Monday, October 20, 2014

The Garden of Words: 'Tenth of December' by George Saunders


            If you read books for wonderful word concoctions, linguistic gymnastics, and an almost painful sharpness of ear, you’re likely to find satisfaction in the latest collection of short stories by George Saunders, “Tenth of December.” Saunders is a master of capturing the contemporary American argot: the adoption of workplace, technical, digital, and media jargon to everyday uses. Where, especially in the inner monologue of our lives, these verbal safaris provide an insistent and often unintentionally humorous effect. At least in the characters Saunders whips up for us.
            In stories such as "Victory Lap," the volume opener, the author treats us to the thought stream of his narrator or main characters, from adolescent fantasy to mid-life confusions. His people tend to be hopeful, traditionally optimistic Americans. If they work hard and keep on believing in themselves, things should work out. If not on this page, perhaps a few pages later on. We’re often peering into these characters’ lives at moments when things are not presently working out.
            "Victory Lap," one of the stories that stayed longest with me, gives us two young people at a moment of unanticipated crisis. Before the inconceivable 'bad thing' happens, the author's prose has already got us into their heads. When it comes to young people, Saunders is all over that ‘like.’ Nearly fifteen, Alison is posing on the stairway of her house while imaging her image as the source of enraptured contemplation by a suite of admirers. How fifteen is that?
            The first of her imaginary suitors says, “Let us go stand in the moon.” Had he meant 'on' the moon? If so, Alison reflects, “she would have to be like, Uh, I’m not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?” Saunders is all over that American ‘Uh’ as well, and that ubiquitous question mark at the end of statements meant to suggest the questionable-ness of almost any assertion. Alison knows, beyond question, that it’s super-cold on the moon, but she’s going to give you a chance to consider how dumb you’re being.
            Meanwhile the neighbor boy Kyle is dealing with a "work note" left for him by uber-controlling father, who sees life as an endless series of performance standards. Poor Kyle's life is so tied up in parental regulations that he can't take a step without making a misstep. Failing to remove his shoes before entering the house, he fears leaving "an incriminating trail of microclods" behind. He imagines a cable TV show called "What if... Right now?" consisting of the dialogues that would occur if his parents discovered him 'right now' when he is in violation of one of their many protocols. His inner monologue relies on phrases like "self-corrected," "per your note," "holly-golly," and "shoe sheet is required."
            The plot of "Victory Lap" appears to be heading toward tabloid TV disaster when a dangerous-nut stalker -- contemporary social paranoia alert! -- appears on the scene with a plan to abduct poor Alison. But when Kyle finds his self-button and involves himself, against the parental warning in his mind, in the real-life drama taking place before his eyes next door, the tale takes an unexpected life-affirming note: "Easy, Scout," his inner voice narrates, "you're out of control... Quiet. I'm the boss of me."
            We suspect this mean the end of parental mind-control for victorious Kyle.
            The insight that our inner voices are always narrating the progress of our lives gives Saunders the technique he draws on for these stories. In the final, "The Tenth of December" we follow the trails of a sick man attempting to remove the burden his existence places on his family and a teenaged 'misfit' who imagines himself becoming a hero as they intersect surprisingly. Again, the inner word stream is spot-on, contemporary, and full of a cleverness the thinkers of these thoughts seem unaware of.
            Faced with the challenge of rescuing the kid from a fall through ice, the undressed suicidally-sick adult thinks about how to get the kid warmed up: "Hug him, lie on top of him. That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle."
            Somehow all this works best, at least for me, when the deeper motivation behind all the mind-chatter is fundamental human decency.