“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.

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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?

This Week In My Classes: Strangeness and Subtlety

millonflossBecause of the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday, my graduate seminar didn’t meet this week. If only Eliot had written her novels in a different order, we could have used that extra time for reading through Middlemarch — always the book for which I like to allow the most weeks because it demands and rewards such luxurious patience. But we are only on The Mill on the Floss, so instead we just delayed our discussion of the second half. Not that The Mill on the Floss doesn’t also demand and reward patient reading! In fact, rereading it has been one of the best parts of the past couple of weeks for me. It still absorbs me, especially as we rush towards the final catastrophe in Books VI and VII. I hope the students feel the same way.

My Introduction to Prose and Fiction class, however, has two meetings this week. We have wrapped up our work on essays and are in the middle, now, of our short fiction unit. We read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for Wednesday’s class, and I was reminded all over again what a strange, creepy, brilliant story it is. Though obviously one key thing I wanted us to discuss (which we did) was Gilman’s critique — through her narrator’s sad, horrifying, weirdly comic disintegration (“I got so angry I bit off a little piece [of the bed] at one corner – but it hurt my teeth,” she says, with such disquieting reasonableness!) — of a whole destructive patriarchal system, I also tried to keep some emphasis on literary details, including symbolism (an easy one, in this case), personification, and imagery:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

All of these vivid details contribute, of course, to our sense of her character and situation: it’s not hard to pick up on the wallpaper, and then the woman she “sees” behind the pattern, as a projection of her entrapment and despair. That’s one reason that the story’s a classic, and that it’s so fun as well as useful to teach: there are subtle details, but as a whole it’s almost as flamboyantly expressive as the wallpaper.

bviewshortfictionToday in our smaller tutorial my group will be reading a story that is equally artful but far more subtle: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper.” Here, I think, we will have to work much harder to move past our initial impressions of what the story is about, of what details in it are significant and how they add up. Ishiguro is a master of understatement but also of moods and shadows. Despite its innocuous-seeming title, “A Family Supper” has an atmosphere of menace from the opening account of the poisonous fugu fish, and the title itself starts to seem less and less innocent as we learn first of the death of the narrator’s mother (at another seemingly-innocuous supper) and then of a father who killed himself and his whole family to escape the dishonour of his failed business. There isn’t much overt action in the story, and the ending especially feels like an anti-climax. With Ishiguro, though, the conflicts tend to shimmer around the characters, to be represented as much by what they don’t say or do as by what they actually say or do.

I’ve been following Dorian’s wonderful series of posts about his short fiction class, and it has got me thinking about the role of leading questions in our teaching — often he comments on what he’s hoping or expecting students to come up with in response to his prompts, for instance. This is not the same as trying to steer them towards one “correct” answer, of course, and the process he describes is intensely familiar to me. There’s no point asking completely open-ended questions that, as far as you know, will get you nowhere in particular in terms of understanding the story in front of you, so we ask leading questions to help our students discover for themselves what we already know is there. The process also models for them the right (meaning most productive) kinds of questions to ask. But at the same time, you want to allow for different readings, for original observations, for the idiosyncrasy of genuine individual engagement. One reason I like to mix in stories I don’t already know well, like “A Family Supper,” is that it is easier for me to back off, to be open-mindedly curious and see where our discussion takes us. I have some ideas about the story’s central themes and how its specific details (the fugu fish, for instance) fit into them — but it’s still somewhat strange to me, and its subtlety means working harder to make something of it. I hope it isn’t too elusive for the students to take an interest in it. (Updated post-tutorial: I think we had quite a good discussion, particularly about the family dynamic in the story and the way both cultural and generational expectations and differences affect it. Some students said they found it frustrating that there’s so little action, or that the conflict feels so unresolved, but I suspect that’s one reason we ended up with so much to say about it — unlike a more plot-driven story, “A Family Supper” forces us to look for meaning in other places.)

Next week it’s “Araby” and then Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” so back again to established classics. One of my TAs has volunteered to teach the session on “Araby,” which means I get to return to one of my favorite roles in the classroom — being a student again!