Sunday, 3 March 2013

Short Story Sunday - George Saunders

Welcome to the first installment of Short Story Sunday!

When I first thought about increasing my reading of short fiction I envisaged reading one collection per month. I thought I would read a couple of stories per week as a fifteen minute Book at Bedtime and then post a review here on my blog. After reading my first collection, which I devoured in one afternoon, I decided to make Short Story Sunday a weekly event.

The Tenth of December

"An astoundingly tuned voice - graceful, dark, authentic and funny" - Thomas Pynchon.
 Tenth of December, released in the UK in January 2013, contains ten short stories of varying lengths (the shortest just shy of two pages and the longest sixty pages).

Of the six snippets of critical praise on the back of the dust jacket, four refer to Saunders and/or his stories as funny. I don't know what book these, black-hound humour, litterateurs read, but I didn't find any of the tales in Saunders' new collection funny. Dark, caustic, wonderfully crafted and eminently readable -  but funny? No. The 'voice' Saunders gives his characters is, in many of the stories, witty (for example, Ted in My Chivalric Fiasco), but the situations in which his characters find themselves are so grave and depressing that these comical turns of phrase don't really succeed in lightening the stories.

Being completely new to George Saunders, I wasn't sure what to expect when I read the first story: Victory Lap. I was slightly lost initially until I realised that the strange writing style of the first few pages represented the thoughts of a flighty, teenage girl. By the time her neighbour and fellow teenager, Kyle Boot, appeared on the page (with corresponding change in style), I was really impressed by Saunders' ability to craft dialogue which expressed the teen sound (female and male) so clearly. By the end of the collection I learnt that Saunders' can create an authentic voice for all his characters: young, middle-aged, middle class, poor, etc.

The stories I enjoyed reading most were: Victory Lap, The Semplica Girl Diaries and Tenth of December. Many of the stories in Saunders' collection are set in a not too distant dystopian future, where there are drugs to make you depressed (Darkenfloxx), or enable you to get into a role (KnightLyfe), living-human decorative features for your front garden (Semplica Girls), and mysterious consumer gadgets (MiiVoxMAX). Victory Lap and Tenth of December, however, are both set in a recognisable present.

The Semplica Girl Diaries is written in epistolary form: the forty year old protagonist gets a new journal and decides to write every evening for a year to leave a record of his life for his descendants. Although the main character is male, there is something very Bridget Jonesy about this story as he blunders through life trying to keep his family afloat financially. I felt increasingly frustrated by his inability to break free of the demands of the community to which he wished his family firmly belonged, i.e. wealthy consumers, and as pointed out by his father-in-law, he did seem to lack moral fibre. These financial ups and downs acted as a vehicle for the heart of the story which was the relationship between the parents and children and how the actions of one of the children ultimately showed the mettle of the father figure.

There are two stories in the collection which I really didn't like: Home and Escape from Spiderhead. My dislike is not in any way predicated on the quality of the writing; in fact, these are the two stories that I just can't get out of my head (maybe this makes them the best in the collection...). The reason I didn't like them is that the subject matter was just too dark and depressing for me.

The themes that immediately jumped out at me when I finished reading the collection and, perhaps, they seemed so clear because I read the whole thing in one afternoon were:

  • the unlikely hero.
  • the front yard as metaphor - I know it sounds strange, but it appeared in: Victory Lap, Sticks, Puppy, The Semplica Girl Diaries and Home.
What did you think of this collection?

If you would like to take part in Short Story Sunday, post a review about your chosen short story or collection on your own blog and then leave a link in the comments section.

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