Bravery and humanity prevail in a sitcom
Tenth of December
INCREASINGLY it feels wrong to read George Saunders as a comic writer. Yes, his novels, short stories and nonfiction are antic and often hilarious — his imagination bends towards the absurd like a plant towards sunlight — yet the more you read of him the harder it is to separate what is screamingly funny in his writing from what is simply screaming. With this new short-story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders gives us 10 fresh episodes from a long-running sitcom of the damned.
In one story, illegal immigrants are chained together, living garden ornaments. In another, human lab rats are injected with a drug that induces a misery so profound they immediately suicide. Here are returned veterans driven to violence by war-zone atrocities, families destroyed by debt, ordinary men and women forced into jobs so humiliating that their selfworth is all but annihilated.
But in each instance, Saunders sugars the pill. He dresses a succession of furious responses to the inequity and stupidity of modern American life in shiny colours. He gives them a cartoonish vigour and glow. By George Saunders Bloomsbury, 251pp, $29.95 (HB)
In Escape from Spiderhead, for example — a story that takes bog-standard pharmaceutical research into territory closer to Huxley’s Brave New World — Jeff is a young man who avoids jail time for a moment of violence by agreeing to be a subject in an experimental laboratory, where a box containing various drugs is grafted to his body.
Under the scrutiny of medical experts, Jeff is pumped full of a substance that replicates feelings of love and passion. He sleeps with two young women while under the drug’s effects, feeling the same degree of overwhelming affection for each, before being obliged to choose which of them will be administered a dose of Darkenfloxx, which inspires feelings of despair and self-loathing in the subject.
The idea is that his indifference towards the women for whom he so recently felt such powerful, if manufactured love, will indicate the effectiveness of the earlier drug. When one of the women kills herself in the throes of Darkenfloxx medication, Jeff’s conscience is awakened.
All the horror that emerges from this plot outline misses the comedy with which the story unfolds: the crazy speed with which events take place and the subtle manipulation of language that Saunders employs, from basic, colloquial American speech to the loftiest rhetorical registers. Take the moment, in the heat of Jeff’s amorous encounters, where the observing scientists give the subject a dose of another drug, designed to ‘‘ pep up his language centres’’: Soon, experiencing the benefits of the flowing Verbaluce in our drips, we were not only f . . king really well but also talking pretty great. Like, instead of just saying the sex-type things we had been saying (such as ‘‘ wow’’ and ‘‘ oh God’’ and ‘‘ hell yes’’ and so forth), we now began freestyling re our sensations and thoughts, in elevated diction, with eighty-percent increased vocab, our well-articulated thoughts being recorded for later analysis.
What follows are paragraphs of exalted, romantic poeticism, with all the acute insight of a trained psychologist. Saunder’s stylist chops are never more in evidence than when he modulates the speech of his character from gum-chewing to barn-burning and back again.
Others have noted the debt Saunders owes to earlier writers. The ludic, Disneyworld imagination of Donald Barthelme, or the cussed humour of Mark Twain. Even the highlow celerity of David Foster Wallace has been mentioned in relation to his work.
However the recurrent subject matter of these stories suggests an even older antecedent. Saunders’s interest in the moral mechanics of ordinary people faced with difficult, life-altering choices — his gothic fancies and his stubborn, moralist’s streak — point towards Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne invented the stark fabulism of which Saunders is the modern inheritor. Both writers provoke a similar unease. Their tales are brief, symbolically loaded, and designed to provoke