It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm it was normal was to keep doing it, over and over.
Tenth of December is a collection of short stories by George Saunders that was published in 2013.
Why I bought it
George Saunders won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. I read that earlier this year and loved it. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel; he primarily wrote short stories before that. I wanted to explore more of his writing, so I bought Tenth of December.
Why you should buy it
If you Google “Best books 2013,” Tenth of December is going to pop up on most resulting lists. It is not overrated. George Saunders stories are most likely going to be included in a bunch of textbooks as examples of great early 21st century literature (if they aren’t already). People in the 20th century had Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. We have George Saunders.
Why his writing is good
George Saunders experiments with the forms of stories, so they’re kind of weird. But they are not just soulless intellectual exercises. They all elicit emotion from the reader and examine complex subject matter.
The following stories are in this collection:
A boy decides whether to help a girl who is being kidnapped. The story switches between the point of view of the girl, the neighbor boy, and the kidnapper. The “stream of consciousness” of each of the characters is reflected in each of their points of view. They are all…different.
Exploring themes of abuse, love, regret, and attempts at forgiveness in the span of two pages, a son reflects on his father’s tradition of decorating of a pole for the holidays.
One upper-middle class woman shops for a puppy for her spoiled children. One poorer woman wants to sell a puppy. The story shifts between their points of view, demonstrating the consequences of an inability to see things from the perspective of others.
Escape from Spiderhead
An exploration of the nature of evil, the justifications used to commit evil, and the agency of people to avoid committing it. Or it’s just a cool sci-fi story about psychoactive chemical experiments. Probably both.
Written in the form of a memo from a project manager attempting to boost the morale of his staff. The most darkly funny – or funnily dark – of the stories in this collection.
A failing store owner participates in a charity auction. Told from his point of view, the reader becomes privy to all of his insecurities, ambitions, pride, and anger. The reader may come to the conclusion that those internal faults are the causes of his problems and not the outside forces that the character blames.
The Semplica Girl Diaries
Written in the form of a journal from the perspective of a middle-class man of relatively modest means trying to provide for his family. This is the longest story in the collection.
Saunders’ stories are not usually poetic – the beauty of the written word is not really something he’s usually after – but this one takes the “common-man” writing style to a whole other level. As with a typical journal, whole words are left out of sentences. Almost every sentence is a fragment. It adds a certain level of “authenticity,” but truthfully I thought it was just a distracting affectation. Saunders did not REALLY commit to the form of a journal: there’s stuff in there that no real middle-class dude would ever write in a journal, at least in that fashion, and there are not enough digressions and nonsense to really sell it as “a journal.” The overrall effect is that it’s a traditional story told from a first-person point of view that’s written all wonky.
But enough kvetching about the form. It’s still a damn good story. Class anxieties, the exploitation of immigrant labor, meaningless (and/or harmful) demonstrations of wealth, how evil can be overlooked when it is commonplace, and the pursuit of status are all themes explored by this pseudo-sci-fi story.
A veteran returns home with post-traumatic stress, wrestling with his past actions, trying to reintegrate with his own, complicated homelife.
My Chivalric Fiasco
On the first page of the story, the main character discovers his co-worker raped by their boss. This story illustrates the quality of Saunders’ stories. What is on the surface a simple and straightforward story contains layers and layers of meaning, in this instance, society’s reaction to a rape claim, how the chivalric response is potentially toxic and damaging, how interference against the victim’s wishes is in itself a violation, and so on and so forth.
Tenth of December
A young boy and a man dying of cancer are at a freezing lake in December. Told from both of their points of view. The story explores themes of end-of-life decisions, hope, and goodness. It’s also tense as hell, as they both work to potentially save each other.