Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: Tenth of December

A reader can always count on George Saunders for a surrealist twist, deceptively simple language and searching characters. Too often, authors who incorporate elements of sci-fi and fantasy into their stories face derision and a dismissive hand wave, "The stories are good, but--" Saunders avoids the naysayers by crafting stories about real people. Sure, perhaps we don't yet string up girls from third world countries for our own amusement, but the family in that story express desires every reader has felt at one time or another. Yes, the stories are offbeat, the people are often strange, but every story has heart. Saunders masters merging the two in Tenth of December.

In the aforementioned story The Semplica Girl Diaries, a husband begins a journal to memorialize his life. He loves the idea that by writing simply one page per day, he will have 365 pages of information to leave for his future readers. He frequently addresses his future readers, though he doesn't say who he imagines these futures might be or why they might be interested in his journal. Like many people, he wants to leave behind a legacy and strives to be the best and provide the best for his family and never seems to measure up. A stroke of luck allows him to buy a set of coveted Semplica Girls, young women from third world countries who undergo surgery to have wire strung through their heads so they can hang from a rack in their new owner's yard. On its face, this story could have become simply a story about ownership, slavery, greed- but Saunders avoids proselytizing to simply show an everyman's desire and the consequences for his own family.

Saunders is adept at quick switches between the points of view of characters, even when every character imagines the scene very differently, in fact when the scene occurs only within their imagination with glimpses at the truth. The opening story, Victory Lap showcases this talent. The story opens on a vivid imagined scene with a female character, switching to the boy next door who feels constrained by rules and faces immobility when faced with a situation that would require him to break those rules. Unlike many of Saunders stories, this one has real peril, a plot line that could have been easily exploited to veer into the sentimental or garish, but instead he stays so close to the characters, the reader hardly has time to think about the danger at hand, staying with the characters as they consider actions and consequences.

The most moving story is the title piece, Tenth of December. The two main characters switch point of view, with the young boy weaving an imaginary situation and the older man's addled brain handing him facts and memories in a non-linear fashion. While there is some danger in the story, Saunders again avoids resting on the easy plot line to engage the reader with the minds of these characters, and also leaving in the air who to root for and what the reader should want. The complicated emotional pitch keeps the story with the reader long after the book has been closed.

While the stories are wonderful, they are also (some of them) quite old. Puppy (a wonderful, heartrending story) is five years old, while Sticks came out in the mid-nineties. One wonders why there was so much hype surrounding this collection when it seems as though it's simply a collection of stories previously anthologized elsewhere. Someone new to Saunders' work would appreciate this, but fans can't help to feel a bit disappointed to not discover anything brand new in the collection. That said, it's certainly a collection that can be enjoyed multiple times.