“Tenth of December” by George Saunders (2012) – 251 pages
For at least three of the stories in George Saunders’ new collection, I read a few pages of the story only to discover I had not a clue about what the story was about or where it was headed. Then I would re-start the story, this time slowing down and paying strict attention. The second time I would finally get on the right wavelength, and then it was just a matter of hanging on for the emotional or wicked funny ride. Saunders’ stories are so wildly original that they are disorienting.
Although all of the stories in “Tenth of December” are excellent, one story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, which is the longest story in the collection stood out as my favorite. This story which is written as a series of diary entries takes place at some unspecified time in the near future. It is about a poor family living in a rich neighborhood. The 12-year-old daughter gets invited to an upper class birthday party for one of her friends and soon realizes she could never have as lavish a party as that. Her hapless father wants to buy her a special birthday party, but can’t afford it until he wins $10,000 in the lottery. Among the birthday presents he then buys for the daughter is the latest thing in yard decoration, a frame to which four real white-robed Third World young women are attached at the brain and on which they glide back and forth so the unit operates as an attractive lawn ornament. This contraption is not only outrageous and over the top; Saunders is also making some points about our society today.
I suppose the writer that George Saunders is most often compared to is Kurt Vonnegut, but not even Vonnegut dealt with seemingly realistic short stories as outlandish as these. Saunders got his start as a technical writer for engineers, and he is a wonder when some miscellaneous technical rigmarole is needed to progress a story. What puts Saunders’ stories above much science fiction is the empathy the reader feels for his characters; the stories have an affecting impact..
Here is one of Saunder’s hapless characters expressing his philosophy of life:
“Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.” – “My Chivalric Fiasco”
A new short story collection by George Saunders is greeted with at least as much enthusiasm in the literary world that a major novel by another writer would generate, and rightfully so. Saunders writes original stories that no one else could even begin to imagine and that are frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The only other short story writer that creates this much excitement is Alice Munro. The two writers have totally different styles and have nothing else in common aside from this fact.