George Saunders, Tenth of December (2013) (5/17/17)It took me four years to finish this book: I picked it up several times during that span, but never got past the first story. I can't say why. Once I decided to plow ahead, though, I was amazed at Saunders's ability to get inside his characters' complex and sometimes convoluted heads, to create enough backstory in a few strokes to make his characters at once hyper-real and yet utterly believable, and to make us care about them, strange and often pathetic though they sometimes are. I enjoyed the fun he obviously has with language and voice, the sometimes sci-fi'ish, sometimes surrealistic, quality of some of his stories and situations. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for the audacity of the writing, and the hauntingness of several of the stories—how he gets us there. But there's also a harshness to them that will probably keep me from rereading them. Which isn't a bad thing. It's the real world, for some people. That said, the harshness is occasionally balanced by laugh-out-loud humor, as well as by exquisite vulnerability and insight—which makes me very glad I finally plowed my way all the way to the end.
Here's a sample of the writing, the end of "Escape from Spiderhead," narrated by a man in prison for murder, who has just killed himself (on the corner of a desk) to save someone else:
What's death like?
You're briefly unlimited.
I sailed right out through the roof.
And hovered above it, looking down. Here was Rogan, checking his neck tattoo in the mirror. Here was Keith, squat-thrusting in his underwear. Here was Ned Riley, here was B. Troper, here was Gail Orley, Stefan DeWitt, killers all, all bad, I guess, although, in that instant, I saw it differently. At birth, they'd been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife, or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth's offal, murderers, and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.
. . .
Night was falling. Birds were singing. Birds were, it occurred to me to say, enacting a frantic celebration of day's end. They were manifesting as the earth's bright-colored nerve endings, the sun's descent urging them into activity, filling them individually with life nectar, the life nectar then being passed into the world, out of each beak, in the form of that bird's distinctive song, which was, in turn, an accident of beak shape, throat shape, breast configuration, brain chemistry; some birds blessed in voice, others cursed; some squawking, others rapturous.
From somewhere, something kind asked, Would you like to go back? It's completely up to you. Your body appears salvageable.
No, I thought, no thanks, I've had enough.
My only regret was Mom. I hoped someday, in some better place, I'd get a chance to explain it to her, and maybe she'd be proud of me, one last time, after all these years.
From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.