Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

Reviewed by Carmen Petaccio
George Saunders's Tenth of December

Today’s assignation: read George Saunders’s Tenth of December, make critical heads-or-tails of it. How best to approach? Maybe start with the cover, that’d be sound/logical. Actually, that’d be excellent. Just think, at end of review, cover intro could potentially be harkened (harked?) back to by evocation of arriving at last page, closing book, reflecting on rejigged perception of experience in wake of, etc., etc. Could write, “Upon closing book, reflecting, one is whelmed with sense that Saunders, more than any other living fiction writer, presets his narrative and stylistic beats to fall in lockstep with those of one’s own heart.” Because, after reading Tenth of December, that’s how one feels, and this strain of feeling is wondrous, and one should strive to share feelings re wondrous feelings with as many people as possible, so they too can feel!

Already forgot to describe cover.

Plus, look at that cover. Woof. Cover definitively not most opportune starting place. Reviewer to reconvene.

Okay, reconvened. Will open with the first story, “Victory Lap.” Will write one of those summation reviews that aren’t actually reviews. Much easier. Less thinking involved=easier. Not too easy, but easier. Can begin micro, end macro, with magniloquent evaluation of Saunders’s whole oeuvre, to sound smart, to provide review circularity, downplay easiness. I can even organize it as a list (!), which I’ll present as a demonstration of deference to the reader, but will in actuality be a result of my laziness, ha, ha, ha.

“Victory Lap”: An interweaving of three consciousnesses involved in a teenage girl’s abduction, complete with black hawk parenting and ballet pirouettes. Stupendous.

“Sticks”: A direly short encompassment of one man’s life, or every man’s life; honed, affecting, like a pinch whose sting stings for days. Astonishing.

“Puppy”: A widening of class divisions coincides with a shrinking of psychological divisions. Rending, heart ends up cowered in corner of reading area pleading for mercy, mercy, and — not working.

Nix the summation strategy. Summation strategy doesn’t effectively convey value of literature, is doing disservice. Need to better get across that every line in this collection is acting in service of collection, story, paragraph, sentence. How to impart this phenomena? Reconvening…got it.

I’ll turn review into one of those FaveQuote reviews, where a reviewer simply regurgitates out-of-context sentences from the book, of course!

How about: “It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.” —”Escape from Spiderhead”

Or: “…I will show you pictures of that incredible whale my sons and I lifted with our good positive energy.” —”Exhortation”

Or, or: “Mom in Heaven tapped her foot.” —”Al Roosten”

Or, or, or: “Dougie gazed over the berm, giddy in his tube socks.” —Which Isn’t From Any Story, I Made It Up, Because Who Would Be Able to Tell, When Someone Reviews A Book By Quoting Random Sentences From a Book, Basically Reducing The Writing to Non-Sequiturs?

Abandoning FaveQuote strat, transitioning to pseudo-contrarian POV. Basic premise of pseudo-contra POV: “Oh, you like? I like not so much.” Potent method for reviewer to exchange genuine criticism/reaction for cheap memorability, e.g. establishing oneself as the one person who wrote a negative review for George Saunders’s Tenth of December. Take the 70-page “Semplica Girl Diaries,” for instance. I, donning the contrarian hat, could say, “Over a twelve-year period, Saunders supposedly produced over one hundred drafts of the overlong, facilely sentimental story, and we are none the better for it.” I could lump “Home” and “My Chivalric Fiasco” together, deride them as “rehashes of Saunders staples: the luckless blue-collared, moral compasses with many norths, theme parks too soul-crushing to warrant mascots.”

But that’d be disingenuous. Not fair to man who wrote, “She is sweetest kid. Biggest heart. Once, when little, found dead bird in yard and placed on swingset slide, so it could ‘see him fambly,’” and, “The difference was: the dying were the ones doing the mad fear gesticulating,” and, “One last bit of Pill got digested by me, seemed like. Producing one last brief but powerful surge of Return. To that former Self. Who, Elevated & Confident to a fault, had so led me astray.” No reduction can reduce lines like that to non-sequiturs.


Start again.

Start with Saunders, end with Saunders. Drop the pastiche, shtick, irony; say clearly what is felt.

George Saunders is the best short story writer in American fiction today. He is a writer who surprises relentlessly, relents surprisingly, ensures you feel, think, feel, in that order, for two hundred fifty pages, over and over. What he accomplishes with his stories is miraculous: the happiness it inspires affords no other happiness room, it lifts incredible whales, it silences the tapping feet of dead mothers in heaven. Tenth of December is his second best collection of short stories, and when I first wrote this sentence it was his third best, and as I near this sentence’s end I’m considering if it’s his best best. Regardless, it will likely be the best book you read this year, and the reasons for this distinction exist in numbers that will literally make you not know where to begin.

There is no greater evidence for this claim than the titular story, a through and through masterstroke, worth the book’s $26 price tag alone. (Saunders tends to name his collection after the most successful story bound within, this is no exception.) It splices together two friable male minds, one an awkward young boy’s, one a suicidal old man’s. Their thought processes are striking similarly, as are their plights. Both find themselves suddenly in the cold, and, by unexpected means, drawn out of it. It’s what George Saunders has done his entire career. He drags his readers out of the frigid everyday into the comfortable warmth of his mind, and he does so while reminding us that the cold is not escapable, that a portion (a tenth, perhaps) remains with us, that the remainder is out there, waiting.

Start with Saunders, go from there.

Carmen Petaccio is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. He’s from New Jersey.

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