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Last Reviewed on January 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

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George Saunders's "Tenth of the December" is a short story in the author's 2013 collection of the same name. It is a narratively disjointed short story that tracks the distinctive interior monologues of two narrators. The primary protagonist is a boy named Robin. The story begins in medias res as the boy decides he must take a pellet gun and go to a beaver dam. The pretext of this journey is the character's seemingly groundless conviction that the beavers, whom he calls "Netherworlders," have kidnapped Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl at his school. The first portion of Robin's narration centers around a dialogue in which he imagines himself talking at great length (and in trivial conversation befitting their youth) with Suzanne. During this imagined dialogue, the readers learns that Robin has been taunted for having a girl's name and that he is "not the thinnest." Robin is a big-hearted young boy who admits to the imagined Suzanne that he once tried to save a raccoon and failed.

The narration then jumps to the story of Don Eber, who stopped at a pond ten minutes earlier. The reader learns that Eber has two voices in his head, which he identifies as belonging to his father and a man named "Kip," with whom his father left to go to California. Eber also recalls his sister Val and her encouraging him to run for class president—which he in fact achieved. Eber also recalls his relationship with his mother and his stepfather, Allen. Eber remarks that, when Allen became terminally ill, Eber began to refer to Allen as "THAT" because of the new coarseness in his character. Occasionally, Eber admits, "the gentle Allen would be inside there, too." Later in Eber's narration of his interior thoughts, we learn that he has some sort of brain tumor that is incurable. Eber's plans to kill himself stem from his deep-seated desire not to make his family suffer.

The two stories dovetail when Eber sees a "chubby kid in white. With a gun." The gun carried by Robin is an expensive pellet gun given to him by his Aunt Chloe, which he decided to take to the beaver dam in his imagined attempt to rescue Suzanne Bledsoe. Eber sees that Robin has his coat (which the former had taken off several yards back in his conviction to take his own life). When Eber observes Robin, he at first laments that Robin's presence might foil his plans; he fears that he would scar the boy by carrying out his plan in plain sight. Eber then sees from a distance that Robin has fallen into the pond. Eber hobbles to the pond and, arriving there, cannot see Robin. Eber assumes that Robin has drowned, but then sees the boy lying face-down on the shore.

Eber traverses the ice-covered pond to collect his still-dry coat. Then he removes Robin's frozen clothing and replaces it with his own clothing, including the coat. In doing so, he briefly recollecting when he used to undress his own children. Because Robin is shocked and frozen, he is unable to move from where he sits with Eber. After some time Eber is able to waken Robin, who, in a state of bafflement, rises and begins to run. Once home, Robin struggles to remember what happened, but continues his imagined dialogue with Suzanne.

The narration jumps back to Eber, who is unclothed, cold, exhausted, and expecting to die. He suddenly sees Robin's mother, Mrs. Kendall, at the edge of the pond looking for him. As she walks him back to her home, Eber recalls a presentation he gave on manatees, which his stepfather Allen had praised. Eber thinks of his children, Tom and Jodi, and how he originally wanted to hide his attempt at suicide from them. Eber abandons his plan to kill himself, realizing that every second of life is worth living. At the short story's end, Molly arrives at Mrs. Kendall's home to collect Eber. He sees that Molly, realizing that he was attempting to take his life, is embarrassed, angry, and—most of all—concerned.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506

Author: George Saunders (b. 1958)

Publisher: Random House (New York): 272 pp.

Type of work: Short Fiction

Time: Present and future

Locale: United States

Tenth of December, by George Saunders, is an exceptionally inventive, thoughtful, and often highly funny collection of stories about a wide range of characters and events, written in memorable, distinctive styles.

George Saunders's Tenth of December is an innovative, continually interesting, and consistently satisfying collection of short stories by a writer who has already achieved real renown and seems destined for even greater achievements. The collection was selected as one of the five best books of fiction for the 2013 National Book Award competition.

Tenth of December is inventive in practically every way imaginable, including plot, characterization, and, especially, prose. There is hardly a page that lacks some memorable phrase or stylistic quirk. Saunders continually delivers on one of the key obligations of any creative writer: he renews the potential freshness of the English language and, in doing so, presents new ways of thinking and perceiving. In some cases, he captures, quite precisely, the ways people commonly do think and perceive, calling attention to them in a manner that is both funny and revelatory. The book is brimming with clichés, but they are used in ways that remind the reader that they are clichés. Any future student of slang, hoping to get a sense of how people actually spoke (and thought) in the early twenty-first century, will find Tenth of December invaluable. More immediately important, however, is the sheer joy this book will give any reader looking for writing that is inventive and continuously funny. Saunders is often compared to Mark Twain, and in this case, the hype does justice to the hope.

To say that these stories are funny, however, is not at all to suggest that they lack depth. Some of them, in fact, are quite thought provoking and brimming with moral implications. One such story is titled "Puppy," but perhaps the most striking work of this sort is "Escape from Spiderhead," which begins by placing the reader in a strange experimental prison in which convicts, to avoid regular confinement, have agreed to be used as guinea pigs in tests of mood-altering drugs. These drugs are designed to benefit humanity in various ways, and one of their effects is to remind users (and perhaps readers as well) that personalities are ultimately rooted in chemistry. This in itself can be a disturbing thought, but at first the experiments have no really unpleasant side effects. In fact, by increasing the libido and capacity for affection, some of the experiments give great pleasure (at least for a time) to their male and female participants. This part of the story is often hilarious. Later, however, darker experiments are performed—experiments that are nevertheless justified as potentially beneficial to millions who suffer from depression. By this point in the tale, Saunders seems to be asking readers what they would do if told that, by making one person suffer excruciating pain, they could benefit countless others. The choice ultimately made by the story's lead character raises as many questions as it answers.

Moral depth aside, it is perhaps the style, even more than the substance, that makes Saunders's stories worth reading. It is easy to imagine how the same basic plots could have been handled in language far less creative than that which Saunders uses. The freshness of his prose reflects the freshness of his perceptions. Consider, for instance, the following passage from the story "Victory Lap," in which fifteen-year-old Alison fantasizes about coming down an elaborate staircase to greet a room full of young male prospects: "Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}?" The brackets nicely imply that "{special one}" is, ironically, no one in particular. Rather, that slot is left open, to be filled by anyone who happens to meet as-yet unnamed criteria. Saunders thus captures not only the mind-set of an inexperienced adolescent, but also the ways people tend to treat others as members of categories rather than as distinct, complex individuals. The clever presentation, then, implies and displays real insight into the ways real people think.

A bit later, imagining a faux pas by an imagined suitor, the girl wonders if he really said what she imagined she thought he said. "If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}." Here the brackets make the description of her behavior seem far more immediate and vivid that if Saunders had written, "If so, she would have to raise her eyebrows" or "If so, she would have to wonder." Again and again, Saunders uses language in ways that keeps the reader alert, interested, and, often, laughing. "Victory Lap" is both unsettling and ultimately comedic, but still deeply disturbing. Reading Saunders's stories is like being on a roller coaster—but roller coasters are far more predictable.

Though the language occasionally drifts into the obscene, the profanity rarely seems gratuitous. Saunders uses foul language because his characters would use (or think in) foul language. Like the f-words in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, each use of an expletive in a Saunders story seems absolutely on target. And, like so much else in this collection, the obscenities are often ridiculously funny.

Saunders knows how to pace his stories, how to make abrupt, surprising shifts, and when to use first-person narration and when to switch to third (although he favors first in this collection). He knows all there is to know about using appropriate diction, altering the lengths of sentences, employing subtle symbolism, and leaving tantalizing questions unanswered. He is especially good with dialogue. Here, an older, far-from-wealthy woman talks with her even older, ne'er-do-well mooching boyfriend, Harris, about her low-paying job at a church where she is not allowed to curse:

George Saunders is the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2001), and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000), a New York Times children's best seller. The New Yorker named him one of the best writers under forty in 2000.

"Well, if I did work, it wouldn't be at a place that tells me how I can talk," Harris said. "It would be at a place that lets me talk how I like. A place that accepts me for who I am. That's the kind of place I'd be willing to work."

"There ain't many of that kind of place," Ma said.

"Places that let me talk how I want?" Harris said. "Or places that accept me for who I am?"

"Places you'd be willing to work," Ma said.

Saunders has lots of fun with his characters, but rarely, if ever, do readers feel that they are mere circus animals, simply jumping through hoops to entertain the audience and show off Saunders's narrative control. Often—in fact, usually—they are real, credible human beings who, though surrounded by clichés, and often speaking in them, do not seem to be clichés themselves. The end of "Puppy," for instance, makes a woman who had previously seemed to fit the crude redneck mold suddenly seem a thoughtful, genuinely loving mother.

One impressive aspect of this collection is its variety; another is its consistency. Both within and among stories, one never knows quite what to expect, but each story, however distinctive, is impressive in its own particular way. Often the stories are satirical, but the satire rarely seems heavy-handed. Saunders frequently mocks contemporary culture, especially its various kinds of standardization and commercialism, but he knows, from the inside out, the culture he mocks. His perspective is not that of the disdainful outsider, but that of an immersed inhabitant who turns a mirror on society's shared foolishness. Occasionally, one senses that Saunders has a specific political agenda, but rarely does one feel that he is unduly pushing it. Usually, he simply describes how things are and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

If there is one story in the book that could perhaps be better than it already is, it might be the title story itself. It is longer than most of the other tales and seems less interesting in style, plot, and character than some of the works that precede it. Part of the challenge Saunders faces is that he is normally so good that when he is less effective than usual, it stands out rather conspicuously. Yet Tenth of December the book—if not quite "Tenth of December" the story—will come as a revelation to those who have never read George Saunders before, and it is a book that will make them want to read George Saunders again.

Review Sources

  • Seaman, Donna. Rev. of Tenth of December, by George Saunders. Booklist. Booklist Publications, 1 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  • Rev. of Tenth of December, by George Saunders. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  • Rev. of Tenth of December, by George Saunders. Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 February 2014.
  • Wilson, Craig. "'Tenth of December' Offers Poignant Takes on Common Man." Rev. of Tenth of December, by George Saunders. USA Today. USA Today, 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
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