I recoil when a newspaper like The New York Times tries to declare a new title as “the best book you’ll read this year” and it’s only January (January third to be precise) but “Tenth of December” is powerful, memorable stuff.
Believe the hype.
Tobias Wolff, Loorie Moore and Mary Karr and others have all heaped on Saunders, who has been published regularly in The New Yorker for years.
Saunders has made the media rounds, too, from a too-cool interview on The Colbert Report to a heady exchange with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s “Bookworm,” where he chatted about his approach to writing about violence and death and to his relationship with readers.
“It’s a game,” said Saunders. “You know it’s a game, I know it’s a game but let’s pretend it’s not.”
He talked about the “energy transfer” with readers and how the world seems more “luminous” when he reads a powerful piece. You might listen to the interview for a flavor of Saunders’ down-to-earth approach to writing and/or read the New York Times piece about the new book and Saunders’ life around Syracuse, where he makes his home.
In the Times article, he tells us what he learned from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” about making “something undeniable and nontrivial” happen for readers.
There are some dark moments throughout “Tenth of December” but overall the writing has so much energy that I actually think of these stories as light and bright, not dark and dense. There are many off-kilter and nearly dream-like (or nightmare-like) images throughout “Tenth of December” but they are so wild as to be humorous and life-affirming.
I liked the writing and the characters and the “plot,” so to speak of these stories but I liked the ideas behind the stories as much as anything else. Some whacky stuff, science-fiction wrapped in absurd wrapped in satire and interspersed with gritty realism. Philip K. Dick channels Woody Allen mashed up with Raymond Carver. If you read about Saunders or listen to his interviews, it’s clear that some of these stories have been worked on for years and years—and that polish shows. The stories stand apart from each other as Saunders climbs deep inside the heads of his sharply-chiseled, and often quirky, individuals. The overall feeling is edgy, unnerving.
Dark? Sure. Depressing? I don’t think so. On the aforementioned “Bookworm” interview, Saunders talked about his approach to writing dark:
“When I put in something that’s violent or dark or cruel I feel like you gotta do a gut check and say, ‘okay, wait a minute are you just being gratuitous, is this an avoidance?’ Or are you going to be able to make something profound out of it? So, in other words, are you going to be able to use this to raise the bar, in some way? It’s a little bit like joking, you know. When we were kids in Chicago one of the daring but dangerous things you could do in Catholic school was to bark out a joke all of a sudden. There would be some funny, comic energy in the room and the person who would say it would get a big laugh and often get in trouble. So you had to say, ‘if I say this thing, is it going to be worth it?’”
“Tenth of December” is worth it. George Saunders raises the bar. Yeah, I recoil at the hype. But the hype might be right.