Monday, March 4, 2013

"Tenth of December" by George Saunders

Saunders' Tenth of December has been getting crazy press and high praise, with New York Times writer Joel Lovell declaring, "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year." Saunders might be in trouble if hype could kill. But, luckily for us, it doesn't, and double luckily Tenth of December is as fabulous as it's been made out to be.

The short stories which comprise this collection aren't connected except thematically and by the strength of the voices of the intricately crafted characters. Each story is from an emotive and reactive first person point of view and written in what I might inadequately call stream of consciousness. But where the term "stream of consciousness" makes me think of punctuation-less rambling or Joyce' indecipherable Ulysses, Saunders' prose instead expertly captures the images and feelings beneath the inner monologue that continually runs through our head. He exposes the way we lie in our minds; the way we recreate the world to our liking; the way in which so much of what we assume is created internally is instead shaped by our friends and family. In fact, if there's one motif that runs through nearly all the stories, it's the mental dialogue between children and their parents and parents and their children. In such "conversations," both sides are eager to not disappoint and so obsess over conversations real and imagined. There's also frequent exploration of the moment between indecision and decision, as Saunders attempts to capture what it is that pushes us, in extreme circumstances, to act.

Though I enjoyed all the stories immensely, my favorite two are probably the first in the collection, "Victory Lap," and the book's first dystopian story, "Escape from Spiderhead." In "Victory Lap," the narration alternates between Alison, a self-absorbed teenage girl, and Kyle, a son of excessively controlling parents. Saunders perfectly illustrates the paradox of youth: arrogance, rebellion, and passive-aggressiveness combined with fear and uncertainty.

In "Escape from Spiderhead," convicts are used to experimentally test new mood-, emotion-, and performance-enhancing drugs. As Jeff narrates, he alternates between his normal thoughts and his more florid and eloquent expressions when on the drugs. An even more chilling dystopia, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," takes place essentially in our world, with one difference: in this society, "SGs," or third world individuals who sell themselves into indentured servitude, are strung up by the temples in people's backyards as decoration and status symbols. It's a premise that's so absurd that it's eerie how believable the whole story becomes as the father who narrates attempts to keep up with the "Joneses."

Tenth of December is well worth rereading, and in fact, I'd love to bring it in to school to discuss Saunders' use of language at its most powerful.

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