A Sentimental Streak

George Saunders, Tenth of December

Bloomsbury, 272pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781408837351

reviewed by Mary Hannity

Readers of George Saunders’ first and most brilliant short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996), will be familiar with the strange spectacles of artifice and corporate cultivations of reality that compose his debut version of modern America, in which the approximated and poorly-rehearsed gimmick of the real supplants the real itself. In his most recent work, Tenth of December, only the remnants of this world remain. Less concerned with the miscarriage of good intention amidst charades of historical reconstruction, the new collection presents moments of moral being in lives that look much like our own: lives of limited personal power and grace that carry the strained smile of the man with the smallest house on the street.

As in his debut collection, the stories in Tenth of December carry the knowledge of a half-buried harm. Saunders’ brilliance is in the way he will pierce his stories with an absurd tragicomedy: he allows the leftovers of trauma to accumulate under the skin of a narrative, then lets it puncture and prick. ‘I looked at her’, Saunders writes in ‘Home’, ‘and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, on mushrooms, trashed the patio.’ This instance of involuntary memory recalls a passage from the earlier story, ‘Bounty’, in which the narrator Cole considers his sister Connie:

Sometimes I remember her at three years old on Easter morning, wearing a little coolie hat in the yard of the house on Marigold. We had a swing set. We had a bird feeder. We had a dog named Sparky. How we’d laugh as he’d caper around the yard digging at his anus with his mouth. When times got hard he was eaten against our will by our neighbor Mr. DeAngelo. Maybe it was for the best. A week later the militia took the house and we were driven out onto the road. Sparky would have been just one more mouth to feed. But still.

The paraphernalia of American suburban leisure - doghouse, patio, swing set, bird feeder, street named Marigold, dog named Sparky — are dismantled to reveal its corrupt counterparts, its dreams of violence. Glimpses of damage are unmediated and unanswered, bathetically shrugged off: ‘Connie’s a prostitute, I’m a thirty-year-old virgin, but all things considered, we could have turned out a lot worse.’

Comparing these two stories highlights one of the more salient losses in Saunders’ new collection. The writer’s growing reliance upon the reflex signifiers of a more quotidian cruelty lacks in the affect of abject devastation and all the comedy that such devastation entails. These are the elements that made CivilWarLand in Bad Decline so wonderful. Beckett wrote ‘there is nothing funnier than unhappiness’, and Saunders’ debut collection was hilariously unhappy. The claw-footed, vestigial-tailed hybrids of the novella ‘Bounty’, or the ‘twisted and useless’ appendages of the girl they call ‘Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby’ in ‘Isabelle’ have been replaced with more common kinds of mutation. Cancers, dementias, latent abuses, the particular melancholy we encounter in small and silent animals: the register is of a less surreal sadness.

Arguably, this makes Tenth of December a more sophisticated collection. Saunders knows that pain needs no embellishment in today’s America, what with the indignities of relative poverty and the ‘gaping maw’ of eviction or the state home. ‘Home’ demonstrates much of what is good in these stories. Upon his return from the war in Iraq, Mikey is unable to integrate with his family. They are disillusioned by the social mobility of neighbours who in turn covet the trappings of their still richer peers. It is a satire of late capitalism and its distending chain of exclusions. In ‘the good part of downtown’ Mikey overhears ‘sonorous/confident voices that seem to have been fabricated out of previous, less sonorous/confident voices by means of sudden money.’ The people who are better than he is are talking about the people who are better than they are:

‘They flew a planeload of babies over here.’
‘Russian babies,’ he said. ‘With harelips.’
‘Soon as the babies arrived, they were whisked into various operating rooms all around the county,’ she said. ‘And who paid?’
‘The Flemings,’ he said.
‘Didn’t they also set aside some money for college?’ she said. ‘For the Russians?’

This parody of the fetishes of a culture continues across the collection. In ‘Home’ the fetish is for philanthropic giving, or rather for the tradition amongst the American upper class to use philanthropic giving as a symbol of exuberant capital (‘When was the last time we rescued a Russian baby?’) and as a means of homogenous integration. In most of the other stories in Tenth of December it is authenticity that has become a fetish. ‘Across the creek was the Russian church,’ Saunders writes in ‘Victory Lap’, his prose inhabiting the thoughts of a teenage girl. ‘So ethnic!’

In ‘Exhortation’ Saunders adopts the nullified vocabulary of the corporate workplace, the banal platitudes of commerce with all their coaxing logic. In the form of an office memorandum ‘re: March Performance Stats’ this piece parodies a world in which words have been betrayed into the service of an unnamed, ill-omened regime. Through such uncanny simulations Saunders unwraps great swathes of vulnerability — that of American entrepreneurialism, individualism, self-delusion and unabashed optimism.

The notion of sentimentality in Saunders’ work is an interesting one. In ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ the injection of trademarked and manufactured emotions into convicts for commercial testing corresponds with the co-option of sentiment by mass entertainment, through which it is denatured into a plundered, polluted reaction. The recession of sentiment as a legitimate emotion is made manifest in the self-censure of certain of Saunders’ characters (for example in ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’: ‘Sorry if corny. Am just happy.’). Perhaps to counter the decline, Saunders flaunts his own sentimental streak. ‘There could still be many — many drops of goodness … many drops of happy’ thinks the man whose life has just been saved in the final and most maudlin story (‘Tenth of December’). The writer’s unfailing acceptance that ‘goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state’ (as he writes in the acknowledgments) seems to saturate this collection. The reiteration that people do bad things only because the exigencies of capitalism demand they must is one worth making, but it is a shame that Saunders has surrendered his sharp tongue to it.
Mary Hannity is an assistant editor at The White Review. Her reviews have previously appeared in The Spectator.