Updated Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 07:01 AM
“Tenth of December: Stories”
by George Saunders
Random House, 251 pp., $26
Reading George Saunders’ stories in the new collection “The Tenth of December” is like one of those dreams when you’re in your own house, but things are strangely askew and subtly changed; you’re never quite sure where you are, and the view from the window isn’t quite what you expect it to be, but it’s exhilarating.
Saunders, a 2006 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and author of several previous collections of stories and essays (including “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “In Persuasion Nation”), is a frequent contributor of fiction and humor pieces to The New Yorker, where six of this book’s 10 stories first appeared. Many of his tales unfold in a time that seems both present and future.
In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a young man — in lieu of jail time — is held captive in a casually sinister research institute, where he’s observed after injections with floridly named pharmaceuticals. (The nightmarish Darkenfloxx is one; less horrific is Verbaluce.) “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the book’s longest story, carries a chill reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”: in its pleasant suburban setting, young immigrant women are strung up, via lines through their brains, as garden ornaments. “Exhortation,” a brief corporate rah-rah memorandum, hints at something terrible — and necessary — happening in Room 6.
There’s as much darkness here as a December night, but what makes these stories such a pleasure is the empathy and wit in those shadows. In “Puppy,” two mothers briefly meet; middle-class Marie, who’s overcome a miserable past, is horrified by a grubby home she visits in the hope of purchasing a dog for her children. (She doesn’t admonish her kids not to touch anything, wanting to give them “a chance to observe her being democratic and accepting, and later they could all wash up at the half-remodelled McDonald’s.”) Declining the puppy, Marie leaves quickly, unable to contemplate a life that might have been hers; and suddenly the other mother, Callie, takes over the story, demonstrating a resilience and hopefulness that’s so moving she seems to jump off the page into your heart.
“My Chivalric Fiasco,” the funniest story in the collection, is set in a medieval times-ish theme park, where a young janitor grumbles about the indignities of his job (“Someone threw up in the Garden of Sorrow,” a co-worker calls to him) until he’s promoted to Pacing Guard. The new job, however, is a “Medicated Role” in which a pill called KnightLyfe enables him to suddenly think like a knight. He entertains the guests, “through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.” (Things don’t work out well, though; soon he’s calling himself, in partial knight parlance, “a total dickBrain.”)
The collection’s haunting title story concludes the book, telling of a misfit boy (a chubby kid with “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms”), a man dying of cancer and a frozen lake — in which each, miraculously, saves the other. You smile, reading of the boy’s imaginary conversations with the cool girl in his class at school. (“You should come over this summer,” says the Suzanne of his fantasies. “It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on.”) And you ache for Don, who yearns to “fight no more forever,” but ends overwhelmed by his wife’s voice and “that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you.” There is hope, these stories remind us; we will carry on, through the unfamiliar roads, to home.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.
The author of “Tenth of December” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Jeff Paslay / The Seattle Times