Tenth of December
“Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.”
George Saunders’ short story collection, Tenth of December, is an absolute treat. George Saunders is another incredible author of whom I had never heard until I stumbled across this collection on a New York Times book list. I am glad it caught my eye.
Saunders’ collection brings us to worlds that are both recognizable and unfamiliar. They introduce a world like our own but then introduce elements that confuse us. The stories enter an alternate reality – one that is so close to being true that it is unsettling and beautiful at the same time. These alternate worlds, such as those in “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” do not announce their alternate realities outright. Instead, the stories develop in sometimes confusing ways until we realize that what is going on is not something that we would see walking down our own streets. The focus on this type of story, maybe best described as exaggerated realism, is one of my favourite aspects of this collection. The stories draw on elements of science fiction and place us in a new version of our contemporary world that is thought provoking and darkly funny.
George Saunders has a remarkable talent for narration and the development of different perspectives and voices. The voices he chooses allow us into the minds of individuals we might not otherwise relate to or connect with. Despite the extremely questionable decisions and actions of many of the characters in this collection, I found myself empathizing with them and actually really liking them. Many of the stories in this collection look at issues of ethics and morals and, while the rightness or wrongness of a specific action is quite clear, the reader is often invited to make an evaluation about the narrator and what their own choices might be in a similar situation. In this way, the exploration of empathy is also central to this collection.
The stories in this collection touch on dark and difficult issues: sexual assault, parental abuse, human exploitation and medical experimentation, to name a few. While stories involving these types of issues could be very difficult to read, I found that the humorous narrative style and the focus on the human elements of the stories and characters made the stories lighter than I might have otherwise expected. This is not to say that these stories are light – they are complex and provocative in the way they address these issues.
This collection shows a deep interest in the working middle-class American who struggles to keep up appearances and strive for the American Dream that is always just slightly out of reach. We can all relate to this struggle, I think, to some extent. More than anything else in this collection, I found that Saunders crafted a non-judgmental space that does not dismiss the troubles of the “middle” people; those who, despite hard work, cannot attain all that they desire, but who also know they should feel lucky in their position of relative privilege. In Tenth of December, George Saunders highlights the importance of seeing from the perspectives of others, and, while still thinking about them critically, of looking at these positions generously. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and recommend it highly!