Tenth of December by George Saunders

Even before George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize for the truly astounding Lincoln in the Bardo, I wanted to read Tenth of December (2013), the short story collection that won him the inaugural Folio Prize. The 10 stories, set in a recognizable contemporary or near-future suburban America, feature a mixture of realist and science fiction scenarios and a gently satirical tone.

At times the narration seems to reflect a new form of human speech, almost like shorthand, with the characters only lapsing into old-fashioned garrulousness under the influence of specially designed pharmaceuticals. I found the language most amusing in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” narrated by a lower-middle-class dad who’s trying to keep up with the Joneses and please his daughters. “Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.”

However, notably absent from the entertaining definitions he drops in for posterity (Whac-a-Mole, in case future readers are unfamiliar: “Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill?”) is one for the SGs. Only gradually do you realize, with some horror, that “Semplica girls,” who have left the developing world for a chance at a better life, are a trendy lawn ornament, strung along a wire through their brains. From this article, included as an introduction to the Bloomsbury paperback, I learned that this story arose from a dream Saunders had. That accounts for how matter-of-factly bizarre it is.

Although it runs a bit long, this story was one of my favorites, along with “Victory Lap,” about a geeky high schooler improbably saving a classmate from a sexual assault, and “Sticks,” which in under two pages captures a family’s entire decades-long dynamic. None of the rest were quite as memorable for me, so I’m not sure I’ll seek out more of Saunders’s stories. I just couldn’t resist the urge to read and review this book in time for the day in the title after I found it on clearance at my local Waterstones.

My rating:

9 responses

  1. Perfect timing! I’ve heard Saunders is a real master of the short story, so I bought this collection a while back – but have not been as good at reading it promptly as you have.


    1. It was hit and miss for me. You could read “Sticks,” which is just two pages, to get a taste (I read it three times, amazed at how much he squeezed into the length). Others have recommended CivilWarLand in Decline and Pastoralia, but I’m not sure I’ll be tempted to return to his short stories soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ and ‘Sticks’ were also my two favourite stories! This was one of my favourite books of 2017, but I’ve only read Lincoln in the Bardo since – I need to get round to more Saunders.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’d read select stories from previous volumes, but perhaps not the whole books.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like one to borrow from the library, rather than to buy. I’ll look out for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I went to borrow it from my library system this year, it had disappeared — lost, or withdrawn from stock, I suppose. So I was delighted to see it at £1 in Waterstones, with an archaeological layer of reduction stickers under that: £5, then £3…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Must read this and Lincoln… too. I’ve only read his children’s(?) The Persistent Gappers of Frip – which was bizarre and wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh. I didn’t know about that one. And what a bizarre title! I certainly recommend Lincoln in the Bardo.


  5. […] year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites […]


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