George Saunders, Anti-Minimalist
Tenth of December, the sixth book and fourth collection of short stories by George Saunders, was published in early January. On the cover of the New York Times Magazine, Joel Lovell declared it “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”; by mid-month Tenth of December was on the New York Times bestseller list (at number three!). Though this level of commercial success is recent, Saunders is no underground talent; he won a MacArthur genius grant in 2006, he publishes regularly in the New Yorker, and he has won four National Magazine Awards for fiction. Previous books—especially CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, published in 1996, and Pastoralia, published in 2000—have been fawned over by everyone from Garrison Keillor to Thomas Pynchon.
Saunders graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in geophysics. His signature style—a trippy, postapocalyptic absurdism—grew out of frustration with more conventional idioms; he began by channeling Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but the results were flat. Eventually, he chucked the well-worn tropes of minimalist fiction. He told the New Yorker: “I found that if I dropped in some weird element—a theme park or some ghosts or whatever—it had the effect of bumping things up into a higher register, where I wasn’t quite sure what the piece was anymore, or how it was supposed to behave, which was good.” Saunders’s protagonists don’t punch the clock in factories or sawmills; rather, they make their living playing Neanderthals in artificial living-history exhibits, exterminating exotic vermin, running virtual-reality emporiums, or as male strippers in pilot-themed restaurants. It’s a kind of working-class surrealism, as in this passage from a story called “Bounty”:
Later that night in the Castle 4 courtyard Bill Tiney’s screaming at a group of Clients for letting his son die of cholera. Little Scotty Tiney’s lying motionless on a wooden cart near the goat-udder bagpipist. He’s not really dead, he’s Performing. Makeup’s done a super job of making him look decayed. The Clients titter and check their Events Schedules and a few who are really in the spirit of the thing start laying coins on Scotty’s chest. I’m slated for Ribald Highwayman. When the Tineys are through I’m supposed to bound in and rob the women of the fake jewelry they received at Admission, while comically ogling their cleavages.
The weird flourishes that make Saunders the darling of hipster postmodernists are skin-deep; his characters may inhabit outlandish worlds, but they are profoundly ordinary at heart. “Is this the life I envisioned for myself?” a middle manager at CivilWarLand, Saunders’s imaginary theme park, rhetorically wonders. “My God no. I wanted to be a high jumper. But I have two of the sweetest children ever born. I go in at night and look at them in their fairly expensive sleepers and think: There are a couple of kids who don’t need to worry about freezing to death or being cast out to the wolves.” (The wolves are metaphorical. Generally, Saunders’s characters fear nothing so much as maxed-out credit cards and overdue car payments.)
It is this tension between the bizarre and the quotidian that makes Saunders’s stories remarkable. His heroes, invariably, are sub-average Joes with ideas far above their station, surrounded by mealy-mouthed parents, spoiled children, sadistic bosses, backstabbing co-workers, nerds and outcasts, the fat, the lame, the sick, the poor, and the downtrodden. In story after story, a character’s rich fantasy life provides a comical counterpoint to his impoverished circumstances. His characters evince, in Mark Twain’s words, “pathetic little nickel-plated aristocratic instincts.” Consider the inner monologue of Neil Yaniky, from Pastoralia’s “Winky”:
Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him.
His protagonists idle at high speed. This is the anxiety-riddled Morse, from Pastoralia’s brilliant “The Falls”:
Good God, but life could be less than easy, not that he was unaware that it could certainly be a lot worse, but to go about in such a state, pulse high, face red, worried sick that someone would notice how nervous one was, was certainly less than ideal, and he felt sure that his body was secreting all kinds of harmful chemicals and that the more he worried about the harmful chemicals the faster they were pouring out of wherever it was they came from.
Ruminating on his own mediocrity, Morse longs to be “a tortured prisoner of war who not only refused to talk but led the other prisoners in rousing hymns at great personal risk.” In “Winky” and “The Falls,” as in all his best stories, Saunders perfectly balances the ridiculous and the pathetic. We see right through Yaniky’s preposterous desires, and we know it’s ludicrous that Morse would fancy himself a hero. After all, his “childhood dreams had been so bright, he had hoped for so much, it couldn’t be true that he was a nobody, although, on the other hand, what kind of somebody spends the best years of his life swearing at a photocopier?” And yet, in the story’s stunning dénouement, a hero is exactly what Morse turns out to be.
Saunders is a wizard of plot—another quality that differentiates him from the trend in American stories since the anomic days of Ann Beattie. His best stories are formally coherent; the strength of their narratives perfectly marries the strangeness of their details. He winds the paths of these narratives toward striking, even awe-inspiring, conclusions, and sets his characters up to grapple with ancient and formidable human dilemmas. Time and again, his goofy, slightly pathetic protagonists struggle to behave morally, to be loyal and brave, to be—and even to do—good. And in the end, thanks to Saunders’s generous storylines, his underdogs manage to triumph over hardship, to find grace and transcendence, and even to prevail.
Tenth of December is the best and worst of Saunders. The most successful stories have lucid, classically executed plots, while the more self-consciously Saunders-like tales feel gimmicky and inchoate. “My Chivalric Fiasco” misses the mark entirely; its premise (a theme-park worker overdoses on a drug called KnightLyfe® and overplays his role to ostensible comic effect) is silly and derivative of Saunders’s earlier stories, while its style (lots of Random Capitalizations and Wacky! Punctuation!) feels both forced and false.
“Al Roosten” upends the loser-as-hero paradigm that Saunders executed so brilliantly in “The Falls.” Here, the eponymous protagonist actually does turn out to be a schmuck, which leaves the reader—who has dutifully followed Al Roosten’s self-aggrandizing/self- hating stream-of-consciousness all the way to its source—stranded and disappointed.
“Exhortation” consists of a memorandum from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” (of what, Saunders deliberately does not say) to his staff, urging them to exert themselves more strenuously on a project he can only discuss using the metaphor of “cleaning a shelf.” (Todd wants his team to work harder cleaning the shelf lest they themselves become a shelf in need of cleaning. It’s a lazy allegory.)
And “Sticks,” a story only two paragraphs long, is a postmodern stunt that doesn’t work. Even though Saunders perfectly nails his miniature portrait of a sour, withholding father (“One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough”), “Sticks” feels like a teaser instead of a tale. After such a skillful setup, the reader wants something to happen.
But in the collection’s four key stories, things happen in abundance. Tautly plotted, vividly written, and perfectly resolved, these are nail-biters, old-fashioned twist-in-the-tale narratives whose endings leave the reader wobbly with amazement.
“Victory Lap” and “Tenth of December,” the collection’s first and last stories, share the same scaffolding. Both depict a double rescue, in which an unlikely hero saves an innocent victim and then is rescued in turn. To elaborate further (or even to summarize) would do potential readers a disservice; they must be read to be appreciated. Suffice it to say that they are as tense and cinematic as the best thrillers, but evoke classical themes: selfishness and selflessness, sacrifice and redemption.
Neither “Victory Lap” nor “Tenth of December” contains the slightest whiff of surreality; in fact, both stories unfold in bland American suburbs. Saunders executes a fascinating pivot in “Escape from Spiderhead,” which looks, at first, like science fiction: A prisoner, controlled by two wardens who administer experimental drugs, struggles to assert his humanity as his mood and personality change at their whim. But it turns out to belong to our world as well. Near the end of the story, as the reader begins to feel grateful for the distance that separates him from the increasingly upsetting action, Saunders brings the whole narrative sharply down to earth:
“Does he need to say ‘Acknowledge’?” Abnesti said.
“DocilrydeTM’s a Class C, so—” Verlaine said.
“See, that, to me, makes zero sense,” Abnesti said. “What good’s an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?”
“We just need a waiver,” Verlaine said.
“How long does that shit take?” Abnesti said.
“We fax Albany, they fax us back,” Verlaine said.
And the reader’s blood runs cold. Saunders could have avoided the geographical specificity and the story would be genre fiction, a fable, an allegory. Instead, it’s firmly located in New York State, where wardens wait for a fax (such humble technology!) from the governor’s minions.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is Tenth of December’s centerpiece. The story contains precisely one otherworldly detail: Semplica Girls are third-world women strung up for display by wire filaments threaded through their skulls. They’re the new must-have yuppie lawn ornament, and the anxious, striving author of the “Diaries”—a father of three trapped beneath an ocean of debt—wants an “SG arrangement” for his own yard, preferably in time for his daughter Lilly’s birthday party.
“Very depressing birthday party today at home of Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini,” the third diary entry recounts. “Thirty acres, six outbuildings…one for Ferraris (three), one for Porsches (two, plus one he is rebuilding), one for historical merry-go-round they are restoring as family (!).” The narrator’s children are dazzled: “Returned to house, sat on special star-watching platform as stars came out. Our kids sat watching stars fascinated, as if no stars in our neighborhood. What, I said, no stars in our neighborhood? No response.”
And off at the edge of the lawn—at the edge of everyone’s lawn, save the narrator’s—drift the Semplica Girls. “Lord, give us more,” the narrator later prays. “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 fairy-tale fashion, his prayers are answered, though the magical windfall—like all lucked-into fairy-tale fortunes—is heedlessly squandered. Yet the story’s ostensibly unhappy ending is both bitterly sad and transcendently beautiful. In the end, there may be ruin, but there is also empathy: a lesson belatedly learned.
Though Saunders is not consistently brilliant—even his most enraptured fans perpetually praise the same double handful of stories, and his lone novel (The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) is, by tacit agreement, rarely mentioned by critics—his accomplishment is real and his success deserved. In Tenth of December, George Saunders swings for the fences, and who cares if he strikes out as often as he connects? His great stories are as resonant and durable as myth.