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.” Without these gross distortions (in another instance, Roosten paints a picture of his unruly, sugar-addled nephews as “Beethovens”), one suspects that many of these characters would not make it out of bed in the morning. Though Saunders allows plenty of opportunity, they never discover the depths of their wretchedness. That privilege is reserved for the reader, who, alone, suffers the shocks, the disturbing conditions to which Saunders’s characters have since adapted with fine-tuned casuistry and persistent blinders. In the survival of the fittest, their fangs and talons are their delusions, enacted daily.
Saunders is, of course, a master at exposing the absurdities of our fantasy lives, the fictions carried out alongside “real life” in which each one of us is the star of some artfully sequenced best-case scenario, or otherwise totally improbable chain of events. Throughout Tenth of December, we also witness the kind of daily imaginings that color and heighten individual experience, fostering a private space of idiosyncrasy and inspiration. In “Puppy,” Marie, a cheerful mother, entering an impoverished home with plans to buy a dog, copes with her discomfort by way of a whimsical daydream:
Okay, then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain’t hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent.
Though it comes as a pleasant surprise to Marie — “Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing,” she thinks afterward — the Pygmalion story invoked here is not so “amazing”: it’s well-worn territory, the surfacing of a popular and mythic structure. But her nimble appropriation, the ingenuity and delight in the telling, affirms a creative capacity that is alive and well, just in need of exercise. Fantasy, Saunders assures us, however bloated with egotism and prejudice, is still the refuge of freedom, invention, and (we can only hope) change.
Yet, in this world, change is largely a misnomer, since alternatives don’t exist unless actively sought. Because the characters’ sense of self-worth is almost entirely wrapped up with a craving for things and status, forfeiting the rat race also means forfeiting one’s life. One of the book’s few respites from the cycle of desire and deception, a scene of breathtaking transcendence, is also an account of suicide. Elsewhere, breaking free of the system is to withdraw entirely. The story “Exhortation,” for instance, is composed as a peppy memo to the employees of a company whose precise function is slowly revealed to be ever more sinister. The director cites an “Andy” who had achieved record numbers for the company but has since, conspicuously, dropped off: “My guess is that he’s being neurotic, and second-guessing his actions of October — and wow, wouldn’t that be a shame, wouldn’t that be a no-win, for Andy to have completed that record-breaking October and then sit around boo-hooing about it?” In a society divided between perceived gains and losses, the capacity for opinion and dissent is absorbed; there exists only “for” or “against.”
Other than these intimations of off-screen rebellion, which signal little but a hollow retreat, there are no existential breakthroughs, nothing to break free of the inertia. Minor epiphanies, well intentioned though they may be, prove feeble, ringing of AA axioms, gym memberships purchased and never renewed. “Note to self:” the eager narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” writes, “try harder, in all things, to be better person.” The “better person” of his imagining is a touching parody of postindustrial, well-rounded success, in which happiness is a formula achieved by the sum of monetary gain, physical health, diverse hobbies, and a general positivity. Sure. Who wouldn’t want it? Except Saunders provokes the reader to ask what is lost in this exchange. Somehow, unbeknownst to all, the critical faculties have been suppressed, the harsh noise muted. Saunders portrays us in only slightly warped terms, as conflicting balls of desire and duty. Though his characters understand duty to family and to fellow humans, a larger encompassing responsibility is absent: the duty to question the governing paradigm in the first place.
But, in all fairness, breaking away from the pack, boycotting the destructive, soul-crushing imperatives of the status quo is a task of Herculean self-possession with which these characters — and most people — are not gifted. That faculty of critical insight is a luxury for anyone barely managing to keep her head above water. In many of these stories, language has deteriorated, a result of corporate jingoism and the informal tech jargon that favors brevity and novelty over complexity of understanding. Entire concepts are summarily substituted with “etc., etc.” (“forgetting for the moment all namby-pamby thoughts of right/wrong etc., etc.”). Multi-faceted comparisons are stuffed into tidy equations (“Funeral so sad, lunch = heaven”). Characters only become articulate — say, in the way characters in a Henry James novel are articulate — with the aid of mind-altering, language-boosting drugs. In “My Chivalric Fiasco,” Ted, a “Pacing Guard” in a medieval reenactment park, takes “Knightlyfe” to enhance his performance. Suddenly, his speech becomes florid, his thoughts discerning. But the most startling consequence is the way his newly expanded vocabulary rouses his moral center. Ultimately he makes a decision supported on high ethical principle that is not in his best (sober) interest.
While Saunders spends much of the collection exposing our failings — our ignorance and pettiness, our selfishness and jealousies — he saves the final, title story to remind us why, after all that, we’re still worthy. A boy — chubby, not popular, “with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs” — plays a vivid imaginary game in the woods in which he is a hero off to rescue a damsel in distress from a pack of rowdy made-up creatures. A man — “bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two white branches,” in the late stages of cancer — goes there to off himself, a mercy killing for the benefit of his beloved family whom he wants to spare the burden and memory of his suffering. The two come together as the result of an accident— no debating, just the purest of human instinct — and save each other in every sense of the word. The final story is a celebration of human life, a reminder that despite this messed up world (and we’re not off the hook for that), we are still good; we endure because life is a gift and every moment, a miracle.
The world Saunders conjures is one in which the “no-guilt” capitalism has indeed already won. These stories, however, are not about corporate greed or globalized homogeny (though its effects are palpable), but about the average citizen, decent and well meaning, trying to excavate some hospitable nook within a system that has not favored them. Though they act as agents of capitalism’s unhappy ends and adhere to its cheap anodynes, they know not what they do. The rampant humor, manic stylization, and sci-fi accoutrements may temporarily convince you that this world is not our own, that they are not us. But these fragile, hapless victims of a smothering indifference, just trying to live their lives the best way they know how — that is us, all over. After the vital doses of discomfort and alarm, the cumulative effect of these stories is an overriding tenderness, the same with which a healer looks upon a leper. Saunders recognizes the forces at play, the sickness being spread. As for the sick, we are not yet incurable.