Since the publication of George Saunders' 1996 debut story collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, journalists and scholars have been trying to figure out how to describe his writing. Nobody has come very close. The short story writer and novelist has been repeatedly called "original," which is true as far as it goes — but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Saunders blends elements of science fiction, horror and humor writing into his trademark brand of literary fiction. Even his story titles ("Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror," "My Flamboyant Grandson") are offbeat.
But with his new short story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders proves he's a master of a genre few people have associated with him: realism. That's not to say he has abandoned the bizarre, dystopian type of fiction that made him one of the country's most well-regarded authors; that's all still there. But in his new book, his defiant quirkiness is tempered with a dark sobriety and a sense that the world we live in is often more surreal and savage than any satire could be. Tenth of December isn't just the author's most unexpected work yet; it's also his best.
Saunders' new, more grounded tone is evident in "Victory Lap," a grim and brutal story about the assault and attempted kidnapping of a young girl. The prose is relentless, and the horror becomes worse and worse as it becomes clear that Saunders won't let us look away. The fact that the story ends on a comparatively hopeful note almost makes it harder to take; Saunders makes it clear that deliverance, if it comes, can never heal the pain of what has already happened.
Slightly less dark but just as emotionally affecting is the title story, in which a young, unpopular boy with an active imagination goes for a walk in the forest, looking for a chance to be a hero. He had come close once before, trying to save the life of a dying raccoon, but fell short: "The twerpy thing was, you never really got to save anyone. ... That was sad. He didn't do well with sad." At the end, the boy finds a way to provide some kind of salvation to another person, but it doesn't look or feel the way he'd hoped it would.
The standout of Tenth of December, though, is "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a story that's remarkable for its originality and unrelenting sadness. Written as a series of journal entries, it follows a middle-class striver who feels bad that he can't provide the rich, stylish lifestyle that his daughter craves. After winning the lottery, the narrator is able to buy the latest status symbol: a lawn installation of "Semplica girls," young immigrant women who are strung together by a surgical cable that runs through their heads. He's not sure why he needs it, he just knows that he does: "Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us, that is, not fall further behind peers. For kids' sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are."
It's possibly Saunders' strangest short story to date, but it's also one of his most realistic, and that's what makes it so horrifying. To anyone paying attention to contemporary American culture — with its objectification of women, obsession with consumerism and widespread desensitization to violence — the plot hits home.
It would be tempting to believe that Saunders' fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that's not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality. It also proves that Saunders is one of America's best writers of fiction, and that his stories are as weird, scary and devastating as America itself.