Thursday, December 13, 2012

Recognizing The Beautifully Absurd

Tenth of December: StoriesTenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tenth of December, George Saunders’ new book, is overwhelming. Reading these stories sometimes gives the effect that one is being pelted with foam bricks. You blink and jump at first because you realize you are being assaulted, but then you realize thrower isn’t trying to injure, just get your attention. That isn’t to say that cumulative effect isn’t painful, even though you pretend everyone is just playing.

"Victory Lap" is a bit confusing, not so much because of the three different points of view, but because it is not clear whether the central action of the story is a rape, a killing, or both or some other type of assault. Perhaps it doesn't really matter. One point of view is from the young girl who has been assaulted. Another is from the attacker. For me the most interesting point of view was from the neighbor boy who seems to have a crush on the girl and who has witnessed some of the event, but we are not quite sure what.

In "Sticks," a pole in the yard become where and how a father expresses what is on his failing mind. Like so many of Saunders' tales, it is both whimsical and sad.

"Puppy" is about a "family mission," led by a hopeful mother to get rid of a family dog it seems only the father doesn't want. The narrator says, "Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get him better." This is a powerful story about the conflict inherent in trying to control one's environment as one gives in to the need for companionship, a theme I sensed from many of Saunders' stories.

Convicted murderers become participants in experiments on behavior and drugs in "Escape from Spiderhead," an engaging and disturbing story. Its tone is well-controlled, and the climax scary and a little beautiful at the same time. This is followed by another story with the absurdity of authority as a principal theme: “Exhortation.” Here a boss tries to encourage his underlings, via memo, to take a more positive attitude and stop second-guessing those in charge. Both stories are comic and tragic, revealing the logical conclusion of the Peter Principle.

In “Al Roosten,” a middle-aged single man participates in a charity auction and thinks of the many ways life has held him down. This is followed by "Home," the story of a court-martialed soldier returns to his wacky, dysfunctional family. When the protagonist arrives, he finds his mother and her recent husband have been evicted and that he isn’t trusted around his sister’s baby. People continue to thank him for his service to the country at the same time they add to his misery.

In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a man is put in a difficult position when he realizes his boss has had sex with his co-worker. The question of whether the affair was consensual keeps coming up, but never gets quite answered. The protagonist finds out that doing the right thing has negative consequences, not only for him, but for the person he expects to save.

The collection closes with the title story, about an imaginative boy who falls through the ice in a pond after thinking himself a hero to a young girl, and is saved by a man with cancer who is trying to kill himself. The story encapsulates a number of themes found throughout the book: the flights and limits of imagination, the ugly reality of being a hero, the fragility of all existence, and how closely we are connected to people whose existence we are unaware of.

George Saunders' fiction may take some getting used to, particularly for readers who want their stories to have clear cut, happy or sad endings or characters we can easily "relate" to. But like the work of Flannery O'Connor, what we find with Saunders is that the more we look at his characters, the more we recognize them. Then what passes as absurdity becomes frighteningly real.

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