George Saunders, Tenth of December: Stories (New York: Random, 2013), 251pp.
George Saunders has earned numerous awards and best-seller status for his half-dozen books of short stories, essays and novellas. In 2006 he won both a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since 1997 he has taught creative writing at Syracuse University. I read this collection of ten short stories after seeing an interview with Saunders on the PBS Newshour.
Many critics have noted the tragicomic tone and moral inquiry in much of his work. In the opening story called Victory Lap, a teenager sees his next door neighbor abducted from her home, but he can barely take any action because he has been so programmed for compliance by his overweening parents: "His heart dropped at the thought of what he was letting happen." It was like a dream in which you can't take the simplest action. In Spiderhead, convicts have gained release from prison by participating in a pharmaceutical experiment that manipulates their physical desires and emotions. Exhortation takes a satirical shot at corporate life when Saunders writes a managerial memo to workers urging them to do their dehumanizing work with "positive energy."
The bizarre is also a common theme in Saunders' work, as in The Semplica Girl Diaries. A forty-year-old man keeps an otherwise banal diary, except for his description of the "Semplica Girls" — immigrants who are bought and sold, given a medical procedure in which a microline is threaded through their temples, and then strung together as decorations on suburban front yards. Biting cultural commentary is also signature Saunders. In Home a war vet struggles with returning home after combat duty: "He ain't himself," says his crazy mother, "look at him."
"There is no author I recommend to people more often" than George Saunders, says Dave Eggers on the back cover blurb. "There is no one better, no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity." High praise, indeed, but well deserved.