Borderstan on Books: Tenth of December
From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
To be honest, the stories in George Saunders’ Tenth of December are probably a lot more sci-fi than they let on at first glance. Several of them seem to take place in near-distant futures where technology runs rampant, sapping our humanity, our free will and our ability to express genuine emotions.
In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a penal colony is home to bizarre scientific experiments in which, with the flip of a dial, a prisoner can spout poetry, feel intense sexual desire and even want to inflict harm on others.
In one of Saunders’ other haunting pieces, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” we follow along in the diary of a middle-aged family man who engages in psychological class warfare with his more well-off neighbors.
But what’s more terrifying than the economic disparity the narrator feels: the world he lives in, one in which immigrants from third-world countries elect to become veritable lawn ornaments in an effort to earn and send money back to their families (an idea that’s echoed in another story, “Puppy,” where a child is literally chained outside to a tree).
Sounds farfetched? It is, but the strangeness is tempered by the normalcy with which these otherworldly situations are treated; just another facet of consumerist American society. In fact, it’s the class element to this collection (whose narrators who are all underdogs of a sort) that comes to mean more than the sci-fi aspects of Tenth of December.
And when both themes come together, as they do in “My Chivalric Fiasco” (where an actor at a Renaissance fair takes a drug that makes him think and act like the heroic knight he only pretends to be), the result is proof of how Saunders can make the fanciful believable and the outlandish all too human.
Come to Tenth of December for the flights of fancy and strange twists of fate. Stay for the frightening commentary on how we live and feel in an increasingly technological, fractured world.
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