couldn’t decide between drugs and weaponry; nonetheless, not outcome-determinative, and likely the most resonant description of combat-based, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ever penned.  There are two—“Victory Lap” and “December 10”—in which adolescent insecurity and purpose collide nobly with and to defeat adult sociopathy and despair.  Here, buying a puppy becomes a bridge between lives, one glancingly middle-class and one threadbare everywhere, except for unconditional love.  There, lawn ornamentation stands simultaneously for things enduring and their transience.  Over there, a latter-day Babbitt rails, mostly internally, against a plodding, mediocre existence.  Over here, a harried middle manager uses a meandering memo to exhort his underlings to higher workmanlike purpose, organized around his personal parable of his vanquishment of a beached whale’s carcass.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries,” published in the New Yorker last October, has attracted the most attention, ranging from a sci-fi crank (from which he’s apparently recanted or moved on, since the original link no longer works), dismissing its central metaphor as a done-to-death cliché in science fiction—in addition to being badly written and making no sense—to earnest New Yorker interviewer Deborah Treisman, plumbing the depth and darkness of its origins.  To avoid prejudicing your own experience of it, all I’ll say is that it explores the moral vacuity of owning and displaying collectibles, taken beyond extreme.  In that interview, Saunders himself struggles to describe his process, and succeeds as brilliantly as he did in the story:

One thing I always feel in the midst of trying to talk coherently about a story I’ve finished is that, you know, ninety percent of it was intuitive, done at-speed, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, except in the ‘A felt better than B’ way…The important part of the writing process is trying to make choices that push the story in the most interesting direction, by which I mean the direction that causes the story to give off the most light.  The story’s goal is to be fascinating and stimulating and irreducible; the writer’s job is to micromanage the text to make this happen.

Exactly.

Last—and most certainly not least—the prosaic rewards here are sublime.  Saunder’s characters speak both in the nonchalant tongues of our fractured culture and to our deepest longings, in ways that surprise with their left-handed affirmation and warmth.  And they are, at times, insanely funny. There is a conversation in “Home” involving the rescue of cleft-lipped Russian orphans that will itself cripple you.

A few examples, to get you started:

Donfrey’s kids had also seemed great, two elflike androgynes politely debating something, possibly the history of the Supreme Court?

Ryan’s parents had sonorous/confident voices that seemed to have been fabricated out of previous, less sonorous/confident voices by means of sudden money.

“Eighteen years you have been my dear home,” Ma said, possible imitating some Sioux from a movie.

That part of town was full of castles.  Inside one was a couple embracing.  Inside another a woman had like nine million little Christmas houses out on a table, like she was taking inventory.  Across the river the castles got smaller.  By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts.  Inside one peasant were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch.  Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.

Years ago at The Illuminated Body he and Molly had seen this brain slice.  Marring the brain slice had been a nickel-sized brown spot.  That brown spot was all it had taken to kill the guy.  Guy must have had his hopes and dreams, closet full of pants, and so on, some treasured childhood memories; a mob of koi in the willow shade at Gage Park, say, Gram searching in her Wrigley’s-smelling purse for a tissue—like that.  If not for that brown spot, the guy might have been one of the people walking by on the way to lunch in the atrium.  But no.  He was defunct now, off rotting somewhere, no brain in his head.

Magnificent little dude.

He should probably get going.

Magnificent Little Dude was like his Indian name.

Get the collection, then get comfortable.  You’ll need—and value—the race, and the rest.

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