Tenth of December by George Saunders


It turns out that I was unable to reach 100 pages in this book of short stories by the author of my favorite book this year (Lincoln in the Bardo). It is just too dark.

Tony wrote this about Tenth of December in 2013, 

For at least three of the stories in George Saunders’ new collection, I read a few pages of the story only to discover I had not a clue about what the story was about or where it was headed.  Then I would re-start the story, this time slowing down and paying strict attention.  The second time I would finally get on the right wavelength, and then it was just a matter of hanging on for the emotional or wicked funny ride.   Saunders’ stories are so wildly original that they are disorienting. 

I shared that experience of having to go back to re-read and I appreciated the challenge of being disoriented. But after reading the six-page story "Exhortation," I concluded it was time for me to quit. That particular one purports to be a memo to staff members about their performance in some unnamed work place. Here's a sentence or two that illustrates it.

So what am I saying? I am saying (and saying it fervently, because it is important): Let's try, if we can to minimize the grumbling and self-doubt regarding the tasks we must sometimes do around here that maybe aren't on the surface all that pleasant. I'm saying let's try not to dissect every single thing we do in terms of ultimate good/bad/indifferent in terms of morals. The time for that is long past. 

All six pages have that smarmy feel. Perhaps its power is not apparent from this snippet, but the story was so creepy that I thought it best to remove my bookmark and close the book. I acknowledge that Saunders' writing is brilliant; perhaps it is the strange and painful news that we see each day that made me unable to prolong my exposure to the toxic voice. The contrast with Lincoln in the Bardo could not have been stronger. The positive power of human connection was evident throughout that book and left me with the feeling the author loved his characters as I did. 

 George Saunders, Tenth of December, Random House, 2013, 251 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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