IT TOOK ME A MONTH to read Tenth of December.
It's a short book, full of short stories, and I'm a fast reader. It shouldn't have taken more than a few days.
But the new story collection from George Saunders—already widely praised, lauded in many corners as the best book of the year from an American master—is pretty damn hard to read.
The sentences themselves aren't difficult. Saunders is an accessible writer. He's not trying to obscure his meaning with complicated phrasing or big words. He wants people to read his books—you can tell. But he also wants to write about the world we live in, and the world we live in is kind of a difficult place.
In the most powerful and most affecting stories in Tenth of December, good intentions smack up against economic and social pressures. These are stories about people working hard and trying to do right by their families in a system that's designed for them to fail; they're stories about the small and large moral compromises that people make in order to keep living what they believe to be a good life. But this isn't some 60 Minutes episode about foreclosures—Saunders isn't writing journalism here, and he prefers an oblique, satirized approach.
Something like a thesis statement arrives in a story called Home, about a soldier who has just returned home from war. ("Which one?" asks a shop clerk. "Aren't there two?"). Everywhere he goes, he is mechanically thanked for his service, but he hardly recognizes his home anymore, and the stores are full of products he doesn't understand. Worse, the soldier did something while he was away, something he doesn't really want to think about, and this thing has resulted in his estrangement from his wife and children.
One day, after an altercation with his family, he flashes back to a time in high school, when he'd been hired to "clean some gunk" out of a pond. The gunk was full of live tadpoles, tadpoles he ripped open with each dig of a rake—but rather than stopping the task once he saw the tadpole carnage, he kept at it.
"It was like either: (A) I was a terrible guy who was knowingly doing this rotten thing over and over, or (B) it wasn't so rotten really, just normal, and the way to confirm it as normal was to keep doing it, over and over."
There are very few aspects of American life that the above phrase doesn't apply to, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear to the food we eat. Saunders is satirizing our culture, while sparing the individuals living in it. Absorbing this one-two punch of critique and radical empathy takes some time, and it's worth it—it's a remarkable collection.