George Saunders’s Tenth of December

In William Faulkner’s 1950 speech “Address upon Receiving the Novel Prize for Literature,” he warned attendees that the Great Fear of his time (nuclear holocaust) was a tragedy for both humanity and, to a less severe extent, literature. The everyday, fear-inducing question of “when will I be blown up?” had caused people to spend less time worrying about the Spirit and more about the world around him. He stated:

“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

This struggle, the one which Faulkner described as “the human heart in conflict with itself,” is one that is entirely timeless. When people and literature focus far too much on the present, they become overly enraptured with the worry for what tomorrow shall bring — in their modern era, whether for its political upheaval, environmental degradation, etc.; however, when the verities of the human condition are focused on, their is an eternal struggle that is voiced — ego, pity, compassion, hubris, love, and so on.

Faulkner expands upon this duality latter in his speech, saying:

“He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

In this short story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders proves that he effectively writes about the heart of man.

Saunders characters — most often dull and eccentric, inquisitive and vapid, are the vehicles for his stories. The event at hand is of little interest to the other, rather, he is preoccupied with how they respond to the situation: Is it my duty, as a male, to report or physically stop a sexual assault? Is it my right to intervene within a home where a child is obviously being abused? How do I react to the utter repulsion of my family in response to my mental disorder? How do I feel knowing that I have absolutely no power, and how can I recapture it?

It is Saunders’s opinion that characters must be put under great stress so that we might “see human beings at or near their breaking points.” It is once they have reached this point, particularly along journeys that are distressing, misanthropic, or devastating, that the True character is finally revealed. This collection of short stories is an obvious example that Saunders is able to illuminate just what is at the heart of his characters.

*Rightmost photo taken by Damon Winters for the New York Times

If you liked this most recent review, consider checking out my previous piece, Brief Words on Writing.

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