For Christmas this year I received a copy of George Saunders’ collection of short stories entitled Tenth of December. I had never heard of Saunders before, and didn’t know what to expect, but the giver of this gift– an inspiring young man securing his MFA in film directing with whom I’ve been known to occasionally watch Celtics games, make an Indian food run, or share a conversation in support of a draft screenplay in which we deconstruct the failed art of management performance reviews, whose mother I fell in love with some decade and a half ago– has had a habit of providing me with the next best bit of art or literature for which I am ready, so I began with eagerness.
And now I am hooked.
(Thank you, Willy…!)
(A music video Willy conceived, directed, shot and edited…)
All of the stories were great, and I can’t slight any of them by coughing up a favorite, but I will say I laughed with joy amidst the brief tragedy of My Chivalric Fiasco. The witty ebullience and brash innocence that emerge after a few minor chemical “adjustments” to the main character were priceless. When I reached the end of that particular session I set the book down and swore a few times in gratitude. You might think that is a subtle acknowledgment of a favorite, but I swore to myself frequently while reading this book.
I loved the way Saunders uses TM and ® symbols in several of the stories, My Chivalric Fiasco among them, attaching those symbols to proper nouns he deploys to describe the active ingredients of mass manufactured experience– to fictitious drugs that are named for the moods and feelings they induce in the characters, or to events such as parties that are named for their caricatured themes. His stories are sprinkled with these ACME style experience-inducing elements, as if all of life can be commoditized, controlled and offered in separately wrapped packages on aisle 5– a myth Saunders constantly dispels– but surrounding and infusing these carefully branded ironies are brilliantly wrought characters planted in moments of crisis or uncertainty to which we can all relate, situations where we find real lives in the balance.
Saunders’ characters are honest, complex, and confused, but also loving. Like us. We see in these stories the aberrations of loving that permeate our world– the distortions that arise from seeking to protect and defend, from mixing love with shame and guilt, from introducing our conditioned expectations to the unscripted abyss. I experienced Saunders’ characters with the immediacy of the way I experience myself, as a stream of consciousness muttered under the breath, as a rich stream of cognitions too scarcely examined, filled with desire, inconsistency, inadequacy, and compromise. But still somehow luminous.
A great pleasure for me in reading this book was the discussion at the back (of the paperback version) where Saunders is interviewed by David Sedaris, another writer I would undoubtedly benefit from discovering. During the interview Saunders talks about the way he writes– about how he begins with a glimmer, an insight, a line of dialogue, or a character, and then he builds from there. I loved his notion that there are no failed stories, only stories that have a mind to become what they are rather than what we may have wanted them to be instead. If we can sit with them, and let them teach us what they desire to be, we can bring them to life as fully as possible. These morsels were reassuring to me, as they put into words things I had been feeling. Not that this is any sort of validation of my potential as a writer… It simply didn’t hurt to hear an author as accomplished as Saunders describe a phenomenon I’m able to correlate in some small way to my own plunking in the dark.
He also spoke, however, of his stories as his laboratory, as a means of putting love into the midst of difficulty to see what it might really be made of. I thought that was a beautiful description of fiction’s power to guide and influence us. When Willy gave me the book, he suggested I watch a Saunders video on-line, and while I’m not sure I found the one he had in mind, I found a good one. I think it contains a little insight into the man, and what he may have meant about his characters being fundamentally loving. Like us. I know time is precious, but I think this is twelve minutes worth spending…