”…any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”
I really hesitated to read Tenth of December, a compilation of previously published short stories by George Saunders. I had seen Saunders on “The Colbert Report” and liked what I had heard from friends who had read his work. He’s often favorably compared with other writers that I really, really like and my own writing style was once described as being similar to his. And that was the problem. I did not want to be disappointed. Saunders had been proffered as the perfect author for me and I couldn’t bear to be let down, because obviously, the failure would be mine.
But I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was charmed by each story in Tenth of December. Saunders has a blissful way of luring readers into his alternative reality—every detail feels comfortable and reliable and then, BAM, something is very, very strange. Saunder’s stories don’t take place in our world, but they are so close to reality, that it feels possible. Testing emotion-enhancing pharmaceuticals on convicts could be a reasonable business practice as it is described in “Escape from Spiderhead.” Employing BoP children to flaunt affluence in a middle-class neighborhood seems reasonable and downright charitable in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.”
Each piece, feels shifted and altered—some read as science fiction, others have a more prophetic cast—as if daily life has become more sinister for everyone, not just the bad guys. Saunders comes from a place where moral boundaries are loosened and doing the “right” thing has become as stretched out as an old sweater, all loose threads, gaping holes and misshapen shoulders. His larger commentary seems to be that no matter our status or backgrounds, we can no longer depend on the dictates of polite society; we have travelled too far down the easy path of ignoring the consequences of our actions and will happily accept those changes as long as we feel there will always be someone worse off than ourselves. We can try to believe his stories are like looking in a fun house mirror, but the truth is that the reflection we see is in sharp, clear focus and it’s not pretty. Saunders is a master of the simple complex story. His language is fluid and beautiful, engaging and disarming at the same time and I have not had a better time discovering a new author in a very long time.
Illustration: Martin Ansin, The Semplica-Girl Diaries, for The New Yorker