Dark, disturbing, and totally worth it
I have a feeling that George Saunders is an acquired taste. After reading some ecstatic praise (the New York Times Magazine headline “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” was pretty blunt), I picked up his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December. Not being one to read stories on a regular basis, nor a subscriber to The New Yorker¸ Harper’s Magazine or McSweeney’s (publications that have featured these stories), I was not at all familiar with Saunders’ prose style, his preferred subject matter or just what his general deal was.
Reader, I hated it. But then I didn’t. I picked it up, read some, put it down. One story’s syntax actually gave me a headache. I told myself I didn’t have to finish, or take in one story a day, maybe set it aside while I read some Simenon. But I took an aspirin and kept reading, not because I felt I ought to (the New York Times said it was good!) but because Tenth of December is the first book in a long while that struck me as original, sad/funny, and strangely compulsively readable. In a nutshell, it’s pretty dang good.
The stories are dark: there aren’t really a whole lot of likable characters, and all deal with uncomfortable subjects that are a little too close to contemporary existence. But discomfort is fertile ground for satire, and each story is humorous in an odd, nervous-laughter sort of way. In the title story, the running interior dialogue of the boy ‘with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms’ combines the fantastical world of childhood even as the boy encounters a suicidal man broken by life. The desperation of a father to give his daughter a memorable birthday party leads to a surrealistic bolt for freedom and disastrous results for the family. A struggling antiques shop owner swings between delusions, and in one of the more harrowing pieces, a returning veteran contends with the emptiness of a world he no longer belongs in. They’re tough stories, due in part to Saunders’ ability to get so deeply into his characters’ heads. It only takes a few sentences of a teenager’s thoughts to get a mental picture of her and her household in the opening story ‘Victory Lap,’ or the competing personalities of a re-enactor who takes his role a little too far.
I doubt everyone who picks up Tenth of December will read it all the way through; Saunders is most definitely not for the reader who likes their fiction light. But even if I didn’t entirely get the stories the first time around, I liked being challenged. Spare and devastating, the quality of Saunders’ writing sneaks up on you, and by the time you finish a story that you started out hating, you are disappointed to see it end. Whether it will be the best book you read this year is beside the point: it might turn out to be the book you can’t help but read.