Astonishingly assured writing of characters so hesitant and fragile that your heart breaks for them. This is George Saunders at his best. With stories so lean that each individual word is vitally important. And even the nuance is nuanced.
Every story in this collection deserves mention as both typical of Saunders’ earlier style, and adventurously striking new ground. With “Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco” we see the satirical Saunders’ alternate future, complete with chemically induced mood, emotion and diction. These are at once lighter than some of his previous satires but perhaps (or because of that) even more cutting. A Saunders protagonist may hope for, even expect, at least within in his own mind, the world to bend itself to his needs and goals, but will find himself almost invariably brought back to reality, or lower, when the world insists on its own integrity.
Saunders is a master of the exorbitant monologue, here represented by “Exhortation” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, or the sad sack “Al Roosten”. But perhaps even more impressive are the stories which function as dualistic monologues—not dialogues, to be sure, but rather alternating monologues. Both the opening, shockingly surprising, story, “Victory Lap”, and the concluding title story, “Tenth of December”, take this form. The latter must surely stand as one of the finest, saddest, and bravest short stories I have ever encountered. With characters so vulnerable, so susceptible to destruction by themselves and others, only Saunders’ love for them can sustain them, even help them succeed beyond their own imaginings.
The writing is so swift and spare that a story almost sweeps past you. So take the opportunity to read it again and you will find that you will want to read it yet again, even. Highly recommended.