By George Saunders. Random House, 257 pp, hardcover
Plenty of praise has already been heaped upon the latest story collection by Syracuse University professor and MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow George Saunders. (Perhaps you saw the story in the New York Times Magazine prematurely declaring it the best book of 2013 when the year was only three days old?) But perhaps the best insight into how Tenth of December operates comes from a blogger I admire, who described it as being “primarily concerned” about “dad stuff”.
This is a loaded term, to be sure. But it’s undeniable: no matter whether he’s writing about pet adoption (“Puppy”), awkwardly auctioning oneself for charity (“Al Roosten”), or botched suicide attempts (the title story), the wisdom and verve Saunders injects into his fiction come from a perspective that’s both male and parental. Put those together and you get dad stuff.
So when he writes lines like the following, from “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, you get the sense he’s talking to himself as much as anyone: “Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.” This particular story takes place in the slightly heightened, slightly futuristic world that is Saunders’s bread and butter. A father, feeling embarrassed and outshone by his wealthier neighbours, uses his $10,000 lottery winnings to buy his daughter a set of “Semplica Girls” for their backyard: real women, from third-world countries, who come to the U.S. to earn minimum wage and act like living statues.
It’s an unsettling story on many levels, but again, it’s the paternal material that hits hardest. Later the narrator writes: “Stood awhile watching, thinking, praying: Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.”
I love Saunders’s gentle yet unswerving moral code, as well as his gift for wringing complexity out of very simple sentences. And I’ve recommended his fiction and nonfiction many times. But a strange new emotion came over me as I worked through Tenth of December: weariness. By the time I approached the final variation on an urban, goodhearted, semidelusional American wandering into a tragedy that the reader has seen coming from a dozen pages away, I was totally drained.
Is it possible that Saunders has simply gotten too good at this? When each story gets your point across so fully, collecting 10 of them into book form is just so much overkill.