George Saunders is one of the masters of the difficult art of the short story. In his latest collection, Tenth of December, wounded characters confront situations that range from slightly skewed to downright Orwellian.
In “Victory Lap,” a teenaged boy prevents a catastrophe by breaking all the rules his smothering, control-freak parents have laid down for him. In “Escape From Spiderhead,” prisoners are subjected to high-tech Milgramesque experiments where their emotions are manipulated, effortlessly, by intravenous drugs. The point of the exercise is uncertain to the prisoners, the experimenters and the reader, and the story is so matter of fact in its depiction of horror that the reader almost wishes she’d never read it. This is not the last story in which impossible but cleverly named psychotropic drugs will mess with the insides of people’s heads.
Saunders is a brilliant observer of weirdness—and a fierce believer in human connections.
Most of the stories are narrated by men, or have men as their protagonists. The boys are outsiders, either too fat or too nerdy, and many of the men have soul-crushing and even bizarre jobs. In “Exhortation,” a director urges his staff to keep up their “positive energy” for some task that has a whiff of both uselessness and nefariousness about it, lest their shady overlords grow extremely displeased.
At last, the reader comes to the title story. It’s about an unpopular schoolboy, a dying man and a frozen lake. A masterpiece that reveals the power of stubborn love and redemption, it seems, in a strange way, to make the suffering in the other stories worthwhile. In Tenth of December, Saunders proves that he’s both a brilliant observer of weirdness and a fierce believer in the connections that keep people going.