In “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, for example, the narrator is oblivious to why the Girls (called SGs) would be unhappy, but his concern for his wife and children, while misguided, is genuine. Saunders is careful to mock one but not the other. He also allows genuine human moments, like the narrator noticing a life-affirming leaf after a tragedy strikes a friend from work, or his two daughters’ tenderness towards each other at an unlikely time, to shine through. Similar examples can be found in each of the stories in the collection: humanity of characters shining light into the surrounding darkness. There is darkness, but the reader does Tenth of December a disservice by missing the light. The points of view are ironic, yes, but they are also sympathetic.
Another example of Saunders’s use of perspective for this dual purpose occurs in “Puppy”, in which a mother who is trying to keep her kids happy visits the home of a less privileged family to buy a puppy for her children. Informed by a dysfunctional upbringing, the “happier” mom has second thoughts when she sees the living conditions of the puppy’s owner who is also a mother. Of course, the second mother has a story as well, but the first never asks, and the two never reach a satisfying understanding. The story is told through both mothers’ points of view, which makes the misunderstanding between them at the end more tragic. Their inner thoughts are written like pieces of a conversation they should have had, but, like many of us, they didn’t. Like in the other stories, the implications for the reader aren’t lost.
The last story which gives the book its name ends the book on a surprisingly upbeat note. A terminal patient decides to commit suicide to die with dignity and changes his mind when he encounters a young misfit lost in a fantasy world. Without sacrificing his usual tone or mastery of language, George Saunders sneaks in a lot of feeling, earned for having been written so effectively. If this doesn’t convince the reader that Saunders is about more than laughs and gimmicks, then nothing will.
Another element that sets Tenth of December above other topical writing is the space Saunders leaves for conversation. He leaves the reader at the end with questions, refusing to force his own opinions down readers’ throats. The haunting images, compassionate perspectives and disturbing unknowns are enough to unsettle and to inspire discussion. Hopefully this time we won’t overlook the conversations we need to have.