Tag Archives: Short stories

Tenth of December

TenthDecember_interesting-angle.jpgYou could almost hear the turbines revving at Random House earlier this year as the publishing behemoth kicked off its marketing campaign for the release of George Saunders’ newest story collection, Tenth of December. Clearly, the commercial juggernaut determined to make Mr. Saunders a household name.

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Imagine having to live up to that embarrassingly presumptuous headline. But that was what a New York Times Magazine profile, timed with the book’s release and surely pitched by a Random House press agent, declared.

George Saunders

George Saunders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Saunders is probably accustomed to such pressure; he has lived with the “genius” tag since 2006, when he received a MacArthur Foundation grant. And quite possibly he knew his book was pretty good. After all, it’s not every day the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and Zadie Smith blurb pithy praise for a book…or is it?

The good news is that, despite his publisher’s heavy-handed campaign to tell us that Important Literature had arrived, the book is good. Okay, maybe not the best book I read this year, but darned good.

As with most collections, some of the stories were better than others. The good ones stood out as kind-hearted, sharp and funny portals into contemporary life. Saunders is best at capturing the inane self-absorption of teenagers, as he does in “Victory Lap” and the eponymous story, “Tenth of December.” He’s also good with the anxious/frustrated sadness that verges on desperation/despair of parents dealing with the complexities of modern/futuristic families, as he does in “Home” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

The latter, with its weird sci-fi bent and generous humor, is perhaps the best story in the bunch. Saunders explores, without pretension but with heart, the big questions of moral philosophy–our freedom to screw up, our right to die, the meaning of individuality, the meaning of community. His alternate realities, as in “Al Roosten,” and near futures, as in “Escape from Spiderhead,” are all too close to you-know-what.

As a stylist Saunders is a minimalist striving to capture the abbreviated vernacular of our modern American consciousness. Here he is in “Victory Lap” projecting the thoughts of a teenage girl who was nearly kidnapped:

For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down. She was on the deck trying to scream his name but nothing was coming out. Down came the rock. Then the guy had no head. The blow just literally dissolved his head. Then his body tumped over and Kyle turned to her with this heartbroken look of, My life is over. I killed a guy.

Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head. Or you’re driving and there’s this old guy on crutches, and you go, to Mr. Feder, your Driver’s Ed teacher, Should I swerve? And he’s like, Uh, probably. But then you hear the big clunk and Feder makes a negative mark in his book.

At times I would have liked to see him extend his vocal range; his characters/narrators tend to think in a similar fragmentary syntax, and for me they started to blend together. Their individuality seemed overpowered by Saunders’ own quirky voice. But that’s a small quibble.

Truthfully, I would have enjoyed Tenth of December much more if the publisher and its collaborators hadn’t tried so hard to tell me how great it was going to be. My gripe is not with George Saunders, who is a clever and polished satirist, but with his handlers, uh, I mean, publisher.

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Stick out your tongue

image001I had never heard of Ma Jian until I read his story, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” in the Paris Review in 2005. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the book it came from, Stick Out Your Tongue. But, for some reason, I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

Stick Out Your Tongue is a slim volume of five spare stories about Tibet. Originally published in Chinese in 1987, state censors  denounced the collection as “a vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.” They accused Ma Jian of being sex obsessed and greedy for money. “No one must be allowed to read this book. All copies…must be confiscated and destroyed immediately.” That demand only increased the book’s popularity on the black market, but it finished Ma Jian’s career as a writer in China.

As he explains in the afterward, he went into self-imposed exile. First in Hong Kong, then Germany, and finally the United Kingdom. What was the point of remaining in China if he could never again publish what he wrote?

Ma Jian traveled throughout Tibet in 1985, and these stories come from that experience. Already Tibet was changing under China’s control, but these stories describe a dirt poor society of nomadic shepherds, villagers, tribesmen and monks in the high mountain plateaus and grasslands far beyond Lhasa. The people preserve a deep reverence for traditions and a Buddhist sense of fate. There is a mystical, magical  and often superstitious side to their logic and actions, but what emerges in every story is the brutality of life there and resignation toward death. Perhaps this is why the censors were troubled.

Tibet: An elderly Tibetan women holding a pray...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Woman and the Blue Sky,” for example, is a haunting story told in the first person. In a high mountain pass, a traveler stays the night with a Chinese soldier who lives alone guarding the military telephone line. The guard tells of his love for a Tibetan woman who has just died with her unborn child still inside her. The traveler gets to observe the sacred funeral rite for the young woman. With the calm detachment of a photographer, he describes how her two husbands, who are brothers, cut up the body to feed the scavenging birds until there is nothing left.

The powerful stories of Stick Out Your Tongue remind me of the best of Anton Chekhov and Juan Rulfo, who captured the harsh realities of Russian and Mexican peasants in historic moments of great societal change. Deceptively spare in style, these stories are complex and deeply moving. The translator, Flora Drew, has done an astounding job rendering them into beautiful English prose.

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Stories that illuminate

Edith Pearlman, winner of this year’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award, has quietly published dozens of fine stories over the last forty years in small literary magazines. Although many were selected for anthologies and “best-of” awards, few readers had heard of her until the University of North Carolina Wilmington published Binocular Vision, New and Selected Stories in 2011.

Pearlman mainly writes about women. Most are Jewish. Many are older, smart, and career-minded. Some are refugees. Though her style is understated and direct, she captures the subtle changes in her characters’ lives with fresh, well-placed metaphors.

A doctor living in a Central American country, working as health minister for a precarious liberal government, impulsively gives a precious diamond to a poor young mother, despite knowing that she herself will need the money it would bring when she is forced into political exile.

A young American teenager observes a poker game between her parents and their rabbi the night before her synagogue receives a Czech torah, and she begins to comprehend the delicate ramifications of chance in all of their lives.

Another doctor confronts a fatal illness and confidently takes her life into her own hands.

An Asian man immigrates to Israel as a caretaker and brings hope and life to the downcast residents of a poor apartment complex.

These stories don’t startle or shock; they build to a soft boil with detailed observation. In “Hanging Fire,” for example, Nancy, a plain twenty-one-year-old “whose long chin had been designed as a bookmark,” returns home to Maine after graduating from college and attending a friend’s wedding. In the long dull summer she comes to terms with her choices after being rejected by the local tennis pro for whom she carries a flame:

“Nancy soared. She felt detached, exalted. To be defeated, she realized, is also to be disburdened. One travels lighter. Nevertheless…Leo’s cough drop eyes shone.” She imagines the passionate encounter that will never happen. Still, she’s strong enough and wise enough to turn down a pale suitor from college whom she doesn’t love.

In Pearlman’s stories, there is a frank acknowledgment of changes beyond the individual’s control, of life leading to sadness, grief and death. What illuminates each is Pearlman’s respect for the dignity of life, the defiant gesture and, ultimately, the acceptance of what is.

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“I’m not sure I should be telling this…”

Cortázar's gravestone at Montparnasse Cemetery...

Cortázar’s gravestone at Montparnasse Cemetery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thus begins my story “Sabotage,” in which Julio Cortázar squares off with Michelangelo Antonioni. My little homage to these two artistic geniuses has just been published in the Barcelona Review. TBR is an exciting online literary magazine now in its 15th year of publication, offering contemporary writing in English, Spanish, Catalan and French. Check it out here:

The Barcelona Review

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