This review originally appeared in Full Stop.
It is not so hard to understand why readers and reviewers would find the fiction of George Saunders appealing. Although his stories are to first-time readers no doubt a little puzzling, requiring that we accommodate ourselves to their surrealistic settings and premises, ultimately they are puzzling in an entertaining way, the settings and events just off-kilter enough to provoke the reader’s curiosity, the premises and actions just outrageous enough that we find their departures from established reality both disconcerting and surprisingly tangent to existing conditions of that reality. Above all, the stories are often very funny, so that even if we remain uncertain how to interpret the narratives’ mutated reality, we can still enjoy their oddities, especially as conveyed through Saunders’s deadpan, understated style, which can assimilate the most stilted, bureaucratic jargon with the most colloquial, slang-ridden expressions, often in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. Reinforced by Saunders’s ability to mimic the inanities of American speech in dialogue, this adept orchestration of voices and language practices is frequently a source of pleasure in itself.
Saunders’s new collection of short fiction, Tenth of December, manifests all of these appealing qualities. It may be, in fact, his most consistently engaging book since his first, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996). The title story of that book introduced a narrative trope that by now has become a signature Saunders device, a trope encompassing both plot and setting through which the story’s protagonist, also the narrator, relates his experiences as an employee of an outlandish theme park in which American life and history have been reduced in scale and repackaged as entertainment — although there’s never much indication that anyone is actually entertained by it (certainly not the employees). Parks such as this signify both the way American history has been reduced to its value as the subject of such simplistic entertainments, designed to fulfill the needs of commerce rather than citizens and their shared culture, as well as the way in which American life in the present has organized itself around the commercial imperative, emptied itself of interest in anything except mindless spectacle. “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” may be the prototypical such story, its title an accurate forecast of the story’s portrayal of a Civil War-era theme park in crisis and the unfortunate consequences for its employees, especially the narrator (who winds up dead). The story isn’t exactly surreal, since one can indeed imagine an American culture so debased that something like the conditions it depicts could prevail, but its imaginative amplification of these nascent cultural tendencies is darkly comical and disturbing.
Most of the stories in CivilWarLand (including the concluding novella, “Bounty”) are of this kind, giving the book itself a structural and thematic coherence. Stories of this type recur in Saunders’s later work as well (e.g., “Pastoralia”), suggesting that the premise and implications of this narrative are especially expressive of Saunders’s concerns as a writer, that his return to it allows a continued development of those implications, almost as if this series of stories can be taken as a substitute for the novel Saunders has conspicuously not written. There is but one such story in Tenth of December, “My Chivalric Fiasco,” which is actually one of the least substantial pieces in the book, a diverting enough turn using the theme park setting that gives Saunders an opportunity to indulge in some quasi-Elizabethan verbal tricks but is otherwise rather slight. Most of the other stories in the book nevertheless still seem recognizably to originate in the same sensibility that offers the dystopic theme park narrative as a touchstone of sorts for the aesthetic and thematic assumptions of Saunders’s fiction.
Stories such as “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries” share a setting in what must be taken as a near future in which currently ominous practices and trends have proliferated even farther, to the point they have simply become an accepted feature of the cultural landscape. In the first, prisoners have been assigned to a facility where they serve as test subjects for drugs with names like “Darkenfloxx” (administered through a “MobiPak”), which work to alter mood or increase sexual proficiency. (Saunders readers will not be surprised when the tests go horribly wrong.) In the second, a suburban family in distress wins a lottery jackpot and use the money to keep up appearances by buying “Semplica Girls” (“SGs”), poor young immigrant girls who have essentially agreed to act as lawn ornaments through some sort of new technology that allows them to hang suspended in the air. Both stories could be called satirical, but again they less provoke laughter than sober recognition such things might not be so far-fetched. In each story as well, at least one character resists the general moral drift that accepts the ongoing situation as normal and instead experiences an awakening of sorts. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” the narrator protagonist decides he will not contribute to the possible death of another test subject, at the cost of his own life. In “Semplica Girl Diaries,” the family’s youngest daughter is so deeply upset by the treatment of the SGS that she sets them free, causing the family even greater hardship.
Thus, while stories such as these clearly enough have some satirical intent, they are in most cases just as clearly explicit moral fables, tales of overcoming the degrading and dehumanizing attitudes that appear to underlie the social order depicted in the stories. It seems likely that this quality in Saunders’s fiction also contributes to its appeal: the imaginative projections into the future come marked with palpable disapproval of the sorry state of affairs it has produced, but offer some hope that the human capacity to overcome cultural conditioning and make morally courageous decisions might still survive. This sort of provisional optimism does not color every story, but finally one can’t really call Saunders a gloomy writer, however much his fiction does illuminate the march of folly on which the human species, especially in America, seems to be proceeding. He has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, who certainly did have a gloomy outlook, and whose fiction contains the same sort of SFish elements and the same straight-faced humor as Saunder’s work, but where in Vonnegut the humor is about all that comes between us and nihilistic despair, in Saunders it, as well as the movement of narratives like “Escape from Spiderhead” toward an ultimate moment of moral recognition, acts to reinforce, as in most conventional satire, the critique of social dysfunction. Saunders’s fiction leaves the discernible impression its representation of human folly is at least partly meant to suggest we should (and could) stop doing and believing the things that make it possible.
The stories particularly register the depredations of “late capitalism” and the class divisions it perpetuates and intensifies. In addition to the dehumanizing practices depicted in “Spiderhead” and “Semplica Girl Diaries,” the demeaning necessities of current economic arrangements are featured in “Exhortation” (composed in that most debased form of capitalist communication, the memorandum) and “Al Roosten,” in which a man voluntarily debases himself in the name of good business. Class conflict is portrayed very directly in “Puppy” and “Home” and emerges as the dominant theme in the book’s first story, “Victory Lap,” which compels attention first of all as the story of a young woman abducted by a madman but rescued by a neighbor boy before she is killed. Finally, however, the thriller-tinged plot (which seems taken from a television crime drama) serves as a device to dramatize the distance that has grown between the young woman and her rescuer, once childhood friends, a distance exacerbated by the pretensions of class. These stories, less fantastic than “Semplica Girl Diaries,” “Pastoralia,” or “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (or certainly than Saunders’s novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil), nevertheless only reinforce the conclusion that Saunders is a writer whose work has the ambition of “saying something” about the state of American life and culture.
However much these particular stories depict characters facing extreme situations, they are otherwise describable as works of narrative realism. Even Saunders’s more radically surrealist stories do not really depart from the requisites of conventional storytelling, and in this his fiction is consistent with (probably one of the inspirations for) most of the neo-surrealist fiction that has become quite a noticeable development in recent American writing, for example in the work of Aimee Bender and Stacy Levine. If anything, this fiction observes the dictums of plot development even more scrupulously than traditional realism, as the freakish or oddball characters and absurdist events are chronicled in a strictly linear way, comprising appropriately rising actions and clear resolutions and generally satisfying any reader’s need for narrative. At the same time, claims are often made that this mode of fiction is nevertheless audacious and unconventional, claims based entirely on its defiance of the surface logic of ordinary reality. Thus the alternative posed to “realism” is a diametrical anti-realism that informs as story’s content but not its form. Saunders is himself probably the most accomplished of these new surrealists, but his stories only illustrate most prominently that such fiction derives its appeal from conjuring fanciful flights from reality related through familiar narrative strategies. That Saunders employs his vision of an altered reality at the satirical level to achieve the traditional goals of realism — to depict the way things are — could lead us to the conclusion that Saunders’s ambitions aren’t that far removed from those associated with the realist tradition — they might be seen as two sides of the same literary coin.
The relatively large proportion of stories in Tenth of December that are more or less straight realism only reinforces this conclusion. It would seem that sometimes Saunders’s effort to capture the degeneration of American life requires the surreal satire of “Semplica Girl” or “CivilWarLand,” while in other cases the realism of “Puppy” or “Home” works as well. Their shared use of conventional storytelling is allied with another in-common feature that finally helps to account for the appeal of Saunders’s work among many readers. All of Saunders’s stories ultimately create an emotional atmosphere that usually solicits empathy for his characters and their plight. This is accomplished to a great extent through Saunders’s prose style, which can be ingenuous in an almost merciless way but through that very quality also provokes sympathy for a character such as the title character of “Al Roosten,” a struggling merchant who has entered into a “luncheon auction of Local Celebrities, a Local Celebrity being any sucker dopey enough to answer yes when the Chamber of Commerce asked.”
Roosten stepped warily out from behind the paper screen. No one whooped. He started down the runway. No cheering. The room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh. He tried to smile sexily but his mouth was too dry. Probably his yellow teeth were showing and the place where his gums dipped down.
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
The most transparently emotion-laden story in the book is perhaps the title story. In it, a boy and a middle-aged man are making their way through a patch of woods. The boy is simply enjoying himself, lost in fantasy, but we discover that the man is ill with cancer and has come to the woods to commit suicide. The man winds up rescuing the boy when he falls through the ice on a pond, and the man decides he wants to live, after all. The plot itself tugs pretty strongly at the heartstrings, but the language used to convey the suicidal man’s despair (Saunders hews pretty closely to the character’s stream of thought) bears an especially direct emotional weight at well:
Ouch, ouch. This was too much. He hadn’t cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now. It wasn’t fair. It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.
A passage such as this does not hide the underlying pathos through irony or “wacky” humor or agile writing. The emotion it is clearly soliciting from the reader even verges on being sentimental. (I would actually maintain it actually crosses that line.) The story’s placement at the conclusion of this book would seem to indicate that Saunders regards it as bringing together common concerns or manifesting certain important assumptions. For me, the story works to clarify that, despite the fact many of his stories court the bizarre and chronicle extreme states of being, finally Saunders’s fiction fits comfortably enough within the established protocols of the American short story as recognized and accepted by most readers. That this is true does help explain the enthusiasm for Saunders’s work — the surface content of his stories is pleasingly weird, but they are also told in familiar ways and engage the reader’s emotions rather straightforwardly. At the same time, it does little to help justify claims that Saunders’s fiction, in addition to being entertaining, also occupies a place on the cutting-edge of American fiction.