George Saunders: “Tenth of December”

10/31/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 31, 2011.

Two parallel narratives meet to tell a story about concern, empathy, and life in what can be a freezing wilderness — metaphorical and literal — when Robin, a nerdy, tubby, and oft-teased young boy with a penchant for overreaching fantasies encounters Donald Eber, an old man who, embarrassed and frightened by what his brain tumor is reducing him to, has decided to commit suicide in the arctic forest. Eber’s story overwhelms Robin’s, and with most modern Saunders stories (which always feel a bit derivative of his earlier work, a bit burned out, a bit lazy), the work sprawls all over the place, introducing and abandoning stylistic choices (but without aplomb). Still, it’s not a bad read, and the author’s distinct style works well for these quick reversals, shown as staccato bursts of thought or conversations with imaginary friends and absent relatives.

Robin is introduced swiftly as “The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” and from his language (“assignation,” “requisition,” “ascertain,” “detain”) we immediately understand that he’s playing soldier as he throws on his father’s coat and grabs his fake wooden gun. (A few paragraphs later, after introducing some his mythical rivals, the “Netherworlders,” and his “self-invented martial-arts system, Toi Foi, a.k.a. Deadly Forearms,” Saunders clarifies that he’s actually pretending to be an astronaut — which is really just a way of showing how little kids conflate everything into their stories.) Today’s fantasy involves tracking down a Nether in human guise, believing him to have kidnapped his classmate, Suzanne , who, being the new girl from Montreal, is probably the only kid who hasn’t yet rejected/teased him (and is therefore a viable romance): “And also, yes to there being something between us,” he imagines her saying. “You are by far the most insightful boy in our class.”

He’s insecure even when dealing with this dream girl, but also in way over his head: watch how lost he gets trying to be a grown-up  hero, girding himself to take a shortcut over a frozen lake in order to catch up with and save Eber, who he has seen wandering, coat-less, through the cold:

Wait, Suzanne said. Is that dangerous?
It is not, he said. I have done it numerous times.
Please be careful, Suzanne implored.
Well, once, he said.
You have such aplomb, Suzanne demurred.
Actually never, he said softly, not wishing to alarm her.
Your bravery is irascible, Suzanne said.

In commercial satire and the voice of precocious children, Saunders’s nonsense humor is most palatable, so it’s understandable that he keeps dipping into that well. And yet, the twin half of this story, which follows Eber, is the stronger one because (1) it’s something new for Saunders, but more importantly, (2) it’s human, emotional, empathetic. Robin nearly dies in the lake, and is hauled out by Eber, who then swaps clothes with him to keep the boy warm (in a not-at-all creepy way), but we don’t really see what this means for (or how it may change) Robin’s tough childhood. We do, however, understand where Eber is coming from, when he keeps flashing back to the way he remembers his beloved stepfather, Allen, before and after the suffering that changed him “from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT! Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!” The descriptions are terse, unembellished, and terrifying:

Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
Catheter taped to dick.
Waft of shit smell.
You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
So Molly had said.
As for Dr. Spivey, he couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say. Was busy drawing a daisy on a Post-it.

To be fair, the story requires the innocence and lightness of Robin’s section in order to draw out the gravitas of Eber’s impending death, but there’s the sense that Saunders could have thrown in a few more echoes between the two (not just in their mistaken uses of English — for totally different reasons) or might’ve actually given Robin an ending, if he had spent a little more time polishing. Still, the loss of oneself, whether in intentional games or uncontrollable illness, works all on its own. Would it have worked better entirely in first-person, from Eber’s POV? Consider this part, which reminds me of one of my favorite stories from last year, Dagoberto Gilb’s “please, thank you” (Harper’s, June 2010).:

Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Clean.
Cleanly.

How’s that for a spooky Halloween story? For writers like Saunders who refuse to write traditional or postmodern fiction, the rich territory to move into involves finding ways to express, in writing, the fallibility and liquidity of the mind, and I look forward to reading these new narratives, to see the form match the substance, much as (speaking of scary stories) Mark Z. Danielewski did way back in the excellent House of Leaves.

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