George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December are hard for me to write about, because I want to use descriptors like strange and dark and ironic and even sometimes grotesque. But I want that to attract you to the stories, not put you off. I want to convey how, even when Saunders is playing with style in weird ways, even when his themes explore some of the darkest pockets of human behavior, he can be helplessly funny. I want to show you how his people are raw and real and so, no matter how awful they are, you cannot help feeling compassion toward them. Saunders gets compared to a job-lot of other writers, including Mark Twain and Nathanael West and even Flannery O’Connor. I don’t like most of those comparisons, but if I were to use one, it would be to Vonnegut. Saunders doesn’t echo his themes, his style, or his ideas in the least, but there is the same dark underlying river: human beings are terrible, they’re the worst, they’re contemptible — but you have to love them anyway, because they’re all we’ve got.
Some of these stories are contemporary and realistic; others are set in a slightly futuristic (but completely recognizable) setting in which, say, pharmaceuticals are available to govern slight mood changes, or in which immigrants take on jobs we would currently find horrifying and shocking. In either kind of setting, the point is not so much the world but the people.
I realized I was reading something way more interesting than I had bargained for when I got to the second story in the collection, “Sticks.” It’s two pages long, about a sort of pole a father has put up in the yard to decorate.
The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough.
The story gets much weirder and much more interesting in the space of two pages than I had been prepared for, and I suppose that’s true of all of them.
Saunders is preoccupied with consumer culture: money troubles loom large in these stories. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” for instance, is the journal of a middle-class man who is agonized about his inability to keep up with the Joneses. He wants the best start for his children, wants them to be confident and happy, wants the best for his beloved wife, but can’t make the payments work. What separates this world from, say, Raymond Carver’s (another comparison, there I go) is that the luxury he’s craving has a science-fiction glaze: Semplica Girls, living immigrant women strung through their foreheads as lawn decorations. This shocking detail, though, is almost by the way: the world Saunders builds is far too familiar for us to pretend it’s different from what we see every day.
Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very very lucky. I know that. But still, it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate.
Class casts long shadows here. In “Home,” a soldier returning from war sees the cars in his ex-wife’s driveway: three cars for two grown-ups, what a country. In “Puppy,” a woman whose marriage has lifted her out of her own dysfunctional origins is so incapable of empathy that it has tragic results. Even though Saunders is a marvelous satirist and ironist, to the point of veering into the territory of the joke, the people he’s writing about are foremost: their rich stories, their emotions lifted by money or jobs or children or someone else’s affair. Beneath the caricatures, beneath the born losers and the sometimes-simple plot structures, there is deep compassion.
From “Tenth of December” (and that date, just before the solstice, when there is still a bit of light left, is important, too):
He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could be many — many drops of goodness, is how it came to him — many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to withheld.
This is obviously Saunders’s manifesto. Within the pain and darkness and loss of language, which cannot be denied, the drops of fellowship. What marvelous stories. To be read as soon as you can get them.