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Tenth of December

by George Saunders

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

Tenth of December by George Saunders
© Random House
Random House, 2013

It may not seem obvious at first, but beyond the cheeky, twisted humor of a George Saunders(In Persuasion Nation) story lurks an author who deeply understands short fiction. Saunders is able to propel his stories forward and add dimensions to his lovably flawed protagonists in just a few short sentences; he's perfected the art of subtle development and does so almost behind his own character's backs. While a talkative character like Jeff in "Escape from Spiderhead" is trying to wrap his brain around the weird sex-filled laboratory tests he's found himself enduring, Saunders is quietly in the background, crafting a tale about human empathy and its difficult relationship with the progression of technology. As Jeff's chemical drip of "Verbaluce (TM)" courses through his post-coital body, he watches another specimen endure a chemical-induced breakdown: "As I watched Heather suffer, a great tenderness suffused my body, a tenderness hard to distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slave to so much pain?" A tragic and sobering sentiment buried amidst the strangest of stories; it's Saunders at his best.

A similar shrouding can be seen in "The Semplica Girl Diaries," the longest piece in Tenth of December. Written as a series of nightly diary entries by a father of three, Saunders renders the confusion (and almost helplessness) of fatherhood in a hilariously dorky way. The first journal entry promises a chronicle for future readers, generations from now, to know what life was like in the aughts, and promises a nightly entry, without interruption, until the book is full. The next entry comes two days later and opens "Oops. Missed a day. Things hectic. Will summarize yesterday. Yesterday a bit rough." An easy gag, but one that manages to tell so much about this character; he's an overambitious, rosy-eyed lug who only wants the best for his children and their children to come. "The Semplica Girl Diaries" quickly turns into a story of keeping up with the Joneses: a neighbor owns a beautiful estate (with water features!) and, naturally, it's the narrator's duty as a father to provide a similar luxury for his girls. The narrator often mentions the "SG"s on each of these covetable properties, and strives to get some for his own plot of land. An astute reader could correctly infer that these are the eponymous "Semplica Girls"; their reveal later in the piece adds an irreverently insane twist to an otherwise traditional story. Without giving too much away, Saunders has had a Stepford Wives-quality parable about immigration brewing underneath each dopey diary entry since page one.
The more Saunders readers experience, the more typical this sort of thing becomes: a funny story, delightfully cluttered with tonal gags and shlubby characters with names like Todd and Al, becomes unexpectedly serious as Saunders chips away his self-constructed, low-brow façade. Another story, "Victory Lap" steps into the minds of three characters, each shaped drastically by outside influences. Alison on is a happy, sociable teenager with a tendency to shift her internal monologue into a dialogue and play out potential conflicts in her head. She's home alone, mind swirling with French class, boys, and thoughts of the future. Meanwhile, Kyle Boot ("the palest kid in all the land," as Alison sees him) is next door. Kyle is also home alone, with a hilariously demeaning chore list from his strict father:

"Scout: New geode on deck. Place in yard per included drawing. No goofing. Rake areas first, put down plastic as I have shown you. Then lay in white rock. THIS GEODE EXPENSIVE. Pls take seriously. No reason this should not be done by time I get home. This = five (5) Work Points."

While thinking about ways to get out his chores (and crushing on the girl next door), Kyle sees an older man break into Alsion's house and drag her into his van. Only when Saunders shifts to the abductor's point of view does he show that this isn't a funny, quirky story at all but one of three very different people trying to achieve some social independence.

These stories are to be enjoyed for their silliness as well as their deeper, greater purpose. There are times in Tenth of December where this division is slightly off-kilter ("Exhortation," for instance), which results in something more verbose than meaningful. But still, Saunders is a calculated, skilled writer with some of the most original slight-of-hand around, capable of packing a reverberant punch within a whimsical mitt.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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