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George Saunders: “Tenth of December”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  George Saunders’s “Tenth of December” was originally published in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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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.

Hope.

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?

7 thoughts on “George Saunders: “Tenth of December””

  1. Trevor says:

    Okay, a week’s worth of comments is lost, but the posts are back up. Apologies for the trouble!

  2. jerry says:

    My experience is the exact opposite of yours Trevor. I have never cared for Sanders’ work but the last few stories he has published in TNY *Escape from Spiderhead* *Home* and now this one I have really enjoyed.

    Now i did think the character of the young boy was better realized than that of the man.

  3. Aaron says:

    And I, who have been rattling against Saunders for all of this year, actually not only enjoyed this one, but found the man to be the far better of the two close-third person narrators: at last, I was getting someone with a condition, a situation, a stake, that I could relate to. (And I say this having been bullied and largely lost in my own fantasies as a kid.) To me, Sam Lipsyte’s “The Dungeon Master” is the one that got the need for escapism down: Robin had some good moments, but also plenty of false affections (I say this because they faded toward the end of the story), and Saunders more or less gave up on his story after the ice broke. On the other hand, Don Eber’s fears of becoming like his stepfather, the loss of control of language, of body, of memory — those terrify me *and* gave Saunders something new to use his terse reversals on.

    Anyway, I’ve gone into more detail (as usual), here: http://bit.ly/uXA4ne

  4. Ken says:

    I’ve only been reading Saunders’ stories for the past 3 or so years and I like him a lot. I did agree “Home” was no great shakes but this was quite good. I must say I like stuff that has elemental qualities-here we have literal life and death and the questions of both suicide and salvation (of others, of oneself). I think the story is a bit long and in the first part some of the Robin narration does seem a wee bit over-clever but as it goes on the more interesting Don takes over. Saunders may be a stylist (and an amazing one) but there’s no doubt this deals with pretty profound issues. I had this one odd thought: This could be a big favorite with Christians who are against any sort of assisted-suicide or who had religious feelings about Terry Schiavo. Here someone on the verge of death realizes he can still be useful. I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dried as that but I think could be read that way by that sort of reader.

  5. I was having a terrible time with this story, skimming over huge sections, until I read your comments, Trevor, along with the Book Bench interview. Once I knew what it was actually about, I was able to read it fully, and, as you said, appreciated it more and more. So thank you – huge shout-out!

    Karen

  6. Betsy says:

    “The Tenth of December”, by George Saunders, struck me as terrific. Once, when I was a teen-ager, I knew a young man who explained to me, ever so carefully, “I do not know what love is.” Saunders, on the other hand, is familiar with the topic, and willing to stake his reputation on it. In his interview with Deborah Treisman in The Bookbench, Saunders commented that both the story lines in “The Tenth of December” were about “the nature of courage”. It strikes me that Saunders, writing about love as openly as he does in this story, is also a writer of courage, being willing to sidestep the cooler stance – that love is not what it’s cracked up to be.

    He tells Treisman that he held the story in mind for a year or so. Somehow, that feels right, given the layers of compassion he shows for just about every character that appears in the story.

    His affection for the thirteen year old boy is big: the boy survives being thirteen through the power of his fantasies (don’t we all), and today he is out in the woods in his ‘NASA’ garb and his pellet gun, turning chipmunks into nethers, being clever, being brave, and most of all, feeling the courage it might take to save someone, maybe the new girl from Montreal. The boy, kind of isolated, is still trying to separate from mom, and yet he says “But Mom was a good egg. ..He was actually quite fond of Mom.” In fact, and it is the power of this story that it can support this, the boy thinks about the time he overheard his mother on the phone saying, “That’s all I want from my life, you know? Liz? To feel, at the end, that I did right by that magnificent little dude.” Saunders pivots gorgeously on that, remarking that the boy thought “At that time it seemed like Liz had maybe started vacuuming.” And the boy continues thinking about that phrase, “magnificent little dude”, closing with how it was “like his Indian name.”

    Deft. Saunders is deft with the reader’s emotions; he is willing to make the reader care and care a lot and willing to make the reader feel. But then he lets then reader recover … so as to keep the story going.

    As for compassion, Saunders’ treatment of the dying man at the center of this story is magnificent. At first, I thought, this, the man’s walk up the mountain, the man’s fall, the cold, the rescue of the boy, is all impossible. But then – death is impossible. “The Tenth of December” captures the dying man’s anger and despair and fear at all that death is stealing from him, and it captures his decision to die on the freezing hillside. But the twists of the story allow us to be convinced that hope is possible, that love is possible in the face of death, that there “could be still many — many drops of goodness, this how it came to him –many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to witheld. Withold.”

    Saunders uses the man’s brain tumor to play with language, something that gives us an understanding of the man’s desperation, and something that gives the story the depth of poetry.

    I love movies. I love the flicker of the voices and faces, I love the music and the click-clack of the sound effects, I love the sets and costumes, I love “Finding Nemo” and I love “Ikiru”.

    When I read (fiction and non-fiction both) I often enjoy imagining what kind of movie the author has intended the piece to be. You can often see it in the setting – the English stone house with the rooks and the swallows sort of thing. But I particularly like it when I realize the writer is no writing for Hollywood. And, in this case, Saunders is ot writing for Hollywood.

    And yet, as I read, the story “scrolled out” (Saunders’ words to Treisman) in my mind, flickered and resonated with life and emotion and truth. I felt glad to have read it.

    Saunders said that he was interested in representing consciousness, wanting his work to be “fast and entertaining” but to also represent both thought and the self. I take that to mean: thought as the panoply of memories and reactions that play constantly upon our mind-screen, and self as the identity that feels emotion. Saunders remarks that “surviving this particular day re-equips [the character] for death.” I would say that reading this story re-equips the reader as well.

    That young man who once told me he didn’t know what love was? Fifty years have elapsed, and I would say, knowiong him, that this was no longer true. But he is still a wry, sardonic type. What I like about this Saunders story, in addition to its courage, is its humor. I could give this story now to my once moronic friend, and I think he would like it. The humor and entertainment and all, the care for the truth. Truth can redeem what might at first seem an excess of emotion in a story. And, after all, if you can be emotional about death, are you even human?

    One more thing. I love it that Saunders does not only love men and boys. He also loves women and girls. Suzanne shines like a Beatrice for Robin, and when Suzanne saves Eber, feels her “amazing strength”. And Molly, Saunders says so little about her, and yet packs it in at the end – flustered, embarassed, angry, disappointed, concerned. Saunders is not afraid to have faith in women.

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