“If it’s broke, don’t fix it. Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.”
At one point the narrator-father of the story The Semplica Girls Diary makes the exasperated claim: Limitations so frustrating. A more candid alternate title for George Saunder’s latest story collection, Tenth of December, couldn’t be more apropos, for at the core of this superb collection hums all the silent gnashings of inferiority and inadequacy, of characters thwarted by systems, by deficiency, by war against a presumed spiteful universe pulling out the rug for their temerity to try and rise above their stations.
But try they do throughout this recent series of ten tales. And while several hint to subtle, future dystopias, this is a collection that for the most part veers from the magical realism and alternate-world implications inherent in Saunders’s previous compilations such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastorali. Most of Tenth of December’s tales reside squarely in suburbia where its residents smile through the distempers of economic disparity seething beneath. Where the shortcomings sown by over-or-under-coddling parents ripen in adulthood, and either nourish their progeny, or wilt on the vine beforehand.
The first story, Victory Lap, wastes no time illustrating this. Whimsical, imaginative, and altogether spoiled Allison Pope spends her days imagining any number of suave gentlemen sweeping her off her feet at some debutant ball, until the day she inadvertently lets in an assailant under the guise of a meter reader. Across the street, Kyle Boot, a regimented teen athlete under the thumb of a disciplinarian father that envisions himself as some latter day Atticus Finch (even referring to his son as “Scout”), actually sees the intrusion from across the street, but struggles to break his conditioning in order to call 911 and intervene.
In Puppy, the dynamic shifts to the parents’ point of view, a study of contrast between two mothers. The first is Marie, raised in repression and desperate to afford her kids what she never had herself: the space and encouragement to use their imaginations. Part of this involves a “family mission” in their Lexus to acquire another puppy so daughter Abbie can experience raising a dog from puppyhood the way her older brother, Josh, did with their older dog, Goochie. The second mother, Callie, hails from the poorer end of town, with a handicapped child she keeps tethered to a tree—not out of malice, but because she legitimately feels this is the only way to keep him from hurting himself—and who’s in possession of the titular puppy she needs to sell or give away, but will get rid of one way or the other. Broke and devoid of prospects, but possessing a love not run through a screed of illusion, Callie suffers because of her practicality. A friend later reminds her of this: “Callie, you are bright enough but you incline toward that which does not benefit you.”
This impulse to break the cycles and psychoses cured during childhood bedevil most of the characters in TOD, hampering their abilities to cope with the fiscal and social marginalization of adulthood. In Al Roosten, a vintage-collectibles store owner, rages silently at the sidelining of his life by those wealthier and better looking. His life is a hamster wheel of supplication and seething contempt, and his inability to overcome these deficiencies resides in the fact that he’s a terminal second-guesser who continuously pines for the approval of his long dead mother. The schlubby Roosten oscillates between admiration and jealousy of his rival, Donfrey, the local wealthy realtor while at an anti-drug event where local business people perform silly skits for charity. Throughout the event, Al strives to cobble a competitive, ambitious edge that his soft heart doesn’t have the constitution for, all whilst the lilt of Mom’s voice in his head cheers him on. In many ways he wants to respect Donfrey, but it’s a respect he only thinks achievable with a parity he feels unattainable.
Familial hamstringing also hinders any chance of stability for Mickey, the protagonist in Home. Under dubious circumstances only hinted at throughout, Mickey has just returned early from the war.
“Which one? Aren’t there two?” asks one of the local kids with whom he encounters at a local store, to which the other replies with similar indifference, “Didn’t they just call one off?”
Mickey isn’t thrilled to find that his mother has shacked up with yet another loser. Nor is he excited to learn that his sister has, while he was overseas, married a man of slightly wealthy stock, and had an “elfin” baby girl. Nor is he atingle of his ex-wife’s absconding with his kids and her subsequent remarriage to a more affluent suitor.
Three cars for two grown-ups, I thought, Mickey ponders after his ex’s new husband suggests he come back at another time to visit his own kids, claiming it’s “past their bedtime” even though still early out. What a country. What a couple selfish dicks my wife and her new husband were. I could see that, over the years, my babies would slowly transform into selfish-dick babies, then selfish-dick toddlers, kids, teenagers, and adults, with me all that time skulking around like some unclean suspect uncle.
In fact, virtually all the male characters are dismissive of him and his service, constantly dropping the offhand kiss-off refrain of “Thank you for your service.” PTSD from a suggested war atrocity further compounds the indignation bubbling in Mickey’s own apathetic world, and when his family refuses to let him hold his new niece, all are made privy to the wreckage in their midst.
But as stated earlier, Saunders revisits again his dystopian roots, though in less overt ways, making TOD less allegorical and more rooted in the real world.
Exhortation, about blind obedience and the consequences of neglecting it, is literally a memo from a division leader of an ambiguous corporation with a sinister, Orwellian undercurrent swirling about it. The letter encourages its employees to maintain a positive attitude in cleaning “shelves,” the shelves being unstated as to their nature. Their very opacity suggests the task as meaningless beyond the sole purpose of keeping the workers busy and efficient by denying them the perils of second-guessing.
In The Semplica Girl Diaries, third-world female workers escaping exploitation are employed by a modish, high-tech party company called Greenway Landscaping to pose in smocks in the yards of the affluent, whereupon they’re hoisted off the ground in groups of three or four like ornaments by a micro-line that runs through their heads. The story unravels in a series of journal entries by a father quietly desperate to leave a footprint in a world. He becomes convinced that he’s woefully bereft socio-economically, and despite his sometimes lucid realizations that he already truly has enough—a loving wife, children, a modest job and home—he can’t seem to reconcile his jealousies of his wealthier neighbors. He can’t even fake it, implying that even positivity is the luxury solely of the affluent. Another contradictory man, much like Al Roosten, struggling with the pressures of existence against his innate decency, often yielding conflicting sentiments such as musing in one moment, Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate, only to rescind himself a beat later, Am not tired of work. It is a privilege to work. I do not hate the rich. I aspire to be rich myself.
When his daughter, Lilly, is set to have a birthday party not long after a very wealthy friend, Leslie, had an extremely posh one, the anxiety-riddled father fusses over whether or not he can come up with a gala to match. One of the most memorable aspects of Leslie’s party were the SGs—the Semplica Girls, which every wealthy family has on display on their lawns.
When fortune finally does strike however—the father wins ten-thousand dollars in a scratch-off lottery ticket not long before his daughter’s birthday—most of it ends up being spent not on family debt, but on a party to rival Leslie’s, down to their own SG display. The swell of pride is soon punctured however when the possibility of financial ruin arrives glowing with irony—a well-intentioned act committed by his youngest daughter, Eva, spurred to no extent by his rote justifications of the morally questionable status quo. Mortified by this turn of events, he refuses his wife’s suggestion of calling her wealthy father for help, which he eventually refuses to grant anyway as punishment for their vanity and shortsightedness.
Escape from Spiderhead is Saunders’s most explicitly dystopian tale in TOD. Jeff, a volunteer (at least we’re led to believe initially that he’s there of his own free will) for a pharmaceutical test, is put through a series of sexual experiments involving new, untested remedies designed to control aggression by curtailing jealousy and lustful impulses. Drugs vary from Verbaluce, which allows its taker to describe things in manner far more profuse and poetic than ever before; NatuGlide, which allows one to see more enhanced detail, color, and beauty than before; and Darkenfloxx, which as described by Abnesti, the man administering the experiment: “Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times ten. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx.” These drugs are administered through Jeff’s MobiPak, which we gradually learn is a small, self-contained drug regulator surgically implanted to a subject’s spine. In fact, this is not a clinical trial so much as a prison rehabilitation program—an effort to suppress the free-will of the brain. It’s a parable on the consequences of trying to control nature, the title itself even suggesting an attempt to thwart it.
The title story, Tenth of December, is Saunders’s final and most optimistic effort, tying off all of his themes in a fateful meeting of strangers in the frozen woods. A boy named Robin bundles up and takes his BB gun out on an excursion to hunt the tiny, imaginary “Nethers” who live by a beaver dam. He fancies the new girl at school from Montreal, Suzanne Bledsoe, even though he’s invisible to her, and envisions himself protecting her from the Nethers. In a parallel story, Don Eber, whose father had abandoned him and his mother when he was young (possibly for another man), has cancer, and wishing to spare his family the image of his suffering, walks out into the snowy woods behind the hospital, leaving his coat behind with the intention of killing himself via exposure. He entertains scenarios of dialogues with family, both living and gone, arguing the pros-and-cons of this decision. All the while, Robin is determined to return the coat to the man whom he tracks through the snow. When he tries to head him off by crossing a frozen pond, he falls through the ice. A vacillating Eber gets to the pond by the time Robin has pulled himself out. He dresses the boy in his own clothes, and urges him to walk back towards the world, to which he eventually follows himself. The value of a fantasy life explicitly extolled and given virtue for the first time.
Rounding out TOD’s contents are a pair of anomalies that nevertheless illustrate the inability to deal rationally with an adult world due to a lack of discipline and imagination, or perhaps too much of it.
In the flash-fiction gem, Sticks, a father incapable of expressing love finds his sole outlet of expression with his family via a metal pole in the front yard which he dresses to reflect the particular season or holiday they’re in, and which eventually serves as his final vehicle of redemption.
And in My Chivalric Fiasco, a story that most closely matches the whimsy of Saunders’s previous collections, a janitor, Ted, working at a medieval theme park witnesses an illicit affair between his boss and a female coworker. The structure is told almost in script form, the language taking a gradual Elizabethan turn after Ted indulges in a drug called KnightLyfe which aggrandizes this cog’s sense of honor in a pseudo-dystopian world. When he tries to “honorably” intervene in the affair to protect her honor—to be “a man of high caliber”—the corporate world and its peons ultimately stifle his efforts rather easily. Individuality cannot be tolerated against the bottom line; the little man must remain little, and must be castigated for his ambition.
If any story feels out of place in TOD, it is this one, simply because it doesn’t stretch itself beyond being a retread of his earlier work, albeit written in Saunders’s vintage, singular style. But it’s a tiny fault in a collection full of power and virtue, bookended by Victory Lap and Tenth of December, both encapsulating best the arc of whimsical youths having their innocence shattered by real world dangers while apathetic and hesitant onlookers battle their milquetoast natures as to whether or not to get involved, terrified of the change partaking in human life by breaking their programming will wrought.
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