When my brother was visiting a few months ago, he told me to read a short story by George Saunders that appeared in The New Yorker in 2002. It’s called “My Flamboyant Grandson.” It’s a short piece about a loving grandfather who takes his grandson to see a Broadway show. If you haven’t read it, here it is.
“My Flamboyant Grandson” is a great representation of Saunders’ short fiction: The setting is a somewhat dystopian future. The narrator has a distinct and interesting voice. It’s got a touch of darkness. But it’s funny. It’s touching. And it’s just plain good.
If you like “My Flamboyant Grandson,” you’ll like Tenth of December, which is Saunder’s latest collection, published last year. It contains ten short stories, ranging in length from two pages to sixty pages, and each one packs a punch.
There’s a lot of darkness here (certainly more than what you find in “My Flamboyant Grandson,” so consider yourself forewarned). In Saunders’ eyes, the world is not a bright and happy place . . . and the future is only getting darker. There are messages about corruption by wealth, the irony of condescension, the dangerous powers of mind-altering drugs, and the pain of survival. But when stories are written this well (and contain great funny bits, too), who cares if they’re dark?
What strikes me the most about Saunders’ short stories is the uniqueness of each character’s voice. Stories like “Victory Lap,” “Puppy,” and “Tenth of December” bounce seamlessly among different characters’ perspectives. Each character’s voice is individual, appropriate, and creative.
This collection begins and ends with GREAT stories that serve as excellent, symmetrical bookends.
As always with collections of short fiction, I have rated and summarized each story individually:
- “Victory Lap”: Nerdy high school kid saves his neighbor from an attempted kidnapping . . . and then she saves him back. A great example of Saunders’ ability to infuse tragedy with humor. 4.5/5
- “Sticks”: A super-short story (only 2 pages!) about a mean dad whose “one concession to glee” was a metal pole in the front yard that he dressed up for holidays (Santa suit for Christmas, ghost sheet for Halloween, etc.). 4/5
- “Puppy”: A story of two moms: one rich and self-righteous, one poor and struggling. Rich mom takes her kids to poor mom’s house to assess the puppy that poor mom is trying to sell. 4.5/5
- “Escape from Spiderhead”: Futuristic story of a criminal in a prison-alternative facility. The criminals in the facility take part in experiments where they are given meds and hormones (drugs like Darkenfloxx™ and BlissTyme™ and Verbaluce™ and VeriTalk™) that alter their emotions and mental states. 4/5
- “Exhortation”: A pep-talk memo from a boss to his employees, encouraging them to strive for their best in a less-than-ideal job situation. 3.5/5
- “Al Roosten”: Delusional loser enters himself into a local “celeb” auction. 3.5/5
- “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: The longest story in the collection, written in the form of a father’s journal entries. Middle-class, down-trodden guy writes about his struggles to keep up with the Joneses. When he hits it semi-big with a lottery scratcher, he is able to make one of his dreams come true: he can have a small display of Semplica Girls (poor, immigrant girls strung up by a surgical line through their heads) installed in his front yard! 3.5/5
- “Home”: Guy returns from the war (“Thank you for your service.”), struggling with PTSD and anger issues after doing some bad shit. 3.5/5
- “My Chivalric Fiasco”: Guy who works at a theme park witnesses an upsetting event, which unexpectedly leads to his promotion from janitor to Pacing Guard. Pacing Guard is a medicated position, so he is given KnightLyfe®, which forces him to act gallantly . . . to a fault. 3.5/5
- “Tenth of December”: Weird kid and dude dying of cancer happen to be in the same woods, near the same pond, at the same time. Cancer guy is there to commit suicide, but when the weird kid falls into the semi-frozen pond (on a 10-degree day), cancer guy’s plans change. 4.5/5
Who should read it: Geraldine (i.e., people who enjoy great, but somewhat dark, short fiction, like Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here); John (i.e., people who love “My Flamboyant Grandson”).