If all of our angst and private suffering were broadcast out through our pores and into the air as invisible vapors, then George Saunders would figure out how to bottle it all up and sell the stuff back to us. He might even run the vapors through some sort of Philip K. Dick machine, transmuting it into small, cuddly, but occasionally deadly, animals. What I mean is that the emotionally volatile stories contained in his latest short story collection—Tenth of December—are easily among some of his most moving and brilliantly creative yet.
Actually, it’s almost unfair to call Saunders “creative.” His command of crazy perspective shifts and high-concept premises are the baseline of what we understand and notice about his work. Saying he can turn an odd phrase or repeat a word over and over again (“verboten” is back!) and make it seem normal is like saying NBA players really know how to jump high. The difference is that there is no crazy National George Saunders Association where various clones of the author savagely compete to see who can write the most moving and weird story ever. (But I suspect he could write an awesome story like that…)
Though various speculative fiction premises pervade Tenth of December, I had an odd realization about Saunders and his relationship with, well, stuff that isn’t real. A lot of writers approach speculative fiction by posing the question “what if?” in relation to a scientific/basic truth that’s being advanced or inverted. But Saunders tends to codify human behavior and relationships into specific terms, frequently with capital letters. This technique can often seem innocuous, but it’s incredibly sly and pervasive. In the story “Puppy,” terms like Family Mission and Noble Baker get this capital letter treatment. And in the opening story “Victory Lap,” an object called the Family Status Indicator reports on which member of the family is In or Out. Is George Saunders aware of the Weasleys’ family clock in the Harry Potter books, which essentially serves the same purpose as his Family Status Indicator? Doubtful, and yet, whereas Rowling’s version combines the notion of time with location, Saunders gestures at the notion of overbearing family control mashed-up with an ultra-paranoid, violence-fearing society. There is no Voldemort coming to kill this strange family in “Victory Lap,” just deranged, real-life psychopaths. But parental worry/control codified through an object is the same brand of speculative fiction: emotions wrapped up in things.
The theme of externalizing the human experience really hits you in the face in the excellent, sob-inducing story “Escape from Spiderhead.” In some kind of near-future (or perhaps an alarming present day?), criminals are put through a series of intense social experiments designed to determine if emotions can be controlled through artificial chemical reactions. The various characters are outfitted with “MobiPaks™” which contain a variety of chemicals which are administered through something called “the Drip.” (Shades of “make” from Lethem’s Gun With Occasional Music are definitely present—again, like the Weasley clock, maybe not intentionally.) The various chemicals perform all sorts emotion-altering tasks: Verbaluce™ enhances your creative speaking abilities, ChatEase™ makes you chatty, Vivistif™ makes you horny, and Darkenfloxx™ makes you super, super depressed. The mad scientists directing the various subjects are attempting to concoct a sort of procedure/potion, which will guide people away or towards love. After a particularly harrowing experiment, one of the “researchers” named Abensti gives this speech to the main character, Jeff:
“…What a fantastic game changer. Say some can’t love? Now he or she can. We can make him. Say someone loves too much? Or loves someone deemed unsuitable by his or her caregiver? We can tone that shit right down. Say someone is blue, because of true love? We step in or his or her caregiver does: blue no more. No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift. No one is. We see a ship adrift, we climb aboard, install a rudder. Guide him/her toward love. Or away from it. You say, ‘All you need is love’? Look, here comes ED289/290.”
As in his excellent novella “Pastoralia,” Saunders combines both repetitions of bizarre tasks with relatable, colloquial language, creating jarring results. The profanity and feigned side-laughter flow through these stories in way that makes them both highly readable and really unsettling at the same time. Sometimes, I feel like George Saunders is mocking my conception of the human condition, and other times I feel like he’s giving me a tough-love hug about how screwed up we all are.
To say the prose and the concepts in Tenth of December are experimental would be accurate, but not quite descriptive enough. These stories refuse to be read casually, demanding your full attention not only to process the awesome/weird sentences, but also slapping you around with emotional profundities like nobody’s business. Are you prepared for the stories in this book? You are not.
Tenth of December is out now from Random House.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com