The Weirdly Beckoning World Of George Saunders

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George Saunders, who’s speaking at Newtonville Books Friday night, is a writer’s writer. Just look at all the blurbs from the glitterati of the literati in “Tenth of December,” his best-selling collection of short stories: Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, Karen Russell, Tobias Wolff and the late David Foster Wallace.

And well they should be blurbing because except for Smith at her best (“On Beauty”), Saunders is the fairest of them all. He combines Pynchon’s wild imagination with Franzen’s madcap accessibility, Russell’s appreciation of the uncanny, and Eggers’s and Wallace’s curiosity.

"Tenth of December" cover
"Tenth of December" cover

That’s just for starters because when you read the short stories in “Tenth of December,” you think only of Saunders. The unique, creepy, funny universe he creates sends shivers up your spine while you're laughing out loud as it reminds us of our own creepy, funny universe of worldly concerns and other-worldly longings.

For example, there’s a reality show that a father bans his children from watching called “I, Gropius,” where the male contestant decides which woman to date by feeling her breasts through a screen with two holes. All they show is the expression on the contestants’ faces.

We may not have gotten that far yet (or maybe we have, it's so hard to keep up), but Saunders mines the gap between realism and surrealism so skillfully that the satire is delicious. Does he write it all in a white heat or does he construct his stories with all the diligence and editing of an Alice Munro, who would seem to be his polar opposite? Here's a good explication of his process from NPR.

It isn’t even the satire, though, that makes him so fascinating. For all of Saunders’s dark humor, there’s a remarkable empathy with folks from all walks of life – a returning veteran on the verge of snapping; an overweight housewife with a son who’s severely retarded; a cancer victim. Or even a contemporary, narcissistic teenage girl: “Were those cross-country shorts from the like Charlie’s Angels days or quoi?

It’s hardly bleeding-heart empathy, though. He’s as unsentimental as any of the above-named fans. His characters’ internal monologues are self-lacerating as they veer from grand illusion to base depressiveness and back again, like the sad memoirist of “The Semplica Girl Diaries”:

Have been sleepwalking through life, future reader. Can see that now … In rush to graduate college, win Pam, get job, make babies, move ahead in job, forgot former feeling of special destiny I used to have when tiny, sitting in cedar-smelling bedroom closet, looking up at blowing trees through high windows, feeling I would someday do something great.

Hereby resolve to live life in new and more powerful way, starting THIS MOMENT (!)

What he does to realize that vision results in the most shocking vision in the book. I won’t give it away because it takes a while in most of his stories to realize what’s going on and once you do you don’t know whether to laugh or recoil. But even if the latter, it never feels oppressive because Saunders is such a magnificent storyteller, filling in details as he goes along, particularly in his way of showing that the past is always with his characters:

Our sad diarist of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is a good example:

Note to self: Visit Dad’s grave. Bring flowers. Have talk with Dad re. Certain things said by me at time of paper routes, due to, could not afford rental tux for prom, but had to wear Dad’s old tux, which did not fit. Still, no need to be rude …

Violence is never far from the surface, along with drugs. “Escape From Spiderhead” picks up where “A Clockwork Orange” left off, only the social engineers are feeding prisoners drugs to make them more horny, not less.

And if there’s a summing up of what it’s all about in the grand schemes of his characters it belongs, again to the diarist, who muses at a funeral:

Think: Life beautiful.
So glad am not dead.”

Maybe in the end, “Tenth of December” is a self-help book. Who can sum it up any better?

In that regard:

So glad George Saunders not dead. Is alive and well and appearing in Newton.

More NPR Stories on George Saunders:

George Saunders Lives Up To The Hype

From George Saunders, A Dark 'December'

This program aired on March 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.