Choices of morality


George Saunders’ disturbing new book proves that he is the undisputed master of the short story

George Saunders has never published a novel. This hasn’t imperiled his chances of securing a place alongside Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, two sharp-witted literary greats to whom he is often compared. Keen readers open to the unusual are drawn to his disturbingly humorous short fiction, which peels away the lies and rationalizations of our self-medicated, corporate-controlled, pop culture-driven society. In his new book, Tenth of December, the stakes are high; questions of good and evil predominate, as Saunders’ characters struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of darkness.

The narrator of Escape from Spiderhead pays a dear price for his “basic human feeling,” what his tormentors dismissively call the stirrings of his conscience. Set in the near future, Jeff is a young convict who is coerced into participating in clinical drug trials. He acquits himself well until he is given a drug that makes him fall in love with two women. After it wears off, a follow-up is ordered, to see if “any residual fondness” remains. The Sophie’s Choice-like dilemma this entails is resolved movingly by Jeff, out of an awakened sense of oneness with others.

A drug is also central to My Chivalric Fiasco, the funniest of the 10 stories in this collection. Ted is a janitor at a sort of Renaissance Fair. He needs the job; his parents are disabled and unemployed. One night, he walks in on a scullery maid who has just been raped by their boss. To ensure their silence, victim and witness are promoted. Now a knight, Ted must take a pill “to help with the Improv.” Faster than you can sing a song from Spamalot, he thinks and speaks in medieval diction. Unfortunately, he throws himself entirely into the role. He informs the audience that his boss “had taken Foul Advantage” of the maid, by “placing, against her Will, his Rod into her Womanhood.” Chaos naturally ensues. “Security, being then Summoned . . . didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering many harsh Blows to my Head & Body.”

The language in The Semplica-Girl Diaries, however, is as corrupted as the narrator’s morals. Though middle-aged and affluent, she records her daily affairs with the faulty syntax of a 10-year-old. Again we are in the world of tomorrow, where English has fallen pretty to an Orwellian prophecy. But the worst is yet to come. Here immigrant women, known as Semplica Girls, or SGs, undergo a gruesome procedure, in which a line is passed through their heads, and they are hoisted up as outdoor decorations. It takes a child, the narrator’s daughter, to revolt against this “civilized” barbarity.

In Victory Lap, a kid tries to do the right thing, too. A boy watches the girl next door being kidnapped. Should he call 911 or come personally to the rescue? Saunders uses point of view effectively; with practiced ease he switches from the girl to the boy to the kidnapper, a convincing psychopath who reminds himself to “hurt [the girl] early, establish a baseline.”

Things are grayer in Puppy. A wealthy liberal visits a working-class home to buy a dog. She sees something in the backyard through the kitchen window that shocks her. She storms out and drives off in her Lexus, determined to take action. But Saunders doesn’t leave it at that. He places us into the mind of the lady of the house, and we realize that what appears to be child abuse is actually the best a devoted mother can do with limited resources.

And in Home, Mike is an Iraq vet with a checkered past. His sister keeps asking him, “Did you do it?” Saunders does not go into detail about Mike’s atrocity. Instead, he paints a timely portrait of a man who went off to fight for his country and has nothing to show for it except guilt and anger. Everyone thanks him for his service, but the phrase is meaningless, like when a policeman or doctor tells you he’s sorry for your loss. At the end, Mike explodes. He can’t stand the shallowness of American existence. “Your belief that anything and everything can be fixed with talk, talk, endless yapping, hopeful talk.” He is on the verge of committing mass murder. But we are left with a simple cry of the heart: “Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back.”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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