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.
It’s a story structure that repeats itself throughout the book: you get to know one character, but when the story gets flipped around to a different character in that same scene, everything is portrayed in a completely different light. That was the case for two of my favorite stories in the collection. In “Puppy,” a poor woman is trying to sell a puppy to a wealthy woman. What each of them sees in this situation is completely different (and jarring to the reader); the story is also one of many to illustrate the marked difference in socioeconomic status, a recurring theme in the book. In the title story (my favorite), the point of view shifts between a lonely young boy playing out in the snowy woods and a suicidal old man with terminal cancer. Both stories, like many others in the collection, are at turns humorous and achingly sad.
Another favorite of mine, “Escape from Spiderhead,” had more of a science fiction feel. As part of an experiment, prisoners are given varying doses of different drugs such as Vivistif™ (think SuperViagra), Verbulace™ (which makes people more verbose), and Darkenfloxx™ (which brings on soul-crushing depression and despair). I loved the story because of the way it showcased Saunders’s creativity and playfulness with language:
He added some Verbulace™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become as sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
I sat, pleasantly engaged in these thoughts, until the Verbulace™ began to wane. At which point the garden just looked nice again. It was something about the bushes and whatnot? It made you just want to lay out there and catch rays and think your happy thoughts. If you get what I mean.
Unfortunately, there’s one story I will admit went completely over my head, and it’s one of the ones everyone talks about: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which takes keeping up with the Joneses to a new level (I won’t say what because of spoilers, but the information is out there). I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying close attention, or if I just wasn’t in the right mood to be reading it, but somehow, said spoiler completely escaped my notice. I just wasn’t feelin’ the story.
Even though the collection didn’t completely work for me, there’s no denying that Saunders is an incredible writer. I’m not sure I agree with all the lavish praise bestowed upon the book, but the guy knows his stuff.
Tenth of December was published in January 2013 by Random House.