If you look back at the umpteen articles, pieces and features listing the best books of 2013 on pretty much any given newspaper, magazine and literary review around you might notice one thing.
And it's this:
Tenth of December by George Saunders is all over the place.
Actually, I challenge you to find one of such end of the year lists not naming and praising this book at some point. Please do.
George Saunders, sure! That same George Saunders who wrote…
Hey, wait a moment. George who? Saunders who?
I wandered and rummaged through the shaky bookshelves of my mind palace (which is actually more of a garret) but nothing. Not a clue. Not a title. Not a mention. Not a recommendation. The truth is that I had never heard of this guy before.
Now, if you're American and/or a strong reader of short stories you might find my ignorance on Saunders outrageous. After all, Mr Saunders has been publishing fiction as well as essays for eighteen years and brought home a nice tray of literary prizes in the meantime including four National Magazine Awards, a World Fantasy Award and a PEN/Malamud Award.
Well, that's it: as far as literary critics are concerned, this author is a prodigy. A quick browsing of the Net taught me that Mr Saunders studied literature with Tobias Wolff (good!), was a friend of David Foster Wallace (mmmh) and that his work has been compared to the one by Kurt Vonnegut (excellent!).
Ok, then. I bought the first paperback edition of Tenth of December, this latest collection of short stories by George Saunders and prepared myself to get at once mesmerized, awestruck and blown away.
But you know what? Even though no less than Jon McGregor (Jon who?) claimed that 'these stories are so good that they make me want to punch myself in the face with delight', I read my way all through this book ending up without a single bruise.
And if self-inflicting a volley of jabs at my face would have been a debatable way to express my enthusiasm for the literary gifts of Mr Saunders, I could have at least pinched my cheeks once or twice in disbelief for having found Kurt Vonnegut's legitimate heir.
Unfortunately, no cheeks were pinched and old Kurt left no scion. If Tenth of December didn't make it to my own and humble best books of 2013 list it's because I read it too late, but I can already say that the chances this short stories collection will rank among my favourte readings on 2014 are minimal.
Understand, George Saunders could be such a brilliant writer. And sometimes he really is. In fact, three of the ten stories you'll find in Tenth of December are no less than spectacular. Still 3 out of 10, doesn't make a great percentage. Had this book included only Victory Lap, Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries I would consider it a masterpiece of creative, imaginative and truly original short story writing. But had Mr Saunders left out the other seven short stories published within this collection (including the one entitling it), the book would have counted a mere 120 pages.
Courtesy of The New Yorker
I'm not sure I quite understand all the hype around Saunders. And I definitely don't get that odd comparison with Kurt Vonnegut. What I can say is that I've found more than a similarity between George Saunders and John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author of Pulphead, another book that made it into many a best of 2012/2013 lists. True, whereas Sullivan wrote essays, Saunders here deals with fiction. And yet, it's interesting how most of Sullivan's acrobatic gonzo features look more like pieces of fiction to me than many short stories by Saunders.
This is actually where George Saunders does shine more than once. He deftly crafts short stories where every single tile seems to fit in the picture, but then a single out of place tessera does show you that the whole thing was a clever puzzle of verisimilitude. I believe that The Semplica Girl Diary is by far the best example of this technique and I'm not surprised it took its author years to finish those 60 pages.
To be fair with Saunders he's also extremely good in putting himself not only in the shoes but in the thoughts of a vast array of characters sounding totally convincing and believable whenever he does that and especially in Victory Lap.
What a pity, then, that a few short stories here - such as My Chivalric Fiasco and Exhortation - are absolutely forgettable while others (Sticks, Puppy) didn't get me hooked as they could. As for the finale of Tenth of December, the tenth installment of this collection and the jewel of the crown here according to plenty of reviewers, my impression is that there has been much ado about nothing that special.