I’ve just finished Tenth Of December and it’s reaffirmed my belief that George Saunders is my favorite living writer, a title he’s held since shortly after the death of Kurt Vonnegut. Granted, I’d already read a few of the stories in this latest collection, but those were even better the second time, especially “Escape From Spiderhead.”
Saunders can still crack me up with his futuristic pharmaceuticals and endearingly irrational everymen, like in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” And he can still devastate me like a ball of lightning to the gut. “Puppy” is particularly crushing, even though it exploits the ultra-easy sympathy-squeezer of an adorable dog-in-peril; the story’s transcendent thanks to some well-woven dramatic irony, and an unimpeachable eye for detail (an upper-middle-class character seems somewhere between fascinated and appalled by the clutter in a less-fortunate character’s house: “some kind of crankshaft on a cookie sheet… a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint.”) Tenth Of December‘s title story is also a killer, bringing us to the edge of surrender right before it flips us around and fills us with the urge to clutch everything we hold dear and sob with gratitude.
I can get why some readers might see a lack of cohesion in Saunders’ collections, which tend to oscillate between realism and surrealism without warning. But me, I’m used to it, and it all makes perfect nonsense. Saunders’ surrealism illuminates realities I wasn’t consciously aware of, and his realism feels like it could explode into surrealism at any moment.
If anything about Tenth Of December feels out of place to me, it’s the cover. It has none of the oddball imagery of past Saunders covers, opting instead for black-and-white minimalism.
Tenth Of December‘s cover certainly has thematic significance, symbolizing the title story’s dangerous divide between solid white ice and the deadly dark water below. But it also feels like an extra-conscious effort (probably on the part of the publishers) to steer Saunders’ work into more mainstream territory. And hey, it seems to be working. Saunders has been beloved for a while, but now it’s like he’s American Fiction’s It Boy. It’s about damn time.