The Tenth of December is one of those books I was so excited about and bought immediately on the original release date... and then promptly got overwhelmed and allowed it to languish on my nightstand until this month.
Unlike many readers who claim to essentially despise short stories but will deign to make an exception here and there, I love short stories and am frequently annoyed at myself for not managing to read more of them on a regular basis. But when Tenth was published almost two years ago, even those naysayers who proudly proclaim their disdain for shorts were awed and excited about Saunders' new collection. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, made everyone's best-of-the-year list, was a New York Times bestseller (I believe for quite some time).
Having finally read it, I have to say that I'm sort of surprised by this. NOT because I don't believe these stories deserve such attention and claim, but because they are so distinctly weird and insightful and science fiction-ey and sometimes difficult to immerse oneself in... I find it surprising (and gratifying) that they manage such a wide audience.
Saunders' stories are often clearly heavy with science-fiction and fantasy elements, but some of them, like The Semplica Girl Diaries (the longest in the collection) had me wondering for about 2/3 of the story what the character was referring to when he mentioned the SG display. It was so in the background and offhand, while everything else was distinctly familiar and known, that just when I was ready to attempt a Google search to figure out what I was missing, SG became more central to the narrative. Escape from Spiderhead, on the flip side, had me convinced that we were in the world of artificial intelligence until a couple of subtle lines towards the end made the story take a more sickening turn.
One of my ultimate favourites in the collection, the title story, I actually almost abandoned about a third of the way through. This was only because I had some difficulty transitioning from the previous story and the point of view of the first character was initially disorienting for me. But I was rewarded with my persistence:
"Years ago, at The Illuminated Body he and Molly had seen this brain slice. Marring the brain slice had been a nickel-sized brown spot. That brown spot was all it had taken to kill the guy. Guy must have had his hopes and dreams, closet full of pants, and so on, some treasured childhood memories: a mob of koi in the willow shade at Gage Park, say, Gram searching in her Wrigley's-smelling purse for a tissue - like that. If not for that brown spot, the guy might have been one of the people walking by on the way to lunch in the atrium. But no. He was defunct now, off rotting somewhere, no brain in his head."
"Because, okay, the thing was - he saw it now, was starting to see it - if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he love not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He'd been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping,and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many - many drops of goodness, is how it came to him - many drops of happy - of good fellowship - ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not - had never been - his to withheld.
Saunders' writing can be a commitment - sometimes you have to just trust and hold on for a bit longer than you might with another writer who may also write strangely but doesn't provide the payoff Saunders does. And I don't mean strangely perhaps so much as brilliantly different and unique and engaging. He excels at approaches you don't find anywhere else.
If you're interested in reading the (stand-alone) story, Tenth of December, you can find it at The New Yorker. Because I subscribe to The New Yorker, I can see the full story but I don't know whether someone who doesn't subscribe can access the full story. If you can't, it's also available on Saunder's website and note that at the bottom, you can magnify the originally remarkably small and uncomfortable font.
Definitely sign me up for the George Saunders fan club. Particularly if it involves a hundred milligrams of KnightLyfe(R).