Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth-of-december-jacket-LS A fundamentally optimistic satirist is hard to find. A satirist who is fundamentally optimistic and actually funny is even more elusive. Yet in Tenth of December George Saunders presents a plural and intensely humane collection of stories which probe the dynamics of motivation, self-consciousness, violence, and the abuse of language in supple prose which unfailingly captures the diverse voices of characters in sore need of an entirely feasible redemption. And it’s funny.

The opening and closing stories explore the different ways that language aids us in gaining traction on the world. In ‘Victory Lap’ a young girl’s emotional and linguistic naivety is shattered by a foiled assault, her rescuer repressed by the internalised edicts of his parents, his only release the strings of swear-words he composes. Here is the first hint of Saunders’ concern with the structures of thought which constrain action. That theme continues in the title story, where a boy for whom the world overflows with voices and a dying man for whom that world has narrowed to a cancerous point cross paths in the snow. In the process, how each meets the world changes, as the voices and concerns of one recede, and those of the other, in a manner quite distinct, begin to reassert themselves.

‘His aplomb threw them loops.’ I really like this sentence. It bubbles and flows and is simply happy. Anyway.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is in many ways the heart of the collection. It considers the commercial manipulation of thought and feeling in a grim caricature set in a penal laboratory where powerful drugs with eerily familiar names like ‘VerbaLuce’, ‘Vivistif’, and ‘Darkenfloxx’ are mainlined by human guinea pigs for whom the sheen of agency resides in their apparent freedom to ‘acknowledge’. The endurance of conscience throughout this harsh story of chemical manipulation is testament to Saunders’ belief that goodness is our natural state.  False reductions of crime or of love are damaging, for what you can reduce a thing to is far from being that which you destroyed in the analysis.

In ‘Sticks’ Saunders encompasses an entire life and the contingency of its expression in two pages ostensibly about a metal pole and its various accessories.  The different brands of irresponsibility and their problematic reduction to a deficit of love or kindness are addressed in ‘Puppy’, which opens with one of my favourite paragraphs from the collection: at once rhythmic, amusing, and insightful.

Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and a cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc., etc.—and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc., etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!

That insecurity inflected need for shared experience in the face of well-intentioned failure develops in ‘Al Roosten’ wherein the eponymous sufferer of an inferiority complex shifts and twists under the world’s gaze and finds himself exhausted by reflection. ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ echoes ‘Spiderhead’ and contains moments of pure brilliance as a medieval theme park employee’s day goes completely wrong under the influence of ‘KnightLyfe®’: an aid to improvisation which moulds not just its consumer’s vocabulary but their moral compass as well.

Did I want all home? I did. I wanted all, even the babies, to see and participate and be sorry for what had happened to me.

The most haunting and topical story is ‘Home’ in which ‘the power of recent dark experience’ emerges in the slowly discomfiting revelation of an Iraq veteran’s loss of self and the struggle to reintegrate on his post-court-martial return.  His filter between thought and action has dissolved and brings him closer to the baby he isn’t allowed to hold than to those around him, each of whom thanks him for his service in such a way that it becomes a meaningless beat in an awkward conversation for a man who has lost almost all sense of home. The kernel which yearns to return is what makes this story heartbreaking.

Throughout Tenth of December Saunders resists the reduction of human behaviour to the things which condition our lives: drugs, military service, background, and language. Each constrains, but not irredeemably; and that possibility of redemption underpins a belief in a kind of prelapsarian goodness. Yet Saunders’ optimism isn’t metaphysical. It is here and now that we can do that tiny bit better. A plea for a common but plural humanity in the face of a thousand natural shocks, Tenth of December is a consummate collection which I thoroughly recommend.

Tenth of December is out on 3rd January from Bloomsbury.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for this review copy.

‘Everything fell’ The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

‘…if there is any true thing in this world it is that war is only like itself.’ – Kevin Powers in his foreword.

War novels abound yet one rarely feels that they are of war. Generated, sustained, and hollowed by the incommensurable physical and mental arithmetic of metal and flesh attempting to occupy the same space, The Yellow Birds resonates in the space it digs out for itself. It is split between John Bartle and his friend Murph’s service in Al Tafar in Nineveh Province of Iraq in 2005, the months preceding that deployment, and Bartle’s post-war experiences in Germany and Virginia. The brilliant opening paragraph sets the brutal scene in beautiful language.

The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed. We patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns, moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.

We soon learn that Murph died in Al Tafar and that Bartle’s promise to the boy’s mother to bring him home safely hangs over the returned soldier. What actually happened to Murph becomes more and more of a question as the novel develops and the responsibility which Bartle tried to flee by joining the Army catches up with him and emerges as a central concern of the novel as he struggles to stay afloat.

We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.

Responsibility is a perennial counterpart of the narrative construction by which we seek meaning in our past and present. The narrative creation of self, be it healthy or otherwise, strains under the weight of the experience of Bartle and Murph in Iraq. Suddenly the responsibility they sought to avoid is tested time and again in combat and in making sense of their actions and potential deaths.

War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die.

It is testament to the poetry of Powers’ writing that I found myself wanting to read large parts of it out loud. Yet, a novel is not sustained by lyric beauty alone. Powers’ lyricism is balanced by intense moments of ravaged thought which spill from Bartle as he despairs of any construction which might be put upon and thus make sense of his experiences either  for himself or for others. I cannot help but wonder if it is Bartle or Powers we are hearing from in these moments. I am not sure it matters. I have not quoted the brilliant central section in which Bartle wonders what he might tell people about the war and his role in it if he were to just let go because one needs it in its entirety for the full effect. It is merciless and powers the book forward at a moment when one might have feared stagnation. Perhaps, as the most disordered passage of the novel, it achieves, on Powers’ terms, the greatest authenticity. Or perhaps not.

I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.

That Powers questions the possibility and value of a narrative account of war, of anything, implicates his work as well: as I am sure it is meant to. To make sense of something is to take responsibility for it, at least for that interpretation; and to take responsibility is likewise to make some sense of it. That The Yellow Birds is far from linear is part of this point of view, for memory and interpretation are lateral and tangential operations of mind. What is it, then, that narrative can do? Perhaps the message of The Yellow Birds is that narratives, stories, aid us in only in everyday life and at the expense of an appreciation of the true chaos both of war and of all patterns of signification.

Everything I could recall about the war flashed kaleidoscopically, and I closed my eyes and I felt the weight of time wash over my body, I could not pattern it. None of it made sense. Nothing followed from anything else and I was required to answer for a story that did not exist.

Geoff Dyer chose this line of Joseph Brodsky’s for an epigraph to his superb The Missing of the Somme, ‘Remember: the past won’t fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future’. The future is barely alluded to once Bartle leaves Iraq and even during his tour the preoccupation is with the next mission, the probability of death, and fear for Murph’s mental state. Memory and the will to action which disintegrates after the war can only be restored once a future is in sight. It would not do to call The Yellow Birds optimistic and yet it is part of its power that Powers’ novel is not wholly pessimistic either. The novel hovers in the space between beauty and savagery, order and chaos, cohesion and disintegration. It is, I think, a great novel and, like all great novels, it will reward many readings.

It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.

The Yellow Birds is out now from Sceptre.

My thanks to Sceptre for this review copy.