The problem with some works of dystopian fiction is that, in their eagerness to create an alternative universe that offers a cautionary tale to the modern world, authors often let cleverness nudge heart to the periphery. Not that a piece of fiction or drama has to have warmth to be successful --- Tom Stoppard once said that to criticize a work for being cold presumes that warm is the preferred emotion --- but fantasy and sci-fi often fail to create any emotional connection at all, regardless of its temperature. Good comedies make you laugh, but great comedies find laughs in meaningful situations. The same is true for dystopian fiction.
"Saunders’s frequent use of interior monologue and multiple perspectives gives the stories a complexity they otherwise would have lacked.... This is one of the most accomplished books of short fiction you will ever read."
The two best stories in TENTH OF DECEMBER, George Saunders’s stunning new collection, are dystopian fiction at its best. “Escape from Spiderhead” is the tale of a convict named Jeff whose captors force him to take part in clinical trials for drugs that, when pumped into the participant, alter his or her emotions. When the man running the experiment puts Jeff in a room with a young woman named Heather and pumps Verbaluce™ into each convict’s MobiPak™, the prisoners become sexually attracted to one another and respond accordingly. The testers perform the same experiment with other participants and then use different drugs to gauge their effect on other emotions.
In a lesser writer’s hands, this story would have been little more than an exercise in shocking the reader. But Saunders is wise enough to give his characters empathy for each other. The characters are not just cogs in a bizarre bureaucratic machine but feeling individuals who are aware of the implications of their actions. Saunders’s gift for vivid detail and his ability to home in on moments that quickly define character have never been used to more stunning effect.
The same is true in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the best story in the book. In clipped sentences, the 40-year-old protagonist keeps a diary of his life with his wife and three young children. He and the rest of his financially struggling family attend a birthday party for Leslie Torrini, one of daughter Lilly’s classmates. The Torrinis own Ferraris and Porsches and have a red Oriental bridge on their 30-acre property. But the biggest outward signs of their success are their Semplica Girls, or SGs: Asian women who were destitute in their home countries and whom the Torrinis have hired as live garden ornaments. When the narrator suddenly comes into money, he orders four SGs of his own and, via microlines threaded through their skulls, has them hoisted in front of his house.
You wouldn’t expect a story with this wonderfully strange premise to have moments of tenderness, but Saunders surprises us by turning material that could have been lurid into something profound, even hopeful. By telling us about the lives of the Asian women, giving us pertinent details about most of the characters, and including touching flashbacks to the narrator’s relationship with his father, Saunders creates an unsettling yet deeply moving tale of family and status. Anyone who wants to learn how to construct a short story should study this piece.
Saunders’s frequent use of interior monologue and multiple perspectives gives the stories a complexity they otherwise would have lacked. This is most vividly true in the first and last stories. “Victory Lap,” a story of a 15-year-old girl, the man who tries to abduct her, and the boy with overprotective parents who witnesses the attempted kidnapping, shifts back and forth among each character’s point of view. In spare, slangy sentences, Saunders captures the frustrations of adolescence and every parent’s nightmare in a story that is harrowing and heartbreakingly beautiful. And in the title piece, a middle-aged cancer patient who years earlier witnessed his father’s steady mental decline has his suicide plans interrupted when he sees a young boy fall into an icy river. Saunders develops each character’s history so beautifully that, when their two lives intersect, the ending is as devastating as it is unexpected.
As most authors do, Saunders has a tendency to repeat himself. More than one story involves a character striking another with a blunt instrument. Saunders likes characters who use “like” as an interjection. And his concatenations of words, such as LaffKidsOffCrack and KnightLyfe, are funny at first but become tiresome. This is a problem with story collections; the tics are more prominent. But I’m quibbling. This is one of the most accomplished books of short fiction you will ever read.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on February 8, 2013