IN A RECENT INTERVIEW with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, George Saunders announced the triumph of capitalism: “In our time, I think, capitalism has just won. There’s no question. It’s just an overwhelming victory for capitalism.” Yet Saunders, with his judicious brand of optimism, offered that we might still resuscitate a choice:
I think we’re in an interesting time in that maybe capitalism is trying to decide which capitalism it’s going to be. And it seems to me that just in my lifetime it’s kind of been decided that the form of capitalism we’re going to embrace is the one that says “if you got it, you deserve it. No guilt. Don’t worry about it. And anybody who doesn’t like that is whining.” Whereas the one I like is the sort of Emersonian/Whitmanesque form which says there’s no point in any of this democracy and capitalism if we’re not simply making more citizens, making brighter citizens, making the lives of the least among us better.
In his fourth collection of stories, Tenth of December, Saunders performs the most rigorous of his cultural biopsies, examining with unsqueamish fidelity the tangled hopes and fears of our great midsection — suburban fathers and mothers, nine-to-fivers, minimum wagers, a soldier, a prisoner, a rapist — and providing a prognosis of the “no guilt” capitalism that has apparently already (pretty much) won. How much has it won? How completely has it infiltrated our humanity? The margin between the predominantly credulous and delusional characters featured in these 10 sharply rendered stories and us is closing faster than we might all care to believe.
Saunders takes inspiration from the losers of the system, the perpetual strivers stuck in a quagmire of upper class aspiration and middle class means. The narrator of the outstanding “The Semplica Girl Diaries” — a father who resolves to write in a journal every night for posterity — struggles to furnish his family with the expensive clutter enjoyed by his peers and neighbors: “There is so much I want to do and experience and give to kids. Time going by so quickly, kids growing up so fast. If not now, when? When will we give them largesse and sense of generosity?” Eventually winning the lottery, he decides to spend the money on expensive birthday presents for his daughter and exotic lawn ornaments called SGs — the “Semplica Girls” of the title — Third World women strung together by a surgically inserted “microline” through their brains. The SGs are both status symbol and capitalism’s charitable alternative to prostitution and human trafficking. Amid the narrator’s madcap efforts to outfit his family in luxury, the SGs remain a dark specter in the background, epitomizing an absurdity and horror only the narrator’s young daughter can properly gauge.
We meet a host of characters hiding from themselves, deflecting genuine self-knowledge with the kind of consolations found in self-help platitudes. When the title character in “Al Roosten” seems on the verge of realizing the extent of his selfishness — delaying the medical treatment of a crippled child to avoid social reprimand — he stops himself: “That was crap. That was negative. You had to let the healing begin. Everyone knew that. You had to love yourself.” ...read more