I think it might mostly be the way George Saunders puzzles things aloud, but there was, I don’t know, just something about listening to him defend the short story on “The Colbert Report” shortly after Tenth of December came out a few months back, those endless variations on a theme. It’s a joke. It’s a pop song. It’s three minutes until the train leaves and you’ve got to convince her that you love her. It’s eight pages to make someone cry.
It must have been a week or so before that, when my friends and I were huddled in the very back corner of Greenlight Bookstore here in the middle of Brooklyn, just a few feet from the stockroom, so many shelf-lined antechambers away from the man that we may as well have been in a different city, listening to him read a teasing bit of “Escape from Spiderhead” and answer questions over the PA system, and the first one was that old chestnut, where’s the novel we’ve all been waiting for?, and after he said that he lacked the momentum to “accrue pages” — “I think of my stories as kind of like those little toys and you wind ’em up and put it on the floor and it goes under the couch” — the guy beside me let out this soft, disappointed sigh, like he’d just learned exactly why his child had been sent to the principal’s office, or he was watching the scene in a movie where two lovers fated to die come this close to finding each other — but not quite.
The hype surrounding Tenth of December in the early days of the calendar year was kind of staggering. I nodded along: yeah, I’d seen that big piece in the Times magazine, the sheer bravado of the title — “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” — and sure, I would read it (I hadn’t yet, then). It was the article that Saunders himself credited for the crazy turnout at Greenlight that evening, in an admission of extreme modesty that was both believable and charming (because it was that very piece that’d rightly asserted that “for people who pay close attention to the state of American fiction, he has become a kind of superhero”).
The backlash followed not long afterwards: a dust-up when it was suggested that someone who can’t seem to accrue enough pages to pen the Great American Novel couldn’t actually be considered the writer of our time. The whole debate volleyed around the bookish corners of the Internet for a few days, one of those weird, insular, overly prescriptive bouts of literary navel-gazing. Whatever, I said. The conversation was an irrelevant one. I loved George Saunders. I was going to love this book.
Because I’d read a few of Saunders’s stories before and I’ve been known to bestow the same superhero-worship on him that a lot of people do. Something about the first story I’d ever read of his — a photocopy of “Sea Oak” during a fiction workshop my senior year of college, probably one of the most important things that I read that semester, so startling and dizzyingly well-executed that it made me want to do what I want to do with most perfect short stories: pull them apart, figure out how the trick was pulled off, the three-minute train-platform confession, I guess, because I suspected then (and know for certain now) that I’m not one of those people that can put together a proper short story, or, at the very least, spin out something that feels, on the surface, so crazily effortless.
(I came home that summer and handed my mother the photocopy of “Sea Oak,” insisting that she read it. But my reading recommendations to her have historically been almost universally selfish: I press a book on her because I’ve loved it, not because I think there’s something in particular that would compel her to it, and most of the time she likes my suggestions — they’re usually good books! — but sometimes, well. She’s very diplomatic. She didn’t say anything about “Sea Oak” for a long time, and I thought that she hadn’t gotten to it yet, until one day I asked her, and she quietly affirmed that she’d finished it. Well? “It was…disturbing,” she said slowly, and it was then that I remembered that there was more to it than being an immaculately crafted short story — it was also about a zombie, basically, a dead woman reanimated, her body parts dropping off one by one as she nags her descendants into getting their lives in order. A fair point!)
But here’s the thing: I bought and began to read Tenth of December and faltered a bit before pushing through to the end — because I don’t actually love it. I’ve been picking it up and putting it back down since I saw, or rather, heard Saunders read aloud — since January! All of 2013! — which feels kind of stupid, because it’s not terribly long and it’s not all that technically challenging. On a page-to-page, sentence-to-sentence level, it’s often a delight, equal parts wry humor and gentle pathos: a joke, a pop song, a speech on a train platform. In other contexts, I’m always happy to see his byline. It’s a respite, tucked between the heavy reporting and critical rancor in The New Yorker; it’s a relief, wedged in amongst the largely dreary and neurotic stuff that’s made up the recent “Best American” anthologies. But stories that I’d read before felt weirdly stifled stacked up on top of each other. An entire book of them, back to back — it’s hard to explain it, but for me, trying to read them one after another often felt like trying to take in all the air in the room at once. It’s impossible to take a proper breath when your lungs are already full.
Why, though? If it’s so important to me to figure out how these stories work, it feels similarly important to understand how the sum of their parts seems to fall short. I felt, at times, that the stories themselves were unevenly matched: big famous ones, like the two bookends, “Victory Lap” and the final, eponymous story, shine so brightly that some of the others feel like paler echoes. And then there’s the literal echo — Saunders’s language, the tricky rhythm of modern colloquialisms that’s often so beautifully awkward — in the words of that Times piece, it’s frequently “a kind of heightened bureaucratese” — can feel gimmicky in story after story, the sheen wearing off a bit. These criticisms — the pace, the shtick — are ones I and many, many others have leveled before all sorts of short story collections — and it’s there that we loop back around to the silly question of whether a writer who only produces short stories can really be considered the pinnacle of the profession. The question makes me cringe, for reasons I can’t quite articulate — maybe it’s because it does feel like a weird, insular, overly prescriptive bout of literary navel-gazing. Or maybe it’s because I’m beginning to suspect that it’s true.
A few weeks ago, I started from scratch: I picked up the book again, with a little more restraint, and began reading the stories one at a time, spaced apart, in small doses. If they were carefully arranged in a particular order, I’ve ignorantly stomped all over that: I started with the last, Tenth of December, and all that superhero-worship came rushing back. It has occurred to me many times that my opinions of the book — and of Saunders’s work more generally — are not particularly sophisticated bits of criticism. It’s barely criticism at all — it’s gut reaction and instinct. So it’s only fitting that by carefully rereading the collection, I’m slowly falling in love again. Some of it’s incredibly funny, but I’m more interested in how heartbreaking much of it is, eight pages to make someone cry, and now here’s me, crying on the subway. Mission: accomplished.