Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Okay, I think I get George Saunders.  He has a real knack for voice, and an ear for the tortured, slapdash language of everyday life.  For example, here's Saunders in the head of a teenage girl:

Was she special?  Did she consider herself special?  Oh, gosh, she didn't know.  In the history of the world, many had been more special than her.  Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual.  She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies.  Not yet, anyway!

The bad grammar ("long before such time as being gay"), the misused vocabulary ("conceptual") and the lowbrow ("amazing," "awesome," "gosh")--this might as well be a guide of how not to write.  But it sounds persuasive as Alison's inner monologue.

His stories are littered with the verbiage of the 21st century.  As a protagonist of one of them, you might take the drugs Darkenfloxx or VeriTalk or KnightLyfe, which, unsurprisingly, makes you think and act like a medieval knight.  You might use a contraption called the SifterBoyDeLux (for cleaning pig pens) or the MiiVOXmax (for God only knows).  Saunders is keenly aware of the particular absurdities that clutter up our lives as consumers and how they affect the way we see and interact with the world. The best story in Tenth of December, "Semplica Girls," imagines a world in which the ultimate status symbol is a line of living girls, usually from Third World countries, strung together in your yard by their heads.

As a symbol of the way consumer culture exploits poorer societies, that ought to be ridiculously literal.  But the story is really about the blindness of the narrator, who desperately wants the "SGs" for his daughter, who is jealous of her wealthier friends and ashamed of her family's relative poverty.  He writes about his family in a diary, constantly stopping to explain to "future generations" what the past was like, but never thinking to stop and explain the purpose of such ugly cruelty:

Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passe?  Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night?  Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight?  Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window.  Will future people be aware of concept of "demons"?  Will they find our belief in "demons" quaint?  Will "windows" even exist?  Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed?  Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a "demon" was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!

"Semplica Girls" isn't really an indictment of consumer culture, per se, but rather the lack of imagination that makes us so uninterested in it.  At his best, Saunders is concerned with the moral fabric of everyday life.  His protagonists are almost always "ordinary" suburban folks, lingering on the edges of the lower middle class.  Another of the strongest stories, "Al Roosten," centers around the fantasies of its title character, intensely jealous of another middle-aged middle-class man who turns out to be more popular at the bachelor auction.  "Al Roosten" takes its cues from Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," but the fantasies, like those of the narrator of "Semplica Girls," are sweetly pathetic: wanting to be loved, respected, admired.  The kind of fantasies, unlike Walter Mitty's fighter pilot, we actually have but find it hard to admit we have.

Sometimes the stories become overly gimmicky: the cuteness of the made-up words, the frenetic intensity of voice, the transparent ignorance of the protagonists.  But ultimately Saunders seems to have found a way of writing about the time we live in that's both fresh and truthful.  Plus, a cute girl on the train told me how much she loved it.  If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

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