The cover of 'Tenth of December' and author George Saunders. (Chloe Aftel / Random House )
Tenth of December
Random House: 254 pp., $26
George Saunders is often described as a satirist. That's not inaccurate: How else do we account for, say, the title effort of his first collection, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," with its bleakly absurd portrait of a Civil War theme park? And yet to read him exclusively on such terms is to miss the point.
Rather, I see Saunders as a humanist. Certainly, that's the operative sensibility of his new book of short fiction, "Tenth of December." The book has a sneaky coherence, as if it were less a group of isolated pieces than an investigation into what happens when we are brought up short by life.
"It wasn't fair," reflects one of the protagonists of the title story, a 52-year-old man dying of cancer. "It happened to everyone supposedly, but now it was happening specifically to him. He'd kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/something was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people."
That's classic Saunders, with its use of the vernacular, the specific language of a character, to get at material that is both elusive and profound. Such choices also mark his earlier books of fiction — not just "CivilWarLand" but also the collections "Pastoralia" and "In Persuasion Nation" and the novella "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" — which seduce us with their accessibility, their sense of individuals banging up against their limitations, while also hinting at deeper layers underneath.
It's not that "Tenth of December" is without dark humor. In "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," Saunders gives us a world very much like ours — except for the women imported (from Somalia, Laos, the Philippines) to serve as status symbols in the form of living lawn ornaments. Here, he wields the satirist's sharp pen to make vivid observations about wealth, excess and exploitation.
And yet, what's most striking about "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" is how it reflects Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat," in which an anonymous clerk's existence is transformed, and then ruined, by his purchase of a coat. For Saunders, the life-changing acquisition is not a coat but a scratch-off lottery ticket, yet the windfall leads to similarly disastrous results. In the end, this makes the story less satirical than fatalistic, steeped in the bittersweet recognition that the one thing we can never escape is ourselves.
Other echoes arise throughout the collection, which gathers 10 stories from the last six years. "Escape From Spiderhead" — a darkly funny story about using criminals as guinea pigs for experimental drugs — recalls William T. Vollmann's "moral calculus" of violence: "Do the math, Jeff," Saunders writes, before a character is dosed with "DarkenfloxxTM," which may make her suicidally depressed. "… A few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel, … years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks."
Then there's David Foster Wallace, whose fiction shared Saunders' edge of heartfelt parody. In "Al Roosten," Saunders seems to channel Wallace's Kenyon College commencement address with its unexpected plea for empathy. Saunders' story turns on us: At first, it mocks a small town chamber of commerce, which is auctioning off lunches with local business owners to "rais[e] money for LaffKidsOffCrack and their antidrug clowns … [s]uch as Mr. BugOut, who, in his classroom work, with a balloon, makes this thing that starts out as a crack pile and ends up as a coffin, which I think is so true!"
Quickly, however, Saunders takes us inside the head of his titular main character, whose insecurities only make him more compelling and complex. Al is trapped running a failing store to support his sister and her kids. When another merchant condescends to him, his resentments bubble over and he kicks the man's keys under a gym riser in revenge.
Yet here too, Saunders further complicates the action, revealing that the other man has worries of his own. Among them is a daughter with a clubfoot, whose treatment depends on him being able to find those keys. "Kid was solid gold," Al hears him say into a cellphone, as the story shifts our sympathies. "They were running late," he continues, "the auction thing had gone on and on. He probably should have skipped it, but it was such a terrific cause."