By Chet Yarbrough
By George Saunders
Narrated by George Saunders
The New York Times gives high praise to George Saunders’ book,
“Tenth of December”. There are reviewers that disagree with Kakutani’ and Cowles’ laudatory comments about Saunders’ book of short stories but once a listener steps on the cracked ice of “Tenth of December’s” last story, he/she becomes a Saunders’ fan.
“Victory Lap” is Saunders’ first short story in “Tenth of December”. It begins in the mind of a teenage girl named Alison. The story bridges differences between reality and perception, truth and fiction by playing on an adolescent’s sense of boredom and parent’s misperception of reality. Kyle, the story’s hero, feels like an outcast, nearly friendless, and misunderstood by his parents. This is the in-between world of childhood and adulthood. The time when one is searching for themself.
Teenage boredom is suddenly interrupted by a utility repair man who rings the doorbell of a neighborhood house that is answered by Alison, the teenage girl. At first, this seems an interesting break in the boredom of the day but, at the next instant, Kyle sees the man grab the teenage girl and pull her toward a nearby van. Kyle, initially immobilized by the utility man’s action, jumps from his stupor, grabs a rock, and bashes it into the kidnapper’s head–saving the girl from abduction. Boredom vanishes, a mother’s and father’s perception of their son changes, and Kyle becomes a different person.
In other stories, there are dark images that snap and turn in a listener’s mind like the “Semplica Girls” dangling three feet off the ground on a taut wire piercing their brains in a backyard landscape. One asks oneself, “Did I hear that right?”; “Is that what Saunder’s wrote?” What happened? How did a journey through a daily diary turn into a horror movie?
In “Escape from Spiderhead”, Saunders distillates male fantasy with a story that begins with laboratory tests of sexual relations and ends with a wry exploration of the science of human experimentation. It is a story, both dark and light, about ethics of human experimentation. It begins with the dark consequence of objectified human beings (having indiscriminate sex) and ends by inferring that human conscience will prevail to keep one human from hurting another. Of course, Saunders inference is probably incorrect as a general truth. Based on the Milgram experiments, human beings are eminently capable of committing inhumane acts; e.g. witness the Holocaust and, more recently, the 1990s Rwandan’ genocide.
By far, the best story is the last story. It is titled “Tenth of December”. It is about the delusional belief that there is an answer to life’s pain and disappointment. Saunders reaches into the conscious mind of a person that believes he is escaping the pain and anxiety of life and benefiting his family in a way that looks like a perfect solution but is actually something else.
Saunders seduces a listener with simple phrasing–pulling one into a story and then ambushing the unwary with crystal clear insight to human foibles, self-delusions, and false dependencies. Saunders sees that measuring one’s success by possessions defines you as an inanity, an empty symbol of humanity. What we do; not just what we think is what we become.