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The Worst That Could Happen: Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders Cover
Tenth of December
by George Saunders
Bloomsbury
272pp
$29.99 AU
Published February, 2013
ISBN 9781408837344

Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.

These are the first lines of the first story in George Saunders’ Tenth of December. In this story, ‘Victory Lap’, Alison continues her descent of the stairs, talking to herself, and opens the back door to a man in a meter reader’s vest, a man who is a rapist and murderer, and who is there to rape and murder her.

George Saunders, the bestselling author of four collections of short stories, a novella, a children’s book and a collection of essays, began his professional life as a geophysicist, working for the Radian corporation while he completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. His teachers included Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Saunders now teaches at Syracuse.

In the documentary Bad Writing (2011), made by an ex-creative writing student in search of insight into his own execrable poetry and fiction, Saunders accuses himself of having a ‘big Hemingway boner’ when he began his degree. In another interview, he says he spent a year writing a ‘serious novel’ with all the skills he had learned at college, and those he had picked up from Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Wolfe. When he had finished, he re-read it and hated it. It was ‘horrible, incoherent’. One day at work, as a piece of furniture during a conference call, he began ‘neurotically scribbling out these Dr Seuss-like poems, and when I got to the end, there was more energy in that than anything I’d written in the last three years. That was my breakthrough.’ He describes it as not so much a shift in genre as in ‘tonality’.

The classic Saunders story, like a classic Dr Seuss, is most easily distinguished by the author’s use of language, where he is brilliantly at work on several levels. Saunders has what Thomas Pynchon calls ‘an astoundingly tuned voice’. His characters, for the most part struggling, under-educated people who are always dreaming of better things, speak to themselves as clearly as they can, but their language is either mangled or colonised by another language: of the corporation, of advertising, of the self-help manual. More often than not, they use polysyllabic words, incorrectly. No one understands so well as Saunders that clarity of speech means clarity of thought, and that these things together mean power. Saunders’ characters are powerless but always hoping, incoherently, that this might change.

Alison Pope is a middle class girl in a comfortable house, but like all teenagers, she is trying, through a kind of self-narration, to arrange reality into something less banal, less awkward. Something kinder. Alone in the house, she is telling herself a story that will carry her right down the stairs. But because she is not completely in charge of her own language she has to keep pulling up, correcting herself. That wasn’t {special one} the first time, with the business about the small package – the story got out of control. So she begins again:

What about this guy, behind Mr. Small Package, standing near the home entertainment center? With a thick neck of farmer integrity yet tender ample lips, who, placing one hand on the small of her back, whispered Dreadfully sorry you had to endure that bit about the small package just now. Let us go stand on the moon. Or, uh, in the moon. In the moonlight.

This clearly isn’t {special one} either, and Alison has to keep returning and correcting, returning and correcting until she reaches the door, where a truly unkind reality awaits – one that she is absolutely unable to organise into something better. And here we switch to the point of view of Kyle, her teenage neighbour, whose mental space is colonised by the voices of his terrified, control-freak parents. Kyle sees Alison in trouble, but he knows that to help will be to violate his parents’ countless ‘directives’, which preclude running in the yard, leaving the yard barefoot, and entering the Secondary Area – beyond the yard – without permission.

The state of Kyle’s household, with its directives and Traffic Logs and Work Points, is an example of Saunders’ magical ability to dream up little societies or near-future situations and furnish them with products and sets of rules that instantly cohere into a logical world. Nothing takes place in space, or during the Middle Ages, or on an earth transformed by climate change, but he is a world-builder par excellence, one of the most truly speculative writers of fiction at work today. When Saunders writes the future, he creates situations that feel a terrifying hair’s-breadth from our own. He seems not to be predicting so much as anticipating: a subtle difference.

Saunders’ biggest, widest target is capitalism and at his best he makes you notice, as though you had only just noticed, how money and the art of selling things (and the helpless way we go on buying things) have come to govern everything we do. All of his characters are victims of capitalism in some way – from the teenage boy in ‘Jon’, from In Persuasion Nation (2006), who has a device fitted to the back of his neck that runs advertisements continuously through his brain and is given a constant supply of mood-altering drugs to help him ‘evaluate’ them, to the character in ‘Sea Oak’, from Pastoralia (2000), who is fired from his job as a waiter and stripper but shouts desperately ‘It’s been a pleasure!’ as he leaves, because there is so little work available and he is ‘trying not to burn any bridges’. Endless satisfaction and instruction is to be received from Saunders’ lists of invented product and place names, television shows and theme parks. I like KnyghtLyfe™, a drug that enables its user to speak in the language of chivalry (necessary if you have a Medicated Role at a mediaeval theme park), and the television shows How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. This is the anticipatory impulse in Saunders’ writing – it is scarily easy for us to imagine drugs or television shows like these. He is always reminding us of what could be: in effect, the worst that could happen.

Saunders’ first published book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), received a lot of attention for the aforementioned elements: its interest in capitalism, alternative worlds and, most of all, theme parks – but also for its darkness. The words ‘dark’ and ‘bleak’ are used again and again in reviews of this collection, and indeed Saunders is unsparing when it comes to laying out grim futures, or non-futures, for his characters. It is very much a first book, in which we can see the author testing his skills, trying out his tricks. On the very first page we hear about ‘Burn ’n’ Learn’, a company that arranges for you to tan in a fully-stocked library where high school girls on rollerskates fetch your books for you. Ideas proliferate in this collection, but the body count feels unnecessarily high and the endings are grisly and a little unwieldy, the author putting a gun to his characters’ heads out of what feels a bit like uncertainty.

Pastoralia (2000) contains some of Saunders’ best stories – most significantly, ‘Sea Oak’ and the title story, in which a man has a job as a live-in caveman in an ancient history theme park. The theme park (like all Saunders’ theme parks) is failing, his child is sick, and his wife is sending him increasingly frantic faxes through the machine hidden in the back of the cave. Furthermore, his cavewoman colleague, Janet, is refusing to stay in character, because she too is having family and financial problems, and is too weary to keep up the charade. The caveman is also being asked to evaluate her performance, every day, by fax – in other words, to betray her. He tells us he is Thinking Positive and Staying Positive, but it is a struggle, and it is a struggle not resolved. We last see him still playing out his cave-man role – ‘All afternoon we pretend to catch and eat small bugs’ – on the off-chance that a visitor will come by. Nobody does.

‘Pastoralia’ is nearly seventy pages long, allowing Saunders to expand his cast of characters. We get to meet Bradley, Janet’s hideous son, who turns up to threaten her with his future, swearing that he will begin ‘inadvertently misusing substances’ again if she doesn’t lend him money. We meet, by fax, Greg Nordstrom, who is under pressure to begin the Staff Remixing, and who needs our caveman to betray Janet. We also meet Marty and Jeannine, who have been Remixed out of their jobs running the Employees Only shop.

The length of the piece allows Saunders to work with repetition. At the close of every day, the caveman must fax his evaluation of Janet to head office. This becomes the coda to each chapter:

Do I note any attitudinal dificulties? I do not. How do I rate my Partner overall? Very good. Are there any Situations which require Mediation?
There are not.
I fax it in.

When the character finally does betray Janet, this coda changes, and the change ripples right through the story. ‘Pastoralia’ is Saunders at his best, demonstrating the inextricable link between narrative and rhythm in his work.

In the same year he published Pastoralia, Saunders published a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. It tells the story of a girl named Capable who is ground down by her twenty-four hour job brushing gappers (small, prickly, spherical creatures that scream) from the backs of her goats. Gappers love goats, and when you brush them off and throw them into the sea, it will only be a few hours before they have inched along the sea bed and up the steep cliffs of Frip, across the paddocks, and on to the backs of the goats, whose milk is the town’s only source of income. Goats won’t produce milk if they are covered in screaming gappers. Capable wins against the odds, just as she should – odds that include a useless father, a dead mother, and a set of horrible neighbours – and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, which is both funny and madly inventive, is that rare thing: a children’s book written by an author of books for adults that satisfies both audiences.

What we begin to see in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a determined hopefulness in Saunders’ work: the weak begin to have the smallest of inklings about their own agency. We start to see more of Saunders’ characters winning against the odds. These victories are not always as obvious as Capable’s, but they generally involve characters finding a kind of inner strength, or seeing the positive in their lives. Most importantly, they successfully articulate this to themselves. This is exemplified in the character of the grandfather in ‘My Flamboyant Grandson’, from In Persuasion Nation. The unnamed grandfather sins against state power by removing his shoes, which have in-built Everly Strips, designed to receive mandatory advertising from the Everly Readers running along every sidewalk. His shoes are hurting his feet, and he and his isolated, theatrical, ‘flamboyant’ grandson are late for a Broadway show. The story finishes after the show, which has changed the grandson’s life, and after the grandfather has willingly undergone disciplining for removing his Everly Strips: a session in which he is forced repeatedly to Celebrate his Preferences. He finishes by saying to us, about his grandson:

He looks like no one else, acts like no one else, his clothes are increasingly like plumage, late at night he choreographs using plastic Army men, he fits no mold and has no friends, but I believe in my heart that someday something beautiful may come from him.

The short story is all about form – less so than the poem, but more so than the novel. Endings should be fundamental. Their job is not so much summary and solution; a short story ending wants to somehow emphasise or echo the quality of the story, as though a story’s voice, in its dying fall, can remind us of everything we have just read. Even an airy, apparently open ending, like those in the stories of Lydia Davis or Alice Munro, is a kind of summing up, a way of saying ‘this is what my story is about’.

Saunders’ stories often say my story is about hope or my story is about goodness. And why not? Saunders is a self-described optimist, and there is real pleasure to be had in his empathy and optimism for his unfortunate characters. But it is possible to see this manoeuvre in Saunders’ work as technically limiting. In ‘Home’, from Tenth of December, a young man comes back from either Iraq or Afghanistan to the miserable chaos he created before he left. He is now suffering from war trauma, as well as a horrible childhood and a broken marriage. As he approaches his family, standing terrified on a porch, ‘The contours of the coming disaster expanded to include the deaths of all present.’ Brilliant, and very scary. But then he gives way, the contours shrink to include only his own disaster, his own unhappy collapse. The family are saved. This is absolutely possible, and very heartening to read. But if it happens this way too many times we start to feel suspicious, a little manipulated.

An example of this triumph of formal convenience over reality comes at the end of ‘Christmas’, an autobiographical story from In Persuasion Nation. It is about the time Saunders spent living in his aunt’s and uncle’s basement and making a very small amount of money as a very incompetent roofer. Saunders calmly and compassionately describes the men he worked with, particularly John, a father of fourteen children, who silently suffers racial taunts and cruelty from those who employ him. In the final scene, all the men, including Saunders, gather for a Christmas party, bringing out their Christmas pay and bonuses to gamble with. Rick, the foulest of them all, gradually wins all of John’s money from him. No presents, then, for John’s wife or his fourteen children. Saunders finishes: ‘I … was once a joke of a roofer, a joke of a roofer so beat down he stood by watching as a nice man got cheated out of his Christmas.’

Well, yes, I want to say – but then, no. It isn’t my business to know the truth of this situation or to judge its protagonists. But I can see here where the need to end on a note of resolution has forced Saunders into an adverse and unequivocal judgement about his own moral cowardice that closes down other narrative possibilities. The exigencies of narrative, the kind of pressure exerted on all those who would write, demand that we end somewhere, and this ending seems neat enough. But it does not do everything that Saunders can and does do in stories like ‘Sea Oak’ and ‘Pastoralia’, in which you feel the story somehow extending beyond the ending, as though yours has been a privileged glimpse into a life that will go on whether you are there or not.

Anyone who has written knows the feeling of the hand behind the back, forcing your story in a particular direction. Saunders’ writing shows signs of this; once we have noticed it, it is possible to feel his stories locking into place after a few paragraphs. But not all of them succumb to this pressure, and Tenth of December contains some of his best work. In ‘Victory Lap’, Kyle saves Alison, breaking more directives than he thought possible, overcoming his own powerlessness to do something truly good. But in this story we need the sense of resolution: the situation, delicately handled by Saunders, is a living nightmare, and the conclusion is a necessary relief, a counterbalance to the building pressure of nastiness inside the narrative.

But it often feels as though there is somewhere else George Saunders’ stories could go – that there is some unchallenged assumption he has, some unmined psychic difficulty, that could provide a new vein of narrative, a new impulse for his work. His apparently limitless powers of invention don’t always extend beyond this narrative of ‘hope’ or ‘goodness’. I find myself wishing that he would choose the road less travelled; that he might frighten himself with the psychological possibilities of the situations he sets up .

But if George Saunders does no more than he already has, he will still be remarkable. His facility with language is admirable and his generosity of spirit does not prevent him – or doesn’t always prevent him – from being a precise cultural critic. The mirror that he holds up to society reflects things in our landscape that we have forgotten to see, the money winking behind everything.

References

George Saunders, ‘Tenth of December’, The New Yorker, (October 2011)