Tenth of December by George Saunders

I sometimes feel like short stories are the truest form of storytelling. You get thrown into a situation and have to both get your bearings and get the story going. It’s like the storytelling Thunderdome. So when a guy devotes the majority of his efforts to short stories (a market both flooded and limited in moneymaking potential as far as writing goes), I tend to take notice. In an intro to one of his shorts collections, Stephen King lamented at the loss of eyeballs, or, more accurately, places where eyeballs might find short stories. Magazines are dying and have forsaken all but a few pages worth of shorts, and the internet has not fostered writers as we might have imagined it would. Still, Saunders soldiers on. His fourth collection, Tenth of December came out in January and the ten stories contained therein are some of the best writing I’ve read this year. Simple storytelling meets real characters with real dialogue in just-outside-of-real situations. A combination destined for greatness when a master of the form is guiding us.

Saunders writes what could be classified as science-fiction short stories, though most critics prefer terms like “satirical futurism” or “speculative humor”. That’s a bunch of stuffiness as far as I can tell. Stories about drugs that inspire chivalric romance in lowly janitors at a themed restaurant or conspicuous consumption taken to such extremes as to include hanging third-world girls out on the lawn as status symbols is pure sci-fi to me. Which is great. Embrace the genre, George. Tell ’em how it really is (or will be). Perhaps the best story in the collection is one in which inmates are given the option of becoming human guinea pigs for drugs which can increase vocabulary and cause the subject to fall deeply in love with somebody they’ve just met. Of course these tests must be repeated and contorted for scientific accuracy, so there’s as much suffering as there is love to be had. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a masterpiece of emotional, comical, tragic sci-fi writing.

Only about half of the shorts here are sci-fi, though, and all of them are pretty simply told. We’re almost always directly inside the heads of the characters and we follow them on their little digressions, their flights of fancy and not-s0-fancy. Since there are ten stories and most have multiple perspectives, Saunders had to create at least fifteen unique individuals for us to inhabit for a few pages at a time. He does so with ease, effortlessly evoking a young girl’s dreams of a special man who might save her from her boring life, or two mothers who live on opposite sides of the tracks and have very different priorities and prejudices. The bookend stories are both mundane in nature, each only one scene, one bit of action, and yet, in the five perspectives Saunders writes from, we get such a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and language. If short stories are a writer’s Thunderdome, Saunders is our time’s Tina Turner.

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