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 would 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 withheld.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
I’m not sure that I’d go quite so far as The New York Times in proclaiming that Tenth of December is the best book you’ll read this year; the year is young, and I read a lot of books. But it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least a very close second, and it’s certainly the best book I’ve read this year that was published this year.
There are some things that have always irked me about George Saunders’ stories. His characters are a singularly inarticulate bunch, seemingly incapable of introspection and oblivious to their surroundings. While that may well be the point of stories like “Al Roosten” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the point once having been made could probably be dropped, or at least suppressed. When I read one of his stories in “The New Yorker,” I sometimes feel a little cheated, as if I’ve got an issue with two “Shouts and Murmurs” columns instead of one clever but forgettable bit of satire and one solid short story.
But then I’ll read a story like “Escape from Spiderhead,” which explodes the Milgram experiment with a devastating example of human compassion, or “Home,” which counters all the stupid horror of the last two decades with subtle grace, or “Tenth of December,” which is the simplest expression of loving kindness in contemporary fiction, and I completely forgive Saunders for the numbing sameness of his characters’ voices. The world he offers up–of free will subverted by all manner of carefully (or not-so-carefully) wrought chemicals, of tawdry fame, of devastating but unthinking cruelty–is certainly our own; but the solutions he offers, or that his characters stumble into, are from so simple and beautiful a place that they are wholly alien.
From a writer’s perspective, the other thing I value in Saunders’ stories is their complete disregard for realism. Though Saunders’ moral universe is quite close to Andre Dubus’, he gleefully launches into the middle of a logical universe closer to Douglas Adams’ without needing to build the scaffolding to get there. Things aren’t just slightly off-kilter in his world; they can be extremely off-kilter (psychological drug experiments on prisoners? employees given consciousness-altering drugs as a normal part of their duties? immigrants frozen into symbolic tableaux on status-conscious suburbanites’ front lawns?), but Saunders doesn’t try to explain how things got to this point. Instead, he trusts the goodwill of his readers to suspend their disbelief and come along for the ride; and the payoff for surrendering to the madness more than makes up for any narrative gaps.
Of course, Saunders earns that trust by delivering on his promises. His characters, as inarticulate and self-absorbed and naive as they are, deliver up the goods; even if they aren’t always shaken out of their complacency, we are, and are made to see ourselves, uncomfortably, mirrored in these stories.