Tenth of December 
by George Saunders.
Bloomsbury, 251 pp., £14.99, January 2013, 978 1 4088 3734 4
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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.

The rescues and escapes in a few of these stories run along clear moral lines: the trapped should be set free; the drowning should be pulled out from under. All that’s needed is for a hero to come forward from the cast of sad sacks. ‘Victory Lap’ is about two teenage neighbours in a small town. Alison, three days short of her 15th birthday, is a Little Miss Perfect who thinks ‘everyone is a rainbow,’ except perhaps her hometown suitors: ‘she felt hopeful that {special one} would hail from far away. The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, to tell the truth, she was not très crazy about.’ What’s a girl who likes to show off her French to do among boys who give their testicles names and aspire to work for the power company? Alison thinks she’s too good for Kyle, the boy next door (‘he looked like a skeleton with a mullet’), but she’s not completely up herself:

Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual. She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies. Not yet, anyway!

A lot of what’s appealing about Saunders is at loose here: his easy way with grandly deployed casual diction, the humour wrung from malapropism and garbled syntax, and Alison’s sympathetic mixture of humility and American aspiration. The twist comes in the form of a man disguised as a meter reader who means to abscond with Alison and make her his wife, unless ‘fuckwise it went bad’, in which case he intends to kill her, ditch her corpse, ‘then lay low, watch the papers like he’d done with the non-arousing redhead’. Kyle, who lives in a strict household resembling one of the nightmare corporate offices in earlier Saunders stories (‘think of all the resources we’ve invested in you, Beloved Only’), witnesses the abduction. He saves Alison by throwing a geode at her captor’s head. Alison shouts him down as he’s about to bash the bleeding man over the head. Rape and retributive murder averted, it’s a neat, happy ending. One of the story’s odder aspects is the meter reader’s own anachronistic hero fantasy: ‘In Bible days a king might ride through a field and go: That one. And she would be brought unto him. And they would duly be betrothed and if she gave birth unto a son, super, bring out the streamers, she was a keeper … What mattered was offspring and the furtherance of the lineage.’ He starts to think of offing himself in the manner of a samurai when he hears police sirens. In Saundersland even a serial child rapist is endowed with a crudely noble set of self-conceptions, if only to be a more worthy foil to his repressed teenage hero and dreamy damsel in distress.

The title story is a similarly straight tale of heroism, this time doubled: a near-suicidal man with cancer saves a boy from drowning in a frozen pond, going so far as to dress him in his clothes; the revived boy runs home and sends his mother to save the man (now sitting weary in the snow by the pond in his underwear) from hypothermia. The story is artful in the way it weaves the boy’s fantasies and the man’s memories into the action, but each of them – the boy with ‘lowly school status’ and the cancer patient – is little more than a receptacle for our pity. Cancer has a reflex humanising effect in fiction. It’s malign without motive, an intruder that disrupts domestic tranquillity or workplace banality; leave it to Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore or Joshua Ferris. The disease is out of place in Saunders’s skewed world. His stories are more satisfying when his characters’ good intentions bring about their undoing.

Something of the sort happens in ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, set in a drug-testing facility (shades of early Saunders), where convicts are put through trials for Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, and BlissTyme™, which manipulate their feelings and enhance their powers of speech. Here’s what sex with another convict is like for the narrator, Jeff, on Verbaluce™:

The taste of her mouth, the look of that halo of blondish hair spread out around her cherubic yet naughty-looking face (she was beneath me now, legs way up), even (not to be crude or dishonour the exalted feelings I was experiencing) the sensations her vagina was producing along the length of my thrusting penis were precisely those I had always hungered for, though I had never, before this instant, realised that I so ardently hungered for them.

It’s a welcome jolt to hear one of Saunders’s loser-class blockheads (Jeff killed someone in a bar fight) weave in and out of hyper-eloquence: he has nothing to say when the drug wears off. There’s a similar effect in ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’, when a player in a Renaissance fair gets a ‘medicated role’ and takes a drug, KnightLyfe®, that causes him to speak in archaic English: ‘I had Failed in Discrimination, thereby delivering my Family into a most dire Position, whereupon our Poverty, already a Hindrance to our Grace, wouldst be many times Multiplied.’ In other words, he’s been sacked.

In ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, Jeff’s trials shift into Stanley Milgram territory: he is forced, in the name of testing for residual affection, to give a dose of Darkenfloxx™ to his recent sex partners, inducing an impulse to self-harm verging on suicide. One of them starts bashing her head against a wall. His handlers assure him the experiments are for the good of humanity: ‘Look, here comes ED289/290. Can we stop war? We can sure as heck slow it down! Suddenly the soldiers on both sides start fucking.’ Jeff, who’s vowed never to kill again, escapes by taking the dose of Darkenfloxx™ himself. Suicide affords him a personal redemption, whether or not it saves his fellow inmates from their own doom.

Three other stories return to class rifts, rich and poor and destitute regarding each other with envy, rage and befuddlement. In ‘Al Roosten’, a man kicks the wallet and keys of another man under the stands of a school gymnasium, then imagines going back to retrieve them and being treated to dinner at the man’s mansion. His reveries dry up when he pulls in at the shop he owns. He’s two months behind on the rent and the block is crawling with homeless men he holds in contempt: ‘He’d like to walk up to a homeless and call him a hobo … Hey, hobo, you’re ruining my business.’ He thinks about beating the guy up, but of course he’s closer on the social ladder to the homeless than to the man in the mansion.

In ‘Puppy’, a Lexus-driving mother called Marie takes her kids on a jaunt through cornfields to buy a puppy advertised by a ‘white-trash’ family. At their home she sees some disquieting things: the mother, Callie, is fat; when the phone rings she drops dog turds on the kitchen counter; and in the backyard Callie’s son is leashed to a tree like a dog. Marie pulls out of the puppy purchase and drives off in her Lexus having flashbacks to her own fucked-up childhood. She decides to call ‘Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin’. The perspective shifts back to Callie, who sees the leash, which has made the volatile boy sit down and look at the flowers, as a form of love. Saunders is good enough at spreading the sympathy around that, leash or not, you don’t want to see the child rescued by the state.

‘Home’ is a portrait of an Iraq War veteran called Mike with PTSD and memories of ‘a fucked-up thing I’d done’ at Al-Raz involving the murder of civilians. He’s back living with his mother, who’s being evicted. His sister has married up and does all she can to shun them. His wife, with their two kids, has left him for one of his old classmates. His ex and his usurper have three cars between them. Mike wants the kids back and he wants his mother to be reconciled with his sister, he wants things to be ‘like in the old days’ (the story’s first line) before his hometown was full of ‘castles’, but he also wants to stop himself from assaulting people and setting fire to rugs. He’s the one who needs to be saved.

There’s no shortage of brutality in Tenth of December. To hold a few happy endings against Saunders or to suggest he makes his characters too sympathetic, as I’m inclined to do, is churlish: a comic writer can kill off only so many of his characters. Few American writers go looking for the pain Saunders finds everywhere. And his stories have taken on an extra force as they’ve come closer to the actual America of home foreclosures, violent veterans and desperate white trash. It’s tempting to see the recent uptick in his reputation – a profile in the New York Times cast him as a sort of national shamanic redeemer, heir to David Foster Wallace – as a symptom of a collective rescue fantasy in dismal times. Me, I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss the mutants.

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