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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tenth of December: Playful With Perspective

This is not a book review. The reason? I have no idea how to review a short story collection. I can tell you I really liked most of these stories. They made me think, they made me feel things, and they're entertaining as hell. I can tell you I left this collection as a new evangelist for George Saunders. But, as a collection, is it good? How do you tell? I guess maybe you judge that on questions like, is there a common theme? Do the stories share similar elements? Is there a message?

In the 10 stories that comprise Tenth of December, there actually does seem to be a theme — Saunders loves playing with perspective, both that of his characters and his readers. The two prime examples of this are the two stories that bookend the collection, "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December." Both tell a story from different characters' points of view to give the reader a more holistic emotional picture of emotionally jarring events. They're both incredibly entertaining

But Saunders also seems interested in stories that ask us to consider the moving target of morality, and the factors that cause morals to be manipulated. In "Escape From Spiderland," probably my favorite from this collection, a guy is being experimented on with new pharmaceutical drugs that make him fall in and out of love with different women. Then, to test if there are any lingering effects from the love drugs, he has to decide which of the women to hurt. The conclusion is shocking. This is just a mind-blowinglingly good story.

My second favorite in the collection, "The Semplica Girl Diaries," is about how hivemind and the need to keep up with the Joneses can change our collective moral compass. Imagine a world, not unlike our current one, where people take lottery winnings and irresponsibly buy stupid crap instead of paying their bills. Now imagine the stupid crap they buy are human decorations for their lawns — poor people from third-world countries who come here to be Semplica Girls and send money back to their families. What's crazy is how not crazy it seems in this fictional world. It's a brilliant story, and one that will probably make you more than a little uncomfortable.

It's no coincidence that the four stories mentioned so far are the longest —they were definitely the most resonant with me. The shorter stories, like "Puppy," about only seeing what we think we should see, and "Home," about the absurdity of convention when we don't have all the facts (People telling a soldier "Thank you for your service," but he's done something really wrong and we never really find out what it is) are still entertaining, but just with not quite the punch of the others. And I actively disliked the story "My Chivalric Fiasco" about a dude who works in a Medieval Times-like place and starts talking as if he actually is in medieval times.

But overall, I can't recommend this more highly. And now, I'm off to look into Saunders' other collections. (Any suggestion are welcome!)

5 comments:

  1. You say you don't know how to review a short story collection; then you do a perfectly capable job of proving yourself wrong.

    Sold!

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    1. That's nice of you to say! I think the above more a "reaction" than a review - subtle difference, for sure, but an important one. At any rate, it's awesome - and I hope you like it, too.

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  2. I'd second what Hawk said above--excellent review, especially for someone who "doesn't know how to review short story collections." (I totally know what you mean, though. It's not like writing about a novel, is it?).

    I bought this on my whirlwind tour of Brooklyn's indie bookstores this month so now need to just find the time to pick it up.

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    1. You're right - it's so much harder than writing about a novel. The good thing about READING short stories though, is that you can "find time" for them amidst many other things - and you don't have to read cover to cover. If you only have 20 minutes, pick a 20-minute length story.

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  3. I teach a few stories from his In Persuasion Nation - they are so tight and good. Check it out.

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