I’m late to the George Saunders party, having read the short stories in Tenth of December some months after his recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have read them in this order. I think it helped me to have a sense for the way Saunders uses language and cadence in his writing.
These stories are wry, insightful, and some are slightly disturbing. And that’s just what I look for in a collection. Primarily written from a male perspective, most of the characters are pretty mixed up. For example, in the titular story a chance encounter of a boy and a man leads to some unexpectedly chilling events.
While I was reading these, I saw a list of “creepy Halloween stories” or something similar. Saunders’ story Escape From Spiderhead was on the list, and is in this collection. It was inventive world building, in which people are test subjects for drugs that deliver effects unlike our current pharmaceuticals. While it’s truly cringe-worthy, I also want to know more about this world. Why and how did this become normal? Or was it instead some rogue experimentation? I wanted character development and back story. Frustrating as it is for the story to be short, this is the mark of an excellent one.
The third story I’ll carry with me after closing the book is The Semplica Girl Diaries. Its format reminded me of Lincoln in the Bardo, with a fractured and jerking narrative. But as I sunk into the rhythm it pulled me along. Semplica Girls is a disturbing ode to the desire for upward mobility. Its imagined dehumanizations hit me straight in the solar plexus. Again, a masterful story.
I had a groaning giggle at My Chivalric Fiasco. It’s not innately a funny story, but the references to a Renaissance Faire got me. Faires are my happy place, even though the main character’s experience is far from ideal.
As with all collections, the other stories didn’t have the same impact for me. Of course, you may disagree. I’m definitely hunting down more of Saunders’ work after this. His writing style puts me on edge in all the best ways.