The first time I tried to read George Saunders’ Tenth of December, I had been drinking. After two pages I had to put it down. If you tackle Saunders’ book of short stories, I recommend you do so well-rested and sober. I mean that as a compliment. It should have your undivided attention.
It’s true, Saunders’ writing style takes some getting used to – it’s part diary, part stream of consciousness – and sometimes there’s not much regard for grammar or punctuation. Some of the stories start mid-action. And sometimes, as with our own lives, the endings are abrupt.
But once I got started, I was fascinated by this collection of unnerving and surreal stories. A review by Jennifer Egan on the book jacket called the book subversive and hilarious. While I agree with subversive, I thought nearly every story was quite sad. Some stories will make you cringe. Some will make you flip back and forth between pages to make sure what you think happened actually happened. Nearly all have a sense of dread and a fantastical element that isn’t quite science fiction, just a sense that the stories take place in a not-to-distant, not-to-nice future.
While the time and place of some stories is unclear, the characters are all very human. They are all weighed down by their humanity and as a result, most act in desperation. Maybe that’s what makes the book so sad.
Saunders deftly writes as a variety of characters – boys, girls, mothers, fathers. In “Victory Lap” there’s Alison, an idealistic teenager, who dislikes the neighborhood boys because they “name their own nuts” and “aspire to work for CountryPower because the work shirts were awesome and you got them for free.”
Callie is the desperate mother from “Puppy” who goes to extreme ends to keep her son safe, but questions her actions, “Who was it that thought up the idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him? Her. She did.”
And then there is the sympathetic Eber from the “Tenth of December” who has a last shot at redemption and life and realizes “if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?”
The book is composed of 10 short stories. The shortest is a mere two pages, and the longest, the spectacular “Semplica Girl Diaries,” is just 60. I didn’t read the book in one sitting, but I read each story without interruption.
If getting wrapped up in a good book is like running a marathon, reading Tenth of December is like sprinting through an obstacle course. There are many things that can trip you up on the way, but once you get used to Saunders’ style, with all its idiosyncrasies, it is worth the effort.