Rescue us, writer
- BuyTenth of December by George Saunders
Bloomsbury, 251 pp, £14.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 3734 4
A father is in despair about his daughter’s unhappiness. All Lilly’s friends at school are richer than she is, and one lives in a mansion, with a pet horse, a llama, a luxurious treehouse and an antique merry-go-round. Her own family’s backyard is a mess, and her father knows it. Her birthday request is more than he can afford; his three credit cards are nearly maxed out. She’s so embarrassed by all this she begs not to be thrown a birthday party. Then he buys a scratch card and wins $10,000. He has the backyard landscaped, buys Lilly fancy gifts, and throws her a surprise party. As a finishing touch, he splurges on the latest trend: renting four women from Laos, Moldova, Somalia and the Philippines to stand on the lawn as decorations connected by a ‘microline’ strung through their skulls. These Semplica Girls make Lilly’s little sister, Eva, feel so guilty that she liberates them in the middle of the night. Their departure leaves their father on the hook for $8600 in ‘replacement debit’ to the landscape company, and the children subject to felony charges.
So goes ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, the longest and most engrossing of the stories in George Saunders’s fourth collection, Tenth of December. Eight of the book’s ten stories revolve around rescue scenarios. (The two brief pieces that don’t – ‘Sticks’, from 1995, a two-page sketch about a man who obsessively decorates a pole in his front yard; and ‘Exhortation’, from 2000, a parody office memo – predate the rest of the collection by at least seven years, and seem a bit out of place.) In ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, the good intentions of Eva and her father cancel each other out, and the result is impending bankruptcy. Saunders has globalisation as well as the US housing collapse on his mind, but nothing is put forward too literally. The sci-fi bit about the microline through the girls’ brains is delivered matter-of-factly, in a way that’s new for him; it’s the sort of conceit that would have taken over his earlier stories; here it sneaks in under the cover of family drama. Richly imagined dystopias, preposterous theme parks and sinister corporations were the stuff of Saunders’s first three collections. A lot of the pleasure was delivered in the form of exposition: elaborate descriptions of the workings of made-up institutions. The new stories give the impression of imagined worlds pared back until they’re not too different from our own, just a little uncanny. Most of the mayhem transpires within families or between neighbours, and class conflict is often the animating force. The settings are only glimpsed, and language does the job of making the goings-on strange: in ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, it’s the father’s voice in diary form, his clipped syntax eliding subjects and articles (‘Am so happy. Feel so lucky. What did we do to deserve?’); most of the other stories rely heavily on dialogue. In the past, Saunders was more likely to make all his characters mutants and spend a lot of his sentences on their deformities.