That Sinking Feeling

28 February 2014

George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December has received rapturous praise, prizes and an international readership. Good for him, I say – but why does so much of it feel so tired?

Some books don’t so much announce their presence as come charging at you like a gladiator wielding a sword, demanding that they be paid attention to on pain of having your head sliced off. So it is with Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by American writer George Saunders, which has been causing a huge storm across the pond. A New York Times bestseller (“The best book you’ll read all year”, that same publication exclaimed in one review – surprising, given the NYT‘s tendency not to do “raves”) and a finalist in the National Book Award for fiction, Tenth of December has received more superlatives in reviews than you can swing a Miley Cyrus wrecking ball at. (My favourite, printed at the front of my paperback copy, was from actress Maggie Gyllenhaal: “Awesome”). Most recently, Saunders was the inaugural winner of the UK-based Folio Prize, an unapologetically highbrow award set up last year in response to claims that the Man Booker Prize was becoming too populist and trashy. In their statement, the judges called Saunders “a true original whose work is absolutely of the moment.”

I’m mostly alright with enjoying art that’s already been highly praised. I don’t need to set myself against the flow of popular trend to try and distinguish myself as a critical voice, and I try (well, as much as is possible) not to let a film or book’s success set me up to want to hate it because I’m in the mood to be subversive. Sometimes, the weight of popular opinion can be a good steer as to what does and doesn’t have merit.

In Mr Saunders’ case, though, I struggled. He’s undoubtedly a talented writer, and there were passages in some of the stories (notably Escape from Spiderhead) that were so beautifully written and emotionally expressive that I was prepared to forgive him everything – even that big Moses beard he’s grown that makes him look alarmingly like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Mostly, though, I was just irritated at what felt like a grand case of writerly affectation. He’s smart and perceptive and frequently funny, but his stories get weighed down by an overly-mannered display of narrative technique and a repetitive and tiresome use of a Twitter-era vernacular. I’m also not sure he’s that much of an original: despite some high-concept narrative scenarios and all that being of the now-ness that got the Folio judges excited, Saunders is at heart an old-school liberal humanist and moralist. While that’s not a bad thing, it’s also not exactly something we’ve never read before.

The opening story, Victory Lap, starts, apparently randomly, inside a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness – well, a middle-aged man’s version of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness. There’s a cheery banality to it all that sets the audience up nicely for a shock when it’s revealed that the girl becomes the victim of an abduction and attempted rape. Saunders shifts the perspective around deftly, from the girl to the perpetrator, and then to the boy next door who sees the abduction and debates whether or not to get involved. There’s a thrilling uncertainty to the finale, since it’s not clear (especially to me as a new reader to Saunders’ work) whether his is a universe where good behaviour gets rewarded or ignored. The banality of evil in suburbia is hardly an original perspective for an American writer, but Saunders pulls it off, at least in this story, since he seems so at home in extreme emotional landscapes. The moral crisis involved in whether to intervene in unjust situations is a theme he returns to over and over again, though with diminishing returns as you move through the collection.

In Semplica Girl Diaries, we’re reading the thoughts of another semi-idiotic narrator, a married suburban husband and father. Like most of Saunders’ characters, he suffers from a malaise borne from what John de Graaf coined as “Affluenza”: too much material consumption, minimal self-awareness, a relentless need to be bigger, better, richer and more important, and a sense of personal helplessness in the face of wider economic and social forces. (This perhaps explains Saunders’ popularity in non-US countries: there’s nothing the European liberal intelligentsia loves than an American who’s happy to self-flaggelate about the evils of the American Dream.) Like a metronome, Saunders ticks off the modern ills of late 20th century capitalist society, describing a world of frustrated middle-class expectations, maxed out credit cards, careerless service industry jobs and families two or three missed bill payments away from serious financial crisis.

The evil at the heart of Semplica Girls‘ narrative (and the explanation of the strange title) is revealed gradually, though it feels like rather a slog to get there. Without wanting to spoil the surprise for future readers, I’ll confine myself to saying that the action centres around a socially acceptable form of enslaved prostitution, and an unexpected act of rebellion. It’s an interesting concept, but Saunders’ problem is that he doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Reading diaries written in telegraphic speech is amusing enough for 10 or so pages, but Saunders goes on for a mind-numbing 60. Though I’m seldom a critic of writers who want to say more rather than less, Semplica Girls felt like a one-note joke that kept being rehearsed as part of a tired late-night stand-up routine.

Saunders has much more success in Puppy, a story that combines the down-home folksiness and domestic detail of an Alice Munro story with a heavy strain of suburban Gothic and some delicious gallows humour. Marie, a relentlessly perky suburban mom who tries to assure herself that she’s not her family’s punching bag (which of course she is) takes her kids to buy a puppy, only to encounter Callie, the mom to a trailer trash family who has her disabled son chained to a pole in their back yard. Saunders neatly switches perspective between Marie and Callie, managing (unusually, for Saunders) not to foreground his moral perspective too much, allowing the characters some time to breathe. He exits the story just before one woman is about to perform an act of cruelty on the other woman, hypocritically disguised as a social duty. It’s beautifully done, and the story is darkly funny and quietly tragic in equal measure.

The alienation of the American workforce and the quiet acquiescence to corporate control forms a strong theme throughout many of the stories. Saunders is clearly also fascinated by the language of corporate advertising and human resources pep-talks, with its ability to re-name and conceal uncomfortable truths. In Exhortation, an employer’s memorandum to his staff becomes progressively more authoritarian until he warns that “if we are unable to clean our assigned “shelf”, not only will someone be brought in to clean that “shelf”, but we ourselves may find ourselves on that “shelf”. Likewise in Semplica Girls, the uncomfortable truth about the Girls and what they represent is whitewashed away via a consumer transaction, albeit one in which consumers are encouraged not to ask difficult questions about the product source.

Totalitarian rule exists in various forms in the stories, often aided by Brave New World-style mass drugging of the populace into submission. In My Chivalric Fiasco, an out-of-work actor who makes minimum wage working in a medieval re-enactment fun park takes a drug to enable him to speak in the Ye Olde World doggerel that his employers require. He meekly looks the other way when he walks in on his boss raping a female co-worker, and is later fired when he decides to Method Act his way out of his ethical crisis.

Saunders’ focus on the modern dispossessed is admirable, but for me, not entirely successful. In his review of Tenth of December, Hari Kunzru argues that Saunders’ works “give[s] a more acute sense of what it feels like to live and work in post-industrial, post-crash western economies than much journalism.” I can’t quite agree. Reading Saunders’ stories more often than not feels like being at a dinner party of wealthy liberal intellectuals expounding on the dehumanisation of the modern workforce. Saunders is smart and sensitive and often compassionate, but there’s a gap between his super-smart powers and the not-so-smart perspectives of his drone-like characters that feels uncomfortable at best, and at worst, patronising.

Saunders closes this gap to magnificent effect in Escape from Spiderhead, by far the strongest story in the collection. It’s narrated by Jeff, a convicted killer who’s been sent to an alternative prison that performs experiments on the inmates with mood-altering drugs. The powerful combination of the love-drug ED763 and a truth serum Verbaluce turns Jeff into an Olympian lover with the eloquence of a poet, who happily sleeps with three different female inmates. Saunders’ writing in these passages is wonderfully florid, capturing the appeal of an idealised sexual peak while revealing its dangerous unreality: “It was that impossible thing,” Jeff narrates after his first round of drugged-up sex: “happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.” Jeff is then ordered to choose which one of the women should get a dose of Darkenfloxx, a drug that creates suicidal depressive thoughts. As is usual in Saunders’ stories, the dehumanising horrors are being dispensed by a bland middle management technician who likes to think of himself as a nice guy who’s just doing his job. As the title suggests, Jeff plots his escape – a process Saunders describes with lyrical beauty and a sense of transcendence that’s otherwise missing from the rest of the work. It was the first and only time I felt reading the collection that he truly entered into the mind of his character without the distraction of his writerly critical detachment. It’s a moving, beautiful story, that I’ve re-read since many times.

Neglectful, absent and bullying fathers also make repeat appearances, sowing the seeds of damage in their offspring, and underscoring Saunders’ suggestion that authoritarianism exists in private as well as public spheres. In Victory Lap, Kyle’s desire to save his neighbour is stymied by his need to obey his father’s strict rules about after-school activities. In Sticks, a story of just two pages, we watch with ambiguous pleasure as a withered patriarch loses his mind and decorates a pole in his back yard. Mothers are generally accorded more compassion, even when they’re distant (Escape from Spiderhead), trashy and neglectful (in Puppy and Home) or over-protective (the mom in Tenth of December who treats the narrator “like a piece of glass. Due to his alleged infant allergies. She went on full alert if he so much as used a stapler.”)

Occasionally, Saunders relaxes on the State of the Nation seriousness and enjoys himself without needing to predict the fall of Western civilisation. Al Roosten is an entertaining story about a Woody Allen-esque beta-male who takes revenge on a wealthier more attractive acquaintance after a perceived slight, then imagines himself saving the day and becoming best friends with his admiring victim. Like most of Saunders’ male protagonists, Al is a caged beast who dreams of Hollywood superhero status and feels frustrated by his secondary status. In his mind, Al fantasies about teaching a homeless guy a lesson by kicking his ass; in reality all he can manage is a “weak smile” in passing.

Homeless men of other varieties haunt the penultimate story, Home, in which Mikey, a disturbed Iraq war veteran shuffles between his neglectful family and his defensive ex-wife who’s since married a wealthier and more stable man. As Mikey asks his ex-wife if he can hold his baby son, he ponders his own lack of control over his actions: “Did the fact that I had no intention of hurting the baby mean that I wouldn’t, when push came to shove, hurt the baby? Had I, in the recent past, had the experience of having no intention of doing Activity A, then suddenly find myself right in the middle of doing Activity A?” Though Home doesn’t sing with quite the same authenticity as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, it shows what Saunders is capable of when he relaxes the upbeat snappiness of his writing style and allows himself more uncritical compassion.

The final story, Tenth of December, presents an interesting mirror-image of the first story. Once again a young character must make a spur-of-the-moment ethical decision about whether to intervene in a crisis involving an older stranger, and once again, Saunders plays with the possibility of life not always rewarding virtuous behaviour. There’s no outside totalitarian regime this time, though the characters are prisoners of a more familiar set of restrictions – old age, the collapse of the body, and the tyrannies of being young and bullied. Slowly and somewhat awkwardly Saunders lumbers his way towards the kind of genuine, uncommercialised and unmediated human affection he and all his characters long for. It’s a nice note for him to go out on, even if it does reveal that, for all his postmodern tricks, he’s still a good old-fashioned humanist at heart.

I’m pleased that I read Tenth of December, although it’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve had in quite a while. I like the song that Saunders is humming, even if I’m not totally charmed by the way he’s humming it. I admire his humorously bleak view of human nature and the way he, like his characters, retain glimmers of hoping for a better life. With one or two exceptions, there was a little too much straining for an edgy “dumb person” stream of consciousness, too much foregrounding of the errors of the characters’ ways, and too acute a sense of his own writerly style to pierce the veil and elevate the stories into high art.

If the reviews and acclaim for Tenth of December are anything to go by, I’m clearly in a minority – the literary world has clasped Saunders and his big badger beard to the collective bosom. It’s a collection I’d encourage anyone interested in contemporary short story writing to read. Just don’t ask me to sing his praises.


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