My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #1: George Saunders’s Tenth of December

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Now I’m not gonna lie, I picked this collection of short stories to read and review predominantly because of its critical praise. I’ve got to start somewhere right? As I write more reviews I aim to stumble from the path of critically-acclaimed-books-are-the-best to learn more about books that do not conform to my idealised notions.

Saunders’s Tenth of December offers ten different pictures of the sinister and disturbing aspects of American life.  His language is both satirical and empathetic, blending colloquial discourse with alienating consumerist language. The stories are alarmingly realistic in their descriptions of suburban mundanity but  also show the violence and cruelty that hides beneath the surface of human interactions. As a reader you feel that Saunders has a respect for your intelligence, expecting you to be able to extrapolate a lot from a little (very noticeable in the extremely short story ‘Sticks’ about a father’s insistence in dressing a garden pole for every occasion and season).   He doesn’t spoon feed you his opinion of different scenarios but instead enables you to come to a conclusion on your own.

Indeed the theme of responsibility and choice runs throughout the collection from Kyle’s hesitation to save Alison from abduction in ‘Victory Lap’ to Marie’s undisguised rejection of a puppy due to its dysfunctional owners in ‘Puppy’. In both scenarios the characters choose whether to go against their expected behavioural patterns or not. Kyle, the ‘beloved one’, decides to ignore the threat of his parents’ disapproval and attacks the abductor, whereas Marie decides to leave the puppy due to her feelings of disapproval and ignores the consequences. Saunders shows that however much is stacked against us- be it the social codes we live by, society’s behavioural norms, or negative consumerist drivel we still have power over our own actions, be them morally good or bad.

Some of the stories are more easily forgotten than others, perhaps paralleling the insignificance of the lowly loser-like characters they are about (Al Roosten anyone?) and my only qualm with the collection was the irrelevance of some of the stories, for example both ‘Home’ and ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ felt contrived and repetitive in relation to the other stories. However two of the stories in particular stayed with me after I read them. Perhaps it was their similar fierce didacticism that compelled me.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is about a prison that forces convicts to test drugs that chemically alter emotions and moods dangerously, a punishment which is ironically far worse than any crime they have committed. In the course of the story the protagonist Jeff feels extreme lust, love, pain, suicidal depression, clarity, forgetfulness…the list goes on. Saunders is undoubtedly paralleling this dystopian prison camp to our own modern reliance on the pharmaceutical industry- if you have a headache you can take an aspirin and if you feel anxious or depressed you can go to the GP and they can dish you out a drug with a ridiculously long and unpronounceable name to “stabilise” your feelings. Saunders shows a world where murderers can be victims and socially ‘beneficial’ institutions can inflict suffering, demonstrating the fluidity of good and evil and the ways our world is similar to the world he shows. I am not saying Saunders believes us all passive idiots that believe everything the media and society throw at us, I am merely suggesting that his story reminds the reader of their own power and choice over how they feel and govern their lives.

‘The Semplica Girl diaries’ is my favourite (and the longest) short story of the collection. The un-named narrator and diary writer is a suburban father documenting his life at times pretty boring and at other times horrifying. Saunders creates a reality where women from poor countries (known informally as SGs) become garden decorations for wealthy Americans. They are attached to each other with an invisible wire called a microline and strung up to display wealthy families’ gratuitous financial success to their neighbours and friends. I read this story as a warning of how easily we can forget others in our selfish pursuit of economic happiness. Capitalism alienates us from what makes us human but there is chance of redemption- which I found represented in Eva the diarist’s daughter. She is the only character that shows true regret and remorse for how her society treats underprivileged immigrants, showing that even in this bleak representation of capitalism eradicating human empathy there is hope.

Saunders stories are excerpts on how modern America is a messed up dystopian system that traps individuals in situations they can no longer control and alienates them individually and socially. If you were looking for self-gratifying happy tales of the American life do not read this collection. It rips apart fallacies and leaves them bare. Saunders, however, does not leave the reader sobbing on the floor in blackness but offers an alternative to rejuvenate and repair the faults in society: compassion and empathetic awareness.

In relation to my post on contemporary fiction’s place on the bookshelf I would place this collection on the side of literature for it deals with issues that perplex the modern reader, acting as a searing example of the mood of present society for future generations.

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Bookworms- Where does contemporary fiction sit on your bookshelves?

 

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Now I have always seen a very CLEAR division between popular fiction and literature. The Oxford Dictionary defines literature as that which is ‘considered of superior or lasting artist merit’ (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/literature) which in itself completely separates literature and popular fiction. However I feel that this contrast leaves contemporary fiction in an ambiguous place on the bookshelf- timidly sitting next to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and reluctantly besides Twilight.  If the very essence of literature is its ability to be prevalent years after its publication how can something contemporary show its importance without waiting several decades?

You would think society would welcome contemporary fiction into the curriculum to push students to think about their own society and how they can impact it by challenging their assumptions and strive to make society better? But no. GCSE English syllabuses normally lean towards the studies of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I am not saying that these are not brilliant texts to study but the emphasis on older texts classifies literature as something from the past teaching children and budding writers alike that good writing outlives its era….and author. Indeed many of the most celebrated authors and playwrights of today (Shakespeare, John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe etc.) had limited success in their lifetimes compared to their considerable popularity in contemporary society. Therefore we should be optimistic about the status of our contemporary novels and wait with bated breath to see which ones will become the masterpieces of the future. 

Now my question for you is: can contemporary fiction be both popular and of literary merit? I am going to write my reviews for a variety of 21st century fictional works and see what I can gleam. These selections I will make through a combination of their popularity, critical acclaim and friendly recommendations (I am happy for anyone to send recommendations on my blog) to ascertain whether the definition of literature needs to be adapted to an art form that cannot only give us an insight into the lives of different cultures, histories and societies, but show us different ways of viewing the world we live in NOW.

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