Quite simply, this is the greatest collection of fucked-up short stories I’ve read since Will Self’s Grey Area. The latter is a book of way-out plots presented in a relatively straightforward manner (plus, the language is beautiful and almost conventional – by Self’s standards). By contrast, Tenth Of December is made up of way-out plots weirded out even further by broken, bizarre presentation. In fact, your appreciation of these stories will very much depend on your acceptance of George Saunders’ style. Which comes off as deliberately careless and unintentionally clever.
My reaction after reading each one of these stories was more or less the same: well, this is weird – but it’s really good, too. The book contains freak diaries, interior monologues, multiple narrators speaking in tongues (I may be exaggerating here); you won’t be just enjoying these stories, the enjoyment can hardly be guaranteed, you will also have to make sure you know what is actually going on. It can be argued that the whole point and appeal of a story like “Exhortation” is that the reader has to find out/guess the job of the narrator. It’s not a tiresome post-modernist puzzle, but it’s certainly a great example of art that is well-crafted and understated.
When you get inside the world created here (and it is a world, Saunders’ style beautifully ties together all these ten stories into an odd little universe of mostly amiable freaks and losers), you will see that it’s really quite simple. Take David Lynch’s Eraserhead as an example. Behind the grotesque make-up and the disturbing visuals, you actually get a very familiar portrait of young family life. Much here is just as recognizable: a soldier coming home from war, an employee seeing his boss having sex with another employee, a small guy burnt by jealousy and his own smallness. It’s never too simple, however, and there’s no shortage of the author’s wild imagination messing with your head. “Escape From Spiderland”, a futuristic tale of sex/love experiments, is particularly good in that respect.
Also, barring some eccentrics (see “Sticks”, which is a perfect one-page story), there are lots of seemingly straightforward characters here. But only seemingly so, ‘seemingly’ the result of odd circumstances and their often unexpected heroic (or ‘heroic’) actions. See “My Chivalric Fiasco”, see “Victory Lap” (my favourite), see the aforementioned “Escape From Spiderland”.
Perhaps the best thing about Tenth Of December is that these are all memorable stories, which is probably the combination of 'huh?' moments (how about the weird, harrowing perversion in “Puppy”?), George Saunders’ great sense of humour and, obviously, the style. I’d very much recommend staying with that style, trying to immerse yourself into that deceptively perfunctory, elliptical English. It’s not perfect (this sort of writing is bound to lose you on occasion), and I’d say the collection is a little front-loaded, but as far as truly great literary experiences go, believe me – this is the real deal.