“Tenth of December” by George Saunders [Book Review]

Tenth of December
George Saunders
Random House, 2014
(Amazon Link)

This was my first foray into the mind and writings of George Saunders and it was fantastic.

Yes, I am a little late to the Saunders bandwagon, as his writings have racked up awards, and the audiobook production of his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo had a 166-person cast including the voice work of the other short story writer I feel embodies a similar casual-yet-earnest linguistic style, David Sedaris.

Regardless, Tenth of December, was the collection that put Saunders on the map, and deservedly so; it ought to be everyone’s starting place for his work.

The book is a short story collection, but an odd one. The stories in both theme and at times setting bleed into one another fairly seamlessly, with a generally consistent narrative voice throughout. In lesser books, this would cause confusion and make the entire collection feel like a homogeneous blob; but here the distinctions come from plot and character. The stories are darkly hilarious. He’s never “cute” funny, but existentially so.

Most of these stories occupy our “normal” world dwelling alongside various dystopian twists on reality. This lends the collection an unsettling feel: this is all completely familiar and “normal”, and yet it is astonishing how easily this normalcy can coexist with such heinous twists on reality. It makes us see how human nature and our own “civilization” are so close to such a world we would find unacceptable and wicked.

These parallel-universe stories are not concerned with much mythology or world-building. You are dropped into the life and story of someone trying to live in these circumstances which are entirely normal to them. Some of the stories seem to exist in the same world, while others exist in their own dystopias.

But not all the stories fit this genre, which makes these other, seemingly non-dystopian stories carry a sense of dread the entire time. You never know if the next paragraph will reveal that this new favorite character actually exists in a terrible version of reality as either victim or perpetrator. It keeps you uneasy, and it is thrilling.

The collection is a little bit of a roller coaster ride tonally, but this is part of Saunder’s charm. Though I’m sure he’s a careful and intentional writer, these pieces have the feel of someone who wrote each one in single sessions, never to look at again. They feel a bit manic at times, but every once in a while, you see little bits of grandeur as he slows down in moments of reflection or description that show you that this is all intentional–this is Saunders’ world, and you’re just living in it.

It is perhaps Saunder’s greatest gift that is also the drawback of this collection. Every single character, no matter how minor, is a character. They are memorable and have such interesting ticks and particularities. He seems to have so much fun with them.

However, this can de-humanize some of them. We never encounter someone who is an entirely relatable human; they’re always at least slightly a caricature, but in the truest of ways: to exaggerate a part of humanity so we can see it more clearly, not less. His characters all seem to exist in se, disconnected from a broader philosophy or cloth of humanity.

This tendency of Saunders can keep the unrelenting pathos with which he writes from becoming empathy and affecting emotion in us.

But still, this collection is so much fun, and it’s scatter-brained, mad genius pace and diversity–which at times can throw you off and require some time to re-calibrate your bearings moving into the next story–is brilliant and astonishing and beautiful and, at times, truly profound.


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