In Tenth of December: Stories (Random House, 2013), George Saunders encapsulates the lives and sensibilities of average American middle-class citizens. He shows us quietly desperate lives, some of them set in a future much like our own, others simply in the present day, in the middle of things. Families are of special interest to him. So are teenagers and younger children. Saunders tends to narrate through the minds of his characters. Sometimes he reports their thoughts and words directly. In “Victory Lap,” two teen-age lives intersect when a psychopathic killer comes on the scene. (The story evokes two different but genuinely convincing teen-age minds—the girl recalls that kissing a classmate “had been like kissing an underpass . . . a cow in a sweater”). In “Puppy” a dysfunctional mother is set in contrast with her teenage daughter, who in turn worries about her mentally challenged younger brother. In “The Simplica Girl Diaries” a father and husband records his experiences in a daily journal—his family is constantly in debt, always obsessed with acquiring material possessions, keeping pace with the demands of affluence, struggling with the different personalities of family members. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a terrifying exploration of scientists studying how chemicals can control human emotions. The title story, “Tenth of December,” alternates the viewpoints of an old man dying of brain cancer and of a ten-year-old boy who falls through the surface of a frozen pond.
This is the first collection of Saunders’ stories I’ve read—glowing reviews and comments, including a New York Times article, aroused my interest. His style is distinctive. It’s also frustrating—the frame of reference tends to reside in the mind and language of his characters. There’s no counterbalancing authorial perspective, or any way to ground the character’s view in a context of reality. The stories challenge the reader to empathize, to struggle for understanding of what characters experience and feel. Sometimes the characters are so offensive that empathy is difficult—“Exhortation” and “Al Roosten” are examples. I had difficulty engaging with these stories, and while I admired most of them I didn’t really like them.
These stories are works of the Great Recession. The great obstacles people struggle against are almost entirely mundane and ordinary—disease, age, depression, economic difficulties and stress. Yet such obstacles can reduce our existence to abject misery. In only one or two stories does there seem to be any glimmer of redemptive hope. Even in the title story, when the dying man rouses himself to wade in to the frozen pond and rescue a drowning boy, he still in the end has advanced brain cancer. His victory is short.
It’s rare to encounter a writer capable of as much understanding of family dynamics, or as much empathy for suffering individuals. Yet Saunder’s empathy is never maudlin or sentimental. It’s the product of deep understanding. His alternation of adolescent and parental points of view gives us a chilling view of the isolation that can occur within family walls. Unlike Jonathan Franzen, who for the most part (based on The Corrections) sees families as oppressively dysfunctional, as worthy of contempt, Saunders at least may see some value in the family unit, and he displays genuine compassion for his characters.