Book Review: Tenth of December
George Saunders is one of those writers so absolutely excellent at his craft, and so unique in his angle(s), it makes you want to read anything and everything he ever wrote, all day long. You may have heard of him recently due a popular commencement speech 'rounding conversations and media these days, and that certainly serves as a quick look at Saunders' tone in general.
Tenth of December is a collection of short stories, all of which easily stand on their own as pieces worth reading repeatedly. Saunders asks big questions in the frame of small lives: how do we help our neighbors? What are our obligations to family? Is love real or created? What's the cost of technology and progress? Is the so-called "American Dream" worth reaching nowadays? Why do we need a sense of belonging? How do we decide what matters most, and then hang onto it? As humans, we collectively feel an absurd number of emotions, and we too often feel as if we should be exempt from the harder ones, like pain, fear and disappointment. We aim to control as much as possible, and Saunders explores where that path leads different characters.
In "Victory Lap," young, privileged Allison dances around her living room imagining her charmed life. When she is confronted by the ugliness of a stranger's lust at her front door, she finds herself at the mercy of the nerdy neighbor boy, Kyle. Two women with wildly different lives judge each other's choices in "Puppy," not knowing that they both are simply trying to hold fast to the best of what they've got. In "Escape from Spiderhead," readers find themselves in the future, where criminals are test subjects for experiments wherein love and lust can be controlled with the push of a button. (In my opinion, "Escape" is the best of the bunch; I've read it a few times in different anthologies, and it is continually an amazing "What the hell?" story that stays in your brain for days to come.)
"The Semplica Girl Diaries" illustrates a father's perspective on his problems with debt, a lackluster marriage and raising children. When they win the lottery, he writes, "Have been sleepwalking through life, future reader. Can see that now. Scratch-Off win was like wake-up call. In rush to graduate college, win Pam, get job, make babies, move ahead in joy, forgot former feeling of special destiny I used to have when tiny, sitting in cedar-smelling bedroom closet, looking up at blowing trees through high windows, feeling I would someday do something great." (14) Saunders perfectly captures the age-old feeling of, If I just had . . . I would be happy sentiment that proves so false in reality. Finally, "Tenth of December" follows Don, an old man with cancer who rescues a young boy from death during his own attempt to commit suicide.
The best thing about Tenth of December is that you don't have to read it all at once; you can savor each story at your own pace. It is by far the best book I've read all year.