One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about short stories is the way they give authors room to play with an idea without having to fully flesh it out or offer a full-fledged plot. Sometimes just a glimpse of an idea and how it might play out is enough. A lot of the stories in Diane Cook’s Man v Nature are like that. Short stories also offer a playground for form. Authors can work in voices and formats that might be tedious in a novel but are fun for a few pages. Jon McGregor does this kind of thing extremely well in This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.
George Saunders’s short stories in Tenth of December also demonstrate the potential for the form as a sandbox to mess around in. What if we could develop drugs that control all our feelings? What would happen if people could buy immigrants for decoration? What’s really going on in that person’s head? The stories, several of which Jenny describes and quotes from in her review, are set in a world much like our own. Some are set a bit in the future, with new technologies presenting variations on present-day anxieties. Many are set in his protagonists’ heads, where we see how their worries and delusions push them or action or leave them paralyzed.
Often, Saunders plays with language, presenting the inner monologue of a teenager or the fragmentary diary of a middle-class dad trying to keep his family happy. In two of the stories, people take drugs to enhance their language, and you can see it kick in and wear off as they tell their stories. This is particularly hilarious when the drug to help a man employed as a knight in an amusement park improvise the appropriate patter is still in his system as he has an altercation with his employer:
Security, being then summoned by Don Murray, didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering me many harsh Blows to my Head & Body. And Wrested me from that Place, and Shoved me into the Street, kicking much Dirt upon my Person, and rip’d my Time card to Bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, one Feather of which they had Sore Bent.
In a story about a veteran returned from war, the statements “Thank you for your service” becomes a darkly comic refrain. Ideas like these would be too much for a full novel, but for stories they’re perfect. I wouldn’t want to miss out on this kind of cleverness just because it doesn’t fill a novel. Saunders knows just how to use the form to his advantage, and I recommend this collection to anyone who wants to see how its done—and who doesn’t mind more than a little weirdness.