No map of my psycho-fictional-geography would be complete without a nod to George Saunders and Tenth of December, my favourite of his collections. He’s like an acupuncturist who somehow knows your internal nervous system so well that he can just reach over and prod you somewhere and before you know it you’re laughing and crying simultaneously.
Al Roosten is a painful and very funny exploration of one man stranded in his own life, yo-yoing between over-confident aloofness and crushing self-doubt. It opens with him backstage at a Local Celebrities charity auction, comparing himself to a buff, swimsuit-wearing rival. When he eventually follows him on stage, a new bar is set for literary cringe:
Roosten stepped warily out from behind the paper screen. No one whooped. He started down the runway. No cheering. The room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh. He tried to smile sexily but his mouth was too dry. Probably his yellow teeth were showing and the place where his gums dipped down. Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Al is tormented by the life he’s been given by a culture that is full of paradoxes and disappointment, that asks such strange mental athletics of identity to feel like you have a role with value. It moves effortlessly between his self-critical and self-congratulatory POV and objective third person narration, no mean feat. The painfully flawed antihero has never been in more masterful hands.
First published in The New Yorker, February 2009, and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Tenth of December, Random House/Bloomsbury, 2013