Tenth of December, a short story collection by George Saunders, was published with enormous fanfare and praise a few months ago. I found it very mixed and mostly disappointing.
There are two genuinely terrific stories here: “Escape from Spiderhead” and “Tenth of December”.
In “Escape from Spiderhead” a futuristic pharmaceutical prison cooks up potions that are used to induce and then eradicate love (and sex). There’s no elaborate explanation of where we are; none is necessary. Sanders develops perfect names for all of his imaginary drugs and manages to let some of the prisoners fight back, drawing on their own emotions, rather than succumb fully to “science.”
In “Tenth of December,” an elderly man, pretty sick and pretty crazy, decides to escape his sickbed and go freeze himself by a pond where he once took his little boys. At the same time, a boy, fantasizing himself on a great expedition, heads out for the pond, trudging through the snow and 10 degree weather. He sees the old man half naked and spots his coat. Being the little hero that he thinks he is, he grabs the coat and decides he’ll only get to the man in time to save him if he crosses the pond; but there’s a feeder stream where the ice is thin and ...in our hero falls. Now the old man becomes the hero, chucking all his fear and misery for the sake of getting the kid out of his fix. Then the kid’s mother becomes involved, helpfully, and the elderly man’s wife joins the action, coming to collect him from the house where he’s been taken to warm up. All this is written right on the bare horseback of the story, galloping along, funny, penetrating, implausibly plausible, and generous.
The rest of this collection had me wondering what Saunders was doing and why he had achieved such attention. Sometimes he reminded me of Donald Barthelme but lacked the acute wit. Sometimes he reminded me of Sinclair Lewis, poking fun at more contemporary Babbits. Sometimes he’d jigger along, portraying almost everyone as a moron, and then, as in a story called “Home,” find a surprisingly strong ending. His stories definitely draw on a vision of our world as subject to authoritarian controls that only the imagination can elude, but the authoritarian controls aren’t always convincing and the imagination is--deliberately, of course--one cliché after another. So what you get are portraits of hopeful failures; this is Sanders in his Garrison Keillor mode. A story called “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is flat-out boring; a story called “Exhortation” is a nonsensical memo to the staff, urging that it improve its performance while demonstrating how wonderful (and gassy) the office director is. This story is not quite at the level of a graduate program in creative writing, the kind of program where Saunders himself teaches.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle.)
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