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Thursday 7 February 2013

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

I came late to the George Saunder party, but it turns out he's kind of a big deal. Terms like "blazingly original" and "masterful" regularly get applied to his work, and not just in the back cover hyperbole - he's been blurbed by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Thomas Pynchon. If their word isn't quite convincing, well, I'm here to clinch it. His latest collection of short stories Tenth of December came out in January, and it's great.

I'd read a couple of Saunders' stories in anthologies, and thought they were very funny. Coming to Tenth of December I was more aware of his reputation, a knowledge that tainted my first impression: it didn't sound the way great writing was supposed to. I expect "great" writers to sound quasi-Biblical, or at least pistol-whip me with their erudition. Saunders uses words like "uh," "dude," and "holy crap." I don't know why I expect writers to be stuck in the mid-20th century or earlier, but I do. I'm getting better with Saunders' help.

The readability of his work disguises its more challenging elements. Stories flip in and out of rambling interior monologues without warning, and still manage to seem smooth and streamlined. It makes them go down easier than they should, because each one has moral heft. They tend to begin with a protagonist who seems ripe for ridicule - because they're airheaded, inarticulate, or obviously deluded - and over the course of the story transmute that feeling into one of compassion and understanding.

Nearly all the stories use that same arc, but it's a good one. Thinking about it, I was struck by how much of the art I like is dark and unredemptive. There's plenty of darkness in Tenth of December, but the final impression is of optimism and inherent goodness. Even better, it feels earned. That's not an easy act to pull off without sinking into cheese.

Besides deceptively clean prose and subtle morality, the stories also have plots. In "Victory Lap," a boy witnessing a crime out the window must rise above his sheltered upbringing. In "Escape from the Spiderhead," a convict volunteers to be a pharmaceutical guinea pig in exchange for a reduced sentence. "Home" follows a war vet returning to his deadbeat family. "The Semplica Girl Diaries" is so weird I won't spoil it.

I finished Tenth of December quickly, and I was sad when it was over. Reputations and preconceptions aside, that's the highest compliment you can pay a book.

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