Book review: Tenth Of December, by George Saunders

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FOR a generation, the style of Raymond Carver – famously dubbed “dirty realist” by Bill Buford in an influential edition of Granta magazine – has been the predominant key of American (and sometimes British) short stories.

Tenth Of December

George Saunders

Bloomsbury, £14.99

That seems to be changing, and one beneficiary is George Saunders. Promoted by, amongst others, McSweeney’s magazine, Saunders is in the same broad tradition as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Kurt Vonnegut (though Zadie Smith, in her judicious puff to this new collection, traces it back as far as Twain). It is a form of the short story – fabulist, with hints of the surreal and the gothic – I am more inclined towards, and yet Saunders’ previous collection, The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil, was a slight disappointment. Too often the conceits evaporated into whimsy, and the political dimension was too strident and obvious. It is therefore a pleasure to be able to say that Tenth Of December is a far stronger, and far more satisfying book.

One signature device of Saunders’ work is how he embodies the realisation that how we talk about ourselves in our heads is often strikingly different to how a third person narrative might describe the events. This is seen to dramatic and moving effect in the epony­mous story: a young boy, Robin, sets out on a quest to rescue a girl kidnapped by Nethers, the subterranean things that live for nine million years and speak like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Of course, it’s his make-believe world, and one which collides dramatically with reality: the “Nether” he is following is a terminally ill old man, looking for an out-of-the-way place in the bleak midwinter to lie down and die. The narrative switches between their perspectives, and when an accident befalls one, the shuddering out of their internal monologues is handled with sensitive and tear-jerking nuance.

The opening story, Victory Lap, waltzes between three voices. Firstly, there is 14-year-old Alison, in her dream world of fairytales, snatches of French and thoughts of her “special one”, who says things to her like: “Each one of us is a rainbow”. Across the road is Kyle, whose overprotective parents and their lists of “way verboten” things have resulted in an almost Tourette’s internal seething of baroquely inventive swear words. Then there’s the delivery man who isn’t a delivery man, at Alison’s door, with his “pre-mission matrix” and hope that she doesn’t prove to be “nonarousing”. These could become clichés of register, but it is to Saunders’ immense credit that even within their linguistic prisons, narrative can still surprise and disorientate.

Language is central to My Chivalric Fiasco and Escape From Spiderhead which both extend a fascination with technology (particularly pharmaceutical technology) and how it might change both language and psychology: Saunders has already explored this field with the deliciously horrible I Can Speak (TM) in the previous book. Both these stories feature drugs that extend one’s linguistic capability. In My Chivalric Fiasco, workers at a medieval theme park take KnightLyfe, which peppers their speech with “goodly”, “unto” and “amidst” – and the narrator learns, without realising it, a bit of late Wittgenstein (or Cervantes, for that matter): he doesn’t just speak like a courtly knight, he begins to act like one.

Escape From Spiderhead is a more Kafkaesque parable, where drugs allow not only eloquence but love. Having been chemically made to fall in love with two different women on the same day, the narrator is then asked which of them he wants to take another mind-altering substance, the dreadful DarkenFloxx, just to make sure that this “love drug” carries no lingering after-effects of attraction or even empathy. It is stark, and brutal, and the way the language shivers in and out of tones is beautifully crafted.

It raises the political agenda which has always been part of Saunders: here, as opposed to the previous book, it is subtle, conflicted and melancholic.

The returning veteran story, Home, is only the most explicit: a vein of poverty runs through these stories like a background white noise that drives people mad. A few of the shorter pieces have a haunting, lingering effect, which neatly balances the more outrageous and outlandish narratives of the longer works.

Two are “fake artefacts”, a relatively newly coined sub-genre: one is a diary (and a beautifully inarticulate diary it is: not just in the grammatical ellipses and word omissions but in the narrator’s strange blindness to everyday suffering while obsessing about future generations needing to know what a pen is).

The other, a staff circular, is wonderfully horrendous. It takes euphemism to a new level. Beginning with a gauche simile – “Say we have to clean a shelf” – it ends chillingly: “And I was asked to remind you – to remind us, all of us, myself included – that if we are unable to clean our assigned ‘shelf’, not only will someone else be brought in to clean that ‘shelf’, but we ourselves may find ourselves on that ‘shelf’, being that ‘shelf’, with someone else exerting themselves with good positive energy all over us.”

Bush Jnr was too easy a 
target for Saunders’ mixture 
of satire and regret. Second-term Obama suits him down to the ground. If there’s a backdrop to all of this, it’s a bemused sadness that “Yes We Can” became “Well We Could, But…” «