Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

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When I think of George Saunders? Tenth of December the first word that comes to mind is ?inventive.? While this is certainly a nice thing to say about a book it doesn?t exactly make for an interesting book review. Critics love to toss this word around, often using it as a synonym for ?original,? but both are fluff words with regards to literature. All literature is original; writing is an act of invention. Heck, the very definition of a novel is to be new.

Still, you can?t blame a critic for wanting to use this word. If you agree that some books are more inventive ? or perhaps less obviously derivative ? than others, then you can appreciate the desire to award an author for such an accomplishment. What?s usually missing in these appraisals, though, is any discussion of what makes the book more inventive than its peers. In my view, these laudatory reviews actually do very little for the book or their readers? understanding.

I therefore have two goals in writing this review. The first is to go beyond congratulating a text for being inventive and actually discuss what makes it so. The second is to demonstrate that such inventiveness is not merely impressive in Tenth of December, but that it?s the key to the text?s success.

Tenth of December is a collection of short stories, which makes finding textual evidence a bit tricky. I?ve chosen to go deep rather than broad. I?ll pull examples from only two of the book?s ten stories, stories I?ve selected because they require less contextualization than the others.

The first story I?d like to discuss, ?Victory Lap,? is also the first to appear in the text. ?Victory Lap? is about two teenagers, Alison and Kyle, and what happens when a stranger tries to abduct and rape Alison. Reading the story?s opening, the first thing we notice is the unique narrative style:

Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Ooops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.

There?s a lot going on here. We?re in Alison?s head but Alison isn?t the one narrating. The narrator is instead someone else who magically understands what Alison is thinking. This perspective is generally referred to as third-person close or third-person omniscient. In this story, the perspective provides a window into Alison?s thought process in much the same manner that a first-person narrative would. The key distinction between the two perspectives is that in the first-person, Alison would get to choose what she shares with us. In the third-person, she has no control over what gets shared with the reader. Notably, the narrator in this story rarely intervenes to provide context. The story takes the shape of whatever Alison or one of the other characters happens to be thinking at the time. As a reader it?s easy to get sink into a character?s mind, which is exactly the point.

As we become more comfortable with this initially jarring narrative style, we begin to appreciate Alison?s peculiar thought process. For example, we realize that curly braces are her way of signifying expressions. She refers to her imaginary prince as ?{special one},? and she also uses ?{eyebrows up}? ? not to be confused with ?{eyebrow raise}? ? and ?{kiss}.? I found the curly braces endearing but mysterious. Why does the text represent these mental expressions with curly braces instead of, say, quotes or italics?

The narrative style yields other clues to help us understand Alison. Her vocabulary is particularly revealing. Sometimes it tells us about Alison?s life. For instance, she occasionally sprinkles French phrases such as ?Pas de chat, pas de chat? and ?Jet, jet, rond de jambe? into her inner monologue. These phrases refer to various ballet movements, and so we come to learn that Alison takes ballet classes. Furthermore she is mentally rehearsing them because she has a recital soon.

Sometimes her vocabulary underscores her transition into adulthood. She uses words like ?Egads,? ?thingie,? and ?Pooh footie,? but she also uses several advanced words that she appears to have borrowed from her parents. She mentions a ?chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelopes.? Occasionally she messes up the usage or spelling of these words, as she does with ?castigated? in this sentence: ?We do not wish to be castrigated [sic] by Ms. Callow again in the wings.? Alison even goes beyond borrowing words and sometimes takes whole phases or sentences, though she doesn?t always grasp their meanings:

Actually, she loved her whole town. [?] It had once been a mill town. Wasn?t that crazy? What did that even mean?

Through the transparency of the narrative style, we step into Alison?s world. We find her to be an imaginative girl who?s beginning to grow up. We learn that she didn?t like kissing Matt Drey ? it ?had been like kissing an underpass? ? and that she?s still waiting for her prince, her ?{special one}.? We especially learn how she feels about her parents. She adores them ? ?Mom was awesome, Dad was awesome? ? and hangs on their every word. When Alison?s thoughts are so clearly laid out for us, we cannot help but get to know her.

When the perspective switches to Alison?s next-door neighbor Kyle we begin to learn about him in the same manner. He has his own particular way of thinking just like Alison does but he?s a totally different person. One of the first things we discover about him is how much he resents his parents. Alison pities him for how strictly they treat him; they ?[don?t] let him do squat,? according to her. We come to understand what she means when Kyle gets home from cross-country practice. The first thing he sees is a Work Notice from his dad. Work Notices, which convey his chores, are some of the many ?directives? that govern his life. Kyle is so afraid of upsetting his dad that he hears his voice in his head whenever he does something wrong:

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten. Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although, problem: if he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he?d leave an incriminating new trail of microclods.

Kyle?s father does not merely rule his son?s behavior but the voice inside his head, too. Kyle is home alone just like Alison but cannot stop thinking about disappointing his father. One example of this is the fact that Kyle doesn?t allow himself to swear, not even in his head:

Mom and Dad coming home to find him Tarzaning around like some sort of white trasher would not be the least fucking bit ?

Swearing in your head? Dad said in his head. Step up, Scout, be a man. If you want to swear, swear aloud.

I don?t want to swear aloud.

Then don?t swear in your head.

The point of view reveals how Kyle feels toward his parents and the extent to which their voices ? especially his dad?s ? play in his head. Like Alison, he clearly borrows words from his parents, words like ?mister,? ?verboten,? ?Berber,? and ?detriment.? And like Alison?s, Kyle?s inner monologue has its quirks. While Alison enjoys fantasizing about her perfect prince, Kyle likes playing games in his head:

He took off his shoes and stood mentally rehearsing a little show he liked to call WHAT IF ? RIGHT NOW?

WHAT IF they came home RIGHT NOW?

It?s a funny story, Dad! I came in thoughtlessly! Then realized what I?d done! I guess, when I think about it, what I?m happy about? Is how quickly I self-corrected! The reason I came in so thoughtlessly was, I wanted to get right to work Dad, per your note!

By employing this close narrative voice, the text grants both Kyle and Alison a depth of character that is remarkable considering how briefly we hear from them. Perhaps more remarkable is the depth it grants to the third character in the story, the aforementioned stranger who turns up at Alison?s door.

Viewed from Kyle?s perspective, the stranger is a generic bad guy. He pulls up in a gray van and wears a meter reader?s vest as a disguise. The stranger rings Alison?s doorbell and when she opens the door, he grabs her. Kyle sees that something is amiss and wanders out onto his deck to get a better look. The stranger notices and intimidates Kyle in a scene straight out of a movie:

The guy cleared his throat, turned slightly to let Kyle see something.

A knife.

The meter reader had a knife.

Here?s what you?re doing, the guy said. Standing right there until we leave. Move a muscle, I knife her in the heart. Swear to God. Got it?

None of this feels authentic or original. We can imagine any movie baddie saying these cheesy lines. But when the perspective switches to the stranger, he becomes a rounder and more believable character.

The primary hurdle in understanding the stranger is the question of how he could bring himself to rape a fourteen-year-old girl. When the perspective switches, we learn that for him it?s a matter of looking at things historically:

When you studied history, the history of culture, you saw your own individual time as hidebound. There were various theories of acquiescence. In Bible days a king might ride through a field and go: That one. And she would be brought unto him. And they would duly be betrothed and if she gave birth unto a son, super, bring out the streamers, she was a keeper. Was she, that first night, digging it? Probably not. Was she shaking like a leaf? Didn?t matter. What mattered was offspring and the furtherance of the lineage. Plus the exaltation of the king, which resulted in righteous kingly power.

At this point it?s unclear whether he actually believes this or has merely adapted this mindset to justify his actions. Regardless, this train of thought reveals him to be surprisingly logical. This is further demonstrated by the thoroughness with which he has planned Alison?s kidnapping. When walking her over to his van, he considers which ?bullet points [remain] in the decision matrix.? Upon making a mistake, he realizes he ?[s]hould have double-checked the pre-mission matrix.? The stranger is far more rational than we might have expected a rapist to be. We gain this understanding not through the stranger?s actions but through his thoughts, and we only have access to his thoughts because of the point of view.

To this end, the primary way we come to understand his psyche, as is the case with Alison and Kyle, is through the way he thinks about his parents. We get a strong sense of how badly they treated him when he realizes he forgot to unlock the van door:

Fucksake. Side door of the van was locked. How undisciplined was that. Ensuring that the door was unlocked was clearly indicated on the pre-mission matrix. Melvin appeared in his mind. On Melvin?s face was the look of hot disappointment that had always preceded an ass whooping, which had always preceded the other thing. Put up your hands, Melvin said, defend yourself.

It doesn?t matter that Melvin ? either the stranger?s father or step-father ? has been dead for fifteen years. The stranger is still haunted by him. It?s clear that Melvin?s abuse is the real reason for the stranger?s behavior, despite his musings on ?righteous kingly power.? The stranger rapes girls because it gives him the power that he never had growing up, especially not when Melvin did ?the other thing? to him.

At this point in the story we have heard from each character once, and each character has generally felt in control: Alison prepping for her recital, Kyle starting his chores, and the stranger leading Alison to his van. In this time of relative calm we?ve seen how large a role their parents play in their minds. We then hear from each character once more, but this time they are in crisis.

Kyle is supposed to be placing a precious geode in his yard per the Work Notice, but when he sees the stranger punch Alison he leaps into action. In a David vs. Goliath moment, he grabs the geode and launches it at the stranger?s head. The stranger?s head ?visually indent[s]? and spews blood. Kyle?s reaction? ?Yes! Score! It was fun! Fun dominating a grown-up!? Of course, he cannot escape the voices of his parents. ?Easy, Scout, you?re out of control,? says his father. ?Slow your motor down, Beloved Only,? says his mom. ?Quiet. I?m the boss of me,? says Kyle.

Meanwhile, as the stranger lies on the ground covered in his own blood and vomit, he cannot help but hear a familiar voice:

Figures you?d blow the simplest thing, Melvin said.

Melvin, God, can?t you see my head is bleeding so bad?

A kid did it to you. You?re a joke. You got fucked by a kid.

The story concludes in Alison?s perspective. Alison runs inside when Kyle attacks her would-be captor and when she looks back she sees Kyle standing over him holding the geode. Alison will be plagued by ?nightmares in which Kyle [brings] the rock down? on the stranger?s head. The only refuge from these nightmares will be the voices of her parents:

A bad thing happened to you kids, Dad said. But it could have been much worse.

So much worse, Mom said.

But because of you kids, Dad said, it wasn?t.

You did so good, Mom said.

Did beautiful, Dad said.

Parents fill various roles in ?Victory Lap.? For Alison, they?re an endless supply of comfort and love. For Kyle, they?re controlling to the point of suffocation. For the stranger, they?re a source of trauma. For all three, the voice of a parent is one that won?t go away, for better or worse.

Perhaps this is the lesson of ?Victory Lap?: that we will forever hear our parents? voices. However we choose to interpret this story, one thing is clear. Access to these characters? honest inner voices ? at times painful or embarrassing ? is made possible through the distinctive narrative style. Saunders has developed this point of view into something of a tool, one that lets us hear the characters? thoughts in their purest form while simultaneously giving the third-person narrator a voice, too. This masterful combination of introspection and storytelling is the invention that makes ?Victory Lap? work.

?

Several stories in Tenth of December take place in a dystopian future where everyone is over-medicated. As you might expect, these stories are very dark. How dark, you ask? Well, arguably the lightest among them begins with a rape:

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That guy is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

This story is called ?My Chivalric Fiasco.? Ted, our narrator, works with Martha at a medieval theme park. Martha has just been raped by their boss, Don, and the next morning Don bribes them both to keep quiet about his and Martha?s ?fling? by giving them promotions. Martha will leave her post in Scullery and become a Floating Thespian. Ted, who has ?been in Janitorial for six years,? will move up to Pacing Guard, his first Medicated Role. In the park, actors take various medications to help them with their roles. As Pacing Guard, Ted will take ?a hundred milligrams of KnightLyfe? every morning ?[t]o help with the Improv.?

The next morning, Ted takes the pill and waits for guests to fill the Fun Spot where he and his colleagues will perform. Soon the guests arrive and the show begins, but the KnightLyfe hasn?t yet kicked in and Ted?s acting is therefore lackluster:

The Messenger (a.k.a. Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which was: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighted down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Ted messes up his trivial lines and fails to get into character. Fortunately, moments later he starts feeling the effects of KnightLyfe, which does much more than ?help with the improv.? It completely changes how Ted thinks, speaks, and remembers:

I felt it was real nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us live. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge.

Evolved language skills and false memories are only the beginning. As the drug reaches maximum potency, Ted inherits both the high moral ground and the courage of a knight. This proves to be a dangerous combination.

Ted catches sight of Martha ? ?Glimps[es] Martha?s Visage,? in his words ? and becomes ?somewhat Melancholy? when he remembers what Don did to her. This arouses a fierce conflict within him. On the one hand, he cannot bear to let Don get away with his ignoble act and therefore feels compelled to shame Don publicly. On the other hand he knows he cannot afford to make a scene at work. Not only would it destroy Martha, but it would put his own family at risk. Ted is the only one in his family with a job, so it?s up to him to ?fill Mom?s prescriptions for pain and Beth?s prescription for shyness and Dad?s prescription for pain.? His family needs him, so the responsible thing to do is to keep his mouth shut.

?Yet,? as Ted explains, ?the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam?d.? Unable to tame his heart, Ted

[strides] forth into the very Center of that Room and [sends] forth, to the many Guests gathered there, a right Honest Proclamation, in Earnest, & Aloud, to wit:

? That Don Murray had taken Foul Advantage of Martha, placing, against her Will, his Rod into her Womanhood on TorchLightNight;

? Further: that this foul Wretch had Procured Martha?s silence by Various Bribes, including her current Job of Worke;

? Further: that he had similarly attempted to Purchase my Silence; but that I would be SILENT NO MORE, for was a man withal, if nothing ELSE, and would SERVE Righteousness, Regarding NOT the Cost.

Ted?s outburst does not sit well with management. He is ?Wrested from that Place? and ?Fired & sore Disgraced.? As Ted walks dejectedly home, he experiences what must be one of the worst hangovers imaginable as the KnightLyfe wears off:

Oh, man.

What a shit day.

Taking a Shortcut through the high-school practice Field, where the tackling Dummies, in silhouette, like men who knew the value of holding their Tongues, seemed to Mock at me, I attempted to Comfort myself, saying I had done Right, and served Truth, and shewn good Courage. But ?twas no Comfort in it. It was so weird. Why had I even done That?

Gone are his fanciful memories, his valor, and his elevated manner of speaking. His diction becomes ordinary and he stops capitalizing everything. His is himself again, only worse. ?What a clusterfuck,? he says. The story ends with Ted wandering around town, savoring the final bits of KnightLyfe and dreading the return to reality.

The inventive aspect of ?My Chivalric Fiasco? is, as before, the narrative style. This time the story is told in the first person. We don?t hear Ted?s thoughts from an omniscient third party. Instead we hear Ted tell the story of his ?shit Day? and learn what it was like to be on KnightLyfe. In ?Victory Lap? the perspective is almost totally transparent to provide a clear view into the characters? thoughts. In ?My Chivalric Fiasco,? the perspective helps us understand what Ted was going through at the time while giving him the opportunity to comment on his experience. We learn how Ted reacts and how he reflects. In other words, we meet him in both the present tense and the past.

This begs the question: How can a text portray a character in two tenses at once? At no point in the story does the tense or the perspective switch. Yet the past-tense narration somehow makes us feel as though we?re in the moment right beside Ted.

The trick is in the way Ted describes his time on KnightLyfe. Rather than telling us how he felt, he manipulates his language to simulate the crazy things that were going on inside his head. His plain authorial voice becomes Noble and Lofty in the scenes when he was feeling the drug?s effects.

The narration is incongruous in the sense that it retroactively depicts Ted?s thoughts and feelings instead of allowing him to convey them in the present tense. Perhaps Ted exaggerates or formalizes how he felt. Perhaps we would have gotten a more accurate rendering of Ted?s emotions if we?d heard the story from him in realtime instead of as a clever after-the-fact portrayal. But the text seems to insist that a present-tense telling of the story would miss a significant point: that one of the most interesting things about Ted is not that he went through this episode, but that he chooses to relay it in this whimsical manner.

Then again, maybe not. It?s possible that we?re not meant to take Ted?s narration literally. Perhaps there isn?t any real concept of Ted as a narrator, and the only narrator is an anonymous impersonator. The question therefore becomes, Are we to take Ted for a dramatic storyteller or as the inspiration for someone else?s story?

It?s fun to think about what the text is trying to do, but this is a riddle we cannot solve. We?re probably better off considering the output of this narrative device instead of how it was designed to function. And the output is this: We get to know Ted via his reflective narration and his realtime experience with KnightLyfe. Here we have another clear example of inventiveness ? the text?s ability to employ different tenses as media through which we can understand its characters.

?

It?s easy to come away with the sense that George Saunders is inventing new methods of storytelling. It?s harder to pin down why. What purpose do these inventions serve?

Some authors write inventive books out of a desire to experiment. Those books fall into the category of ?avant-garde? literature, a French term that roughly translates to ?ahead of the pack.? This type of experimentalism was at the heart of the postmodernist movement, the primary motor of Western literary progress in the 20th century.

I would argue that Tenth of December does not belong to that category because invention is not its main focus. The foundational goal of Tenth of December is to build empathy for its characters. Invention is the how. How can we climb inside the mind of a girl whose charmed life changes forever when a stranger knocks on her door; of a kid who?s afraid to stain the carpet one moment but bludgeons a rapist the next; of a man whose horrific childhood we can only imagine? How can we comprehend what it?s like to be on a fictional drug that makes you feel like a knight in shining armor one moment and a fraud the next? The other stories feature characters with their own issues: poverty, PTSD, cancer, suicide. Creating empathy for characters with bleak outlooks and seemingly unredemptive personalities is a real challenge. Tenth of December answers with inventive new storytelling techniques that may initially leave us scratching us our heads. But if we?re patient, we may come to find that these stories couldn?t be told any other way.

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