In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders (Tenth of December, Random House, 272 pages), who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.
How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.
I found one good sentence in the whole of The Refugees, “his beautiful and heartrending new story collection” [Joyce Carol Oates editorial review in The New Yorker; beware, beware, o ye readers, the editorial review]. Here is the one good sentence: “Floating in his teacup on the patio table was a curled petal from a bougainvillea, shuttling back and forth.” Why would Nguyen, who is certainly capable of writing good, literary sentences, decide that such sentences are unnecessary in his short stories, that he can get away with the pedestrian and insipid style of The Refugees? Probably because his proximity to the great American boondoggle of the creative writing industry [he is Professor of English at the University of Southern California] has conditioned him to believe that stories need no stylistic verve or panache. “Just the humdrum, dreary facts, ma’am.” As for me, I believe that short story collections, like products in a grocery store, should have expiration dates. For me, The Refugees has already expired.
Not so the spectacular stuff of George Saunders, a writer who, while immersed in the literary establishment and the gruesome creative writing racket—he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University—apparently is of the opinion that a short story should be not dull, not pedestrian, but lively with creative effects and stylistic panache. Okay, so he does write “domestic fiction,” in the sense that his stories tell of ordinary Americans mired in ordinary American problems. But the big difference lies in HOW he tells his tales.
Saunders has a knack for getting into the heads of children or adolescents, taking the reader into that head and showing its inner workings. In the first story in his collection, “Victory Lap,” Alison Pope, 14, is reveling in life, dead sure of the spectacular festival that will be her future. She loves everyone at her school; loves the whole town. “Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday,” she is at home alone, entertaining herself with her own imagination. Bad, bad things are about to happen to her. Setting up for a change in point of view, the author has Alison taking note of Kyle Boot—fellow adolescent and next-door neighbor, a nerdy kid “whose mom and dad didn’t let him do squat”—on his return from cross-country practice.
Next we the reader are in Kyle’s head, and like Alison’s, it is a fine American head to be in. One thing about Saunders’ characters: although they may have their faults, may be roiling in life’s adversities, they are most often good people. But the character who next enters the narrative in “Victory Lap” is by no means a very good person. He apparently is Russian, and in America, be we in Hollywood, be we in the mind of anyone writing fiction, being Russian is almost automatically being the bad guy. Take Putin. Is there anybody badder or meaner on earth? Of course not.
We see things for a time from this lowlife character’s point of view. Saunders loves this switching about in POV when telling a story. What happens next is ACTION. Here again, we have a big difference from the standard boring story of domestic literary fiction, which most often has people agonizing, perhaps whining quite a bit, but not doing very much. In Saunders’ stories people do things.
Meanwhile, all the while the style of the Saunders story is throwing together bits and pieces of stylistic and structural panache. NB TO WRITERS HOPING TO MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION WHILE WRITING SHORT STORIES: a story purporting to be LITERARY fiction must have stylistic and structural PANACHE. Near the end of “Victory Lap” Kyle smashes a bad guy in the head with a rock, killing him. “Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her [Alison] with this heartbroken look of My life is over. I killed a guy.”
Except, we soon learn, that this is what happens in Alison’s recurrent nightmares. In real life, after escaping, with the help of Kyle, from the Russian who intends to rape and kill her, she yells to Kyle not to bring the rock down. Saunders leaves a lot, as a good writer knows how to do, to the creative imagination of his reader. At the end of “Victory Lap” we have a scene describing Alison’s parents talking to her, telling her how well she and Kyle reacted to “a bad thing” that “happened to you kids.” We are not told whether or how Alison’s view on human beings (“Each of us is a rainbow.”) has changed. Nor do we get any inkling of how the violent episode affected Kyle, or how his overprotective parents have reacted to what he did.
In the title story, “Tenth of December,” another story with plot, we are taken into the mind of a boy, Robin, who is bullied at school. He spends a lot of time alone, and like many lonely children, he lives a rich imaginative life. Here we have another highly positive protagonist. His naivety is suggested by this passage: “Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?/ Is there icing on it? he’d said.” Another thing about the Saunders story: even in the saddest of situations the narrative is leavened with humor. Often quirky humor. So it turns out Dad and Kip Flemish had first traded spouses, then abandoned the spouses and fled together to California: gay swingers.
Here is Alison again, on dreams: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.” After the interval of one very short story—a poignant one-page masterpiece titled “Sticks,” about a sad, confused man—we come to the next story and it is called “Puppy.”
Saunders is great at portraying everyday people in today’s America. In “Puppy” we meet Marie, another overprotective, gee-whiz-I’m-trying-my-best-to-be-an-ideal-mom American middle class mother. Marie strives to create a perfect life for her children, to make up for her own far-less-than-perfect childhood. She has a great middle-class husband named Robert the Jolly, who, whenever she brings home another exotic pet—such as an iguana that ends up biting him—never gets irritated; Robert just says “Ho Ho.”
Marie is another lover of life, like Alison in “Victory Lap,” but she is really more like somebody trying hard to show everyone what a lover of life she is: “Oh, God, what a beautiful world! . . . . Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good, and she had at last found her place in it, Ho Ho, ho HO!” Saunders writes with a touch of light irony. He may be somewhat critical of modern American mores. He certainly is critical of Marie the do-gooder, who ends up being the villain of this story. But he does not shout out his anger in heavy-handed satire. He whispers in light irony.
George Saunders frequently sets up dichotomies/contrasts. In “Puppy” we have the dichotomy of (1) self-righteous upper-middle-class Marie vs. (2) underclass-trailer-trash Callie, the owner of the puppy. The two meet when Marie comes with her children to see the puppy advertised for sale. Marie the Fastidious is shocked by the condition of the house: “the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it . . . the spare tire on the dining room table.” More humor.
The puppy in the underclass home is adorable; the children want to take it. “Okay, then, all right [thinks Marie], they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha-ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Caint hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent: My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .”
But then comes the climax of the story. Marie looks out in the back yard and sees a retarded boy, Bo, chained up like a dog, even apparently drinking from a dog’s dish. She is horrified. Now they will not adopt the ill-fated puppy. They will immediately depart this sordid scene, which her poor vulnerable children have had to see and may be scarred by the experience. Furthermore, later that day [thinks judgmental Marie] she will 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.”
Saunders is apparently aware of how desperate situations can often be for well-meaning people and their children, when “very no-nonsense” authoritarian persons show up at their home and take the children away into foster care. Cases in which the children, not allowed even to say good-bye to their parents, are often terrified, where the burden of proof that they have NOT abused their children is placed on the parents. And you cannot get angry when they do this to you. If you show your anger this proves the fact of your mental instability. This is the way modern America—obsessed with doing good—often does very bad things.
The poignancy of “Puppy” lies in our knowledge that underclass Callie is not a bad parent, that she loves her boy Bo, and that he himself, quite a handful, does not resent being chained up for part of the day. He rather enjoys running the length of the chain. Then again there is the fate of the puppy, rejected by despicable Marie. Callie abandons it in a cornfield, so that her husband Jimmy will not have to kill it, as he has drowned kittens in the past. The story ends with Callie imagining a bright future for Bo, but the reader knows better. “Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?” thinks Callie, whose son will soon be taken from her.
One critic in the London Review of Books speaks of “George Saunders’ dystopian workplace tragicomedies.” Some of Saunders’ stories remind you of the plots in the TV series “Black Mirror.” The action takes place in only-a-few-years-distant future, but technology and drugs have made their mark. In “Escape from Spiderhead” some future U.S. government has sent those convicted of crimes to an experimental institution, where they are dosed with various drugs to study their reactions. It is proven, for example, that the emotion of love between men and women is a factor of certain chemical combinations in the brain, nothing more than that.
The narrator Jeff, convicted of murdering an acquaintance in a moment of passion, is dosed with the love drug twice in the same day. He falls in “love” with two different women, and both of them (also drugged) passionately return his feelings. Later in the same day, after the drugs have worn off, “no trace of either of those great loves remains.”
“Escape from Spiderhead” is a kind of allegory. In human life you are not necessarily in love with two different women on the same day, but quite often you find yourself looking back on some grand passion of the past, wondering—as Jeff wonders after the drugs wear off—now, what was that all about?
Saunders has a way of showing the basic goodness in human beings. Although all of the subjects at the institute have committed crimes, most often murder, nobody wants to see another inmate receive a gratuitous dose of the feel-bad drug Darkenfloxx, which can be fatal. Furthermore, the narrator Jeff—to whom it has been proven in the experiments definitively that he does not love Rachel, in fact, has no feelings for her—Jeff ends up taking the Darkenfloxx himself, in effect dying to save Rachel’s life. We are reminded of Ukrainians during the German occupation of WWII. Many cooperated with the Nazis, sending innocent Jews to their deaths. But there were other Ukrainians who—risking their own lives and the lives of their children—hid away Jews and protected them. Saunders likes to write about the latter kind of Ukrainian (American).
“My Chivalric Fiasco” is set in another dystopian twilight zone, where the characters all work in some kind of medieval-themed amusement park attraction—with fake pigs and fake slop and even fake poop. The narrator Ted supports his whole family: Mom is sick, Beth is shy, and Dad has cracked his spine. Drugs once again play a big role in the action of the story. The whole plot revolves around Ted’s failure to keep a co-worker’s secret, as he is high on some drug that makes him super-self-righteous.
Saunders also has a good feel for the way things work in the American world of business. “Exhortation” is a pep-talk monologue/memorandum voiced by a typical “muddle management” type—Todd Birnie, Divisional Director. It grades off occasionally into the tale of Andy, a depressive co-worker. Saunders never fails to be entertaining. “Say we need to clean a shelf. Let’s use that example. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. . . . Do I want to clean it happy, or do I want to clean it sad? Which would be more effective? For me? Which would accomplish my purpose more efficiently?” And so on. And on.
“Al Roosten” presents the title character in a state of crisis, as Saunders’ middle class well-meaning citizens often are. When Al appears in a voluntary charity auction, auctioning off his own talents and making a fool of himself in the process, “the room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh.” Saunders zeros in on a typical, but seldom described American emotion. When Al walks out the audience is pulled in two directions, toward open mockery of this idiot grading off into shouts of good will, described as “pity whoops” and “mercy cheers.”
Saunders himself is often a kind of pity whooper in regard to his characters. He writes about average Americans, most of them likeable, striving to wend their way through the mine field that is their life. Al Roosten runs a bric-a-brac shop called Bygone Daze, a near bankrupt enterprise whose bygone days were probably never that good to begin with. Typical of the Saunders lead protagonists, Al is burdened by a family he must support, and the money is never quite enough. The story of Al’s life: “People were always seeing through him and frying his ass.”
Saunders frequently writes of the class pretensions of the average American family. Al Roosten hates Larry Donfrey of Donfrey Realty, another participant in the charity auction, because Donfrey leads a more successful life, appears to have a striking wife and wonderful children. The Donfrey family once came into his shop and seemed to take a patronizing view of Al’s merchandise. In a typical Saunders twist of plot, however, Al learns by chance that one of Donfrey’s children has a crippled leg, and immediately all his rancor dissipates.
In another of the author’s dystopian tragicomedies of the American quotidian, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” another middle-class paterfamilias and loser is the narrator. Trying to keep up with their class peers in prestige, American families acquire girls from third-world countries (the SGs), and hang them out as beautiful displays from the trees in their yards (“Black Mirror” again).
Having just turned forty, the narrator/loser, who (like all Saunders protagonists) loves his family, gets the bright idea of writing a diary for future readers, so that they can learn what American life was like in the twenty-first century. He wonders, for example, if people of the future will know the sound of planes passing overhead in the night, since some day there will be no more planes. He wonders if they will know the sound of caterwauling cats in the night. The story runs for only two months of that diary, a time in which things go from bad to worse for the narrator’s family.
Great writing abounds in “The SG Girl Diaries,” and, as usual, the travails of the lead character are touching. Saunders always has a feel for workplace realities. For example, there is the scene in which “red-faced men in ties,” in an elevator are coming back from what is termed the Fall Fling, “making jokes about enough Fall Flinging, the Fall Fling has been Flung, etc., etc. Then the embarrassed silence as we, in our minds, resaid the things we had just enthusiastically heatedly said, as if vying for some sort of Stupid Utterance Prize.” Yes, perfect.
Next they all look up at the mirrored ceiling of the elevator, and Anders remarks, “I must appear pretty weird to birds.” After that nobody laughed, but they all made that grunting sound that stands in for laughter, “so Anders wouldn’t feel bad, as his mother has recently passed away.” Nice.
Once again, “The SG Girl Diaries” revolves around American parents who love their children, trying to be good parents for their kids, better parents than their own parents were for them, but usually failing. Money, or the lack thereof, looms large in much of what Saunders writes. His characters are always hard up; if only their sympathetic author, the reader thinks, could find a way to smuggle them some hard cash into the lines of the story. Saunders actually does play this almost deus ex machina role in “SG,” when the narrator wins the lottery and is on cloud nine. But just as in the old TV series, “The Millionaire,” coming into money makes for only very short-term happiness.
“Home” features a young man, Mike, just back from military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, dealing simultaneously with the chaos and STPD in his head and the chaos of his underclass family. Once again, the story is hilarious, while, at the same, time deeply sad. It features comic underclass Ma, who, in an attempt to rein in her potty mouth, says beep for all obscenities. “’Beep you’, she said. ‘They been on my case at work.’” Her slovenly boyfriend Harris (“he makes up crazy beep about me all the time”) is another hoot.
Mike’s sister Renee has married somewhat higher than her class, to Ryan. But, as usual in America, class distinctions are dependent largely on money. “Ryan’s parents had sonorous confident voices that seemed to have been fabricated out of previous, less sonorous/confident voices by means of sudden money.” Mike wanders about, aloft on his PTSD: “A plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet . . . . My face would go hot and I’d feel sort of like, Go, go, go.” The most poignant line in the story is his thought directed at all those around him: “You sent me there; now bring me back.” Everyone he comes across, however, has little more to say to him than the standard (automatic and insincere), “Thank you for your service.”
This is a great collection of stories, George Saunders. Thank you for your service in writing such exemplary fiction in the genre of the creative short story.
–U.R. Bowie, author of Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull, 2016