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January 12, 2014

Tenth of December by George Saunders

tenth-of-decemberIn 2013, for the first time ever, I’d read almost all of the year’s best fiction, at least as determined by the New York Times. Life After Life, Americanah, The Goldfinch, The Flamethrowers–all of these were huge and satisfying reading projects for me this year. (One would note that these are all books by women. I believe their appearance on this list all together is because 2013 really was a banner year for books by women, but also because it was the year in which Pamela Paul [a woman] became editor of the New York Times Book Review, a most fortuitous confluence of events.) The one book on the list I hadn’t read was Tenth of December, a short story collection by George Saunders, and it had been keeping such excellent company on that list that I decided I had to read it too, for my own reading pleasure as well as for the sake of completeness.

When I started to read, I had no idea what I was getting into. We begin, “Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.” And was there ever a better opening sentence, in terms of rhythm, euphony, use of a moment stopped in time? The smallest pause, and the story begins its movement forward, unrelenting. It is a common complaint of the modern short story that within it nothing happens, and herein the work of George Saunders is resolutely an exception. Although as Alison Pope descends the stairs, where we’re going doesn’t get any clearer. “Say the staircase was marble,” and here we are in the realm of the hypothetical. A strange kind of voice, punctuated by physical gestures, “{eyebrows up}”, catchphrases and short bursts of francais (ballet, it is). And then it is clear–aha! Here were are in the head of a teenage girl, Alison Pope, just three days shy of her fifteenth birthday. She’s home alone and here is her interior monologue, and it is full of affectation and she’s imagining herself as the heroine of our story (oh, but isn’t she though). She is faintly ridiculous, but here is the thing–George Saunders loves her. He believes in Alison Pope, in a benignly teasing way. And it is this kind of faith on which the entire collection is constructed.

In a sense, Alison Pope is a type, and so Kyle Boot, her neighbour (over-helicopter-parented neurotic nerd) but they’re both invested with specificity in their oh-so realized voices, and moreover, Saunders permits both of them (and all of his characters) to go beyond type. As Alison is descending her stairs, she is contemplating big questions in her peculiar sunny way: are people good and is life fun? Alison Pope is voting yes, and then comes  a knock at her door, the cruel world fighting to get in. Conspiring to rid the sun from the world of Alison Pope, and the only person positioned to save her from such a fate is a most unlikely hero, Kyle Boot. Here is plot; here is a man with a knife. Because there are men with knives–George Saunders knows that. But he also knows that they don’t always win. That shadow doesn’t negate the light.

I tore through these stories in a hurry, leaping from one to another and having to re-find my feet on each landing. We move from skewed domestic tales (Tom Perrotta meets stylistic innovation?): to a convicted murderer partaking in pharmaceutical experiments which ultimately offer him a chance at redemption; a story in form of a pseudo-motivational email from a middle-manager; the diary of a man in some distant future who is disappointed with his life and decides to make his daughter proud by investing in the latest fad–foreign women displayed as lawn ornaments–and thus begins the downward spiral of his life; the amazing, explosive story “Home” (which it occured to me I’d read in the 2011 New Yorker Summer Fiction issue) about a war veteran returned home broken to his imperfect life; and the title story in which a nerdy boy with an overactive imagination (whose mom is my favourite person in the whole book, and the boy’s perception of her is beautiful and heartbreaking) meets in the woods a terminally ill man who is determined to end his life.

Though very different in tone,  Saunders’ collection has the same preoccupations as the Giller-winning Hellgoing by Lynn Coady, moral questions in an amoral world. What is good and what is evil? Are there such things as either? How do we know how to be in a world without God? And is it possible to even get the chance to answer these questions when the speed of life’s locked in at status-quo?

I come to Saunders without context, save for the New York Times list, but in reading the book made another CanLit connection–Jessica Westhead and her short story collection And Also Sharks. This one quite similar in tone and approach, funny and broken characters who show their cracks, created in utmost sympathy. Stories which remain solidly on the side of goodness, even as they acknowledge the realities of life itself.

5 thoughts on “Tenth of December by George Saunders”

  1. I loved this collection! Observant, thoughtful review. I’ve heard the argument that his stories lack substance, which surprises me greatly, because I think they’re chock-full.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Steph! Your enthusiasm for his work is part of what drew me to this book, so I am grateful.

  2. Kristin says:

    I loved this collection! I am still thinking about the stories months later. Great review. I am about 2/3 of the way though The Goldfinch and I just don’t know if I want to finish. I was really into it and now it is making me too sad…tell me it has a happy (ish) ending?

    1. Kerry says:

      I think that to some, the ending would be considered too tidy (with creepy sentimental tones) but I like such endings. So yes, happyISH.

  3. Both you and Steph speak so positively of this collection that I’m thinking I should give his stories another try. Previously I’ve enjoyed a couple but found myself struggling to connect with the others: might have been the wrong reading time for me, might be worth another go it seems.

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