I struggle with knowing what to write about George Saunders’s newest story collection Tenth of December because, unlike many books I love, it has already been written about so much. Saunders was on NPR yesterday discussing it, he was nearly canonized by a notable publication because of it, there have been a few internet feuds about it (to weigh in–no, of course he doesn’t need to write a novel), etc. It certainly seems like the most talked about book of the year. The fact that a short story collection has received so much attention makes me really happy. Novels are fine, but you know where my heart is. And although I don’t know George Saunders personally (I’ll refrain from telling the story of our mini-conversation the one time we met–you’ve all heard it), I really think it couldn’t happen to a better more humble, brilliant, deserving person.
I forgive George Saunders a lot that I don’t really forgive anyone else (although Jennifer Egan gets away with some of the same moves now and then), the prime example being the constant use of made-up, weirdly capitalized brand names. Many of the stories in this collection are propelled by the administration of highly disturbing drugs like MiiVOX-MAX (this looks even worse on the page because the “MAX” is in a slightly smaller font that I can’t replicate here). Usually tricks like this pull me right out of the story and make me want to hurl the book across the room. I can’t say I liked all the made up words here, but I see that they’re necessary in stories I otherwise can really get behind.
The story that employed the use of these invented drugs the best is “Escape from Spiderhead.” I read this story originally in, I think, the New Yorker. I know that when I first read it, I went over the ending about fifteen times before I could put down the magazine. Concerning an incarcerated man being utilized as a test subject for said disturbing drugs, the story follows an unexpected trajectory but ends exactly where and how it should; it isn’t confusing, but it is so heightened and shockingly beautiful it was hard to absorb all at once. It seems overblown to say that it is transcendent, but I’ll say it anyway.
My other favorite story is the other one that everyone is talking about. The rest of the stories in the book are really, really good, too, but I think that people zero in on “The Semplica Girl Diaries” for a reason. It seems to me that this is the story that will confirm George Saunders’s place on syllabi for decades to come. Again, I read this one first in the New Yorker and again, I had to go back over it a few times. It wasn’t that I didn’t get it the first time; Saunders isn’t an opaque writer. He just writes stories that require slow processing, that aren’t easily and quickly consumed. He creates a world and describes it as a character familiar with that world would; reading his stories, one must relinquish what one knows in order to understand what the character does.
But then–there’s no stopping there. The reader has to take all that knowledge back to this world, because, of course, when Saunders is writing about a world in which families can purchase lovely Third World women to hang on strings outside their homes as lawn ornaments, he actually is writing about us.