Wednesday, June 26, 2013

George Saunders' "Tenth of December": Book Review

Any story George Saunders writes, I'll read. This fourth collection begins with typical toughness mixed with sadness. Mortality and fright return over and over, in landscapes familiar and laboratories unrecognizable--for now. "Victory Lap" gets it off to a stern start with a sassy ballerina-teen and a geode. "Sticks" is much shorter than some in this volume, nearly a vignette about Dad leaving a Santa suit draped "over a kind of crucifix." The next, "Puppy" gives you a sense, if you know Saunders, that it will not end well by its very title. "The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick," as one mother's summed up. This shows Saunders, doggedly watching how his neighbors might act, around his native upstate downscale New York.

 "Escape from Spiderhead" terrifies more than amuses. A shame reducer and verbal stimulant get tested on lab-rat humans, as sex and what seems like love unfold at nearly novella length for the understandably confused narrator. As with many of George Saunders' eerie reports from a near-future corporate realm, neologisms and innovation combine with poignancy and satire. As he's matured, his daring approach has blended into a subtler shift towards tenderness beneath. He hasn't lost his imagination, but he improves upon even the talent of his first collections when he mixes emotion into the ingredients, more than lesser writers who heap on the what-ifs too thickly. Speculative fiction meets domestic anxiety, from a deadpan satirist increasingly skilled at evoking tenderness amidst death and hallucination.

"Sometimes science sucks," as one character concludes. As a geological engineer turned writer, certainly Saunders possesses a knowledge of business and know-how other MFA-schooled products may lack. (See my review of "In Persuasion Nation") He has always mingled the bureaucratic-speak with pop-psych bromides deftly. "Exhortation" sends up the managerial memo lapsing into tell-all e-mail, appropriately. "Al Roosten" about to be introduced by a MC cheerleader too old for braids who in turn promotes herself "as someone who does feng shui for a living" contains its own ready-made humor, "LaffKidsOffCrack" the charity du jour that makes the protagonist feel, amidst bumps and grinds, that he was "deaf to the charity in this." Saunders shows the awkward, forced conviviality of such events, inflated just right. It reminds me of Babbitt meets Pynchon, somehow.

"Home" follows the decay of a relationship, complicated by baby. Court-martial proves a lesser infraction for a returned veteran compared to what life at home and under the sheriff's eye--and Ma--has for him. The more deadpan, mind-numbed, demotic phrasing of everyday downscale folks again finds Saunders applying his ear to the way people talk when tired out and unable to process, full of proverbs, the obvious observations, the phrases from TV: "Not on my watch," or "People tend to focus on the negative."

With "My Chivalric Fiasco," TorchLightNight starts with a "voluntary fling" admission and moves to a pigpen with fake pigs and a tilting bed, with the narrator "the only currently working person in our family." A fake-medieval tone intervenes thanks to a 100 mg of KnightLyfe, and this allows Saunders to enjoy the Renaissance Faire scenario and diction that giddily and disturbingly ensues for "Improv."

Appropriately, the first sentence of "Tenth of December" has a "pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms" hulking about in Dad's white coat. Beavers are to be scrutinized. But, strangeness from the woods ensues, of course. It's more of an action-oriented, psychologically concerned story for Saunders, and in its length it extends into a family saga in miniature, pushing his direction homeward away from the managerial blather and drugged predicaments of his previous characters. Slightly more conventional in intent for all its oddness, it may signal Saunders' desire to leave the lab and cubicle behind for nature's homeland insecurities, with its own terror. (Amazon US 10-24-12; my ARC differs from the published version, apparently. See NYT 1-6-13:  "George Saunders Just Wrote the Best Book You'll Read This Year")

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