I love to finish a book and feel as if I have just completed one of the best books I will ever read. That’s how I felt when I concluded Tenth of December, George Saunders’s fourth collection of short stories. The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that Tenth of December was the “best book you’ll read this year”. There’s plenty of time between now and the end of the year, but it’s unlikely that another story collection will equal Saunders’s range and narrative skill.
The ten stories in this book are masterworks of the short form. “Victory Lap” is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, the man who tries to abduct her, and a boy with overprotective parents who witnesses the kidnapping and has to decide whether to disobey his parents and leave the property to help. In “Puppy,” a well-to-do mother drives her two children to the home of white trash to buy a puppy but has second thoughts when she sees that the mother’s young son is chained to a tree and unable to leave the unkempt back yard. Another clash of cultures is the focus of “Home,” in which a veteran of one of the current wars comes home after a court-martial and discovers that his mother, who is trying to break her swearing habit by saying “beep” in place of every curse words, is about to be evicted from her home, and her wealthy daughter and son-in-law aren’t inclined to help. This last story disproves Nabokov’s belief that a successful story should not contain much dialogue; “Home” is almost entirely dialogue.
In spare, slangy sentences, Saunders captures each character’s conflicts and turns material that in lesser hands would have been lurid or sensational into stories that are frequently harrowing and often heartbreakingly beautiful. This is especially true of the two best pieces in the collection: “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which convicts are forced to participate in clinical trials for drugs that, when pumped into the participants’ bodies, alter their emotions; and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” an unsettling yet moving tale of family and status, in which wealthy families employ destitute Asian women from overseas as live garden ornaments. This work of dystopian fiction is not only hilarious and bizarre but also one of the most astute commentaries on post-colonialism ever written.
The Washington Post called George Saunders “a genuine Swiftian force in American fiction”. They’re right. Tenth of December shows you why.
My full review appears on Bookreporter.com.
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