The financial collapse of 2008 was terrible for many people, but it was a terrific boon to George Saunders, or at least to his fiction, which has always found a rich vein of material for satire in the income gap between America’s rich and poor. His newest collection, Tenth of December, is remarkably faithful to the spirit of his earlier work, but his stories only become sharper and more relevant as the income gap widens and our America comes more and more to resemble the land of his own cartoonish, not entirely dark imagination.
Like his previous collections, especially CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000), Tenth of December is full of bizarre disasters and wild monologues, but also like his previous collections, the impression of chaos belies a careful design. Saunders’s stories take place in a test tube; the conditions are scrupulously controlled. From story to story and collection to collection, the setting hardly varies: this is the world of the 1950s sitcom—all white, approximately suburban, entirely enclosed, a Cold War American Dream. But it’s also a satirical version of that world. There is no middle class in Saunders; the middle class is merely a fiction in which the downwardly mobile characters attempt to find some consolation. Economic polarization is the rule here as well as the joke. Everyone in these stories is rich, magically and safely rich, or else they’re going down with the ship.
In “Puppy,” wealthy Marie walks into working-class Callie’s house and is appalled by “the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume…the spare tire on the dining-room table…some kind of crankshaft on a cookie sheet…a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint.” Marie is deciding whether or not to buy a dog, which Callie hopes to sell in order to release her husband from the duty of shooting it. That is what one does with “extra” animals, he maintains, and his feeling is, “when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs.” Marie tries to stay positive, as characters in Saunders always do, but she flees in her Lexus when she sees Callie’s son, Bo, chained to a tree in the yard. Marie doesn’t know that Callie has been driven to such an extremity by Bo’s own recklessness. “When Bo got older,” Callie thinks, “it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed.”
The situation in “Puppy” is typical. One woman has money, the other does not, and the distinction, which is so arbitrary that it can only be a joke, degrades the one and forces the other into hypocrisy. The same formula recurs again and again. These are the initial conditions of the experiment, so to speak.
But the variable is the human voice, and voice is what makes these stories memorable and unique. “Exhortation” is all voice: a low-level manager at a company of some kind—big companies in Saunders never make or do anything in particular, but simply provide small paychecks and a desk at which to be unhappy—attempts to rouse his disaffected employees with a surprising analogy. “So say you are charged with, you and some of your colleagues, lifting a heavy dead whale carcass onto a flatbed. Now we all know that is hard. And what would be harder is: doing that with a negative attitude.” He explains that he and his sons have had to do this on their vacation. “What we found—Timmy and Vance and I—is that even with only a neutral attitude, you are talking a very hard task.”