Tuesday, March 18, 2014

George Saunders' Tenth of December: Notes on the stories

Tenth of December by George Saunders
My notes

1. Victory Lap
The imagination of a girl named Alison is unspooled in this first story of the collection. She is full of romantic ideals about boys and thought in French phrases. "So ixnay on the local boys. a special ixnay on Matt Drey, owner of the largest mouth in the land." She thinks about her parents, teachers, ethics. Then there is an ominous knock at the back door. Kyle questions the "family status indicator," which his father built in the downstairs workshop. The father has left a note that shows the incredibly strict expectations for behavior and habits. Kyle's mind races for ways to live up to these rules. "I know we sometimes strike you as strict but you are literally all we have."Kyle sees the stranger trying to abduct Alison. He cannot decide what to do. But then he acts. Victory Lap is not as absurdist as the stories of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is a manic quality to the points of view and narration, but the story is not as tied into bigger institutional failures and fissures as the older stories.)

2. Sticks
Flash fiction about a pole dressed to suit the mood of its owner.

3. Puppy
Marie is a mother to two children who do not share her imagination. Marie had troubling parents and she want to affect a happier life for her own family. The story is written in a hyperloud voice, where you can feel the manic nerves just under the surface of the words. They have a dog named Goochie. Callie and Bo are other characters in the story. Bo is a child wanderer, the son of Callie. He is not taking his medications properly and his doctor is afraid he'll get smashed on the highway. Callie fixed up the yard for him. They have a puppy that they'll have to kill if Marie and her family don't take it. They'll have to kill it because they said they would and they cannot go back on what they said. Marie thinks she'll buy the dog and then she sees Bo tied to a tree, dog style, with chain; he also drinks, dog-style, from a dog bowl of water. Callie abandons the dog in the corn and then thinks about Bo, how miserable he was stuck in the house, how happy now. 

4. Escape from Spiderhead
Here's where institutional failure really shines, and it's Orwellian methods of linguistic persuasion are omnipresent. The story is set in a dystopian prison where convicted criminals are the subjects of experimental drugs that affect every part of their brain function. They are given various cocktails of injected medication and then their responses are measured. In essence, they are turned into non-humans, in that they are not allowed to refuse the drugs and there is a looming threat of a particularly terrible drug that will make feel so terrible that they will commit suicide. In this particular experiment, the drugs make the subjects feel like they are falling in love as they have sex. The feelings are so intense, yet wane as soon as the drugs wear off. The narrator, Jeff, is forced to watch one of his sex partners be drugged and she commits suicide. When it becomes clear he will have to view the second partner go through the same scenario, he is able to instead medicate himself in an act of defiance and ultimate escape. (This ending was murky.)

5. Exhortation
This story via memorandum seems to be a cousin to Escape from Spiderhead, where a manager pleads with his employees to do their jobs with more cheer and less gloom. Though the nature of the job is alluded to be awful, probably murderous, he uses a "cleaning a shelf" analogy and warns that if attitudes and quantity do not improve, the employees and he himself may soon become "shelves." There isn't much dramatic arc here; just a bleak satire of working the dark side from the dark side.

6. Al Roosten
Al doesn't know himself very well. He runs the town antique store and helps his sister raise a nephew. He is not close to anyone else in town. At a bachelor auction, he is terrified to go on stage and when he does, there is no response from the crowd. He shows himself to be vulnerable and the crowd gives him some sympathy applause. Then he plays it up and they respond. Another man being auctioned off, Larry, a realtor, tries to cheer Al up as they wait for the others. But Al had no idea there was a reason he should be embarrassed. Al has a lot of pent up anger and revenge fantasies in his head, but works hard to keep it all suppressed. In anger, he kicks Larry's wallet and watch under the bleachers, then has some remorse (but not enough) when it turns out Larry is in a big hurry to transport his daughter to the doctor for some major foot surgery to correct a birth defect. If he doesn't get there in time, the girl will have to wait and wait. Al has some sympathetic inclinations, but he can't live up to them.

7. The Semplica Girl Diary
Very strong story about the perils of materialism; an indictment of American culture, immigration policy, trafficking in human despair. Also, funny and gut-punching. The narrator is a middle-class father, married with three children, and surrounded by other families of extreme affluence. He thinks he is attuned to the needs and wants of his children, and is self-deluded into thinking his own personality is something special yet unheralded. The moral weight of this story is hidden in the diary entries of the narrator, who is trying to record his culture "for future generations" who will presumably not have the same human or ethical concerns. The diary narrative has the feel of a teenage girl; it is defensive and self-deprecating and trying to charm those imagined future readers into understanding his motives and forgive his trespasses. And in the end, this diary is an unwitting confession of grievous crimes.

8. Home
A veteran returning from war must confront the loss of his children to a new stepfather, his mother and her boyfriend being evicted for non payment of rent, the probable death of his mother soon to a brain tumor, and gossip and conjecture regarding his own behavior in the horrorscape of war. He is on the precipice of complete breakdown, but in the end turns to his family to see if he can be saved.

9. My Chivalric Fiasco
This was the weakest story. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, there were better variations on workplace as living hell. This one pales in comparison to those.

10. Tenth of December
I read this story when it was published in the New Yorker and have not re-read it for the purposes of these notes. I do remember that it is well worth reading, an A+.

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