We like George Saunders here at Bookmunch. We liked his CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. We liked his Pastoralia. We liked The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (enough to read to our children when they were old enough to have stories read to them at night). We liked The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. We liked The Brain-Dead Megaphone. We like George Saunders to the degree that we sometimes Google his name when we feel like a period of time long enough to construct a new book has passed without any mention of a new book. There are not many writers who fall into this category. We like George Saunders. And everyone but everyone likes George Saunders’ new book, Tenth of December. We like it, too – just maybe perhaps not quite as much as everyone else likes it and certainly very possibly not quite as much as we’ve liked all of his previous books.
Tenth of December is, as we’ve come to expect, a book of short stories. Also, as we’ve also come to expect, a great many of the stories occupy that curious American corporate space in which workers zealously trumpet the codes and buzzwordy shortcuts foisted upon them by their employers whilst at the same time nevertheless cherishing a kernel of themselves, their actual selves, inside. So, for example, in the wonderfully named ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ (which may have made a better title for the collection than Tenth of December, but what do I know?). The essence of this tale is: worker-narrator gets a glimpse of his boss maybe raping one of his co-workers and is promoted, along with his co-worker, on the back of it; through a mixture of conscience and medication, things get messed up. The what of the tale is second to the how, however. The how comes dressed in a sort of free-flowing language that harks back to old English (albeit refracted through the mind set of a young American worker drone). A similar but different path is followed in ‘Al Roosten’ which follows our eponymous local businessmen through a tale of one-upmanship, the implicit lesson here being both ‘the grass is always greener’ and ‘you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors’.
There are memos (in the hilarious ‘Exhortation’), bittersweet family reminiscences (Saunders’ ‘Sticks’ reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’) and terrific dual narratives in which suicide, disease, age and youth collide to dazzling effect (the title story being a case in point). Sometimes, as in the aforementioned title story or, particularly, in ‘Victory Lap’, the story that opens the book, there is too much going on for one short story to handle (‘Victory Lap’ isn’t a bad story by any means, but it takes time to settle and it takes a couple of reads to enjoy – which wouldn’t be bad if you’d settled into the book but actually as a way of kicking off a story collection, it’s a little unsettling). Sometimes the corner of the world that Saunders has made his own (playful, experimental language, corporate America, drugs) is realised in a way that feels like a punch around the head (‘Escape from Spiderhead’ could well be the best story in the collection and, again, would have also made a better title for the book than Tenth of December). Sometimes, as in ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, the brisk avalanche of ‘stuff to get your head around’ (TM) is a bit much.
All told, then: a great book, a great collection of stories, demonstrating that Saunders is building upon the themes, snags, hooks and issues that fascinate him whilst at the same time adding to his pallet, fleshing out what makes him interesting as a writer, threading through a nice new humanism that he seems to have picked up from Vonnegut. The only caveat is that, if we had maybe lost one or two stories from the collection, it would be as good as or better than anything he had done to date. Saunders has said this is his least edgy collection – his own feeling being that he has recognised not every option has to be dark, that there is kindness in the world, that sometimes people do the right thing; this, though, taken with the familiar way in which many of these stories greet you serves to undercut their impact ever so slightly.
Any Cop?: We still love George Saunders – only slightly, only slightly less than we used to.