The other day, I spent a few hours walking around Seattle’s University District. Not much had changed since I went to school there in the early ‘00s. The same cheap restaurants, dingy dives and crowded coffee shops lined the streets of University Avenue. But as I sat in a cafe reading George Saunders’ Tenth Of December on my e-reader, I couldn’t shake an eerie sensation that something was off.
I looked up to realize that everyone else in the place also had their eyes fixed upon some form of glowing rectangular screen. Outside, on the street, it was the same—every person at the bus stop and most of the pedestrians passing by peered into smartphones, tablets and laptops, oblivious to the world around them.
Of course, this behavior seems perfectly normal in an urban neighborhood in 2013. But by returning to a place I knew before the rise of these now ubiquitous technologies, a place I associated with fond memories of reading actual books and engaging in actual conversations with actual people, I momentarily glimpsed how our sense of normalcy can change. It transforms quickly into something that would have seemed utterly bizarre just 10 Decembers ago.
Reading George Saunders’ book heightens this sudden awareness of rapidly shifting reality. Saunders’ stories create the same eerie sense of a familiar world, edged ever-so-slightly into something menacing and strange. In Saunders’s fiction, these shifts might be technological, sociological, even metaphysical. Even so, he renders his fantastical tales in a painstakingly crafted, detailed vernacular that bridges the divide between his wildly imaginative, carnival-mirror realities and our own.
At this point in his career, Saunders enjoys almost saint-like status among critics, fans and other writers of fiction. He claims three previous story collections: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000) and In Persuasion Nation (2006). He published a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000), and a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005). This body of work received numerous literary awards and accolades, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowship. A recent New York Times Magazine cover profile, emphatically titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” features a chorus of celebrated authors gushing over Saunders’ talents.
So … what, exactly, about Saunders’ fiction inspires such respect and adulation?
Saunders’ writing recalls past masters of literary fantasy such as Kafka, Borges and Calvino … more so than work by today’s magical realists and postmodern genre-hoppers. And like these seminal forebears, Saunders channels a multitude of linguistic forms—colloquial, corporate, existential—to map the topography of human consciousness.
His work carries the hyperbolic speculative elements and dark ironic humor of satire. But Saunders balances his trenchant sociopolitical observations with a deep sense of empathy and, especially in Tenth Of December, hope. These tensions between abstraction and immediacy, between horror, humor and humanity, give Saunders’ collection a uniquely unsettling, affecting character.
In his new collection, Saunders once again trains his focus on the darker corners of human possibility, unearthing uncomfortable truths about our nature that loom just below the surface of social mores and institutions. Satirical and speculative elements in these stories explore how an unquestioning acceptance of social conventions can lead quickly to depths of cruelty and inhumanity that masquerade as—here’s that word again—normalcy.
In “Victory Lap,” an adolescent boy witnesses a potentially horrific scenario unfolding between his female neighbor and a violent intruder of her home. The boy could intervene on his neighbor’s behalf … but a parental regimen of strict “directives” and a point-based award system for good behavior leave him paralyzed.
Here, as in many of Saunders’ stories, a father’s voice becomes a kind of internal authority figure in the mind of his child, urging conformity and obedience over free will and empathy. “That was none of your business,” the boy imagines his father saying, as he watches the kidnapping unfold, “Think of all the resources we’ve invested in you, Beloved Only. I know sometimes we strike you as strict but you are literally all we have.”
In “Escape From Spiderhead,” scientists test an experimental love-drug on prisoners held in a top-secret research facility. They give the drug to unwitting couples so that they fall desperately in love for a few hours. Later, the researchers administer a pain drug to test the first drug’s effectiveness at creating a temporary, and reversible, state of mutual love.
One of the prisoners refuses to participate in the experiment. A smarmy lead scientist offers these words of encouragement: “This is science. In science we explore the unknown. It was unknown what five minutes on Darkenfloxx ™ would do to Heather. Now we know. The other thing we know is that you really, for sure, do not harbor romantic feelings for Heather. That’s a big deal, Jeff. A beacon of hope at a sad time for us all. My guess is, ProtComm’s going to be like: ‘Wow, Utica’s really leading the pack in terms of providing mind-blowing new data on ED289/290.’”
Saunders brilliantly captures here the displacement of moral responsibility that permeates bureaucracies. He suggests an unquestioning deferral to the “best interests” of an organization can alleviate any nagging doubts about one’s personal culpability.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” takes the form of a father’s diary, addressed to an imagined audience of “future generations.” Written in a personal, haphazard shorthand, the story traces the diarist’s ill-fated struggle to find happiness and prosperity for his family.
When he wins $10,000 from a scratch ticket, the father wants to do something really special for his daughter’s birthday party. He spends all of his money on a trendy piece of lawn ornamentation called an SG display—several women of impoverished, international origin, suspended in the air by a “micro-line” run through their surgically altered brains and skulls. The women wear long, white frocks that blow delicately in the wind—an exotic showcase of discerning taste for the lawns of affluent Americans.
The diarist describes his sense of elation on the unveiling of his own SG display: “We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philippines). Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.”
Later, a daughter questions the moral justification of using other human beings as lawn ornaments. Her parents offer these words of explanation, in a devastating parody of Western paternalism: “Where they’re from, the opportunities are not so good. It helps them take care of the people they love.”
Saunders’ stories take us to similar dark places throughout this collection, but always a deep current of emotional honesty and longing cuts through his prose. He imbues his characters with grace and humanity, even as they struggle against dehumanizing institutions.
In the collection’s titular final story, an old man wanders out into the woods to die, rather than endure the arduous, humiliating process of submitting to a terminal illness in a hospital. After a chance encounter with a young boy in the woods, he reclaims his will to live in this unforgettable passage:
“Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to witheld. Withold.”
The verbal glitch at the end of this paragraph? By design. Saunders scatters linguistic missteps throughout the old man’s internal narrative, wonderfully evoking the deteriorating condition of his mental and physical capacities. This reminder of his vulnerability and impending death makes the late, hard-won, embrace of life all the more beautiful.
In today’s ever-shifting social and technological terrain—think augmented reality, drones and online surveillance—we need Saunders’ stories. They remind us that, while so much of our world might seem out of our control, we each hold the choice to embrace morality and empathy.
We can start where hope and change truly begin: one human choice at a time.
Robert Alford is a Seattle-based writer and critic. His work has appeared, most recently at PopMatters.com, Bookforum.com and Real Change News.