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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: 'Tenth of December'

TENTH OF DECEMBERBy George Saunders
Literary fiction short stories
January 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-0812993806

Many of George Saunders's characters in Tenth of December live in complex worlds they have imagined. Even when those worlds bump up against reality, Saunders makes us believe in both the worlds that his characters have imagined and the ones that they inhabit.

The imaginations begin in the opening story, "Victory Lap", in which both a young teenage girl, Alison, imagines herself a princess or the belle of the ball, and her neighbor Kyle suddenly finds himself in a situation where he gets to use his imagination.

Alison's teacher, Mrs. Dees, is a bellweather in Saunders's writing. She isn't fooling herself, but she is the kind of person who carries on. Her husband is cheating on her, but she still comes to her Ethics classes every day and tries to get the students to care. She "still obviously found something fun about life and good about people, because otherwise why sometimes stay up so late grading you come in next day all exhausted, blouse on backward, having messed it up in the early-morning dark, you dear discombobulated thing?"

This is the kind of thinking that propels Kyle when Alison is grabbed by a stranger who comes to her door. Kyle is the son of ultra-controlling parents. Every thing must be just so. They wouldn't be thrilled if he intervened to try to save Alison as the stranger drags her across the yard. What if something happened to him? But Kyle is near his father's prize geode, which he wants placed just so, exactly right, in the yard. And it's too much to resist.

There are three characters whose POV we see things from: Alison, who is nearly 15 and imagines herself a princess; neighbor Kyle, who runs cross country and whose extremely controlling parents expect perfection from their son; and the would-be rapist who abducts Alison from her house and who is spotted with her by Kyle.

Saunders is masterful here at the shifting POVs, the shifting "what if" scenarios and still lets us know what actually happened and what did not, and the ways both parents and children can relate to the parental expectations.

Expectations about family life are at play in the next story, "Sticks", a sad tale of a father who dresses up a pole in the front yard to correspond to the seasons and holidays, and what happens when the kids grow up and go away and Mom dies. The story shows, without telling, what he may have perceived as cheer was never reflected inside their home.

Saunders next nearly goes off track with "Puppy", which is as sad as you imagine a story with this title would be. A chipper, would-be perfect mother comes up against a working class mother with a problem child tethered in the back yard when the perfect yuppie and offspring arrive to get a puppy.

The next stories are not as successful (and "Puppy" is not very successful as it is predictable and close to trite). "Escape from Spiderhead" has some interesting ideas about the treatment of prisoners in a situation where taking the right pill does more than make you small or tall, as in "Alice in Wonderland". The ending hit the same emotional tone for me as the last we see of a certain Replicant in Bladerunner.

The next story, "Exhortation", is marvelously constructed, as the story is told through a business pep-talk memo. Although, again, the story itself was not successful in plot, its conception and Saunders's writing style are marvelous. They do convey the idea of a world not quite our own, but just a bit off. Like a Twilight Zone episode. The warning, to not ever end up on the shelf, can, like the warnings explicit and non in all of the stories here, certainly apply to our world.

"Al Roosten" is an exercise in an unreliable narrator who gives away the goods in the end. He's a disagreeable man who tries to fool himself, almost talks himself into it, but reality keeps poking him.
A world not quite our own also is on display in "The Semplica Girl Diaries". Like other stories, there is a parent who wants a perfect world for his children. There is an odd concept even stranger than being injected with experimental mood-altering drugs as in "Spiderhead". This time, refugee young girls are hung in yards as decorations. Just when this story seemed to go completely off the rails, it veered back into emotional reality. And Saunders completely won me over just when I was ready to chuck the book.

The rest of the stories in the collection are all powerful. They have similar tropes to other stories here, including a family skirting the edge of abject poverty and veering in and out of abject pity for themselves and others, word play in dialogue, pharmaceuticals, a young boy imagining a world of his own when reality presents him with the opportunity to be a hero, and a man who has hit his limit with life. He thinks.

"Home", like The Yellow Birds, deals with a young man who has survived his military experience physically, but something inside was broken. He appears to be homeless, going first to his mother's, his sister and her family, his ex-wife and her new husband's house. In the most basic sense, what's going on is not spelled out. Mom says "beeper" and "beeping" because she's trying to clean up her language for her new minimum-wage job.

But masking is what goes on in the rest of the story as well as in her dialogue. Is she sick, as her sad-sack live-in boyfriend says? What's up with the narrator's ex-wife? What did he do? Why won't his sister and her husband let him touch their perfect baby? And why are his ex-wife and sister so well off in Yuppieland while he, his mother and the boyfriend are well below middle class? To an extent, it doesn't matter. What matters is what he feels when it appears he has worked himself up into taking fervent action.

One of my favorite stories in the collection comes next. "My Chivalric Fiasco" with its pills (shades of DeLillo in Underworld with the better living through modern chemistry section), TorchLightNight at Ye Olde Fake Medieval Amusement Park, office politics, not keeping one's mouth shut when one should, and the language. And the language. Oh the language. He gets to be a guard, a Medicated Role, and take a KnightLyfe pill.

After he doesn't keep his mouth shut when he should, the medication starts to wear off. And his dialogue goes from full-out medieval, as written by Hollywood mid-20th century, to a partly that and partly contemporary, to marvelous effect:

Anon I found Myself in proximity of the Wendy's on Center Boulevard, by the closed-down Outback, coming down and coming down hard, aware that, soon, the effect of the Elixir having subsided, I would find myself standing before our iffy Television, struggling to explain, in my own lowly Language, that, tho' Winter's Snows would soon be upon us (entering even unto our Dwelling as I have earlier Vouchsafed), no Appeal wouldst be Brook'd: I was Fired; Fired & sore Disgraced!"...


Taking a Shortcut through the high-school practice Field, where the tackling Dummies, in silhouette, like men who knew the value of holding their Tongues, seemed to Mock at me, I attempted to Comfort myself, saying I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage. But 'twas no Comfort in it. It was so weird. Why had I even done That? I felt like a total dickBrain, who should have just left well enough alone, & been more Moderate. I had really screwed the Pooch, no lie. Although, on the other Hand, did not the Devil himself, upon occasion, don the Garb of Moderation, as might befit his Purpose? Was it not Salutary that Events might proceed so as to see Don Murray punish'd? Although, then again, who did I think I was, Mr. Big Shot? ... This was going to be Hard to live down.


And then there is the title story, "Tenth of December", with an intrepid boy who invents a world of his own in which to be an explorer-hero, who calls to mind a younger version of the teen in the opening story, albeit one with less controlling family, and a seriously, perhaps mortally, ill man who decides to end it all. There is an icy lake involved.

Robin, the boy, is marvelously inventive with his little Nethers who are worse than malevolent fairies and brownies. If only Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in school, recognized his valor. He would if the Nethers kidnapped her. They would know when it was a fair cop when he caught up to them.
The ill man, Don Eber, has a complicated family life. But Saunders makes it all clear. And why Don might want to end it all before it was done for him. Then again:

He'd been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many-many drops of goodness, is how it came to him -- many drops of happy -- of good fellowship -- ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not -- had never been -- his to withheld.


Withhold.


Again with the language. Don is losing the ability to say exactly the word he wants. No spoilers, but it's worth reading. Not everything happens that a reader might expect. But nothing is out of place.

Saunders recently was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award. The acclaim this story collection has received is certainly merited. Tenth of December has stories that will be worth reading again and again. The stories are filled with an honest look at human failings that does not condemn them, but which knows that there are times when we let ourselves down and then there are the times we stop and realize "those drops of fellowship" do not have to be withheld.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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