The newest short story collection from George Saunders, “Tenth of December,” is well worth picking up (“The best book you’ll read this year,” according to the New York Times). If you’re unfamiliar with Saunders, his first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” is the place to start.
Reviewers often call Saunders “hilarious.” The girl who first recommended him to me said he was the funniest writer she had ever read. I never really think of him as hilarious. Harrowing is more like it. George Saunders is the most harrowing writer I have ever read.
It’s not that Saunders isn’t funny, he is. But that is never the feature that stands out to me. His stories are funny and heartbreaking the way that life is. Told from the first-person perspective, Saunders directly confronts the darkest aspects of life. Reading him, you experience crushing personal failures, dreadful violence, and the myriad indignities of lives that don’t quite measure up. And this is where the humor, beauty, and heroism come in. Sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, see past the coldness and the hardness, to keep from crying.
These stories are full of fantastic elements, often set in dingy versions of the near future, with ghosts, mutants, and advanced technologies that are still kind of lousy in the way so much consumer technology is today. In the title story, the narrator works as a low-level employee in a theme park, CivilWarLand, with an increasing teen gang problem, an armed lunatic set loose to deal with them, and, for good measure, the ghosts of a family brutally murdered by their father in the 1800s. The premise is comic and weird, but as always, Saunders has the gift to wring real emotion from it.
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