Tenth of December

George Saunders

Reviewed by Jeremy Beale

Published by Bloomsbury 3 January 2013

272 pp, hardback, £14.99


George Saunders is a humourist and a satirist. His stories, often distorted versions of accepted reality, are generally set in places that aren’t quite the United States of America as we think we know them and feature elements of American culture enlarged out of proportion. What makes Saunders such a refreshing and exciting writer is not just the strangeness he brings to the familiar but the unexpectedness of the events that occur. Gargoyles and mutants are hardly strange to readers of fiction and some of the monsters we meet elsewhere in contemporary writing can seem very pedestrian and tired; it is not Saunders’s mutants that are so strange but what happens to them – the story is more important than its setting.

Some things in Saunders’s new collection of stories will be familiar to people who have read him before. Theme parks are a particular favourite of his and there’s another one here in the story ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’. The grotesquery of the Saunders theme park – the workers in this story are drugged to better simulate the parts they are playing – is less important than the small town gossip that provides the hinge on which the story turns.

Drugs feature elsewhere in the collection, notably in ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ where convicted felons are used as guinea pigs to test psychoactive drugs. The effects are outlandish but once again it is not the exaggeration that makes the story memorable but the humanity of the narrator. Some of the stories in Tenth of December are more naturalistic, straighter than those in Saunders’s previous work; satire can be a savage form but it is clear that George Saunders is not a bitter satirist, the work here is gentler, more humane.

Lovers of the weird and wonderful will find plenty to amuse them in this collection but there is no disguising Saunders’s great sympathy – he can be as funny and as irreverent as Kurt Vonnegut and shares Vonnegut’s great depth of feeling.


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