book review: Tenth of December

Paul Ford got it about right on George Saunders, I think: his gift is his ability to inspire empathy. He is sardonic and funny, and this somehow gives him license to pursue huge emotional honesty without readers dismissing the proceedings as maudlin.

This collection is very good. “Victory Lap,” the opening story, is astounding and scary and nearly overwhelming — I took it to be about the line between righteousness and self-righteousness. “Sticks” is brief, great and brutal. “Escape from Spiderhead” might be the closest to the Saunders I met in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, writing characters that shrug through corporate dystopia on their way to pathos and transcendence (here, the point seems to be about the arbitrary nature of romantic love compared to the universality of compassion, which I’m not sure I buy but was certainly moving). “Home” is lovely, and the story that titles the collection is both affecting and pretty technically dazzling.

That same technical brilliance might be the collection’s weakness, though. It’s a strange thing we do to literary authors these days, holing them up at the head of MFA programs, where they can subject their own work to endless forensic analysis. I suppose it’s one way to keep them fed, so, you know, fine. But, having read a messy, confused and deeply resonant Dick novel shortly before this book, I’m not sure how happy I am to have writers paring themselves down toward some literary tao. It occasionally manifests as a problem here, most notably in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” which seems to be purely a technical exercise. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the longest story, pairs that tendency with the bad decision to revolve around a dream that Saunders had and found haunting (there’s a lot of nice and funny stuff in it about fatherhood, but it lacks Saunders’ typically satisfying conclusions).

So I don’t know. These stories are great, and I would recommend this collection highly. But if you’re looking for a place to start I’d probably suggest CivilWarLand In Bad Decline first (that being the only other thing of his I’ve read — Pastoralia is on the shelf, waiting…).

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