Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things?
George Saunders, Tenth of December (2013)
The ten short stories of George Saunders’ Tenth of December reside in the not-too-distant future where there is a growing pressure to conform – to think, and feel, and act a certain way- and there are drugs to help you do it. Worryingly, it’s a world that doesn’t seem that far away from our own. It’s a world driven by money, appearances and material gain. Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?
The characters of Saunders’ short stories come alive in ways that other characters don’t. We don’t just catch glimpses of their thoughts and feelings, we inhabit their consciousness, see America through their eyes, and that is down to Saunders’ mastery of language. This seems especially true in Escape from Spiderhead and My Chivalric Fiasco where, influenced by drugs, the central characters’ thoughts are completely altered. The narrator of Escape from Spiderhead becomes markedly more eloquent when given a drug called Verbaluce™ and Ted in My Chivalric Fiasco takes on the idiosyncrasies of a chivalrous knight after a dose of Knightlyfe®. The control of style and narrative voice is one I can only wish to achieve somewhere down the line.
My particular favourite is Victory Lap, the opening story. There’s a dark humour, which runs through the rest of Tenth of December but what struck me was the instant creation of three distinct narrative voices; two children and a potential kidnapper. The two children, Alison and Kyle have lived across the street from each other, but have been brought up entirely differently. Alison’s parents have emphasised the importance of emotional well-being and have raised a daughter who is secure and confident in herself. Kyle’s parents have controlled every aspect of his life. Their strict-parenting has conditioned their son to a point where he almost allows a girl he cares about to be abducted, simply because he’s been taught to avoid interfering, engaging even, in life. The quote above is a question Alison poses towards the end of the story and it reflects the paralysis Kyle feels when having to choose between what he thinks is right and what he has been told. It should be an easy decision to make and yet Kyle struggles to. Victory Lap sets the tone for the rest of the collection, introducing a pervading humour that is present even in the bleakest situations and a warped sense of morality that has been created by this society. There’s a potential warning here for our future selves.