Remembering the Funhouse

You probably know by now what a review of Tenth of December looks like: sugary veneration—nearly fealty—of a quote unquote master’s command of a genre. Part of what’s become unavoidable when talking about George Saunders’s new collection of short stories, especially in later reviews, has been its remarkable—an adjective like “remarkable” or “amazing” is always affixed—exposure. (Appearances on Colbert, the cover of the NY Times magazine; it’s not hard to see why there was a backlash to begin with.) But although all the classic Saunders tropes are present and accounted for in Tenth of December, something’s changed that seems to set this book apart from his five previous works of fiction (three collections of short stories and two novellas). For one thing, about seventy-percent of the stories here take place in the present instead of the vague future. Most of the little sci-fi touches, which colored almost all of his earlier stories, have been scrubbed. Some sort of career shift is evident even on Tenth of December’s cover. Compare the paperback covers of two of his earlier collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, with their twee photographs of deer and Civil War reenactors, with Tenth of December’s serious and literary monochrome. The covers of the earlier titles could pass for movie posters, maybe something by Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. Tenth of December is clearly, the cover tells you, Literature.

The humor in Saunders’s earlier stories was markedly cruel, saturated with a contempt for the workplace and the suckers it makes of us. Even now the American brand of humor welling at the center of his stories is always laced with deep, unquenchable sadness—because humor is the only way to articulate, or maybe cope with, that sadness. Although the stories are still undeniably hilarious, in Tenth of December Saunders relies less on slapstick to sugarcoat the unhappy lives he depicts. But at the same time, almost all of these stories are capped with the sort of redemption previously unavailable to Saunders’s characters. There are, of course, two ways of looking at this change: 1) that Saunders, by being less reliant on his humor chops, is now unafraid to look some ugly human truths dead in the eye and respond, not with irony or satire, but with sincere hope; or 2) that the oddball, sometimes twee tics of Saunder’s previous fiction have simply calcified into, at absolutely worst, sanctimoniousness. Either way, and by no means do I think any of this is calculated on Saunders’s part (to, for example, generate a higher readership), I’m not sure which option is the right one.

The book’s opening story, “Victory Lap,” caused double-takes because of its similarity to Joyce’s ital, capital-L literature story “The Dead.” Both begin with girls on the verge of womanhood, in the middle of planning parties, paused (Lily in “The Dead” is run off her feet and in “Victory Lap,” Alison Pope “paus[es] at the top of the stairs”), before moving into the head of a guy. But the story veers from Joyce’s meditation on identity and loss (etcetera, etcetera) and becomes, in Saunders’s own distinct way, a thriller. (Plus, the high school hierarchy that Alison has to navigate is far more dizzying and daunting than anything Joyce could conjure.) The omniscient third-person floats from Alison, high school queen, to measly Kyle, a pauper (or whatever the overparented feudal version is) who fancies himself a prince, and who watches his beloved Alison get snatched by your stock neighborhood creep, replete with white Astrovan. The story bounces back and forth contrapuntally between Alison and Kyle’s limited points-of-view, competing consciousnesses racing upwards through the narrative like double-helix, unable to meet until close to the end. At the well-arced climax Alison catches Kyle’s eye, their two worlds briefly dovetailing before spinning out and crashing by the story’s end. It finely demonstrates how well Saunders knows the ins and outs of the genre, and sets the faultless structure of the good old short story in sharp relief against the relatively rumpled mess of the novel.

Saunders frankensteins various genres—sci-fi, mystery, classic short story, and even occasionally bits and pieces of the novel—together and stitches them into a seamlessly Saundersian, uniquely American whole. His stories aren’t just exquisite corpses of American lit, never pastiche. Bummed out office drones quietly search for a few moments of relief from the punchline their lives have become, unable to stop themselves from screwing up, from hurting themselves and the ones they love most. The Civil War gets reenacted for our entertainment; grandmothers nag from the grave; our past is not just metaphorically but, again, literally an amusement park, stocked with the actors playing the earlier humans. Saunders taps into a tradition of oracular Americana that wells as far back as Thoreau and Hawthorne. The elegant logic of a Hemingway or Cheever story, with its desperate characters, whose lives are briefly illuminated by epiphanic endings. Characters seemingly beamed from a Raymond Carver story. You can hear the echo of Guy Davenport’s dictum that “American culture has the eerie habit of passing itself, in narrow corridors, ghostlike.”

Saunders’s funhouse versions of America, where weirdness is not just an oddity but an everyday fact, are as old as Hawthorne or Poe’s. American lives of “quiet desperation” spiked with unequivocal and inherent weirdness. Saunders’s stories are literally weird, not just symbolically or abstractly. Stories shot through with get-rich-quick schemes and good intentions, errant pioneers, outsized egos, pharmaceuticals, the twinned storylines of youthful ambition and adult failure, faceless corporations, ghosts, and grossly mass entertainment. I’m not entirely sure this index necessarily gives an accurate reading of what the stories are about. To spell these themes out like this saps their power when they crop up in Saunders’s stories (in any story really). You notice them but don’t—that’s why they’re so good. They are explicit, sometimes literalized. Their flesh may seem vaguely postmodern or sci-fi, but underneath, Saunders’s stories have always been unmistakably for-lack-of-a-better-word traditional. In Tenth of December, this is not just subtle but very, very overt.

I’m not totally sure then if it’s a good or bad sign that my favorite story in the book is the one that most closely resembles his earlier stories. The story is not only set in a vague near-future populated by emotionally numbed office types with their corporate speakinease, its narrator, Jeff Abnesti, bears a striking resemblance to Jon from an earlier Saunders story (called, um, “Jon”). The prosaically named Jeff, the narrator of “Escape From Spiderhead,” is the classic Saundersian hero. Jeff is an American-fried Candide, naive and curious, generally good natured, whose wonder and naivety are gradually and literally tested and tortured until death looks like an increasingly viable, if not the only available, exit. Jeff is a sad-sack Kurt Russell in Escape from New York. He is Theseus, trapped in the labyrinthine Spiderhead. He is the star of an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Mike Judge and Kafka. The story’s panoply of different genres, though, never feels dizzingly postmodern. Underlying the story’s TV tropes, its pulpy references and sinister scientific implications, is sincere, uncool morality.

Jeff is a lab rat for various far-out pharmaceuticals, like one that causes you to fall head over heels in love with the nearest available homo sapien, and finds himself forced—drugged and threatened by the as-bad-as-it-sounds Darkenfloxx—into a bizarre love triangle with two girls that, with the addition of another guy, turns out to really be some kind of rhombus. The story dramatizes, like a lot of his earlier stories do, a phrase by Terry Eagleton Saunders likes to paraphrase in interviews: “capitalism plunders the sensuality from the body.” The response induced by the drug in “Escape From Spiderhead” is the advertorial promise of mass entertainment, the promise of both escape and the simulation of real emotions. It’s also the promise of good fiction. The drug reproduces the same effect as reading can have, the startingly passive feeling where it feels like a person is momentarily inhabiting your innermost thoughts. For Jeff,

[T]he feeling was approximately: the astonishment at the dawning realization that this woman was being created in real time, directly from my own mind, per my deepest longs.

We are, it seems, Jeff Abnesti, currently caught in our own Spiderheads of the book. Though, only Jeff seems to intuit that something’s off about the whole situation, and, as promised in the title, tries to escape (as if, at this point in the story, close to the climax, we have a choice).

In the collection’s longest story, “Semplica Girl Diaries” (which, along with “Escape From Spiderhead,” is most emblematic of Saunder’s earlier stories) a guy decides to start a journal. You can tell the journal will be short-lived, another discarded hobby, something quickly forgotten. And by and large, over the span of the journal’s sixty or so pages, most of the events recorded are pretty forgettable. All the propulsive, characteristically plot-filled events—the sort of stuff forefronted in short stories (instead of, say, novels)—occurs by and large in the background. The story’s climax features the narrator and his wife discussing the ethics of turning their eight year-old daughter into the police for releasing the women who were strung up by the head on the front lawn as status-elevating displays. The premise sounds obviously ridiculous, but Saunders manages to use the set-up without sounding allegorical or moralizing:

Pam and I discuss, agree: must be like sin-eaters who, in ancient times, ate sin. Or bodies of sinner? Ate meals of bodies of sinners who had died? Cannot exactly recall what sin-eaters did. But Pam and I agree: are going to be like sin-eaters in sense of: will err on side of protecting Eva, keep cops in dark at all costs, break as req’d.

The deadpan AIM speak, with its evocations of sin-eaters and ancient times, threatens to blear into Augustinian rhetoric. The only thing spotlit here is the urgency of two parents desperate to protect their child, which despite the blue tint is still characteristically funny. Saunders manages to both humanize and skewer the parents in the same sentence; their heartbreaking love nonetheless writ in sluggish shorthand. We are close enough to these people’s thoughts to empathize with them, but far enough to be able to laugh at them, too. The effect is like staring in a convex mirror.

Saunders’s characters can often seem Mannerist, like flat two-dimensional caricatures, but somehow deeper, more lifelike, because of their flatness. They feel real in the way Homer Simpson seems real. Their exaggerated flaws give them life. The classic Saundersian hero is ridiculously trapped in the diving bell of his (with few exceptions, this hero is male) own skull, alone and scared and abased, armed with tools as rudimentary and stupid as a Neanderthal’s, rescued not by any agency on his part but through, on the one hand, plain dumb luck, and on the other, connections he makes with other people—who always are equally trapped in their own diving bells. If the earlier stories felt reflective of a crueler god, Saunders now seems intent on saving his characters from their quiet despair. In Tenth of December, these lifelines are always good, always an umbilical cord, never a noose.

Short stories typically accumulate along thematic lines. You might suggest, like a young man once did to O. Henry a hundred years ago, that Saunders’s existing stories could be simply stitched together into a longer narrative—a novel. For better or worse, the stories in Tenth of December have been stripped of most of the sort of quirks that have come to define Saunders’s fiction. What’s left underneath, however, what may have been lurking there all along below the surface of the sci-fi gadgets and fanciful pharmaceuticals, the modern visions of Courtly Love and oddly anachronistic capitalized words, the corporate ghostlands and human lawn ornaments—what was hidden below all that were the bones of the Great American Short Story.

Sam Freilich lives in L.A.