“What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

tenth-of-decemberWhat a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was —

Although I found several of the stories in it interesting and memorable, I didn’t much like Tenth of December until I read “Tenth of December,” the final story in the collection. Perhaps this is a lesson in the importance of reading to the end; it is certainly a reminder that abandoning books part way through brings the risk of missing what is best about them.

I was doing OK, if not great, with Tenth of December until I got to “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Up to that point the story I’d appreciated the most was “Sticks”; I was gripped by both “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” and “Escape from Spiderhead” moved quickly enough that I didn’t quite tire of the conceit before it ended. Then, unfortunately, I really bogged down in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: it was obviously doing a lot, but the story’s concept was so aggressive, its execution so heavy-handed, that for me the whole exercise just drowned out any underlying humanity in the story itself. (I’m not saying it isn’t there: just that the style and conceit were very distancing for me.) This slowed my momentum in the collection to the point that I nearly didn’t pick it up again.

Nevertheless, I persisted with Tenth of December, both because of Lincoln in the Bardo and because of Saunders’ reputation, including with readers whose sensibilities I trust. “Home” was a better experience for me; “My Chivalric Fiasco” was worse. Then I read “Tenth of December.” This story put a lot less gimmickry in my way; it was the only story in the book that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved it. One in ten: not a great ratio, if you weigh every reading experience equally, but I don’t think art really works that way. Reading “Tenth of December” made reading Tenth of December more than worthwhile to me. That’s part of the trick of short fiction, isn’t it? The brevity of the form means writers can try a lot of things, take a lot of chances, be a lot of different things–if they want to (as Saunders clearly does). And one really solid connection is, really, everything that matters.

tenth-2

My edition of Tenth of December includes a conversation between Saunders and David Sedaris. I enjoyed their discussion very much. I read it before I got to “Tenth of December” and I thought at that point that my blog post about the collection might end up noting that I liked what Saunders had to say about short stories more than I liked his short stories themselves! (As it turned out, that was only partly true.) Saunders comments that people often say his work is cruel or angry; he acknowledges the truth of this and suggests it is “a bit of a technical flaw” but one that reflects who he is and how he sees the world. I actually wouldn’t have thought to call the stories cruel, but I did think that they were mostly kind of cold: that they were driven primarily by whatever concept animated them and so they came off as technical, even virtuosic, but lacking in the quality I would call heart. This is not to say that they aren’t in their own way sympathetic and often poignant: it’s just that what tenderness they have towards the characters, or towards the human condition,  seemed to me to be hard to feel under the performance of self-conscious cleverness.

tenth-3Naturally, my mixed and sometimes vexed response to Tenth of December got me thinking about what contemporary short fiction I have responded to more readily and positively. Because I don’t read a lot of short stories, I really don’t have a lot of other examples to draw on. I was very impressed with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but my favorite fairly recent short story is probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” I have but have not read all of the collection it comes from. I think I will go back to it now and see what else is there. For those of you who read a lot more short stories than I do: is there a writer in the genre you’d recommend to me, knowing that I’m a realist by instinct and training, that my favorite classic short story is (predictable but true) “The Dead,” and that I get irritable with stories that are more cleverly self-referential than they are committed to storytelling?

19 thoughts on ““What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 25, 2019 / 7:42 pm

    I also thought that the title story was by far the best and that “Semplica Girls” made no sense, ethically, I mean, and I really spent some time thinking it through. For my trouble I was accused by a commenter of apologizing for slavery and lying about reading. Thanks, pal.

    How recent do you want these recommendations to be? More recent than, say, Eudora Welty?

    • Rohan Maitzen May 25, 2019 / 9:02 pm

      Since we don’t always respond the same way to books, how interesting that our reactions were so similar to this particular one! (That commenter belongs to a very specific type we have both run into, someone who just cannot stand it that someone has reservations about something they admire. Nice attempt on his [probably] part to throw some shade, that “appears to have read” bit! Really.) I would be very interested in your comments on Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it would be all artifice and gimmickry, but boy did it ever win me over by the end.

      Yes, more recent than Welty: I guess what I meant, since I do read older / classic short fiction for teaching quite a bit: what new-ish writers in the genre.

  2. Jeanne May 25, 2019 / 7:51 pm

    One of my all-time favorite short story collections is Victory Over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 25, 2019 / 9:04 pm

      I haven’t read anything of hers, so thank you for the suggestion.

  3. Readerlane May 25, 2019 / 8:20 pm

    Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor made me want to eventually read all his work.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 25, 2019 / 9:04 pm

      Ah: that’s a name I remember coming across but I have never read any of his stories. Duly noted! Thank you.

  4. Café Society May 26, 2019 / 4:41 am

    I’m not a great short story reader but I do reinforce your intention to read the whole of the Lahiri collection because I think it is a clear case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. I am also another William Trevor fan, but don’t just stick with the stories, his novels are wonderful too.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 28, 2019 / 6:57 pm

      Is there a particular one of his novels you especially liked?

      • Café Society May 29, 2019 / 5:44 am

        Try Felicia’s Journey or The Story of Lucy Gault.

  5. Mark C May 26, 2019 / 7:22 am

    First of all, thank you for this blog. To throw a bit of a wrench into the works, I love most of George Saunders’s writing (both fiction and non-fiction) but did not like most of ToD. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, whom I first encountered as a college freshman four decades ago. The Aleph & Other Stories or Ficciones would both be excellent places to begin.

  6. Teresa May 26, 2019 / 10:16 am

    I can’t recall many details of particular stories, but I did enjoy this collection more than you did. I tend to like short stories that are strange and maybe even a little gimmicky. For me, short stories are a place where writers can play with ideas that would be unbearable to turn into a full-length novel. I rarely end up excited about more realistic short stories, even when I can see they’re beautifully crafted.Yet the same style of storytelling can sweep me away in a novel. Strange how that works.

  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 26, 2019 / 11:23 am

    I think you would enjoy Lauren Groff’s “Florida” more than the novel you read. Its stories are more earthbound. I don’t remember that theatricality you described. One about a grad student who has a kind of breakdown is especially good.

    There, a new book. The stories are very much “New Yorker” ish, not gimmicky.

  8. Liz Mc2 May 26, 2019 / 5:44 pm

    I basically felt about Lincoln in the Bardo the way you describe feeling about “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” so you probably shouldn’t trust anything I say! (To be fair I was pretty engrossed in it while I was reading, but liked it less and less as I thought about it).

    I’m assuming Alice Munro is a classic I don’t need to mention. I’m not a big short story reader either, outside of teaching, but I really liked David Bezmozgis’ first book (haven’t read his latest) and I think his stories would appeal to someone interested in ethics of/and fiction.

  9. Mary Grover May 27, 2019 / 5:20 pm

    Welding With Children by Tim Gautreaux.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 28, 2019 / 12:38 pm

      Another one I hadn’t heard of : thank you for the recommendation!

  10. Scott Bailey May 28, 2019 / 2:10 pm

    A few years ago I really enjoyed Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett. A good collection of stories sort of about science as a search for humanity. The focus is on the humanity, not the science.

    Have you read Chekhov? The stories he wrote from 1890 onward are almost all masterpieces. He’s sort of the anti-Joyce, though. Joyce stops when his characters have an epiphany; Chekhov ends his stories when his reader has an epiphany. But late Chekhov is more or less the same sort of “realism” as the Dubliners stories.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 29, 2019 / 1:57 pm

      I have read a couple of Chekhov stories over the years in teaching anthologies but I have never read him deliberately, if you see the difference. I was just peering at A Manual For Cleaning Women, which I picked up at a recent book sale, and on the back it says “The literary model is Checkhov”: maybe Lucia Berlin should be, or at least will be, my next stop for short stories.

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