Tenth of December by George Saunders

This was my first time reading anything by George Saunders, but I have officially caught the bug. I binge-watched his talks online after I finished & not just because he reminds the child in me of the guy from Pappyland (especially in his readings! when his voice gets a bit higher!), but because when you read his fiction, you feel like you’re meeting him. Regardless of the fact that most of his characters are so different in age & gender that they’re obviously not him, his voice is so honest on every page. Style that might come off as gimmicky had anyone else written it, is instead removed of all ego.

He writes how people think when they have the time to think. It doesn’t read like writing, it reads like a voice in your head that sounds scarily like your own. Even down to his sentence structure, “On yellow counters lit from within were these heavy blue-plastic tags.”

His characters are kept at a distance from the reader, but it still becomes hard to judge them. They’re tales of morality & humanity. This collection of short stories varies in genre, but not in style. Some are more contemporary, some have more sci-fi elements. All of them have that post-modern fun-fiction where the author dares himself to play with language a bit. Saunders is a big fan of Barthelme & so am I (my favorite being “The School“), but I didn’t expect to love him as much as I did.

I’ve said before that my favorite part of reading collections is trying to figure out why they’re arranged in the order they end up in. This order was perfect. “Victory Lap” & “Tenth of December” were obvious choices to bookend the stories, but even the placement of the others flowed well. The lengths felt right, the characters changed often enough, & I never got bored. I think the order is super significant to my reading experience because sometimes if I get stuck with too many bad eggs in a row, I miss out on the great ones.

My great ones for this collection were “Tenth of December,” “Victory Lap,” “Sticks,” & “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in that order.

“Tenth of December” is best read without any prior knowledge in my opinion. The coolest aspect of the story is the language of the older man who is experiencing speech problems. But the story works because while this is a feature, it exists only to add to the actual content & story itself.

“Victory Lap” has a lot in common with “Tenth of December,” but I think is a little simpler. It’s a great opener as well. It starts with Alison’s view, a young & probably popular girl, fantasizing about boys as she flits around her house before her recital that night. It then follows Kyle, a saint of a boy next door, whose parents are probably more strict than any I’ve ever known. Kyle witnesses Alison being kidnapped from his front door & what follows sets the tone for the rest of the moral dilemmas in the collection. Saunders has the ability to take incredibly dark topics & make them seem almost quirky & a part of life. Often there’s something somebody can do within their power to help in these stories. I kept being reminded of that Ethics 101 question with the train & the lever.

“Sticks” is brilliant simply for it’s length to emotion ratio. The amount of sadness it made me feel in two paragraphs was probably the most amazing thing I’ve experienced reading a piece of writing in a long freaking time. I just put the book down & sat there. To get an idea of how short this one is, the whole length fits into an Instagram photo I posted while still being legible. Saunders has discussed his ability to edit things down before, saying that every time he edits something it always relates to trusting his reader’s intelligence. I think this is the best possible example of that belief.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is literally how I write in my diary. It’s strange because a diary is supposed to be this private thing, but we all secretly hope somebody will read it one day. It narrates “exciitng to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written 365 pages, & what a picture of life & times then available for kids & grandkids” & frequently addresses the reader as “future reader.” The choppy, quick scribblings of a middle aged man trying to do what’s best for his family. I know he explains to David Sedaris in the extended conversion edition that this structure helps him narrow his writing. I think anybody who has taken any sort of writing class can agree. Sometimes more specific direction can help the story with direction & creativity instead of actually limiting them. I think this story best describes class & American culture where “Al Roosten” seemed to fail a bit. This story also seems to share some semblance with Saunders’ own life at an earlier point with little details he provides here & there about his wife & what not.

The stories work because different readers will fall in different places on the right to wrong scale. In stories like “Puppy” for example, there’s so much gray area that many readers opinions differ on which character has the moral high ground. The people I ended up feeling myself dislike were actually the ones who were most like myself (this reminded me a lot of Alain de Botton by the way).

Saunders allow himself to entertain fiascos long enough to create fully whole stories. Then he edits them till their core is exposed just enough for the reader to experience his thoughts, but still be entertained. He’s the definition of a writer. Like always here’s a Spotify Playlist of songs I put together while reading. More will be added soon!

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