Some Passing Thoughts on George Saunders’ “Tenth of December”

Writing about books in the way we do, that is subjectively — hopefully not superficially — has some distinct disadvantages versus the academic alternative, that is some methodological critique rooted firmly in a (hopefully) tried-and-true objective form of analysis. Primarily, that the DBC form sometimes boils down to an uncomfortable and difficult-to-write-about reality: I don’t like this and it’s kind of difficult to articulate why. See: The Funny Man. There was no pre-Ford (either one, actually) critic in my holster to reach for; it came down to arguments that, upon re-reading, seem mean and petty and difficult to defend. I stand by the fact that that book was egregious in its miserable deployment of humor, relentless in its inability to make me crack a smile; it sucked.

But someone could ask why? And I could say to that someone, “It’s not funny.” And someone — maybe not that someone but another someone — could say it’s funny. Some people must think so; John Warner’s a well-known, respected dude. He works for McSweeney’s. He just led a two-day bootcamp on humor writing. All this despite the fact I don’t find him funny. Come on, America! Rise up!

And humor is an incredibly divisive quality. I like Sinbad. I think he’s funny. Most people — and I’m speaking relatively, here, i.e. relative to the population in America who know about Sinbad enough to weigh in on his general funniness, not about seven billion people — don’t think he’s funny. I can’t really explain to you why he’ s funny; the easiest way to deflate a joke is to re-tell it in “…and then he said ______!” person.

But then there are times when it becomes easier to evaluate something on this subjective level, when there is some (even) rudely defined notion of what the something is trying to accomplish; when we know what the author wants and doesn’t want. Maybe John Warner wanted to make me throw the book across the room out of boredom, irritation. If so. Kudos.

Somehow, I doubt that.

Reading George Saunders’ new short story “Tenth of December,” along with the corresponding interview from the New Yorker’s  Book Bench, is an interesting experiment, in this regard. Here we have a story that calls back to Saunders’ chillingly beautiful “Victory Lap” (also published in the New Yorker; you know, I think those guys have a thing going with their fiction). Two protagonists, Eber and Robin, are united by their both having (1) a jaunt through the woods and (2) a revealing, colorful, and sometimes whimsical inner dialogue.

Differences are clear, however: Eber is an old-but-not-that-old guy who has cancer and is coming out into the woods to freeze himself to death. Robin’s a chubby, big-hearted kid who loves his mom and wants to swim with his shirt on. Without doing that spoiling thing, I’ll just say that the two come together; dire circumstance brings them almost uncomfortably close; unknowingly swapping prospects, fates, goals, and then knowingly, clothes.

Subjectively speaking, in DBCese, the story’s good. It hits hard, but feels almost emotionally manipulative: when you start with a sweet, almost gratingly selfless terminally ill guy trying to kill himself before the cancer does, it’s inevitable that you’ll have a knot in your throat. And there are times when Eber’s and Robin’s dialogues become almost too inner, self-referential, difficult to understand.  That’s Saunders’ intent, one presumes. And re: Eber’s inner dialogue, it makes sense that it’d be jumbled, confusing: he has brain cancer. Again, it’s a good story, but those moments hold it back a little bit.

But the New Yorker, being the New Yorker, does an interview with Saunders for the Book Bench blog, wherein the acclaimed author expresses his hopes for and fears about the piece, and reveals some information about his writing process, brainstorming, and the expansion/whittling-down process that preceded publication. It’s revealing and entertaining. Charming in the way that only Saunders can be charming.

What’s most valuable about it, however, re: what I laid out in the opening salvo, that is subjective vs. objective, knowing how to fence in a piece for critical discussion, etc. is what Saunders says about his broader objective (lately) in writing fiction.

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.” That is, of course, an impossible task, the mind being so vast and prose being so inadequate. But it seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.

Reading this makes me change tack when it comes to Eber’s inner dialogue. What Saunders says makes sense: he has a greater goal in writing “Tenth of December” than what’s on the page. And it’s an indisputably worthy attempt at doing something that’s not possible. But he’s outlined in lucid terms his objective in writing this story. By virtue of laying bare the process, he’s acknowledged the piece’s weaknesses and inherent imperfection. Saunders has given “Tenth of December” a naked quality that writings-sans-prodding-interviews, of course, lack.

Not every piece can be accompanied by such an informative and forthcoming review of its particulars; an opportunity to engage with something through its creator; like having the chance to ask God why wild berries are so hard to safely forage.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice? John Warner, I’m on line one.

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