Consistently popular, highly regarded authors tend to become more myth than writer. George Saunders is that type. The recent New York Times Magazine profile of Saunders contains quotes of high praise from Tobias Wolff (his former professor at Syracuse), Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore, and David Foster Wallace. He isn’t just a writer’s writer, he’s the guy the other heavy-hitters heave up on their shoulders.
All of that mythmaking could make his work daunting, but the fact of the matter is that Saunders’ stories are just that damn good, instantly inviting and compelling, then backed up with incomparable quality. Tenth Of December, his fourth story collection and first in six years, maintains the high standard set by his previous collections, and it’s the most accessible book of his career.
Saunders’ most memorable stories—“CivilWarLand In Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” and “Sea Oak” are among the most heavily referenced—depict one dreamlike, fantastical element woven into a poignant reality just enough unlike the real world to be unsettling. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is that story for Tenth Of December. A working man struggles to make ends meet for his family, then suddenly wins a scratch-off lottery. He and his wife choose to surprise their daughter with a display of Semplica Girls: Third World immigrant workers with wires woven through their heads so they can be displayed as gaudy displays of wealth. It’s terrifying, heartbreaking, and allegorical, and the most impressive story in a collection full of thought-provoking work.
Better than any of Saunders’ previous collections, Tenth Of December demonstrates his ever-expanding range as a short-story author. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” covers epistolary narratives. “Tenth Of December” and “Victory Lap” weave together multiple narrators, and the latter brilliantly skewers sheltered suburbanites and overly aggressive helicopter parents. “Puppy,” a 2008 Best American Short Stories selection, throws together narrators from opposite socioeconomic spectrums during a vital misunderstanding. “Home” is a darkly comic vision of a soldier’s return to a country he no longer understands. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is another facet of Saunders’ fascination with sadly twisted theme parks. “Escape From Spiderhead” is an exploration of dehumanized lab conditions, and another Best American selection from 2010. Saunders isn’t just inventive in one vein, he’s broadened over the course of his career while maintaining an astounding depth of insight.
For more than 15 years, he’s been writing about modern America, but not in a frank or realistic sense. His stories present a looking-glass version of the world, exposing the consequences of modern eccentricities and excesses. When he’s on—and that is frighteningly often, as though he has a direct line to the heart of complex, pulsating modern issues—he’s nothing less than the finest short-story writer alive, and one of a select few who write short fiction almost exclusively, building stories bigger and bigger, until, in his words, they “[discover] a way to be brief.”
It’s uncommon in writers blessed with the gift of incisively hilarious satire, but Saunders’ most valuable quality is his overwhelming compassion for the sad characters he moves through impossible situations. Their plights are heartbreaking and gut-busting. That fascination with cutting deep while also caring big, mining deep to the core of human misery while always leaving a sightline to that little glimmer of hope above, is what makes Saunders’ stories so gripping. It’s impossible to turn away from the slow descent of misery within capitalism to a bleak struggle for survival, but at the same time, Saunders imbues his stories with the possibility that even in such a strange, cacophonous environment, there can be peace.