Year of a Hundred books – #76 Tenth of December

Tenth of DecemberTenth of DecemberGeorge Saunders

2/5

More short stories! This one, which collects a number of works published in the New Yorker, Harper’s and McSweeney’s, however is much darker than any of the others I’ve read this year. Most of them are set in the near future, in what I would probably cast as being slightly dystopian, though that may just be because of my own sensibilities. At the heart of almost all of the stories is idea of moral relativism, or at least the disparity that occurs between the morals of two people. Unfortunately, this makes for rather unsettling reading.

There are some good stories in the collection. My particular favourite was Escape from Spiderhead, which focuses on the ethics of drugs testing on criminals while at the same time taking this to its logical conclusion regarding the rigorous nature of such a testing environment. At times it’s bitterly funny, but at others it’s just horrifying until it reaches the particularly unsettling ending. I’m not entirely sure what the point Saunders is trying to make with the story is, (is he condemning medical regulatory bodies such as the MRHA or FDA?), but it’s compelling nonetheless, and the imagination with which Saunders has created the agency is quite an interesting one.

The opening story, Victory Lap, which features two teenagers’ first person perspectives on an abduction. Again, Saunders somewhat twisted sense of humour is present, this time focused on the stereotypes of the spoiled rich girl, and the average boy being pushed beyond his means by his parents. This would be interesting enough, but we also get the perspective of the abductor, again a stereotype, this time of the Eastern European career incompetent criminal. His actions are indefensible, but the fact he doesn’t think so actually makes his stupidity more compelling. Most of the laughs (perhaps too strong a word, but you get the point) come from the boy’s struggle to save the day while still living within the rules his parents have brainwashed into him¸ and for all its

Other stories, while I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to say were bad, I’d also probably not say I enjoyed. Puppy for example, features a wealthy mother, whose only way of feeling connected to her children is to buy them animals, taking them to purchase a puppy. The puppy’s owner, a working class housewife whose only way of being able to function during the day is to let her son (who has an unidentified mental health issue) play in the garden, unsupervised saved for being chained to a tree. Both women are flawed in an intriguing way, and in seeing both of their perspectives, we’re able to understand them, if not endorse either. As I said, well written, but not exactly enjoyable.

The same applies to The Semplica Girl Diaries, which features a family living on the cusp of the poverty line that happen to come into some money just before their eldest daughter’s birthday. Their solution is to spend most of it on some ‘Semplica Girls’, real life girls who are kept in a form of obedient hypnosis by a wire strung through their brains, turning them into lawn ornaments. It’s an obvious reference (if not an outright allegory) for sex trafficking, and in an almost Simpsonesque fashion, the father, from whose perspective we see the story, has to struggle to deal with his youngest daughter’s humanitarian conscience.

The other stories, which vary between a couple of pages of the narrator recounting an odd habit of his father’s (Sticks), and a multi page corporate e-mail encouraging people to be more forward thinking (Exhortation)  are less interesting, and frankly some of the longer stories made this already challenging book quite unpleasant to read.

While I’ve never read any of their works, Tenth of December would very much fit alongside works by Chuck Palahniuk, J.G. Ballard, or Brett Easton Ellis, at least insofar as the way people have presented them to me: It’s the sort of writing that you’re supposed to like, but not enjoy, because if you enjoy it, it means you’re a sociopath. I’m slightly exaggerating, obviously, and if you’ve read anything by any of these authors and disagree, then I’d love to hear, but I think that it’s a fairly good way of viewing Tenth of December as a whole.

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