Review of Tenth of December, short stories by George Saunders, Random House, 2013.
George Saunders is pretty nutty, which is cool, because although I am a cat, I am also part squirrel, and I appreciate nuts. The stories in Tenth of December are hilarious and make me feel kinda weird, like when I’m stuck outside in the cold snow, and then somebody remembers me and I get let in by the fire and feel warm and fuzzy.
He does this wacky thing where he takes reality-based scenarios to absurd extremes—like in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” where exotic foreign girls are purchased and imported as, essentially, suspended lawn ornaments that sway in the breeze, a dramatization of the way in which human beings do get objectified and exploited for ostentatious and self-indulgent purposes. Then he pushes the characters to the edge of their idiocy, and then, surprisingly, their humanity (sometimes).
From “The Semplica Girl Diaries:”
[Emmet] said well, huh, amazing the strange arcane things our culture requires us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to hold their heads up?
Could not think of response. Note to self: Think up response, send on card, thus striking up friendship with Emmet?
Saunders has this way of making you feel disassociated and alienated from people, and then sneaking around back and making you identify with them. They are strangers and then they are not. He sets you up to expect the worst from them, because it’s easy to judge strangers who are acting and thinking like idiots, and the characters also doubt their own humanity, and are strangers to themselves, and then, they surprise you. They surprise themselves. They turn out to be empathetic beings, these strange humans. And you wind up feeling for them, even though it’s like you weren’t meant to, but really you were meant to all along, because George Saunders is one tricky bastard. Also, he’s a really nice guy.
In a recent interview with The Superstition Review, Saunders said, “I think what I’m focusing on, in the larger picture, is this: since we all know that kindness and goodness are desirable, why do we as a species have such a hard time implementing these? When we look at history, humans have often behaved really badly, while other humans (or even the same humans, in different aspects of their lives) have behaved quite lovingly and selflessly. So what’s up with that? That really interests me.”
It’s as if to say hey, humans, look, you’re all a bit defective, but you’re also redeemable, if you want to be, so that’s cool. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that because cats are never defective. Nor are we redeemable. Nor do we try.
He plays with language and form in such a way that can be a little hard to grab onto at first, like doorknobs, but please please please, stick with it, because it’s worth it. It’s like that time my editor put her hair elastics in her nightstand drawer and it was super frustrating, but I knew they were in there, and I am a determined cat, so I kept at it, and I figured out how to open the drawer from underneath by pushing my paws on it, and then the hair elastics were ALL MINE, and I appreciated them even more because getting to them was like a game in itself. Lesson: never give up when you know there’s good stuff in there, and know that the challenge is all part of the fun.
So. Many. Hair elastics. Very hair elastic-y. Did I mention hair elastics? Also catnip, ennui, wet food, a relatively user-friendly doorknob that you should not give up on, and a very mischievous baby mouse in there somewhere. I think maybe Saunders himself is the baby mouse, running around in the text being all sneaky, soft, vulnerable, smart, and squeaky. Also, hair elastics. For more explanation of these descriptions, see My Rating System.
P.S. Check out this short video interview with Mr. Saunders in The New Yorker and see what a nice guy he is. Don’t you just want to knead that sweater and that beard with your paws?
P.P.S. My editor is forthwith attending Mr. Saunders’ lecture tonight at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Music Hall and will write about it after as a guest blogger at Traveling Marla. I will be sure to make like a hair elastic and keep you in the loop.
P.P.P.S. Here is a mouse that never gives up: