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Review: George Saunders shows his mastery of the short story

Strange things happen in the jungle. George Saunders entered a devotee of Ernest Hemingway. He left a fan of Kurt Vonnegut.

The late ironist/fabulist does not immediately come to mind when you read Saunders’ Tenth of December: Stories, but the influence is evident after you consult Saunders’ 2007 essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone. In “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Saunders writes of discovering Vonnegut’s masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, while working in the Sumatran jungle. At age 23, he was plying his first trade, engineer, while tinkering with writing, and he had to hack his way through some misapprehensions about the latter — mainly that it involved creating inscrutable Art. Oddly enough, though, his hero was the entirely penetrable Hemingway, whose beefy seriousness he admired — until Vonnegut demonstrated a better way. “Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another,” Saunders writes. “What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.”

Let us now rejoice for this rainforest encounter, which apparently was something like that black box. By following the Sage of Indianapolis out of the jungle and leaving Papa behind, Saunders transformed himself into one of our most trenchant writers.

The parallels have limits, of course, but like Vonnegut, Saunders endured a day job before making it big, which he did with the publication of his first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in 1996. And he is a satirist of the first order, often hilariously so and sometimes during moments that leave you feeling a little sheepish about laughing.

Saunders did not completely abandon Hemingway, at least not right away, and other influences, including Raymond Carver, are detectable in his prose. The key difference between him and Vonnegut lies in Saunders’ canny ability to inhabit the minds of his characters, to write as they think. This skill manifests in Tenth of December’s first story, “Victory Lap,” which alternates between the minds of two teenagers, each arriving at a separate empty home in the same neighborhood. While Alison Pope skips around her house, pausing occasionally to execute dance moves, Kyle Boot skulks around his, dodging the internalized voices of his strict parents, whose presumed prohibitions he must overcome when he witnesses an intruder abducting Alison.

Saunders does something similar in the book’s eponymous last story, in which a boy with a prodigious imagination spins heroic reverie on the way to a frozen lake while an escaped schizophrenic also wends his way there with self-extinction in mind, flashing on memories amid a chaos of impulses:

Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.

Hope.

For a writer, of course, words matter, and the character’s descent into madness starts with losing his grip on words. Saunders masterfully traces it in words, and there’s a reason why one word, the correcting “Hope” stands alone in that passage. This, too, traces to Vonnegut, whose central hope was that out of life’s misery and the messes we make of it, we might salvage decency and kindness. That’s not necessarily Saunders’ key theme, but in several stories here, when you least expect it, characters struggle through their minds’ muddle to do the right thing.

Often what they contend with are the debilitating pressures of a mercantile society with a slightly fiendish sci-fi edge, again reminiscent of Vonnegut. Saunders expresses this in a dark vocabulary of composite words straight out of Branding 101. A charity date auction supports LaffKidsOffCrack. A soldier returning to his dysfunctional family wanders into a store full of tags that read MiiVOXmax and MiiVOXmin — he needs the latter, the clerk tells him. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” researchers dispense drugs such as Verbaluce and Vivistiff from a MobiPak — and yes, all with the little TM symbol attached — to a guinea-pig convict.

“Who Am I This Time?” Vonnegut asked in the title of an early short story, about a timid man who comes alive onstage. Throughout Tenth of December Saunders takes a deeper and more troubling turn on existential identity. Are those words coursing through our heads who we are, or are they the hardy residue of nurture in a twisted society? In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a worker in a dystopian theme park is bribed with a promotion to stay silent about a rape he has witnessed, but the pill he takes to perform his new role, KnightLyfe, impels him to reveal the truth — and in hilariously exalted Elizabethan prose. He gets fired, and ruins his life, for doing so, though.

It’s an irony that Vonnegut would savor, yes, but encountered in Saunders’ altogether incomparable little black box.

Tenth of December: Stories George Saunders. Random House, 251 pages