By Jack A. Urquhart, ©2013 (1800 words)
The foregoing line from “Sticks,” one of the dark (and darkly funny) morality tales in George Saunders’ new story collection, Tenth of December, exemplifies part of what captured and entranced this reader from page one. I refer to the author’s uncanny ability to articulate the inchoate thoughts and feelings of the human mind, those innumerable little epiphanies that spark and flare and disappear—usually too quickly for most of us to grasp. Such artistry is a wonder in itself. But Saunders’ talents are even more wide-ranging—expansive enough, in fact, to envelope his little beacons in stories of spellbinding authority.
Of course, the ability to effect such storytelling wizardry has everything to do with Saunders’ mastery of language. And such inventive language it is! Each of the 10 stories in this latest collection unfolds rhythmically on the page, sometimes hip hopping to a broken, irregular beat, other times tripping to a jazzy meter. Once Saunders enters the mind of his protagonist, the reader encounters whole pages alive with street savvy phrases, with hilarious and darkly imaginative neologisms. This reader confesses that it was thrilling to witness how the author uses his formidable linguistic skills to conjure insights instantly recognizable, often in sentences powerful enough to bring the reader to a full stop on the page.
The line that opens this review from the collection’s shortest story is an excellent example.
“Sticks”—a little miracle in 387 words—spins a tale from a grown son’s memories of a father so repressed that his sole means of emotional expression was to construct stick figure tableaux on the front lawn. In just two short paragraphs, Saunders captures a dreadful truth that those of us honest enough to fess up will surely recognize: the fear that our parents’ most onerous sins are deeply seeded within us, waiting to germinate, mature, and bear familiar fruit.
Cast of Characters
It is worth noting that throughout the collection, such insights as this spring from under-achieving minds, for Saunders doesn’t pull geniuses and superstars out of his magic hat. Rather, he summons a cast of rank amateurs—sometimes outright losers—who put the full, unpolished range of human faults and foolishness on display. Maybe it is because the author renders most of them with enough compassion to offset their blunderings that the reader wants to follow their stories. Or maybe we tag along because these are characters who—as in all morality tales—want to be saved, even if they don’t know it; characters who struggle to discern the forces of good from those that are not.
In Saunders’ oeuvre, those forces include the dehumanizing provocations of the modern world. His protagonists are men and women, boys and girls who rail awkwardly against social injustice and oppression, who struggle with domestic longings, and a pervasive sense of class angst—who do battle with the temptations and false idols of a capitalist culture.
It is no accident, then, that many of Saunders’ characters harbor formidable caches of anger—rage that is sometimes suppressed, other times released in bursts of cruel intolerance and violence. And yet, it is heartening that now and then their rage is—at the last possible moment—diverted into unexpected acts of mercy and compassion.
In the story, “Victory Lap,” Saunders alternates narrative perspectives between his winners and losers. First, there is Alison, a popular 14-year-old girl whose aspirations (and self-esteem) soar high above her small-town surroundings.
“The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, tell the truth, she was not très crazy about, such as: actually named their own nuts…Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Helen Keller had been awesome…”
Next comes Kyle, a scrawny teen whose physical appearance is captured in two short sentences: “Poor thing. He looked like a skeleton with a mullet.” Yet behind the dorky exterior lurks a potent fury—one regularly stoked by his sadistically controlling parents and which the teen barely contains via a near constant internal litany of profanities.
“What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he be grateful for all that Mom and Dad did for him, instead of— Cornhole the ear-cunt. Flake-fuck the pale vestige with a proddering dick-knee.”
Even so, there remains a tender spot in Kyle’s simmering heart for his attractive and popular neighbor.
“Kyle’s heart was singing. He’d always thought that was just a phrase. Alison was like a national treasure. In the dictionary under “beauty” there should be a picture of her in that jean skirt. Although lately she didn’t seem to like him all that much.”
Finally, Saunders delivers an unnamed would-be murderer/rapist, who has, in his twisted imagination, carefully rehearsed the assault he will launch on his intended victim, Alison—right down to the opening lines of the attack.
“He had the speech down cold. Had practiced it both in his head and on the recorder: Calm your heart, darling, I know you’re scared because you don’t know me yet and didn’t expect this today but give me a chance and you will see we will fly high. See I am putting the knife right over here and I don’t expect I’ll have to use it, right?”
That the story’s climax is achieved by thwarting one act of violence with another says reams about how individual successes and failures can ameliorate or aggravate a personal sense of shame, feed or destroy our self worth—drive human beings for refuge into daydreams and fantasies that can, and often do, bloom in savagery.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries”
(Note: This review does not reveal the meaning of ‘Semplica Girls’ in order to preserve the story’s sci-fi surprise.)
In the unforgettable “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” Saunders produces a struggling middle-class father (trapped in a bureaucratic wasteland) who makes truncated entries in his journal. Not surprisingly, his journal chronicles a world of shame, the kind of mortification that springs from not being able to give his children the consumeristic perks their peers enjoy:
“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.”
In another entry the narrator writes that he does “…not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say we are middle. We are very very lucky. I know that. But still, it is not right that rich people make us middle people feel dopey and inadequate.”
There is something perversely satisfying and simultaneously uncomfortable about stumbling upon a passage like the preceding. I say satisfying because Saunders evokes precisely the kind of private reverie we humans, regardless of class status, have all entertained at one time or another; and it is strangely gratifying to discover that we are not alone in our insecurities. As for discomfort, perhaps that springs from the recognition that our most secret yearnings are sometimes as ridiculous as they are pathetic.
Indeed, often the most arresting moments in Saunders’ stories are accompanied by discomfort.
“Tenth of December”
In the wonderful title story, for instance, which comes last in the collection, the reader encounters two characters whose internal thoughts bespeak such an abiding loneliness as to be embarrassingly familiar. Familiar, that is, to anyone who in a moment of self-loathing has ever felt herself/himself a hopelessly lost soul.
Saunders identifies the story’s protagonists with a few, deftly worded sentences. There is the boy, Robin, a chubby outsider “with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” whose only friends are imaginary; and the terminally ill Eber, with his “bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt…like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.”
Just as Robin’s description marks him the archetypal outsider, a target for adolescent bullying and ostracism, Eber’s physical depiction fits the mission he has embarked upon—namely, suicide (via hypothermia, of all things), a quest he undertakes to spare his wife Molly the strain of his prolonged illness.
Neither of these defeated characters makes a comfortable story companion. And yet, once the two cross paths in the wilderness on a freezing winter day, the reader’s empathy begins to swing their way. Gradually, we begin to care what happens to these oddballs, begin to hope that they will find a way to save each other. It is a storyline that in less accomplished hands might easily have veered into cliché. But Saunders steers well clear of trodden territory. Rather, when he pulls his protagonists back from the brink, it is to make them face life’s harsh realities, its excruciating squalor and heart-rending splendor.
Indeed, the ‘life’ that Saunders envisions for all his protagonists seems always to retain just enough potential for good to make the plodding, painful journey worthwhile—even when ongoing social rejection seems likely, or when death is an imminent certainty. That is because sometimes—in the midst of chaos, injustice, and the cruelties of birth and chance—the smallest act of generosity, of kindness, of acceptance, can forestall disaster and make a miracle.
Witness this passage from the conclusion of the title story:
“The kid…took Eber’s bloody hand gently. Said he was sorry. Sorry for being such a dope in the woods. Sorry for running off. He’d just been out of it. Kind of scared and all.
Listen, Eber said hoarsely. You did amazing. You did perfect. I’m here. Who did that?
There. That was something you could do. The kid maybe felt better now? He’d given the kid that? That was a reason. To stay around. Wasn’t it? Can’t console anyone if not around? Can’t do squat if gone?…
Then: sirens. Somehow: Molly.
He heard her in the entryway. Mol, Molly, oh boy. When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? And then they would— Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”
One wonders after reading the 10 interludes in The Tenth of December if the human struggle to achieve salvation is as simple and as complex as Saunders seems to suggest—as facile as a single good and true revelation? As arduous as discovering amidst the cacophonous, mind-numbing distractions of modern life the deepest, dearest thing? A thing powerful enough to stop us midthought or midsentence?
Feats of magic that happen with marvelous regularity in these brilliant, heartbreakingly insightful stories.