George Saunders’s new story collection, Tenth of December, is a funny book with a sobering message on what it means to be (North) American today. Its eclectic assortment of pieces, while often focused on dramatic murders and rapes, also touches on familiar day-to-day themes including debt, dehumanizing work environments, and the role of large corporations in shaping our lives. In this way Saunders unromantically chronicles the modern landscape, with all its Burger Kings and “half-remodeled MacDonalds’,” at once giving voice to communities where the built environment seems not to speak, while also critiquing the way repetitive corporate experiences hem us all in.
On this note, one of the major themes of the book is the way corporations control people’s minds. In several stories, including “Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco,” this takes the form of patented pharmaceuticals like “Verbaluce™” or “DocilRyde™,” which modify how articulate or agreeable you are. In these strange yet foreseeable futures, drugs are used not just by individuals to solve medical problems, but by corporations to induce particular work outcomes from employees. For those who staff the medieval theme park in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” there’s even a pill that can help you talk like an English knight.
In another story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the latest craze in conspicuous consumption is having a display of “Semplica Girls” in your front yard. In this potential future, doctors have invented a “microline,” which is a string that can be threaded through your brain in such a way that several women can be tied together at the head (harm free!) and then locked into a display. These women are brought to the US from countries like Laos and Somalia, and those who rent them (for it’s a corporation that actually owns them) justify their actions by citing poor conditions in the women’s home countries.
This last story has obvious resonances with the widespread practice of paying foreigners a pittance for work few Americans would consent to. But the overarching theme is about the instrumentalization of human life for corporate ends. This basically boils down to making money — often in wholly trivial ways — and one way the book shines is in the justifications both workers and management dream up to make sense of their mad work environments.
One of the most hilarious examples of this occurs in a story called “Exhortation” — perhaps the best piece in the book. This takes the form of a memo from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” of a company pushing its workers to boost productivity. While it starts out as a letter urging employees to have a “positive mental state” and work more efficiently, it winds up indirectly grappling with the moral ambiguity of their work and all that “must be done in Room 6.” While readers never explicitly discover the nature of the company, it becomes clear by the end that the work they are exhorted to approach with a positive attitude is in fact a Nazi-esque murder campaign.
Along with depicting the madness and sometimes-cruelty of the working world, another way Saunders excels is in capturing the colloquialisms of the common American voice. Some of these are humorous, like getting your “ass fried” or being a “dickBrain.” Others — like saying something as a question, even though it’s not? — are simply accurate and pleasing in their precision. This linguistic play makes for good reading, and although many of the stories are bleak and tragic, you can’t help laughing out loud at many of the things Saunders’s characters think and say.
On the weaker side, some of the stories feel more finished than others. Many follow characters through watershed decisions such as saving a life or taking one, and provide a glimpse of how the choices these people make will change their world forever. Others, like the story “Home,” about an Iraq War veteran whose life is falling apart, are vague and leave the reader wondering exactly what is going on and why it matters. Also, the alternate-reality scenarios, featuring personality altering drugs etc., are a bit overplayed and lose their effect when they appear in multiple stories. It’s interesting to imagine a world where our every trait and feeling is manipulated by chemicals in “Escape from Spiderhead,” but when this same idea reappears toward the end of the collection in “My Chivalric Fiasco” the effect seems recycled.
All in all, however, this is a noteworthy book. While The New York Times Magazine might’ve been overzealous in branding it “[t]he best book you’ll read this year” — the stories have no overarching cohesion, so the effect of the book is muted — it’s absolutely worth reading. Not only will it strike a chord with those who face some of today’s most common challenges — financial problems, demoralizing jobs, thorny family issues — it will also make you laugh. And with stories in the form of interior monologues, memos, and note-form diaries, you just might find yourself shaking your head in admiration at Saunders’s relentless inventiveness.