"Tenth of December" by George Saunders Originally published in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I have been having a hard time with George Saunders lately. Where I once looked forward to his stories in The New Yorker, and have recommended his earlier story collections to others, I was a bit saddened when I saw his name in this week’s issue. I just haven’t enjoyed him this year. But I dug in — or, rather, I tried to. I started this story on Monday morning and felt like I was making steady progress, but it took me three days to actually finish it. I’m afraid I’ve just continued to drift away from one of my favorite short story writers, and I’m not sure it’s his fault because, in retrospect, this is a pretty nicely executed story, even if I found it a bit predictable and Saunders’ style and structure familiar as to him (not as to others, since I still think Saunders has his own strangeness).
“Tenth of December” has a structure that reminded me right away of one of my favorite Saunders stories of the last few years, “Victory Lap” (my brief thoughts here). In that story, Saunders had us enter the heads of two narrators with distinct (thoroughly stylized) voices. At first the two lines of narrative are distinct and seemingly unrelated, but soon the two characters come together in an unexpected and dramatic way. Similarly structured and similarly stylized, “Tenth of December” didn’t work for me nearly as well while reading it. When I wrote about Saunders’ last story, “Home” (my thoughts here), I wondered how much of my disappointment was based on the fact that it wasn’t a good story and how much was based on the fact that, if you’ve read enough Saunders, the stories start to feel the same. Sadly, that this story feels similar to another, despite the differenct characters and the different circumstances, only strengthens arguments against Saunders we’ve heard before: that he’s mostly style and little substance.
When the story begins, we meet a young boy named Robin, who has “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs.” Obviously picked on at school, in the wilds around his home he visualizes a world where he moves around enacting heroic stealth operations against some otherwordly creatures named the Nethers. Robin runs all of the speaking parts in his own mind, becoming as much a figment of his own imagination as the Nethers. Here we get a sense of his voice, which moves along haltingly, mimicing the way a child (or an adult) might add on new phrases as they come to mind, moving the inner narrative forward bit-by-bit, each time teasing out a bit of minor peril and heroism which can never climax because then what?
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would run, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
Each time I read a Saunders story, even back when I was really enjoying them, I had a hard time trying to determine if the voice was effective or affected. And even when I found it effective, it still often grated for a while until the story completely took over. While this voice worked for me in theory, I still found it kind of annoying as I read because it continued to push me out of the story, but this perhaps represents my own late-blooming prejudice more than anything. This is not the shortest of short stories, and I’m sad to say I never was able to fully engage with it due to the voice play.
Interestingly, despite the stylized voice, the story is still told by a third-person narrator, albeit an incredibly close third-person narrator, so close, in fact, that even spelling and usage errors pop in. This works well since both Robin and the character I’ve yet to talk about have withdrawn from their lives and created an alternate narrative where they see themselves from some imagined perspective that stands apart. Here we see Robin again confronting the Nethers, who increasingly take on the characteristics of the jerks at school.
He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Part of Robin’s inner narrative involves the new girl at school named Suzanne. She doesn’t even know his real name, but now the Nethers have her and Robin is there to save her — their relationship is destined to last forever. It’s total wish-fulfillment (and familiar — come on — we’ve all at least imagined a good come-back to that argument long after we lost) as she says, “And also, yes to there being something to us,” and invites him to her pool. I was a bit thrown when she said, “It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on.” This seemed to be Saunders butting in his head to show that Robin is also chubby and dreaming of a girl who doesn’t mind. But I’m not so sure it’s consistent with Robin’s inner narrative to let in his chubbiness, especially in the form of swimming with a shirt. A minor quibble.
At the end of the first section, Robin spies a winter coat and, a bit farther on, the man who has dropped it despite the winter chill. This is Don Eber, a man in his fifties who, we find out as the story breaks Robin’s section and takes us to Don’s, has cancer. Shedding his winter coat and testing the theory that freezing to death is just like falling to sleep, Don is struggling with his own inner narrative where Dad and Kip each hold conversations about Don’s actions. Don’s third-person narrator is also so close as to allow all of the slip-ups in Don’s mind as coldness overtakes him:
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Don, attempting suicide, and Robin, coming to the rescue with a coat (but across a barely frozen pond) are about to meet in dramatic fashion. And I’ll be darned if in writing this review I didn’t find myself appreciating Saunders’ story more than when I read it, though not to the point I’m interested in going back through the story now. It’s long and (perhaps it was my mood) a bit tedious.
So I find myself needing to test myself re: Saunders. If I now read the older work I enjoyed, would I still like it? I hope so, and I hope I can get over whatever hang up I have right now because, going through the process of writing this review, I’m beginning to suspect it’s just me. Is it?