I thought that Amarillo, Texas was the armpit of America…until I discovered that it spit out George Saunders. Saunders is the short story guy. His works have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, and various other reputable publications. Most notably, he penned an essay for the “Cultivating Thought” series at Chipotle. Garbage cans everywhere are crying out for Chipotle’s brown paper bags. Who cares about E. Coli when you can feed your brain?
Tenth of December* is a collection of short stories by Saunders. I’ve never intentionally eschewed the short-story format, but I typically go for a full-blown novel. Why? Absolutely no good reason. My exposure to books growing up consisted of lengthy-ish literature, so I simply continued in that trajectory. Shout out to Nancy Drew and Junie B. Jones.
After this book, I’m born again. A well-done short story is my new favorite way to start the day! The time investment is minimal, but the payoff is enormous. Sometimes what an author wants to say doesn’t require hundreds of pages to convey. In just a few pages, Saunders forces you to care about the characters and feel some resolution about where they end up.
A collection of short stories is even better. Don’t like one of them? Move on to the next. With Saunders, no skipping is necessary. Here’s a brief description of each piece in Tenth of December. Rather than inform you of the plot, I’ve summarized what Saunders is getting at to give you a taste of the themes he lays his King Midas hands on:
Victory Lap: A gump highschooler does something surprisingly heroic. But was his heroism trumped by another’s?
Sticks: A father uses a strange, unconventional medium to express his unstable emotions. Is he successfully communicating with anyone?
Puppy: Two women are leading their lives and managing their households in the best way that they know how. When their worlds collide, judgment and misunderstanding leads to an unfortunate consequence. Spoiler alert: it involves a puppy.
Escape from Spiderhead (my aside: YASSS so good): Because of a grave mistake, a man is forced to become the puppet of a scientific experiment that blurs the lines between good and evil. To atone for his wrongdoing, he ends up making the ultimate sacrifice.
Exhortation: The boss of a mysterious company (the work is never explicitly conveyed to the reader) implores his staff to approach their work more positively by focusing on the end result rather than the unpleasantness of the task itself. The memorandum is disturbingly upbeat with a menacing undertone.
Al Roosten: An unsuccessful middle-aged man has a wounded pride. He envisions confronting the source of his pain and reinventing himself accordingly, but the bravery never extends from the confines of his imagination.
The Semplica Girl Diaries (my aside: YASSS so good): A middle-class father justifies a morally questionable social norm because it brings happiness to the people he loves most: his family. Ironically, his youngest child is the one to resist the trend and challenge his decision. Role reversal---an age-old question is posed to the parent:
Is something okay just because everyone is doing it?
Home: A court-martialed marine returns home to a dysfunctional family. He struggles to figure out how he fits in the life he left behind.
My Chivalric Fiasco: A man unintentionally witnesses an unlawful interaction between coworkers. Is standing up for the victim “right” even if the victim doesn’t want him to?
Tenth of December: A dying man thinks he has “the end” all figured out…until an ill-prepared little boy messes it all up. The failed plan forces the old man to reflect on his past and reevaluate his deadly decision.
Still unconvinced that Saunders is worth reading? I’m not the only one impressed by his abilities. Time dubbed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013. Saunders himself has great faith in what fiction can do for the world and how he can affect people through his work. He says, “What I really think good writing does: It enlivens that part of us that actually believes we are in the world, right now, and that being here somehow matters. It reawakens the reader to the fact and the value of her own existence” (Saunders, 259). Truly, I feel those vibes in his writing. I love that he emphasizes the uniqueness and the idiosyncrasies of his characters, painting them as individuals just like us with feelings not too far from our own. His method? Simply place an everyday man in a tight spot and see where he ends up. As a whole, I give Tenth of December 5 out of 5 camel humps. This collection is such an easily digestible form of literature that it’d be a shame not to check it out yourself.
*Saunders, George. Tenth of December. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.