I was baffled by the cover of The New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago. You may remember that the headline of the cover story was: "George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You'll Read This Year." I was baffled because the only George Saunders I could think of was that old movie star who was always playing cads in films like Rebecca and All About Eve. (Actually, that actor's name was George Sanders.) Adding to my anxieties was the fact that, according to the article, everybody else in the literary world had already anointed Saunders "the writer for our time." So, I asked a few serious reader friends — the kind of people with subscriptions to n+1 — if they'd read George Saunders. One friend said she thought she'd read a story by him in The New Yorker. The others came up blank, except for the one who suggested Saunders might be that debonair actor who always played cads in old movies.
Which is all to say that it's tough to make a mainstream name for yourself as a writer — even when you're a writer who's won a MacArthur "genius" award. Hence, that deliberately provocative headline of The Times Magazine article, which succeeded in its goal of making me want to read Saunders' new collection of short stories, Tenth of December. It would be so satisfying to topple that Olympian Times pronouncement, but, in good conscience, I can't do it. Tenth of December probably will turn out to be one of the best new books I read in 2013 because Saunders is, indeed, something special.
The 10 stories in this collection are mostly told in the first person: Thoughts and conversations ramble, and they always seem to have begun an hour or so before the reader shows up. Saunders' style is postmodernism with a friendly face: His technical scaffolding insulates heart and humor — stories that are actually about something beyond their own gleaming nuts and bolts. Even my least favorite pieces here — ones like "Escape from Spiderhead" that fall into the futuristic sci-fi genre — carry an emotional charge.
That's especially true of the longest tale, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," which is a dystopian domestic comedy. Our diarist is a hapless suburban dad of three. He keeps alluding to a status symbol yard decoration called "Semplica Girls." When the dad splurges on a "Semplica Girl" arrangement to surprise his surly teenage daughter, we find out that Semplica Girls (or SGs) are poor young women from places like Moldova and Laos, who've sold themselves as tableau vivant garden ornaments. At "installation," a wire is threaded through their brains and they're "hoisted up" as on a clothesline.
As the dad excitedly jots in his diary: "SGs up now ... three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. ... Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living." That entry reads as though goofy Phil Dunphy from Modern Family were exulting because he finally could afford slaves for Claire and the kids. "What barbarities are normalized in a culture?" that story asks, but with a light touch, no preaching.
Other tales start out as comedy or satire and mutate into near-tragedy. In "Puppy," a mother who's furiously trying to construct a happy childhood for her kids arranges to buy a puppy from another woman, also a loving, if misguided, mother. When the two moms meet, their worldviews chemically collide to blow up each other's cherished illusions. In the opening story, "Victory Lap," we hear about a sad teenager named Kyle who's down to one friend, a guy, we're told: "who was always retrieving things from between his teeth, announcing the name of the retrieved thing in Greek, then re-eating it." Just as you're wincing at the exuberance of Saunders' description, events swerve into violence. By the end of "Victory Lap," nerdy Kyle has faced down evil, while his parents who sought to cosset him are the ones who need to be told reassuring fictions.
Saunders' short stories have it all — the flexibility of language, the social criticism, the moral ambition, the entertaining dark humor. Check back with me at the end of 2013; if his collection isn't in this year's top 10, it will really have been an extraordinary year for books.