Briefly Noted: Tenth of December — George Saunders

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” inspired me to read Tenth of December, but as often happens the headlines deceive. In the last twelve months I’ve read phenomenal books like The Great Man and The Black Swan. I’ve also read Tenth of December, which isn’t exactly bad; I felt like a Good Person for having read it.

Yet feeling like a Good Person isn’t the same as saying a book is fun or great (which are not always the same thing). Some stories in Tenth of December are funny; “Exhortation” in particular made me laugh, written as a deranged memo from the “Divisional Director” to the “Staff” and saying things like

We all know very well that that ‘shelf’ is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck…

Saunders does corporate euphemism frequently (“given the current climate”) and often well. He also does sad, as in this diary extract:

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, adventure, etc., etc.) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

There’s a Raymond Carver feel* (the dropped “youthful dreams of travel,” the unforeseen children, the sense of potential squandered in the detailed “unfashionable glasses”) mixed with Modernism’s dropped words. Yet it’s hard for me to get excited about passages like this one, which I feel like I’ve read before; too many stories leave me saying, “So what?”, even though there are some extravagantly wonderful passages:

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.

Yet these sections are too rare for me and the random detritus of fiction too frequent. Too often I found myself thinking, “So what?” There is admirable weirdness in some stories but less so perhaps than Ian McEwan’s early short stories. I read people saying things about how Saunders has the pulse of America or writes about an America others don’t or whatever, but I’m not sure that his work reflects America so much as it does an imagined reflection of America common in many journalistic and academic minds.

In addition, literary fiction habitually condescends to jobs, workplaces, and businesses. Sometimes that condescension is justified but more often it feels like misunderstanding intensified by the expert use of language. Saunders treads the lines where satire, condescension, and realism meet. There are interesting literary novels set in workplaces that have yet to be written—something like Last Night at the Lobster, a novel that I think will stay with me long after Tenth of December has faded.

More Carvarian, reproduction-related unhappiness, from another story: “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.” From this and countless similar renditions of the same perhaps we should assume that maintaining equanimity in the face of children should be an explicit goal.

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