Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review of Tenth of December by George Saunders

I read a lot of speculative fiction and like to alternate it with
reading classic fiction. Occasionally, I'll dip a toe in contemporary
literature, sampling some authors like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy,
or George Saunders. Such forays often leave me feeling lost at the
crossroads of Depression Street and Anxiety Boulevard.

What is it about contemporary literature that makes it so
disquieting? Is it the schadenfreude to be derived from the
artful, horrific dissection of societal problems, neuroses, and
suffering? You damn right.

Certainly the lines have blurred between science fiction, fantasy,
horror, and other genres, but you can still expect scifi to be fairly
clean and simple. A typical short story explores an unusual
idea, future extrapolation, or scientific possibility in 5,000 words or
less. A few obstacles, then a resolution, one way or the other.

But reading a typical short story by George Saunders is like getting
on an elevator that hasn't passed inspection. "Trust me," it
says. "Huh, a talking elevator," you say. "You'll be fine," it
says. But you almost never are fine. Going up? The first few floors
can be hilarious, even exhilarating, and the characters are
adorable. You're loving the ride. Then you hear a strange
clunk. Someone has injected some Darkenfloxx into the air. The
carriage shudders, and then you're falling, rapidly approaching
terminal velocity. It's not just the terror of falling. It's the
crushing sadness of knowing that someone you love is going to
die... Or maybe they won't. (Think good Scarlett O'Hara thoughts.)

If you have anxiety tendencies like I do, a Saunders story can cause
you to put your hands to your face like Stefon on "Saturday Night
Live." This is just too bizarre, you giggle to yourself. Then it's got
you by the short hairs. Saunders is an acknowledged and highly
decorated master, like Harlan Ellison.

The eponymous story appeared in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Reading the "Tenth of December" collection at about the same time as
The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel's January/February 2014 feature, "My
Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life," puts me in an odd
frame of mind. Stossel says he is subject to many phobias, anxieties,
and fears, and has coped over the years via psychiatric therapy,
drugs, and booze, yet he hasn't found a good answer. Although we live
in an uncertain world and a stressful society, he feels a lot of the
problem is certainly chemical, yet science can't seem to alter these bad
chemicals in a way that's very helpful or permanent. Gulp. Shades
of Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions."

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