“Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happened every day pretty?”
In January of 2013, as the year was just beginning and the previous one’s memories still a little fresh in the minds of the collective, The New York Times Magazine declared one book to be the best book that anyone will ever read in 2014. It seems like an article intended as clickbait, something that will get the website of the magazine hundreds if not thousands of clicks and that will incite debate for a couple of days or so. However, the there were no loud voices of dissent or riots sprouting from several corners of the internet and what negative reaction that did occur was about the hyperbolic headline because how could the New York Times predict such a thing when they haven’t even read half of the books that will be coming out that year. As far as I can tell, most reactions on the internet were voices of cautious agreement, a sort-of collective voice that says “Maybe but we can’t be sure, can we?” The writer was George Saunders, the book was Tenth of December and I can now say that, if you have read Tenth of December, you may be one with me in saying that it was the best book to come out of 2013.
I never knew anything about Saunders before I read his short story “Jon” in the Jeffrey Eugenides-edited short story anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. I never knew his name and his work before “Jon”. After “Jon”, I had the sudden urge to buy all of his works followed by a sad realization that his short story collections are not widely available in the Philippines. I bought Pastoralia on a chance encounter in a random stack of 2nd-hand books at Booksale. I bought Civilwarland in Bad Decline when I saw it being sold for half its price at Power Books. As for In Persuasion Nation and Tenth of December, I bought them both at Barnes & Noble here in the US. I took me two years from not knowing who George Saunders was to having read all of his short story collections and becoming one of my favorite writers.
“What a degraded cosmos. What a case of something starting out nice and going bad”
However, George Saunders’ life isn’t really one that you’d expect from a writer who is now being heralded as one of the masters of contemporary short fiction. After all, he graduated in 1981 from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in Geophysical Engineering and he worked as a technical writer and an engineer for Radian International. He even became a part of an oil exploration crew that worked in the jungles of Sumatra. He got an MFA from Syracuse University in 1989 but worked for Radian International until 1996. Then, in 1997, he became a faculty member of Syracuse University where he teaches to this day. In 2006, he was granted both a MacArthur Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship. His most recent work is the short story collection, Tenth of December, which won the 2013 Story Prize and the inaugural 2014 Folio Prize.
“What America is, to me, is a guy doesn’t want to buy, you let him not buy, you respect his not buying. A guy has a crazy notion different from your crazy notion, you pat him on the back and say, Hey pal, nice crazy notion, let’s go have a beer. America, to me, should be shouting all the time, a bunch of shouting voices, most of them wrong, some of them nuts, but please, not just one droning glamorous reasonable voice.”
George Saunders stories are mostly about the absurdity of consumerism and the pitfalls of a capitalist society. Most of his stories are set in dystopian near-futures where the future is not characterized by flying cars or advanced AI but technology with a degree of advancement that’s not far from our own which makes his stories sound prophetic. In “My Flamboyant Grandson”, people are required to view commercials or else face punishment; In “Semplica Girl Diaries”, teenage girls from third-world countries are being used to design the lawns of rich families; In “Bounty”, “Flawed” people are forced to entertain “Normal” people by recreating historical events. Saunders’ stories go from being absurd to being terrifyingly real in a second. However, what really makes Saunders’ stories amazing is the undercurrent of kindness that emanates from all of them especially from his more recent works. His protagonists are some Don Quixotian in stature, trying to right wrongs in the world with nothing but a flimsy sword and rusting armor with almost no hope of success yet they still do it because, for them, it is necessary even if it may cost them their life. However, I wouldn’t say that he is a didactic writer because his message does not present a good pay-off. Most of his characters even suffer as a result of their decisions in doing the “right” thing. Instead, Saunders presents the moral decision with a caveat: “Do this but be prepared for the consequences.”
“He is going, he realizes. He is going, and will not be coming back as Brad. He must try at least to retain this feeling of pity. If he can, whoever he becomes will inherit this feeling, and be driven to act on it, and will not, as Brad now sees he has done, waste his life on accumulation, trivia, self-protection, and vanity.”
Saunders is a writer who gets better with each collection, whose prose becomes more refined with each story he writes and whose message of kindness in the midst of a world gone mad becomes clearer and clearer. I would suggest that anyone who wants to read his works should do so in chronological order but that might come off as a restraint. Instead, I say this: read George Saunders because I promise that you will not regret it.
Aside from short story collections, he has also written a novella, a book of essays, and a children’s book. His short story collections are:
- Civilwarland In Bad Decline (1996)
- Pastoralia (2000)
- In Persuasion Nation (2006)
- Tenth of December (2013)
- The Semplica-Girl Diaries
- Tenth of December
- The Red Bow
- Sea Oak
- A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room
- Victory Lap
- The Falls