George Saunders' new stories take our current condition at a slant

Tenth of December

George Saunders

Random House

The fiction of George Saunders is awash in multiple contradictory tensions: the allegorical versus the specific, the quixotic versus the satirical, the outra versus the universal. Yet one duality looms largest: the cunningly picayune opposes the wildly speculative, so that the nagging impulse to survey the human condition from the unlikeliest of angles and the inexhaustible, almost scientific urge to introduce new technological and sociological variables into an already-familiar world bump up against one another to create the real frisson in Saunders' work.

In the McArthur "Genius" grant-winner's hands, sacred normalcy is twisted into shapes that often come across as perverse-until one considers how bizarre a short story about a modern American's life might seem to someone reading it two decades ago. His hysterically misshapen dialogue is both a satire and an uneasy representation of contemporary conversation, blending spoken ingratiation and private scheming in such a way that they emerge as sort of pathological doublespeak. Every Saunders yarn overflows with conceptual multitudes, and the aftertaste of his fiction tends to be more uncomfortable than the experience of consuming it: a shot of liquor that takes days to get you drunk. And while the 10 stories that make up Tenth of December don't represent a seismic shift away from the tricks of previous Saunders titles like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia, they're slightly subtler, increasingly poignant, and more complex.

Consider how cavalierly "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" sells the concept of exotic immigrants as yard decorations for upper-class Americans, even as it shrugs off a child's innocent outrage at this contextually commonplace practice. What's interesting here is that the conflict itself is less compelling than the telling. The story is communicated via diary, in a maddeningly clipped pidgin take on American English that scans as a parody of the broken ESL English that certain lifelong American citizens deplore in immigrants. At the outset, in a fanciful burst of grandiosity, the speaker imagines future generations stumbling upon his scribbled observations: "Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passe? Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night? Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight?" A more frightening question, perhaps: As a result of our increasingly jangly, compartmentalized culture, will future people write and converse this way as a matter of course and find a diary like this one normal?

Equally disturbing, "Escape from Spiderhead" imagines a judicial future in which imprisoned convicts are conscripted into service as pharmaceutical lab rats. Bureaucratic overseers flood inmates' veins with one experimental elixir after another, constructing and conducting increasingly risque stress tests to get a sense of the intensity and longevity of drugs that simulate verbosity, love, extreme despair, and other emotions. Saunders sidesteps the morality of this program; it's all presented as something of a given, and a process that Jeff, a convicted murderer and the story's protagonist, is all but inured to. When the overseers position Jeff as a God-like figure in the name of scientific progress-effectively making him a killer all over again-and when he devises a symbolically appropriate way to commit suicide, the reader is left with the sinking feeling that the tale's denouement is actually the result of some other, more intricate narcotic kicking into high gear.

Yet it's in December's cunningly picayune moments that Saunders achieves a true measure of soulfulness. A teenager's heroic disruption of a suburban kidnapping hinges on his ability to surmount years of helicopter parenting ("Victory Lap"). In a tender, arcticly set split-screen, the title story interweaves a life in full flower and one in sputtering decline. "Puppy" turns one family's desire to buy a puppy from another into a smoldering, simmering class clash, a probing study of how one person's formative experiences can inspire assumptive misinterpretations capable of tearing entire families asunder.

"Home" is where December shines brightest: a sympathetic portrait of a soldier named Mikey, dishonorably discharged for never-disclosed reasons, returning to a family as irrevocably broken as it was when he left. Mikey is a powder keg struggling minute to minute not to combust in the face of eviction, dispossession, and civilians who aren't even sure which war is still raging; the phrase "thank you for your service" is trotted out so often that it becomes an unconscious rebuke. Saunders nails the character in tight, evocative bursts of backstory. The following passage, between Mikey and his sister, speaks ghastly volumes:


She took my face in her hands and turned my head so I was looking in the window at Ryan, who was heating a bottle at the kitchen sink.
"Does that look like a hitter?" she said.
"No," I said.
And it didn't. Not at all.
"Jesus," I said. "Does anybody tell the truth around here?"
"I do," she said. "You do."
I looked at her and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, on mushrooms, trashed the patio.
To be sure, Saunders' muse sometimes fails him-"My Chivalric Fiasco" plays like a menace-free take on "Spiderhead," while "Al Roosten" is a misanthropic Daniel Clowes graphic novel writ small-but his perspective is no less potent, his voice no less incisive, a guiding light into the wilderness that awaits us all.

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