Review: Tenth of December, By George Saunders

Thrift, honour, and the seeds of meanness

The American writer George Saunders was eulogised by David Foster Wallace, whose irreverence and humour he shares, and Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith are also fans. In Tenth of December, Saunders' fourth short story collection, his sharp satire and visions of a dystopian future are tempered with warmth and humanity.

In the title story, a terminally ill man wishes to avoid imposing on his family the fate he suffered when illness transformed his beloved stepfather into an irascible stranger. But his plans are waylaid by a bullied boy who takes refuge in childish fantasies. Saunders illustrates the stresses of the friendless child and the dying adult without ever indulging in misery.

He uses teen argot with panache in "Victory Lap", in which a girl is poised between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, dreaming one minute about fawns and the next about boys. Her vernacular is spot-on: malapropisms; poor syntax; a self-conscious sprinkling of French and archaic English words. Poignancy and mordant humour are added by her former friend, whose life is rigidly controlled by his domineering parents. Somehow, Saunders forces the reader to consider our dysfunctional world without ever preaching.

Every page is packed with laughs; astute observations with deep implications are never far away either. In "Sticks", the children of a miserly father grow up and find "the seeds of meanness blooming also within us". The father desperately seeks redemption, but in vain. "Home" is about an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In "My Chivalric Fiasco", a boss at a medieval theme park tries to buy his way out of a rape case, but his attempts are thwarted by a male employee fed a drug, KnightLyfe, which promotes courtly behaviour. "Escape from Spiderhead" seems ostensibly to be about medical trial volunteers, but morphs into an Orwellian nightmare when it becomes apparent why the drugs are being tested, and on whom.

More hints of the sinister arise in "Exhortation", a memo from an employer to his employees which initially seems to be encouraging a positive outlook, but is a veiled threat to workers to dump any morals. "Al Roosten" is an incisively witty tale about a bitter, self-deluding failure whose own anger is his greatest obstacle.

The masterpiece here is "The Semplica Girl Diaries", in which a harassed man logs his efforts to do the best for his adored family in the face of mounting debt, unscrupulous big business, and a materialist society. His youngest daughter is the only family member to understand the horrific fate that their society thrusts on its most vulnerable members. The story took Saunders 12 years to write. It would have been worth it if it had taken 20.

This is a brilliant, trenchant and hilarious collection.