Though it’s already a modern classic, I only discovered this story a couple of years ago when I started teaching a course on writing short fiction, something I knew next to nothing about. I’ve hardly written any, and my dirty little book secret has always been that I never read short stories either. There were a few obvious choices for this list, but it wasn’t a question of what to leave out; in fact, it took me quite a while to come up with twelve. The truth is, I’ve never really had a nose for the stuff a writer is supposed to have read. Many of my picks for this list I stumbled across quite randomly in libraries or bookshops before I was 20; after that, I seem to have done my best to ignore contemporary short story collections, and to avoid the acknowledged masters of the form. I always used to tell people I found them frustrating, that if I was invested in a world I wanted to stay there as long as possible, but I’m really not sure that’s true. It just became a blind spot that I couldn’t shake. That’s changed lately, at last, and Saunders was a big wake-up call. This story is just about as good as he gets, and that’s an awful lot better than most writers, in any form. He’s supposed to have dreamed the set-up one night, and then taken fifteen years to make it work as fiction. The point is, he really really did.
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
Cynthia Ozick says … a short story is more like the talismanic gift given to the protagonist of a fairy tale – something complete, powerful, whose power may not yet be understood, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on the dark journey.
Saunders is one of those writers who had a powerful influence on me when I started writing, and this story is the one that has stuck with me for eighteen years. Absurd, slightly twisted reality is nothing new in literature – I’d read a lot of Vonnegut when I was young – but Saunders’ combination of deadpan surrealism, a perfect blend of pedantic corporate- and slacker-speak, and a genuinely humane appreciation of the ways in which late capitalism fucks with our heads? That really was. Above all, Saunders trusts the reader to go with him, to work out what’s going on. Reading it gave me the gift – a talisman, if you will – of knowing that such things could be done. It helped me get going – as soon, of course, as I stopped trying to imitate the inimitable.
‘Pastoralia’ depicts an anthropological amusement park in which the narrator and his colleague, Janet, share a cave, are given a raw goat and a box of matches each day – a rare privilege – and are expected to grunt, not talk in English. Janet chafes against the absurdity and cruelty of it all; the narrator worries her chafing will get them both in trouble:
“Will you freaking talk to me?” she says. “This is important. Don’t be a dick for once.”
I do not consider myself a dick and I do not appreciate being called a dick, in the cave, in English, and the truth is, if she would try a little harder not to talk in the cave, she would not be so much in the shit.
Published in The New Yorker, April 3, 2000, and included in the collection Pastoralia, Bloomsbury, 2001
On the surface this is a dystopian short story about the corporate abuse of science. Convicts with relatives able to raise the necessary funds can transfer from prison onto a drug testing project. Jeff, the narrator, takes advantage of the scheme and dons a MobiPakTM, which enables researchers to chemically modify his moods, passions, sexual arousal, feelings of attachment and verbal eloquence. As the experiment takes an even more alarming turn, Jeff realises his survival depends on escaping from the drug regime. A lesser writer might have produced a mere socio-political satire from this material: those elements are present, but George Saunders also peels away the comfortable delusion that we control their own behaviour. The story also highlights the plasticity of our beliefs, attachments and personalities. ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is by turns a fascinating thriller and a deeply unsettling contemplation of human psychology.
First published in The New Yorker in December 2010 and collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013
Eventually, I got tired of Saunders’ schtick. By the time Tenth of December came out, I was thoroughly bored with the weird amusement parks, the experimental prisons and labs, the coy ad-speak. It was as though every story fit one of four moulds, that Saunders kept re-iterating again, and again. It’s sometimes hard to remember, then, just how much I loved his first collection, when this was all new to me, when I couldn’t yet see the seams of what he was doing and instead was weeping at all the lost souls. Perhaps nobody’s life broke me harder than the narrator of ‘The Wavemaker Falters’, a man in charge of a wavemaker at a weird amusement park (check) whose negligence leads to the death of a young boy, and of his attempts at living with what he had done. (His love-life mirrors that of the character in the Söderberg story as well, I note now that I am writing this.)
Re-reading the story for the first time in over a decade in preparation for this Personal Anthology, I feel as though I’d found a long-lost love letter from someone with whom it ended in tears. George and I may be through, but we will always have Civilwarland.
First published in Witness, November 1993. Collected in Civilwarland in Bad Decline, Random House, 1996
One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds.
This is a deceptively simple yet tragic tale of foxes and their difficult relationship with the human-dominated world. But the magic of Saunders is such that his stories work on many levels. This brilliant and engaging story is written in the form of a letter from a fox to a human, and is an allegory not only for our tricky and destructive relationship with the natural world, but also of immigrants and immigration—as seen through an animal’s eyes. Genius.
Last night, after party, found Eva sad in her room. Asked why. She said no reason. But in sketch pad: crayon pic of row of sad SGs. Could tell were meant to be sad, due to frowns went down off faces like Fu Manchus and tears were dropping in arcs, flowers springing up where tears hit ground.
“The empire of all this
People say what kinda style you call this
My sparkle shine, it’s all wrist” Kool Keith
First published in The New Yorker, collected in Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013
Two women briefly cross paths. Marie lives in a big house, drives a Lexus, and indulges her three demanding children. Callie lives on the rough side of town and tries to keep her son off the behaviour- controlling medication doctors have advised him to take. The women meet when Marie and her children visit Callie to buy a puppy she is selling. “It was a nice pup,” thinks Callie, “White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it.” But when Marie shows up, she misunderstands what is happening in the household, and, with the bravado of the privileged, initiates a staggering wave of destruction. Saunders often seeks out the absurdity of American social structures, makes something that is familiar laughable through a kind of exaggeration. ‘Puppy’ is from a collection that came out after America became involved in Afghanistan and Iraq though, after the no man’s land between different Americans became greater and deeper, and it is part of a body of work that is both darker and more illuminating than Saunder’s earlier fiction.
From Tenth of December (Random House), first published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 and available online here
When I heard, only a year or so ago, that Saunders was a master of the short story, indeed acclaimed in the USA as the best, I immediately went out and bought Tenth of December. I found his bizarre stories were unlike any I’d read before. Semplica Girls are the ultimate status symbol – girls from third-world countries paid to ‘decorate’ the lawns of wealthy Americans. They are strung up on microlines that run through their brains and in their flowing white gowns are a kind of human washing line. Supposedly this does not hurt them. Of course things go wrong. Told in diary form, this story explodes the hollowness of the American dream, well and truly.
(First published in The New Yorker, 2012, and subsequently in his collection Tenth of December)