Few American short story writers have garnered as much respect or as many accolades as George Saunders has over the last couple of decades. A darling of The New Yorker and a frequent recipient of national story writing awards, Saunders has come to epitomize certain aspects of the turn-of-the-century American psyche. With his 1996 debut, CivilwarLand in Bad Decline, and in the collections that followed, Saunders has established himself as a satirist whose irony brings the idiosyncrasies of late capitalism into unflinching focus.
Tenth of December further solidifies this reputation through stories like "My Chivalric Fiasco," a variation on the signature Saunders plot, depicting a jaded, long-suffering worker employed in a bizarre, symbolically fraught theme park. More notable, however, is that Saunders' most recent collection represents a significant expansion of his range, providing evidence for his continued growth as a writer.
Saunders sharpened his eye for the absurdist elements of the corporate workplace while working as a technical writer during the 1990s, and many of his stories seem to draw directly from that experience. (See "Exhortation" from this collection, a story written as a stream-of-consciousness, euphemism-obscured memo from boss to office.) Others of his stories might be termed speculative fiction, exaggerating facets of our present to take us a few steps into a thoroughly American, somewhat dystopian future. It is in a third type of story, however, that Saunders' growth as a writer is most visible: character pieces that showcase his increasing ability to write in a broad array of registers and voices.
Tenth of December is remarkable because nearly every story in the collection is an act of sustained and thoroughly compelling ventriloquism. The best qualities of Saunders' unique voice remain intact, but in the most successful stories, like the title story, we are utterly immersed in his characters and apt to forget who is speaking through them. Admittedly, these ornately developed voices sometimes are a liability, occasionally becoming too overwrought and causing the narrative to buckle beneath their weight. But these hiccups are few and easily overlooked.
Saunders has repeatedly tried to adopt the posture of a cynic, wryly calling our attention to the absurd and the hypocritical. But Tenth of December shows, more than any other Saunders collection, that he is not a true cynic, even at his darkest. And no story is darker than "Escape from Spiderhead," told from the perspective of a murderer imprisoned in a research facility where experimental drugs are tested on inmates. The story is at once funny and desperate, but the act of redemption that closes it exemplifies what has always differentiated Saunders from other satirists: a deep reservoir of compassion for his subjects.