Tenth of December by George Saunders
Karen Swallow Prior includes three short stories in the list of titles she discusses in On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. The first two are “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor. Characters in those stories are held up as examples of humility. The third short story is “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It is included in a collection of his short stories that also bears the title Tenth of December.
The main character in “Tenth of December,” a pudgy schoolboy named Robin, is held up as an example of kindness. Robin exhibits kindness on a day when the air temperature barely reaches ten degrees Fahrenheit. Driven by a heroic fantasy, he sets off on an adventure in the woods adjacent to his home. He finds a coat on a bench near a pond, the coat belonging to a terminally ill man who has come to commit suicide by hypothermia. Robin sees the man, grabs the coat, and sets out across the frozen pond to reunite the two. It’s a great story; I encourage you to read it yourself to see how it plays out.
The other nine stories in Tenth of December are also worth reading. In my limited experience, especially with short stories, I find several to bear similarities to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The characters are realistic but with some exaggerated flaws. There are elements of science fiction in several stories. One story “Escape from Spiderhead,” reminds me of Ted Chiang’s story, “Understand,” which is included in Stories of Your Life and Others. In “Understand,” a victim of a near drowning in an ice-covered lake is given an experimental drug that expands his cognitive abilities immeasurably beyond the range of human intelligence. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a convicted and imprisoned criminal is given experimental drugs through a remotely controlled IV pump. These drugs can do such things as “lower [one’s] shame level to nil” or “pep up [one’s] language centers” (p. 48) with astonishing and even tragic outcomes. “My Chivalric Fiasco” also features a drug that wreaks havoc on the main character’s life.
George Saunders is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow. I am not qualified to analyze or critique his writing. I can get on my hobbyhorse for a few seconds, though, and wonder why he needed to use language that is still censored in broadcast media throughout most of the stories in this collection. Now for the dismount: I enjoyed all of these stories. They are thought provoking, challenging, and sometimes funny. I commend them to your attention.
Thank you for stopping by.