George Saunders (2013 [2014]) tenth of december

george saunders

George Saunder’s book of ten short stories, tenth of december, won The Folio Prize. Anyone that knows me knows that tenth of December is a very lucky and was a very propitious date for me and I should look upon this book favourably, but let’s be honest Saunders is already a success, he’s a New York Times bestseller, his short stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and  Harper’s, he’s won the genius award MacArthur fellowship and in the introduction Joel Lovell New York Times Magazine begins with the headline: ‘GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR and your thinking—really? The truth is I didn’t really like this book.

There is, of course, more than one truth and I don’t have a monopoly on them (although I think and act as if I do). Some stores are like a long drink of water – figurative language Saunders uses on one or two occasions to describe a particular character. Other stories have stickability in that they’re memorable. Sticks, for example, is just two pages. It begins with ‘Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal poles in the yard’. Time passes. His kids fall away.  Dad has grandchildren. But he sticks with this weird obsession with dressing the metal poles in the yard with different guises. That’s it. It’s kinda sad and gives us insight into a kinda half-life of others. Job done. It sticks.

The first story in the collection Victory Lap I didn’t like, and if a reader doesn’t like the first story, the truth is s/he rarely ventures beyond it, but again, there was a kind of truth in the ending. It starts conventionally enough ‘Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.’ Then it gets a bit weird. I’m not sure who is narrating the second paragraph. It sounds like {a pastiche} on the Olde Worlde English and later the pretend French argot of a bygone era that should never have existed and Yes it does have ‘{special one}’ in brackets like I’ve shown. And for a reader not really sure what pastiche is, or what it should mean in a story, this can be a bit frightening and off-putting. I persevered because I’m an Olde Worlde type of guy that also doesn’t exist. Alison is the town beauty. Her neighbour Kyle Boot, who she spent many an hour in the sandpit with, she describes as ‘the palest kid in all the land?’ Sorry, that’s a rhetorical question that’s not a question. Begad, but does not Kyle love and worship the most beauteous Alison as all men born of flesh are prone to do, even perverts with borrowed work vans that plan to have her for his own and make her his queen, as they did in the old days, even if it was only for a borrowed hour and if she does not come round to loving and honouring him?

There are two stories that stick out. Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries.

Jeff, the narrator in Escape from Spiderhead, is being held in a prison. We learn later in the story that he’s a murderer. He got into a fight, he was losing, with a puny younger guy and he picked up a rock and killed him. Could happen to any of us. Particularly stupid older men that drink in pubs and should know better. The narrator’s mum has used her life saving to get him moved to a research facility where he should be having an easier time. It certainly seems that way. Roll over any rock and you’ll see they have ‘voluntarily’ tested drugs on prisoners and psychiatric units. Abnesti is the head-researcher in both meanings of the word. ‘Verbaluce’ for example makes the prisoner/experimental subject more verbose and quicker thinking. A theme My Chivalric Fiasco explores more fully in a small-town dependent on passing tourist income. Abnesti has at his disposal an arsenal of different kinds of drugs. The one he is currently testing and which the company have great hopes for is ‘ED763’. ED763 reduces love to a biochemical reaction. Jeff is set up with another experimental subject Heather and, after lunch, Rachel. They make passionate love to each other exactly three times and are enraptured by each other, but only as long as ED763 is in their bloodstream. When it is withdrawn, they are indifferent to each other. Heather and Rachel have made love and been enraptured by another two male experimental subjects that day and also made love to them exactly three times. To test Jeff’s post-study indifference Abnesti asks Jeff to choose whether to administer ‘Darkenfloxx’—‘Imagine the worst you have ever felt times 10’—to either Heather or Rachel.

The Simplica Girl Diaries is a simple story of a dad, ‘Having just turned 40’,  trying to do the right thing by his girls, but doing the wrong thing for everyone. The narrator’s takes his daughter Lily to a school- girl party that has got everything they’ve not. ‘That treehouse is twice the actual size of our house’. Ha. Ha. But it’s no joke. The diarist is particularly impressed  ‘on the front of the house, with sweeping lawns, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze’. His daughter’s birthday is in a few days and she’s asked for a few classical figurines that cost a few hundred bucks that the narrator has not got, but he maxes out his credit cards before pay-check day in an attempt to keep her happy. It doesn’t work, but then a windfall, a $10 000 lottery-card win. He goes for the best little-girl party ever for the best little girl. He splashes out even leasing four SG units to hang on microfiche on his front lawn. SG units are Third World poor people who live in such terrible conditions the diarist tells us they are happy to come to America, have a wire put through their head, which doesn’t hurt at all, and hang on that wire for the duration of their contract. It’s a win-win situation, until someone cuts the microfiche and they shuffle off, still attached together and the sheriff explains that there’s some strange groups intent on liberating SG’s and explains that, no, they don’t usually get them back. The owner of the leased SG units also explains that if he had read the contract he was responsible for them and would have to pay all costs. Lose-lose, but a lesson learned?



Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds


‘The Amazing Randi’ is indeed amazing. He’s in his mid eighties,  stooped and worn and looks like he should be cast as Grumpy, or one of the other seven dwarves. But he has a very eloquent speaking voice and was awarded the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ about thirty-years ago. When he talks you should listen. He exposes fairy tales, New Age liars and cheats such as Uri Geller.  One of the funniest parts of the show was when Uri appearing on the Johnny Carson show at the beginning of the 1970s. Uri claimed to have  been able to bend spoons, start watches and to have psychokinetic powers. The Amazing Randi didn’t even have to be there in person. His powers extended to telling Johnny Carson’s prop man the correct protocol to ensure no cheating could take place. No cheating did take place. No spoon bending, or clock starting. Geller was finished, or so Randi thought. What he didn’t expect was the gullibility of talk show hosts and the general public.

Uri Geller became a worldwide hit. Randi’s subsequent stalking of Geller, performing the same tricks and sleight of hand as his antagonist, and a book explaining how it worked, did not generate the same kind of publicity nor kudos.

His exposure of Peter Popoff on the Johnny Carson show was more straightforward. With a name like Peter Popoff you’d expect some kind of cape and prog-rock outfit, but it was more a 1930’s Elmer Gantry type performance. Popoff was a faith healer who pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars a week working his miracles. If that sounds vaguely familiar then chart the rise of the superchurches, pulling in millions and the sidelines of faith shows constantly touring the good old US of A. God has not turned his back on the tens of millions living in poverty and need he has sent missionaries like Popoff. He, of course, repented after being diabolically caught cheating. His low tech scam of using an earpiece to get prompts from his wife, who in turn got her information of  ailments and addresses from the prayer cards filled in by the flock when entering the church, he was fleecing, was exposed by a scanner picking up his radio frequency.  Scooby Doo where are you? This is big business in America.

Randi also took on the paranormal ‘scientific’ community. I have put ‘scientific’ in brackets because science acts as a library of knowledge and also a methodology. Randi by introducing two expert test subjects with paranormal powers showed how easy it was to dupe the so-called experts who gave legitimacy and  sanctioned cheats such as Uri Geller and his subjects.

It’s a cliche that truth can often be queerer than fiction. The denouement that Randi’s male partner had been living a lie, on the run, under an assumed name for the last thirty years, and was now threatened with imprisonment and deportment from America would be impossible to make up. Even Randi would have laughed at somebody trying to fool the American public with that one.