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Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December is a collection of stories about the human condition as exposed to social and economic struggle. This I observed and noted in a reading group organized as result of George Saunders’s inaugural Folio Prize victory. Also noted as an overall observation are the bizarre and quirky plots, characters, and voices that the stories possess.

Victory Lap serves as a strong opener to this collection. In an almost hilarious tone, a girl dances with music and fancies in her head until someone attempts to kidnap her. The horror seeps in as the action continues to build until it finally explodes with relentless brutality when a guy comes to the rescue. The perspectives of the girl, the guy, and the kidnapper overlap each other but still, there’s a coherent mesh woven at the end. There are so many emotions involved in this single story, and this promises a lot for the next entries.

Sticks is super short, a slice from a man’s life, or probably the whole. It is a brief meditation on what you pass on to your kids and on redeeming yourself. It is as fleeting as the couple of minutes it can be finished. It’s followed by another story about a woman who’s supposed to buy a Puppy from another woman but changes her mind, probably because the former saw that the latter has her child chained in their yard. It’s a contrasting picture of the privileged and the not, and beneath that layer are familial themes, particularly on parenting and possibly on domestic abuse.

Deliciously jarring is Escape from Spiderhead, which departs from the realism of the previous three to science fiction. In what can be pictured as a testing center where experiments on emotion control are run on convicts, people’s states of feelings (happiness, lust, nihilism, love, etc.) are manipulated with doses of various trademarked drugs. This paves a clear route to big moral questions. Speaking of which, there’s another one, arguably one of the top three, called The Semplica Girl Diaries that has science fiction elements in it despite being set in a daily middle class neighborhood. There’s a man wants to give the best for his family. However, he has debts. And yet, he just has to have Semplica Girls, period. Semplica Girls are poor immigrant women, mostly from Asia and Africa, are installed in yards and gardens with wires that are strung through their temples. Think of garden gnomes but replace them with girls hanging like linen on a yard clothesline.

These two are grim stories that push the alarm buttons of materialism, of objectification, of dignity, of free will, of evil. But wait, there’s still one more sci-fi-ish story, less grim and more nostalgic. My Chivalric Fiasco ponders the lost virtues of a Knight as a poor employee destroys the plan of his boss at getting away from a crime. It comes with the knight-speak that is induced when a particular drug, similar to the Spiderhead drugs, is swallowed.

Exhortation, also in a corporate setting but delivered in the form of a memo, displays a similar boss-employee relationship but with a sinister wink. A couple of seemingly displaced stories are Al Roosten, an extended self-deluding rant, and the penultimate Home, a war veteran’s tale of alienation. The former can be considered as one of the weaker, if not the weakest, stories but the latter is a strangely good one, strange for all the things left hanging in an atmosphere filled with comical, alarming, and melancholy airs.

The last and the title story, Tenth of December resonates the vibes of the Victory Lap. If the first story has a girl lost in her fancy thoughts, the last story has a boy lost in his fantastical thoughts. Both are led to danger, the boy falling through thin ice, and both are saved by people who happen to be around. The man who saves the boy, who at the start of the story attempts to kill himself, is freezing, almost dying, after hauling the boy off the frozen waters. He decides he wants to live after all, even though there’s the cycle of pain to go through by merely living. And why is that?

Because, okay, the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.

After finishing the story, there’s sure to be a looming feeling that everything will be all right. And perhaps it will be all right for most, if not for all of them: the dreamy kids, minimum wage earners, convicts, middle class fathers, soldiers, and Semplica Girls. At the core, these stories are bleak morality tales, ten shards chipped off humanity’s obsidian surface. But there is another facet, and it is warm and incandescent. Saunders, with his sharp and original voice, has put up a collection of idiosyncratic stories that are ultimately kind and hopeful.

[Read in April 2014.]

[5 out of 5 stars.]

[272 pages. Trade paperback.]


2 Responses to “Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders”

  1. Jay

    The title story was the one the won me over to the Suanders camp. I struggled with Escape from Spiderhead, but maybe thought a little more deeply about Tenth of December and became a fan at that point. Nice post.


    • Angus Miranda

      I struggled at the first parts of Escape, too. I had to reread it slowly from the top to get through it. Thanks!


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