In the world of short fiction, George Saunders is standing tall.
His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” is his first release since 2007’s “The Braindead Megaphone Essays,” and his first collection of short stories since 2006’s “In Persuasion Nation.”
Saunders often sets a stage with stories that seems based in reality, but as the stories go on, bits of the curtain are torn away to reveal fantastical elements. Such was the case in his earlier books, “CivilWarLand In Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” and such is the case with “Tenth of December.”
The collection is made up of 10 stories, opening with the poignant “Victory Lap.” Evident in this piece, as much as any of the others, are people not unlike ourselves; a boy watches his sister as she is taken by an unknown man and briefly flirts with letting them go and finally getting more attention from his parents. There are constant themes of unreached potential and coping with disappointment.
Because of this, “Tenth of December” can presumably be read in three different ways. The first is as a young reader, still unsure of how life will work out. Reading from this perspective creates a cautionary angle to each story; these are lives that aren’t too far from the reader’s and it’s easy to see yourself on the same road. We read of ever-climbing debt, relationship struggles and a lack of acceptance for who (or what) we are.
The second is from the perspective of people who live similar lives to the characters in these stories. For those readers, Saunders has elements of finding light in darkness; the fact that your neighbor has more than you doesn’t mean that his family loves him more. Your debilitating illness doesn’t separate you from a life of happiness, it just redefines happiness, and so on.
The third is the perspective of the reader who avoided the cruel fates of the characters: being born into poverty, disillusioning yourself into thinking success is overrated, etc. For these readers, this book is a look into a life they could have lived.
For all of these readers, Saunders has written beautifully. In an interview with “The Guardian,” Saunders said he wanted readers to “read my book and have it actually matter to you. Not to your constructed literary self. But to you. To the person who has issues and confusions.”
Using this quote as a scale, Saunders has succeeded. Each story in “Tenth of December” is more evocative, from “Escape From Spiderhead” questioning emotions and the purpose they serve to “Home,” a heartbreaking story of a soldier returning to a world he doesn’t understand anymore. Without giving much away, “Home” has an ending that arrests the reader, forcing him or her to decide whether to continue reading the next story or just take time to reflect.
Another big part of Saunders’ writing is fantasy. While most stories seem to be set in reality, many include out-of-this-world additions, like in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” a look at a man’s attempt to keep up with the Joneses by having a few younger third-world girls strung up (still alive) in his yard as a sign of his socioeconomic standing.
These elements always serve as additions to the story’s message, never as the focal point, so those with a sci-fi prejudice can rest easy.
This is a brilliant book from a brilliant author. It’s only January, but 2013 already has a contender for best read of the year.
on twitter @dnartsdesk