It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the fiction category. It made the final cut for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. It’s basically on like…every Best Of list out right now. And even before all that? There was the nonstop buzz around the book when it was published. And I bit. I borrowed Tenth of December from the library a couple of times, but it went back unread each time. So finally, at the end of the year, I was determined to get this thing squared away.
This was my first encounter with George Saunders (and I’m the kind of person who picks up random books without fully examining — or even reading — the summary). I had no idea what I was getting into.
Talk about a What the hell am I reading? moment.
There’s some David Foster Wallace-type strangeness going on in this book. And much like my reaction to DFW, some of the writing in Tenth of December blew me away while other parts just didn’t work quite work out for me. The stories are dark and weird but also optimistic and hopeful; it’s a difficult mix to pull off, but Saunders (mostly) does it.
I think the thing I admired the most about his work was the shocking effect he leaves you with when he switches narrators. You’re exposed to this immediately with the first story, “Victory Lap;” the two young narrators, each with their own distinct voice, have fanciful inner lives that probably make their daily reality much more entertaining. Then something happens that introduces some actual drama into their lives.
This one goes out to all you perverts out there. (The rest of you: just keep on giving me that side-eye.)
This week’s Nonfiction November topic is to match a nonfiction book with a fiction recommendation. I finished up Jesse Bering’s Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over periodically ever since. The premise is pretty straightforward: we’re all “perverts” in one way or another, so (to an extent) we should all be less judgmental and more sympathetic to other people’s deviant desires.
Bering starts with himself as an example. As a gay man, he grew up hearing that people like himself were perverts (among other pejorative things); these days, society as a whole tends to be more accepting towards LGBTQI-identified folks. We’re not quite there yet and there are still plenty of homophobes out there making life miserable for people, but there’s definitely been a cultural shift towards acceptance. The definition of “pervert” has changed somewhat.
And that’s because it’s completely subjective depending on society’s values at any given time. (The original “perverts:” atheists.) Bering dives into a fascinating cultural history of perversion and provides countless interesting/horrifying tidbits along the way. Case in point:
When we hear the phrase “female genital mutilation,” our thoughts usually sail over to Africa, but the practice of eliminating a woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure by removing the critical parts of her anatomy has a distinctively Western history, too. …One of the first uses of radiotherapy was the cauterization of teenage girls’ clitorises to discourage them from masturbating. These X-ray clitoridectomies weren’t happening in backwater clinics, either, but in some of the most fashionable cities in the world, including London and Manhattan. And this was just in the twentieth century.
First off: if you read Ernessa T. Carter’s smart and fabulous 32 Candles a couple of years ago, you’re gonna need to pick up this book ASAP. Because not only do a couple of 32 Candles characters make some appearances in Carter’s second novel, The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, but this book is even more awesome than 32 Candles was. And that’s saying something, because 32 Candles was pretty freakin’ awesome, AMIRITE?
Okay. Now that that’s settled…
Sharita, Thursday, Risa, and Tammy are single and all about to turn 30. Most of them have known each other since their days at Smith College, and even though they’re all completely different from one another in almost every way, they’re extremely close. Sharita is the level-headed one; she’s a boring accounted with her heart set on finding the perfect Black man to settle down with and start a family. Thursday is pretty and neurotic; she’s an aspiring comedienne who’s estranged from her famous father, a once-successful political hip-hop artist, and she can’t seem to settle down with anyone for more than a month. Risa is an in-your-face rocker who’s trying to make it in the LA music scene; she’s also a lesbian who’s been pining over a lost love for the better part of a decade. And Tammy Farrell — 32 Candles! — is now a model-gorgeous, chirpy, positive thinker who also pines for a lost love; she was badly hurt years ago by a now-famous actor and hasn’t managed to get back into the dating scene.
I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.
Ruth, a writer living on a lonely island in British Columbia, stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore; it probably found its way to the island in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Inside the lunchbox is a collection of artifacts: letters written in Japanese, a wristwatch, and a journal that’s been written inside a swapped out copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); Proust’s cover provides some camouflage for Nao’s innermost thoughts.
Ruth’s been experiencing writer’s block and finds it impossible to move forward on her memoir. She becomes obsessed with the diary, written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl named Nao. After her father lost his job in the United States, Nao’s family relocated back to Japan. The shame of losing his job and his subsequent inability to find work in Japan sends Nao’s father spiraling into depression, and he attempts suicide several times. It’s doubly hard on the thoroughly Americanized Nao, who is an outcast at school and is subject to extreme bullying. It isn’t long until she too is secretly suicidal.
Jacob Cerf is a Jew living in eighteenth-century Paris who peddles his wares on the streets for a living. His life is a disaster. He’s been duped into marrying a complete nightmare of a wife, and when the opportunity arises to escape his hellish existence, he’s forced to take it; it seems to be the lesser of two evils. What happened after that is still a bit hazy — he knows he died at some point — but when he wakes up, everything is moving so fast: it’s now the twenty-first century, and for whatever reason, he’s been reincarnated in Long Island…as a fly.
He may have started out as a devout Jew, but by the time Jacob died, he’d long since considered himself to be freed from the bonds of religion and gladly participated in all kinds of debauchery. Unlike most Jews in eighteenth-century Paris, Jacob had managed to achieve unthinkable success and acceptance in French society by the time of his death. Now that he’s been reincarnated, he still harbors a mean streak and a superiority complex. Enter Leslie Senzatimore, a kindhearted volunteer fire fighter, and Masha, a beautiful Orthodox Jew who is struggling with her faith. Jacob is convinced that he has the power to control her and Leslie. What follows is a twisted experiment in change, destiny, and free will.