The stories in TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders are wonderfully weird, compellingly readable, and darkly funny. Saunders creates idiosyncratic characters -- often people preoccupied with their rich fantasy lives -- and makes them relatable through a narrative style that's close and casual.
Every story has a strong voice (or several), and while there's a similarity to many of them, each is specific and carefully rendered. A representative excerpt: One of the main characters in "Puppy", a stressed mother trying to sell an unwanted dog, thinks to herself,
So what she'd love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.
Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.
There are some truly disturbing situations in most of these stories, and yet the voices, the details, and sometimes the banality assigned to the extreme scenarios makes this book a hilarious, rather than a horrific, read. If you've heard much about the collection already, you probably heard about "The Semplica Girl Diaries" (a somewhat shorter version of the story is available from The New Yorker). In that story, a father who wishes he had the resources to give his children a better life comes into some money. He uses his windfall to purchase a set of Semplica Girls, a high-status lawn ornament consisting of women from third-world countries who are strung up on a rack and hang there, alive, providing decoration. It's a barbaric and bizarre concept (Saunders has explained the idea came to him in a dream), but reading the story, I laughed often and felt the protagonist's joy when he presents this gift to his family.
As that premise suggests, Saunders's settings aren't always quite of our world. A couple of the stories feature personality-altering drugs with names like VerbaluceTM, and there are some other science fictional elements. But the plots generally revolve around normal human problems such as family conflict and the difficulty of fitting in. Financial status is a recurring theme, with several stories focusing on the gap between those who have money and those who don't. There are a lot of down-on-their-luck characters in this collection, typified by this passage from "My Chivalric Fiasco":
Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it's not broke, don't fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you'll probably make it worse.
A good ending is important in short fiction (well, in long fiction, too), and while some of these stories wrapped up perfectly, several of the endings left me unsatisfied. On the whole, though, I was impressed by every story in the collection, and I recommend this book.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Juliette Wade urges writers to ask the scariest question, Why should I care about this story?: "So what is it that makes a reader care? This is a tricky question, and not everyone will answer entirely the same way. However, the best place to look is at the protagonist and their goals, and what will happen if those goals are not met."