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Tenth of December: Stories
Tenth of December: Stories
George Saunders
Random House, 2013
272 pp., 26.00

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Karen Swallow Prior

Tenth of December

Those competing voices in your head.

No one who's read Jonathan Swift's brilliant satire A Modest Proposal forgets the shock of discovering that the proposal offered to alleviate the poverty of 18th-century Ireland is to raise children for food. The surprise is achieved, however, not by the proposal itself—people saying shocking things is hardly shocking—but by the voice of the persona Swift creates to make the proposal: a rational, concerned man-of-the-world with impeccable logic, embodying the highest values of his age. This voice draws the reader into this way of thinking until she finds herself nodding in agreement, lulled by the perfectly reasonable exposition of the argument—until it comes to its sudden, ghastly point.

This same mastery of voice, set to quite a different tune, is achieved in Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, which the New York Times called "the best book you'll read this year," and justifiably so. Whether employing the voice of an almost-15-year-old girl about to be abducted and almost-raped and almost-who-knows-what, or that of a "white-trash" mother who tethers her mentally challenged son to a tree to keep him safe, or that of a middle-aged, middle-class man catwalking his way toward the dull consolation prizes of a vacuous consumer-driven life, Saunders draws us in through the power and authenticity of their voices.

The winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Award, Saunders is a brat-packer in the "New Sincerity" movement, a trend within popular culture "that prioritizes the virtues of sincerity and authenticity over just about anything else," explains Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, author of a primer on the movement, Not Your Mother's Morals. New Sincerity exhibits "an observable shift away from ironic detachment and posturing and toward vulnerability and openness to ideas," Fitzgerald says. That characteristic earnestness calls for a bit of mental gymnastics to understand the place of satire—which is all about distance—in such a movement, but the work of George Saunders is a good place to start.

Satire works best within a context of mutually agreed upon standards by which deviating vices and follies are corrected by ridicule. Swift's was such an age. Ours seems, on the surface anyway, less so. But this is one of the many gifts of the New Sincerity: theirs may be "not your mother's morality," but morality is what they sincerely seek. As Saunders told the New York Times, he and his kindred spirits (which include Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace) set out "to write stories that had some sort of moral heft." Absent the more rigid and uniform moral standards of Swift's Neoclassical period, theirs is, accordingly, a kinder and gentler satire.

But as is always the case with satire, success lies in the voice. So it is with Tenth of December. The power of these voices lends realism to stories that otherwise border on the surreal or science fiction. Yet, more than mere verisimilitude is at work. Saunders' stories embody the ideas of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin about the dialogic nature of language. Meaning, according to Bakhtin, is created by appropriating the language of others into one's own language, making context primary over text. Saunders' use of voice—regardless of the character or plot in which it is embedded—replicates the way in which the discourse that surrounds us, the metanarrative, if you will, shapes our interior monologues, our own small stories, and vice versa. The voice of each of Saunders' characters bears the imprints of the language of others, often subtly, other times more obviously, as when a character incorporates into her inner monologue the French terms or set questions she is learning in school, or the taunts of classmates, or simply the mangled spelling or usage of terms in a way that shows the character has heard certain words but does not truly know or understand the, such as "time in memorial." The voices of Saunders' characters are rife with such echoes. One might even say that the central conflict in many if not all of the stories in Tenth of December is between competing voices that shape the characters' thoughts, values, and, ultimately, their actions.

Effective use of voice is also the source of the moral correctives Saunders offers in his stories. The discursive sea in which we swim and struggle to find our own voice is also what obstructs our ability to recognize our cultural blind spots, as Saunders explained in an interview with The New Yorker: "When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn't see it. He can't. He's average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo."

This phenomenon is most literally portrayed in "My Chivalric Fiasco," which, like a number of Saunders' stories, is set in a slightly futuristic pharmaceutical dystopia. The main character works as a lackey in a sort of Medieval Fair; after witnessing his boss's rape of another employee, he's suddenly promoted. In order for him to fulfill his new acting role in the festival, he's given a drug—one that makes his language, thoughts, and actions at once archaic and heroic. It's Swift's signature technique: the literalizing of a metaphor. In the case of A Modest Proposal, Swift took a common metaphor of his day—"the oppressive policies of the English are devouring the Irish"—and made it literal. So, too, does Saunders (if in clunkier fashion) in "My Chivalric Fiasco" by literalizing the power our discursive communities have over us.

Saunders employs the technique more expertly in "The Semplica Girl Diaries," narrated through the journal entries of a 40-year-old husband and father agonized by the desire to provide for his family in the ways his society deems respectable. What "keeping up with the Joneses" turns out to be in this world literalizes the way the ability of the "haves" to have requires breaking the heads, so to speak, of the "have nots."

Again, as in A Modest Proposal, it's the power of the voice that makes the unbelievable believable. It's the updated, New Sincerity version of that matter-of-fact persona who has been so overtaken by the values and vision of his culture that, although he continually hesitates, vacillates, and doubts himself (unlike Swift's overweening hack), he never sees the thing before him most deserving of questioning: the very existence of the Semplica Girls. The voice is also what makes us feel empathy for the character, despite his participation in evil, for the satire of the New Sincerity, unlike that of the Neoclassicists, bleeds gray.

Yet, I never wept when reading Swift. I did when reading Tenth of December. Perhaps it was because I read "The Semplica Girl Diaries" while riding in the back of an SUV on a long dirt highway in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa, and the story's sci-fi metaphor for what out-of-control first-world consumerism does to third-world people felt a bit too literal for the moment. Or maybe it was because as I read the last few pages of the last story, the one for which the entire collection is named, Saunders' words hit even closer to home.

One of the protagonists of "Tenth of December" is dying of cancer. Not wanting to echo the monstrous voice in his memories of a stepfather who himself succumbed to a cancerous death, or to be overtaken by the increasing indignities his body is forced to bear, he begins the process of taking his own life. But then [spoiler alert!], like an inverse Christ figure, he reverses course, giving up his death in order to save the life of another. The words of his interior monologue at the moment of epiphany, when he is reunited with the wife who has been caring for him and whom he wrongly thought he would save through his death, could correct a Kevorkian:

… 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 loved 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 him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to [withhold].

This isn't satire. This is sincerity at its best. I wish that one I loved who took his life in fear of those same things could have heard a voice such as this.

Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press).

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