Five years ago, George Saunders released his fourth book of short stories, Tenth of December, to wide acclaim. Lauded as a master of the short story form since his first story collection in 1996, Saunders joined a group of white, earnest (but ambitious), post-post-modern American writers who came of age with Generation X: Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon. Saunders, more than his contemporaries, publishes in carefully measured bursts of stories. He is consistent, prolific, and widely read. He has a particular talent for voice and seems to be entirely self-aware when it comes to his limits and repeating themes. Tenth of December has stories written while Saunders was a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow, was a finalist for the National Book Award finalist, and was a winner of the 2013 Story Prize. Based on contemporary reviews, Tenth of December appears to be the work of a writer giving everything he’s got, ascendant and at the top of his confidence, but a deeper critique reveals it as a work that lacks confidence, a series of well-executed moves with mixed results.
Saunders is a really good writer in a couple of ways. He constructs his stories really well. He plants details that later become important. And he is a master of free indirect discourse. By the time he gets to Tenth of December, his own style is well established, and he knows what to do and how to get where he wants to go. He can put the entire weight of a story on one person’s (or a couple people’s) point of view without losing any expository information.
However, Saunders is a writer who plays to his strengths: he can, at his best, fully inhabit a character’s voice, but this is also his weakness as he often relies on voice as a crutch to compensate for weaker narratives. He is a writer of good intentions with real optimism and hope for his writing and characters, but this feeling is often expressed in twee, syrupy emotions. At his best, Saunders controls his tempo, narrative, and, of course, voice with great skill, but at his worst he can feel hackneyed, overwrought and sentimental. The stories in Tenth of December often rely on simple diptych contrasts reminiscent of mid-career Melville stories like “The Two Temples,” and create a mood that can feel old-fashioned at times, wide-eyed and emotional, even as the settings can be thoroughly modern or dystopian.
The easy, contrasting effect of the diptych can be addicting. For a writer who feels stuck or uninspired, like Melville when his chanteys ran dry, they provide a quick fix, a surface appearance of having performed some great trick of writing. Saunders based all of Tenth of December on this one move. The cover features a contrasting, yin and yang-like set of black and white text, alluding both to the Saunders unsubtle literary jumping-off point and his Richard Gere-like intoxication with Eastern philosophy. Continue reading “Review: TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders”