I can recall the precise moment I went from thinking that George Saunders was a talented writer of funny stories to thinking that he might be a genuine Swiftian force in American fiction, a satirist who so ably captured the risible absurdity of our age that he seemed capable of causing real damage. In one passage from “Bounty,” his brilliant 1995 novella, a slavemaster in a barbaric America of the near future explains to his newly purchased human chattels the nature of their relationship — but in the language of a garrulous, enlightened CEO who’s just returned from a three-day human resources retreat. He can’t offer them their freedom, he tells them regretfully, but he’ll gladly foot the bill for an end-of-the-year barbecue blowout, interior-decoration allowances for their slave quarters, even “meditation classes and miniseminars on certain motivational principles we can all put to work in our lives.” He wants, he says, for his slaves to feel “empowered,” to exhibit “directedness.”
Everything you need to know about what makes Saunders such an essential literary figure for our time is right there. The elements that define that brief passage have evolved by now into a unique and inimitable style, one well-suited to an era that pits smooth-voiced plutocrats against the 47 percent. For starters, there’s the dystopian setting, suggestive of some environmental or economic calamity that has sent America reeling backward into an unlovely aspect of its past. There’s also his focus on the way power imbalances become formalized in our everyday activities. If not actually enslaved, Saunders’s sad-sack heroes are frequently employed in dispiriting dead-end jobs. He’s especially fond of imagining them as low-wage performers or historical reenactors in perverse theme parks and tableaux vivants, where their degradation is presented as middlebrow entertainment for the wealthy.
Before becoming a MacArthur fellow, a creative writing professor and an award-winning fiction writer, Saunders worked for such large companies as Kodak and Radian, an environmental engineering firm. From both experiences, he clearly took an awareness of how the ridiculously obtuse jargon one hears echoing throughout the meeting rooms of corporate America has infected our discourse. In Saunders, no less than in Orwell, language is routinely mutated and manipulated by the powerful to divide humans and obscure inhumanity. In Orwell, it’s terrifying; in Saunders, somehow, it’s hysterical.
It can be poignant, too. In one way or another, all the tales in “Tenth of December,” his amazing new collection of stories, are about the tragedy of separation. What distinguishes it from the three equally fine collections that have preceded it (“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation”) is the added pinch of semi-sweet salvation, an ingredient most other satirists diligently avoid for fear of ruining their sour-by-design recipes.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the longest and weirdest story here, is about one devoted family man’s attempt to brighten his daughter’s birthday by plunking down the money for the latest “must-have” suburban accoutrement: an artful arrangement of white-robed women — poor immigrants from Third World locales — who are quite literally strung up and displayed in the front yard as living, breathing lawn ornaments. You could take every class offered in the Oberlin liberal arts catalogue and still not get as close as Saunders does in these pages to understanding the connections among sexism, racism, post-colonialism, late-stage capitalism and white middle-class anxiety. (And you certainly wouldn’t find yourself laughing uproariously at it all.)
As the proud owner of those strung-together Semplica Girls explains to his dubious daughter, she needn’t feel sorry for them: The money they’ll be receiving at the end of their contract “helps them take care of the people they love” upon their return to whichever impoverished, war-torn home awaits them. He would seem to share a moral compass with the rationalizing technicians in another story, “Escape From Spiderhead.” They administer mood-altering chemicals to prisoners to find the formula that will finally allow for total human mastery over sadness, anger, lust and other volatile emotions. (As one of them puts it, sounding very much like a Silicon Valley whiz kid seeking venture capital for his start-up, such a discovery would be “killer,” a “fantastic game changer.”) When the story’s test-subject narrator is made to understand just how far he is expected to go in the name of science — and in the name of pharmaceutical company profit — his terror is absolute. With his last act of defiance, he manages to achieve the redemption that society and his jailers never considered a possibility.
Both of these stories are characteristically Saundersesque, in that their surrealism provides just enough of an otherworldly sheen to make them seem vaguely cautionary. When he’s in his satirical mode, Saunders prefers to set his critique in the degraded world we’re heading toward rather than the merely compromised one we’re living in.
Lately, though, one detects a movement away from surrealism and toward the wintry, Rust Belt naturalism we see in the fiction of Charles Baxter or Saunders’s fellow Upstate New Yorker William Kennedy. It’s represented here in such stories as “Puppy,” in which the prism of class so distorts one woman’s vision of another that empathy is out of the question; in “Home,” which follows an emotionally unstable war veteran as he reconnects with his family members; and, most effectively, in this collection’s title story, the tale of a suicidal man’s encounter with a socially awkward boy on a northern lake.
Each one of these is as funny and off-kilter and formally ingenious as you want a Saunders story to be, but each one is also something else: unabashedly tender. The author has often been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, whom he regards as a major influence, and the comparison is apt for many reasons. But even Vonnegut’s biggest fans acknowledge his cynicism: The eyewitness to the bombing of Dresden never fully forgave humanity for it and many other 20th-century sins. Saunders, by contrast, hasn’t given up on us all — not yet. As one particularly despondent character says about the value of staying alive, of remaining connected to those he loves: “There could still be many — many drops of goodness.” Those are fighting words to most satirists, and they just happen to appear in the very last pages of the very last story in this collection. One wonders, eagerly, how his next story will begin.
Turrentine, a former writer for The Washington Post, is an editor at OnEarth magazine.
TENTH OF DECEMBER
By George Saunders
Random House. 272pp. $26