George Saunders has been getting some pretty serious (or at least seriously public) cred for his latest short story collection, Tenth of December. For the past few weeks he’s sat comfortably in the top five of the NYTimes bestseller list. A few weeks ago he read on Studio 360. You may even have seen him bumbling through an interview/berating on the Colbert Report. This attention may seem surprising for a semi-Avant Guard and generally subversive author writing in a genre (short stories) that is typically thought of as a little niche.
But the stories in Saunders’ book seem built for the spotlight. This may be because of how emphatically of-the-moment they all are. Saunders is one of several writers today interested in writing that reflects the quirks and usually abasements of current American English. His paragraphs are peppered with “likes,” “ha-ha’s,” and the clumsy but familiar syntax of the information age.
I say information age expecting and probably deserving some eye rolls, but I think it’s a good way to contextualize Saunders’ unique style. Take the opening lines from “Exhortation:” “I would not like to characterize this as a plea, although it may start to sound like one (!). The fact is, we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it (did you cash your last paycheck, I know you did, ha ha ha).” Observe the layers of linguistic influence – the parenthetical exclamation point typical of text messages, the passive aggressive, Ted Talkish “we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it,” and the spelled out laughter that appears in pretty much every form of electronic communication. The result is an embedded self-commentary running along side the actual content of the sentences. For every statement made, there is an undercurrent of insecurity. This story is a faux-memo sent to unmotivated employees (two classic Saunders moves, by the way, the faux-form and the workplace), so a certain degree of colloquialism can be expected in the voice, but even in his third person stories, Saunders uses this same tone of painful self-awareness – self-awareness that you might could attribute to the dramatic increase in self-awareness and just awareness in general brought on by constant connection to web-culture.
This prose style (especially familiar, probably, to David Foster Wallace fans) makes Saunders characters both exhausting and fragile, which fits these stories of men and women struggling to make sense of the flux around them. Portraying this flux, I think, is what Saunders does best. Each story takes place in familiar environments but always with one irreconcilable detail that seems to set the story in the not too distant future. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries” a father keeps a journal of his struggle to find a way to live up to his daughter’s birthday expectations that are quite extravagant thanks to the influence of her affluent peers. But instead of hiring an expensive clown, he has to rent a group of human decorations called Semplica Girls to hang in his yard. In “Home” a soldier returns to his broken family after fighting in a foreign war and is bewildered by the MiiVOXMAX, which appears to be some miniature data-storage device. And in all the stories, the characters' stream of conscious oscillate between actuality and cinematic fantasies that often lead them to disappoint act of failed-heroism (see "My Chirvalric Fiasco").
These details emphasize what might be Saunders’ main focus: the anxiety of time. His characters are constantly struggling to locate themselves in the narrative of history, but find the task daunting. Are their worries and struggles at all comparable to the worries and struggles of their parents? Or their parents’ parents? Will anything they teach their kids matter by the time they grow up? And, perhaps the question at the center of it all, is there anything at all constant about the human experience? The answers to these questions seem especially elusive these days with constant and frightening change. Saunders is not presumptuous enough to offer answers, but Tenth of December gives a chance to recognize in the voice and environment of the modern world something that is inspiring and commonly human, at least for now.