Tenth of December by George Saunders


Ambiance and vanity

I was exactly two pages into the opening story of George Saunders’s new collection Tenth of December, when I realized that I was completely lost.  I literally had no idea what was happening.   Are those {} supposed to represent emoticons?  Am I really supposed to care about this picky girl’s choice of awkward suitors?  Is she at a party right now?  I was hopelessly confused.

Inexplicably, at the same time I also found myself head over heels in love.  Let me try to explain.

Let’s pretend you live on a planet similar to Earth.  For the sake of argument we’ll call it Aeath.  You could call it Earth2, Planethead, LivableMass, or SpinningRockofDeath.  The name doesn’t really matter.  What’s most important is that everyday life here operates almost exactly the same as it does on our own Earth.  Almost.

Here on Aearth, women from third world countries sign contracts to come to America and have micro-lines drilled through their heads.  Why?  So they can earn money to send home to their poor parents and siblings by hanging as lawn ornaments above rich people’s lawns.

Here on Aearth, you can get out of jail if you agree to be a guinea pig for big pharmaceutical companies that are testing the most outrageous drugs imaginable.  Ones that can make you fall in love just as quickly as they can make you fall out of it.  Ones that can make you feel like you want to rip your face off.  Big business will test these drugs on you by placing you in extreme circumstances and then gauging your reactions.

Creepy shit, right?

Now, imagine the weirdest, most uncomfortable experience you’ve ever had the pleasure of living through.  Picture if you will, being dropped into the epicenter of that tragedy with absolutely no preparation.  You don’t know the back story.  You don’t know the people.  You’re just living the situation as it happens.  That’s what Saunders does to you.  He plucks you from the safe confines of your carefully constructed comfort zone, drops you in the eye of the storm, and wishes you good luck.  The only tool you have at your disposal with which to survive?  The flawed logic of each story’s protagonist.

Saunders builds characters like a mad scientist, gleefully sawing open skulls and exposing the raw stream of consciousness contained within for all to see.  He gives the reader a backstage pass to the hottest show in town.  Prepare to be amazed as the brain’s complex self-justification system kicks into high gear!  Watch as each character convinces themselves of their supreme rightness in every conceivable situation!  Gasp at the shocking results!

However, what makes Saunders’ stories actually work isn’t any of the above.  Underneath the slightly skewed version of reality, behind the strange situations, just past the wonderfully frail and flawed character studies, each story introduces a perplexing moral dilemma.

Do you continue the drug study, even when you see the heinous results, because it’s in the interest of the greater good?  Is it really all that cool to have people hanging above your lawn just because everyone else is doing it?  Is that voice in your head, the one you call a conscience, truly your own or is it manufactured as a result of environment?  Are you allowed to pass judgment on the way others choose to raise their children?  Who gets to decide when it’s time to die?

Saunders just plain “gets” the true nature of how people function.  The stories he offers up here are bleak, but they also offer us shot at redemption.  Through them, he’s speaking to us collectively as a race of beings.  The real question is: Are we listening or are his beautifully constructed messages falling on deaf ears?

Tenth_of_December ★★★★½
Tenth of December
By George Saunders
Random House

272 Pages
ISBN 9780812993806

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.