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.

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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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