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.

‘Speaking as a businessman’ Lightning Rods – Helen DeWitt

‘It’s not for me to make moral judgements. I’m a businessman. I deal with people as they are, not as they ought to be.’

When I explained the plot of Lightning Rods to my wife she was horrified. That was my aim and my dear wife’s mortification amply demonstrates how remarkable it is that Helen DeWitt has managed to write such a stunning satirical novel about one man’s fantasy-derived solution to the sexual harassment problems of big business in America. With the relentless warped logic of the failed vacuum-cleaner salesman Joe manages to place lightning rod ‘facilities’ for the release of tension. They amount to an anonymous naked woman (the lighting rod) poking her rear-end through a hole in the wall of the disabled toilet in order for the results-orientated male to release (earth) their tension and get back to generating business for the company. DeWitt captures perfectly the tone and logic of sales and the boardroom; a tone Joe has mastered.

 “Speaking as a businessman,” he went on, “I know that it is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results. Speaking of people as they are rather than as they should be I know that a high-testosterone-level individual has a high likelihood of being sexually aggressive; if the individual is working twenty-hour days as a drive results-orientated individual often does, that sexual aggression will find an outlet in the office.”

Anyone familiar with business-speak (or 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy) will recognise the tendency of businesspeople to evade the language of moral responsibility in favour of realpolitik goal-orientated nonsense which begins with an apparent truism, but ends who knows where.  Joe’s catchphrase – which soon catches on – is ‘At the end of the day, we got to be realistic. We’ve got to deal with people the way they are, not the way we might like them to be.’ Joe’s apparent realism contrasts nicely with the fantasy which underpins his invention.

Whilst remaining very funny indeed the novel demonstrates the extent to which those at a disadvantage will rationalise actions they would never normally consider to get through college, provide for a family, or just survive, and the way people can approach almost anything if it will allow them to get ahead in an unsympathetic corporate landscape. Lucille and Renée, who are as driven as any of the men they cater to, take on their role and make it work for them. The easy desire to reproach that point of view is undermined by the success lightning rods go on to achieve.

‘Besides, the thing to remember is there are two ways of looking at things you don’t like that life throws at you. One way is to emphasize the negative and just fall apart because every little thing isn’t exactly the way you like it. The other way is to look at it as an opportunity to practice dealing with things you don’t like. It’s a chance to practice not letting things get to you.’

However, as David Flusfeer points out in his introduction, Lightning Rods is far more than a satire on commercial institutions and sexual mores. DeWitt’s language is irrepressible, full of energy and control, as she takes Joe’s idea and pushes it forward on his terms, and with his faults, through one challenge after another. Flusfeder writes that ‘despite its ostensible subject matter it is set in a world utterly without sin. Everything originates from Joe’s world view, with its vocabulary and metaphors derived from self-help manuals and management guidebooks, its salesman tone of convivial yearning, where people are always on first name terms, even when they’re talking to themselves…’

This prelapsarian tone is undermined by Dewitt’s use of it and allows her to present office developments resulting from facility-use as near exotic: ‘Something that had looked completely uncomplicated, a purely physical convenience, turned out to have far-reaching psycho-social repercussions.’ Joe’s grasp of psychology extends as far as his fantasies take him, which is why he must reconcile each development with his own libido, but that does not hold him back. Especially once the more enterprising lightning rods start to take advantage of him, selling their expertise dear and improving their experience with constant suggestions. It is an odd sort of empowerment, but it is empowerment nonetheless.

Be in no doubt that this is a very strange novel indeed. It’s also brilliant. Subscription publisher And Other Stories is having a very good year indeed, what with Swimming Home shortlisted for the Booker Prize and novels of the quality of Lightning Rods on their list. There has already been talk of Lightning Rods featuring somewhere in next year’s Booker Prize. It might be a bit early for such things, but I would not be at all surprised. DeWitt’s writing never falters in its tightly controlled exploration of one man’s idea to make the world a better place. All that and a dig at the FBI as well.

 Lightning Rods is published today (1st October 2012) by And Other Stories.

My thanks to And Other Stories for this review copy.