Tenth of December
By George Saunders
The short story can haunt you like nothing else. Novels are too discursive to haunt us properly, but the short story gathers impulses, mistakes, swerves and missed exits into its sudden density and then lodges stubbornly somewhere in the cerebral cortex. If it’s a George Saunders story, it lodges hard, and sometimes pokes its head out and waves. And despite its barely grata status in our pulsating culture of reality shows, movies, and epic ad campaigns, the Saunders short story is determined to nudge us, ungracious and unlovely, toward grace.
Tenth of December is Saunders’s fourth collection, and by now several of the specters present in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation have been exorcised. Barring one metamorphosis of sorts in “Escape from Spiderhead,” there aren’t any ghosts; except the lackluster Medieval Times-esque establishment in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” there aren’t any theme parks. These absences are bittersweet: Saunders’s best work is set in gaudy, essentially American playgrounds like CivilWarLand and Joysticks, the male revue/restaurant chain in Pastoralia’s “Sea Oak.” These are places where fantasy awkwardly shtups bureaucracy, breeding a futility Saunders’s hapless characters, striving and spectacularly failing, survive by withdrawing deeper into their own heads. Often the text follows, a skillful interior monologue engaging with others’ monologues both real and imagined. In “Victory Lap,” a sheltered boy saves a neighbor girl despite the hectoring in his head. “She’ll recover in time, Beloved Only. None of our affair, Scout,” goes the parental line, even while the dutiful son defies domestic regulation by sprinting after her would-be kidnapper.
In “Puppy,” contending with “Victory Lap” and the title story for the collection’s best, two mothers wanting to provide for their children find themselves at odds; in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” a father trying to buy a respectable yard for his kids unwittingly horrifies one of them. The tragedy here isn’t that people want the unreasonable, but that our Constitutionally sanctioned desires—the safety of our loved ones, meaning in our lives—clash with others’ searches for the same thing. In “Tenth of December,” a deteriorating cancer patient seeking to spare his wife the indignity of caring for him almost dooms a bumbling teen (a Saunders staple). Trying our best, we can’t help but collide.
It would doubtlessly be fun to read politics into the PTSD-flavored “Home,” or to revel in the playful pharmaceuticals—VerbaLuceTM, ErthAdmire—of “Spiderhead,” but it’s more interesting, particularly since not all of the stories in December are winners (“Sticks” is out of place, and as usual there’s a hint of easy pathos) to look at them in toto. Embattled (maybe), contemporary American writing—literary writ-ing, that is, since we’re constantly swimming in text—has sought to deal with overabundance, establish a stake for us within it. David Foster Wallace’s eternally unfinished Pale King proposed a lifelong dedication to inevitable banality as a kind of heroism, a counterintuitive sublime. But Saunders’s lot is with the little guys who can’t manage classical heroics: “at birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups.” Their salvation is always in question but never impossible, and so they feel closer to us, hovering, transparent, ghosting steady hands on our shoulders, whispering kind of nasally, “all will be well and all will be well, etc., etc.”