Tenth of December
Bloomsbury Publishing, hardcover, £14.99
272 pages, 978-1408837344
It would not be unreasonable to hope that the next generation of American writers dispense with the numinous idea of the Great American Novel. Great novels are published in America, but their authors are distracted by the pursuit of this nebulous Greatness. They could surely all get down to better work if they resigned themselves to the fact that their national forte is actually the Great American Short Story. If the works of Hemingway were expunged from existence it might be tragic but we needn’t shed a tear if his peerless short story ‘The Killers’ were saved. And John Cheever, the Grand Poobah of short fiction, captures more vitally the essence of disappointment and ennui in middle-class suburbia than the entire Rabbit tetralogy of John Updike, who tells us more than we’d ever want to know.
George Saunders, from his first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in 1996 to his latest, Tenth of December, published earlier this year, is the current heavyweight chronicler of the state of the American nation. Using a semi-science fiction technique, similar to that of his much admired Vonnegut, Saunders describes scenes from life in the near-future of the USA. His stories are full of quick jabs and throwaway lines that succinctly encapsulate much about the way America is, was, will be: “We used actual Gettysburg photos” says the narrator of ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’ when describing how he and his colleagues came about creating the authenticity of titular historical theme park. In ‘The 400-pound CEO’, also from the first collection, the narrator, Jeffrey, remarks that “I almost dropped my mug” when faced with his boss’s violent conduct against a fellow employee.
Many of Saunders’s protagonists are employees, and most of them are failures at their jobs – at the mercy of their employers and colleagues – as much as they are failures in their personal lives. The narrators of the aforementioned stories are both jokes to their bosses and alone in their private lives, even though the former is married. They are both passive and frightened into timidity – the narrator of ‘CivilWarLand…’ is still “madly framing calming words in my head” even as he knifed to death. When the grossly obese Jeffrey gets the ultimate revenge on his abusive boss, there is no triumph to be found for long before he ends up a prison bitch.
However, whilst in gaol, Jeffrey has time to ruminate on another recurrent theme in Saunders’s work: the notion of an arbitrary and indeterminate higher power. “Maybe the God we see … is merely a subGod”, he postulates, before expanding that perhaps the real God will be to give him another go around. (If he is given another chance, that’s another story.)
Jump ahead to the title story from Tenth of December and we have the dying, elder of the two narrators waiting for “some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told that the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.” Worth quoting in full, this passage might point to a criticism of Saunders in his retreading of familiar ground were it not so great. Great because, in a few lines, surely he gets to the crux of all of our concerns about our place in the universe – believer, agnostic, atheist, everyone questions the “big something” and must, at best, be met by uncertainty. Saunders himself, however, generally shows a higher degree of mercy toward his protagonists in the more recent stories. Neither narrator from ‘Tenth of December’ is made to die alone near a frozen duck pond, and the elder one, through trying to save the life of the younger, is rewarded with kindness.
The tales in Tenth of December are less fantastical – less Vonnegutish – than Saunders’s previous works, stories like ‘Home’ and ‘Al Roosten’ paint exquisite portraits of the petty jealousies of an ex-husband and a small-town businessman respectively (Roosten is an especially terrific grotesque who can turn on a dime when slighted) but are certainly mundane compared to the novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil and its plight of the fictional country of Inner Horner (big enough for only one citizen). But whether surreal or all-too-real, Saunders’s stories share his world-weary eye for the (often literal) killer detail: consider Roosten who, like all self-delusional, small-minded people, for all his braggadocio can only give “a weak smile back” to a beggar whom he swore to teach a lesson a moment before. And it is through such details that Saunders ultimately proves that the best satirists don’t tub-thump about the need for a revolution, rather that they describe the conditions of the world around them that might call for a revolution.