Snap 2013-06-23 at 23.46.25Tenth of December by George Saunders:
Hit or Miss

In a stunning coup d’état for George, The New York Times christened his latest collection “the best book you’ll read this year” on, like, January 3, 2013. No fair! No fair! This month, Snotty Literati takes on Tenth of December.

Lara: See, that’s the problem with making a bold prediction on the third day of the year; The New York Times is wrong. It’s maybe the Weirdest Book You’ll Read This Year, but for me it’s The One Book You’ll Read This Year that You Have No Idea To Whom You Would Recommend It or The Book You Will Actually Not Finish Because You Can’t Take It Anymore.

Jennifer: Oh, yikes, Lara, that’s harsh. I take it you didn’t like it? I don’t know what this means. Maybe I’ll need to boot you out of the Literati? Of course, your Mockingbird (not Mockingjay) credentials might prevent me from taking such drastic measures.

First, I’ve read weirder this year.

Second, I agree the prediction is not smart.

Third [insert hemming/hawing], though I didn’t love the book like some others I know, I cannot—in good conscience—diss Saunders too much. I love him on principle.

Lara: I thought you would be more upset that I actually didn’t finish it. Did you not catch that? By the last story I was done, I couldn’t take it anymore. I dumped Saunders for Palahniuk. That being said there were a few things I liked. Why don’t we break this down, one story at a time?

First up was “Victory Lap” about a WASPY girl turning fifteen and the heavily helicopter-parented neighbor boy who saves her from being kidnapped. This was actually good and I liked the narrative focus shifting between the girl, the boy, and the kidnapper, but the kidnapper perspective was really jarring. You know what it is? A lot of this book pushed me and made me uncomfortable.

Jennifer: I did catch that, but I was in denial. Please hand over your library card. You are no longer a member of the Literati.

Allow me to tell you my George Saunders’ backstory. When I was, like, twenty-five (!) and living in Manhattan, I had this friend, whose name I don’t even remember which makes me feel pathetic (Elizabeth, something? Come forward, Elizabeth! I’m now this unknown writer, writing books, Elizabeth!), who was a publicist at a big publishing house. I remember two things about Elizabeth. She had this incredible apartment in the West Village—prime Greenwich Village rental—that I both envied and hated, because it made me feel like my New York life was somehow not real or good, and she was all excited about her new writer-client, George Saunders. In fact, she was so excited that she gave me his debut book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And that book, especially the title story, is great. Thank you, Elizabeth What’s-Your-Face.

That said, I feel a lot of love and respect for his writing.

I also saw him read “Victory Lap” aloud in Denver. Then, I read it twice. If these things hadn’t happened, I would’ve been confused by the shifts in perspective. Since they did happen, I loved the story. Next.

Lara: I totally get how having a good experience with an author—even if it’s one he or she doesn’t know about—can have a positive effect on one’s view of that writer. And Saunders is a good writer. I think I need to get used to him, break him in. This first read was like a new pair of shoes I wanted to like but I got a few rubs against my toes and heels. Not quite blisters, but they weren’t slippers either.

I actually also liked “Sticks.” Okay. I am not really building a case for not liking this book. But “Sticks” was a pretty perfect short story with a beginning, middle, and end—and it was only two pages. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Jennifer: “Sticks” was okay. I’m not building a good case, either. Great book! So-so story. “Puppy”? Same. Pretty good.

Here’s the thing. There’s something—once you’re into the Saunders’ Groove—that’s very enjoyable about his prose. He writes about the absurd truth of the moment, and he’s funny about sad things.

Lara: “Puppy” killed me – in a sad way. It made me cringe. It hurt my heart. There was no satire or funny business about it. It needed a disclaimer that animal lovers shouldn’t read it. I actually can’t talk about it, and I have to move on. “Escape from Spiderhead.” Felt science fictionish, and that’s not my cup of tea. Seemed out of place with the other stories up to this point except for the fact that the ending was morbid, like “Puppy.”

Jennifer: Oh! “Escape from Spiderhead” is possibly my favorite one. Not science-fictiony but socio-political satire! I know—because you told me off-the-record—that you didn’t like the intrusion of those made up words—like Darkenfloxx™–but, for some reason, I feel like George is whispering a joke in my ear that I’m totally getting. This story is science-fiction in the way Woody Allen’s Sleeper and George Orwell’s 1984 are sci-fi.

Lara: I love that “Escape from Spiderhead” was your favorite. Figures. “Exhortation” is the story that’s a funny, but not that funny, email from a manager to his team. Meh. Didn’t remember it.

Jennifer: Loved “Exhortation”! I love the dorky humor. What is it I want to—need to—say about George Saunders? The protagonist, written in first person, is somehow the most average, most ordinary, most trapped-in-suburbia-and-suburban-thinking dude around, and Saunders allows his reader to see the madness. This is what a good Saunders story does. I need to abstain from using the word dude, however.

Same thing with “Al Roosten.” This time, he reveals the self-deception, the darkness, of Joe Schmoe.

Lara: I see that, and thought it was better executed in “Al Roosten” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Now, the girls hanging from wires through their heads was creepy, but the dad trying to keep up with the Joneses and completely losing it was funny. I actually laughed through “Semplica.” I may need to give ol’ George another chance. I am seeing things a little differently through your perspective. Don’t let that go to your head or anything. You still owe me a book of my choice for this one and at least three for Moby Dick.

Jennifer: The title story in his first book is pure gold.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is my second favorite story, though it did take me a while to figure out what was going on. Here, think about his brilliance: Saunders is mingling three things: the creepy, outlandishness of this Semplica-thing; mundane; middle-class economic woes; and the pressures of being a dad in contemporary America, and, wow!, look what he comes up with!

Get this. The kids in “Semplica” are caught watching a TV show, which is forbidden. The forbidden TV show is called “I, Gropius,” a reality show for the future, on which this “guy decides which girl to date based on feeling [the] girls’ breasts through [a] screen with two holes.”


What’s more is that Saunders is a married dad. I like this.

Lara: That was great and actually reminded me of Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and Claire with her disdain of having to read through ridiculous reality TV pitches, like “Eat It” where people race to eat enormous amounts of food or “Rich MILF, Poor MILF.” But all of Beautiful Ruins was pretty brilliant. Sigh.

In his next story, “Home,” Saunders seems to play it the straightest, with dysfunctional family woes, class conflict, and a mother who actually BLEEPS in place of swearing. That was a kick, but this story otherwise came up lacking for me. Let me guess. You loved it.

Jennifer: “Home” was going to be my favorite story, but it wasn’t because there were too many unexplained things in it. I didn’t like how we never really knew what MiiVOXMIN and MiiVOXMAX were all about, nor did I like the lack of resolution in the story. However, if he would’ve given me more, I would’ve loved it. I wanted that story to work.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” was too much of a good Saunders thing. I love his amusement park shtick, but I got a little weary.

Lara: I forgot about the Mii-stuff. Again, an insertion of the weird that was too weird for my taste.

Okay, I have another confession. I actually didn’t read the two last stories. I know you want to take my Snotty Literati card away, but how about you just owe me one book of my choice for Moby and we call it even?

Jennifer: We’ll see. Okay, so—for the sake of symmetry—I’ll give you my take on the final story, the title story. Which you didn’t read. Alas, it was so-so!

Does this book, however, have a great big thematic thrust that holds it all together? These stories expose the ridiculousness of who we are, right now, with our middle class angst. We are self-deceptive. We are cruel. We are bad. But we are other things, too. We love our families. We question morality. We are funny.

Lara: Yes, we are those things and more. I just wanted more from the stories. When I read, I want some wow. Not in a flashy, neon-sign kind of way but in a way that gives me some feeling. Mostly, I didn’t feel all that much while reading these stories. I’m sorry, George. But hey, The New York Times loves ya, baby! Better luck next time.

Speaking of next time, Snotty Literati sits down to discuss the American classic, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

So stay tuned, and keep your eyes peeled. Who are we kidding? We will promote the hell of out of our next column to get your pretty little eyes on it. We won’t let you miss a thing.


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