“Ten December” by George Saunders is a rare case of difficult reading text that immediately rises to the top of the sales charts (at least in the USA, where it has been censored by several magazines, including that of the NY Times). It is a collection of stories written in a very non-classic way, to paraphrase Harold Brodkey: very cerebral, they ask for a strong interaction of the reader, who must reconstruct a context that is often surreal (or deliberately omitted: see Exhortation, a story on a work to be done in which the type of work is never mentioned) and which only makes sense if the reader makes a not indifferent (superior to the usual) effort to recreate in himself the emotions dictated by the text, which otherwise remain a dead letter.
Faced with a collection of short stories written in a rather large period of time (from 1995 to 2009), we cannot speak of plot, but of supporting themes that follow one another in the various stories. We have identified:
- the reduction of human experience to the sum of its sensations: in more than one story, the protagonists are not defined at all by what they think, but only by what they feel. This is taken to extremes in “Escape from the Arachnotesta” (in which the emotions are dictated by patented medicines) and in “The Simple Girls” (in which some immigrant women are reduced to garden ornaments with the help of chemistry);
- The terror of the American middle class of being closer to the poor class than to the wealthy one. This fear (apparently typical of Anglo-Saxon societies, given that the British also suffer – traditionally separated into “classes”) spreads from the economic fact to the whole identity: if I don’t have it, I probably am not even;
- the influence of “Corporate America” (we could translate: multinationals) on the lives of individuals, who are kept in a state of fear now of exaltation, based on how they relate to companies.
Apart from these themes, however, the collection lacks a bit of cohesion (see the “Style” paragraph) and perhaps a couple of stories could have been sacrificed to obtain greater unity in this very high-quality text.
George Saunders is very good at making his characters transparent: he uses them as a bridge between the emotions he wants to remember and the reader’s brain. To achieve this result, in his stories he never uses “accomplished” people, who can distract the author from self-analysis. In some cases, the characters are psychopaths; in others, they are prey to artificial emotions, in others, they find themselves in extreme situations (see the story that gives the name to the collection, in which a man listens to himself while trying to kill himself by freezing).
As we said in the introduction, the result of this expedient is that the reader cannot withdraw from the experience of sharing and reads the book, but is also read from the book.
On December 10, he received great praise for his style, at times hallucinated, at times more discursive and indulging. George Saunders knows how to vary the tones and shades with incredible simplicity: one moment he handles irony well, the next one knows how to become terribly serious and give you the fear of death.
This fluctuation of styles (and, consequently, of moods) is undoubtedly a sign of mastery but it is also the only limitation of the collection: at the end of the reading, you perceive the lack of a unity of purpose. More than on the rollercoaster ups and downs, we would have liked this collection to have brought us into a situation where sensations are more cadenced.
It must be considered, however, that the stories belong to a rather vast time horizon, and that the editorial reasons are not identical to the artistic ones.
Tenth December is a collection of stories with a strong impact, with an original style (although a couple of stories, in particular, “Fiasco Cavalleresco”, report themes already treated by Saunders), and with very successful dialogues. The interpretation work of the reader, however, is essential. It is a book that needs patience and dedication. Is the reader able to give them to him?