In a diary he’s been keeping, a 40-year-old husband and father of three writes about winning $10,000 with a lottery ticket, and, since he expects these jottings to be read years and years down the line, he adds:
Note to future generations: Happiness is possible. And when happy, so much better than opposite, i.e., sad. Hopefully you know! I knew, but forgot. Got used to being slightly sad! Slightly sad, due to stress, due to worry vis-à-vis limitations. But now, wow, no: happy!”
This paragraph comes almost exactly halfway through George Saunders’ 2013 collection of ten short stories Tenth of December.
All but impossible
And, by this point, the reader knows that happiness is all but impossible in the universe that Saunders describes — a universe of chain-stores with names such as YourItalianKitchen, of jobs so boring and meaningless they’re filled with dread and difficult to stomach, of good being equated with affluence, of economic winners living plastic lives, of everyone else scrambling to avoid falling further and further behind, of near-constant daydreaming about something happy that might happen if fingers are kept crossed.
A universe in which female refugees from the Third World, known as SGs, are hooked up, brain to brain, through a microline and installed, hung on some structure, in ornamental arrangements AS LAWN DECORATIONS!
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t shout like that.
But, in these ten stories, Saunders has extrapolated much about the present “slightly sad” American culture into the very near future, and it’s downright horrific in its bland inhumanity. Not just to these SGs — that’s short for “Semplica girls,” Semplica being the name of the scientist who developed the technology — but every character in this collection is degraded by the society and the culture and his or her own blindnesses.
This is a book about people caught in a profound and insidious spiritual cancer and unwilling to face the aridness of their lives, the emptiness, the bile of their existence.
“The coming disaster”
There are, I’ll acknowledge, two stories with happy endings.
One centers on two characters, a boy and a man suffering from terminal cancer, who take action to make their lives and the lives of those they love — and each other, even though they have never before met — better. Both nearly die.
The other has two teenagers, a girl and a boy, who are looking at life with fresh and hopeful eyes. Fine, but then there’s the third character who is trying to kidnap and rape the girl. Oh, and this one ends with someone in a rage nearly crushing someone else’s skull with a big rock.
That’s a repeated trope in Tenth of December — someone in a rage acting or wanting to act on a violent impulse. While that one skull is not crushed by the big rock, another in another story is destroyed by a big brick.
In a third, a character sees a homeless man he’s never met walk past his car and fantasizes “leaping from the car, knocking the man to the ground, kicking him and kicking him, teaching him, in this way, a valuable lesson on how to behave.”
In a fourth, a returned veteran is enraged at eleven members of his extended family including three babies, because of how they’re treating each other, and, in his mind, he begins moving to carry out explosive violence and sees “the contours of the coming disaster [expanding] to include the deaths of all present.”
“Game of Wac-a-Mole”
A fifth doesn’t have to do with physical violence, but with a violent image of what is required of a parent and the frustration and dyspepsia at the heart of life in the universe that Saunders sees developing.
It’s the diarist, again addressing his future audience:
Family life of our time sometimes seems like game of Wac-a-Mole, future reader. Future generations still have? Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill? Perhaps may seem like strange/violent game to you, future reader? Who no longer even need to eat to live? Just levitate all day, smiling warmly at one another? Sometimes seems that, as soon as one kid happy, another kid “pops up,” i.e., registers complaint, requiring parent to “whack” kid, i.e., address complaint.
There are many things going on in that paragraph.
For one thing, it’s a description of the life that nearly every character is living in Tenth of December. Each is weighed down by one burden after another, one oppressive whack after another.
And escape is something that isn’t in the cards.
Well, to be fair, in one story, a character is able to get away scot free — through a particularly gruesome suicide.
For another, life for the diarist, and for most of the characters in this collection, revolves around a highly commercialized environment that, in a deep way, is a sterile, synthetic prison in which the characters are clueless inmates.
Also, inherent in this diary entry is the feeling of the writer that, like his kids, he’d like someone to make him happy.
It’s not going to happen. He’ll remain “slightly sad.”
“Backwards and inverted”
There are a lot of Dads and Moms in Tenth of December, and they generally don’t come off well. And several people with cancer or some other dread health problem.
One of those people has been told his life is coming to an end:
He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.
These are thoughts that echo through millenniums of human history. We are the victims of a blind and unfeeling God, or a blind and unfeeling Fate, or whatever.
What’s added here, though, is that the reader of Tenth of December knows that virtually everyone in these stories is being crushed not just by a blind “something/someone” but, even more, by the blind and unfeeling machine that is human society.
The characters in this book — nearly all of them — are “crushed people.” They feel the pressure bearing down on them and can’t quite realize that they are being ever so slowly smashed flat.
The sheriff who comes to evict one character from her home knows more than most everyone else how wrong things are.
“I’m sorry this is happening,” the sheriff said. “Everything’s backwards and inverted.”
It’s hard to find happiness in an inverted world.
Patrick T. Reardon