Posted on February 17, 2018
6. ‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders
Tenth of December by George Saunders was thrust into my hands by Jess at my Mr B’s reading spa. She told me that, as a short story lover, I simply had to read it, that George Saunders is one of the most acclaimed writers out there, loved by both readers and other writers. Of course, since then I’ve seen the name Saunders everywhere (including in last year’s Man Booker shortlist!) but Tenth of December was my first time reading him.
I read the introduction to this collection first (skipping over the parts that described particular stories) and I wondered halfway through whether I should stop, because the introducer (Joel Lovell) was so effusive about Saunders. He calls him “a writer for our time”, someone who helped to “establish the new terms for contemporary American fiction”, a “writer’s writer” and “something of a saint”. This kind of hype can be damaging; it can set someone up for a fall.
So did it? I don’t think so. Tenth of December is a hugely accomplished and extremely compelling collection, and I really enjoyed it. Admittedly I didn’t find it life-changingly good and it hasn’t lingered in my brain like some short story collections do, but I didn’t leave this book disappointed.
It helps that this is exactly my kind of thing. The stories are modern, most have a sci-fi twist, and they throw you into the middle of their language and world without explanation so that you have to work things out for yourself. In his introduction, Lovell talks about how much Saunders makes you feel, and I certainly experienced that – reading these stories was at times painful and breathtaking. I couldn’t stop a story in the middle, but had to carry on to the end because Saunders pitches the tension perfectly to keep you reading.
There are some recurring themes in this collection. Parenthood crops up a lot, especially parents’ anxieties about providing good lives for their children when they can’t afford it. Money is another major theme: lots of the characters think about it to the point of obsession, and there’s a constant tension between wanting to live a genuinely happy life and needing to put on ostentatious to displays of wealth to prove this happiness to the outside world. Of course, this means that class crops up a lot and characters constantly compare themselves to those they believe to be above them. Saunders’s central preoccupation, then, is with the struggles of modern western life, particularly American life, and his stories present a dark but sometimes optimistic picture of this subject.
My favourite stories include ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, in which mood-altering drugs are tested on prisoners; ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, in which exploitative wealth is taken to its extreme by using living people as ornaments; and ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’, which plays brilliantly with language to tell the story of a man working at a medieval theme park. Saunders’ skill with language is astonishing; he easily slips into each character’s voice, and they’re all so different. There’s also lots of humour in these stories – dark humour, of course, but sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
All in all, this is a very impressive collection. It didn’t totally blow my mind, but it was a breathtaking read and a great introduction to George Saunders.
“Why beat yourself up about this and, in so doing, miss the beauty of the actual moment?” – ‘Al Roosten’
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy the book here.