Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders doesn't need me to recommend his work, but I will anyway. He's received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Tenth of December, his 2013 collection of stories, is the first of his seven books I've read. It will not be the last.

The ten stories are all different, all original, all amazing. Saunders does things in his fiction I didn't realize you could do in a short story. Like change point of view several times. Like use a corporate memo format with virtually no characters or dramatic arc and still have an interesting story. Like write a 32-page story with 15 separate chapters. As Karen Russell (Swamplandia) is quoted as saying, "[I] read Saunders because he alwasy makes me want to write. He reads like he's having such a good time and I love his humor so much. . . He was one of those writers—he just opened doors for me."

Because Saunders is so original, it is difficult to talk about the stories, but I will anyway. One of the things he does incredibly well is write as though he is simply recording a character's thought process: ". . . People were amazing. Mom was awesome, Dad was awesome, her teachers worked so hard and had kids of their own, and some were even getting divorced such as Mrs. Dees, but still always took time for their students. What she found especially inspiring about Mrs. Dees was that, even though Mr. Dees was cheating on Mrs. Dees with the lady who ran the bowling alley, Mrs. Dees was still teaching the best course ever in Ethics, posing such questions as: Can goodness win? Or do good people always get shafted, evil being more reckless?"

Saunders also manages to engage with topics that might seem too massive for a short story. "Home" is narrated by a Marine returning from combat; "Escape from Spiderhead" is narrated by a prison inmate who is being used as a human subject in drug tests. In neither story (in fact, in none of these stories) does Saunders draw any neat, moral lesson. Things happen. People make choices. Characters act or don't act. Readers are left to make of what they've just experienced what they will.

I agree with Karen Russell. Saunders makes me want to write. And read more of his fiction.

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