The Tenth of December: Stories
Hardback: Random House, 2013.
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Reviewed by Matt Miles.
“Victory Lap”, the first story in Tenth of December, covers a topic that’s been making its rounds again in public conversation of late: helicopter parenting. What separates George Saunders’s short story from the bulk of articles and opinion columns reveals an almost embarrassing oversight for the latter: the narrative belongs to the children themselves. This choice serves the darkly funny and disturbing tone of the story without betraying a true sense of compassion that runs throughout. That sense of empathy runs through all of Saunders’s stories in general, and the ones in Tenth of December are no exception. No matter how outrageous or surreal his stories are, a sort of kindness grounds them, making them worthy of multiple rereads.
Embedded in the example of “Victory Lap” is a possible criticism of Saunders’s stories when considering them as “serious” work—that is, their topical nature. Like the first story, many of the others read like a time capsule of headlines from 2013. Treatment of prisoners, consumerism, financial panic and veterans are all dealt with in this collection, making it feel like the perfect portrait of our times. The question to ask of such a contemporary work is, will it still be meaningful a hundred years from now?
I’d argue yes, for two reasons. First, because of the unique sense of compassion Saunders shows in his narrative choices, and also in the use of disorientation and surrealism to effect a haunting read. One of the most talked about stories in this collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, is an example of both. Told through the diary of a blue-collar worker trying to buy nice things for his family, “Diaries” reveals with a horrifying image where this consumerism leads without demonizing the narrator. He wants to buy the eponymous girls– girls brought from poorer countries to display in front of suburbanite homes as a sign of wealth– for his teenage daughter because her friends all have them. He buys the argument that the girls are happier hanging from a wire that runs through their skulls than they would be in their home countries, but the image of dehumanization in progress for the sake of improved status in the neighborhood provides a sharp rebuttal and rebuke to his pleadings. We sympathize with the narrator in places, especially when he lists legitimate sacrifices for his family’s well-being, but we cannot agree with him. The implications of this story are as haunting as the images and won’t leave the reader long after she finishes it.
“Diaries” seems an odd example to use, since most critics or readers would note the author’s primary goal in using the diary is to satirize a character who misses the point using dramatic irony. At face value, this would seem to be the case in many of his stories. Even ‘Victory Lap” caused this reader to laugh multiple times by using that device. However, to see that as Saunders’s only goal would be to miss the larger goal of his work, and one in which he succeeds.