Brav­ery and hu­man­ity pre­vail in a sit­com

Tenth of De­cem­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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