The buzz about Mr. Saunders

la-ca-jc-george-saunders-20121230-001In case you didn’t hear from The New York Times, NPR et al., George Saunders’s latest collection of short stories rode into bookstores on quite a swell of anticipation and praise.

This year I’m on a mission to better familiarize myself with classics — both older and contemporary — and Tenth of December seemed like an excellent starting point. I honestly expected to struggle a bit with it. There had to be some sort of elaborate diction or unfathomable allusion that would make me cower in awe and feel absolutely foolish at the notion of becoming a true author myself.

The great thing about George Saunders is that he’s unassuming — both in his writing and in person (so I hear from friends who have met him). He fine-tunes plots and characters that range from postmodern drudgery to eerily familiar dystopia and relatable wimps to tragic heroes. The writing is smooth, and the prose is never burdened with literary tricks or “clever” turns of phrase to trip up the reader.

What’s truly remarkable about Saunders’s writing is that he packs a deep, emotional punch in so few words. Generally it takes a novel’s length to feel moved, but these short stories deliver a kaleidoscope of sentiment, making them all the more realistic: “Victory Lap” is humorous yet heavy; “Escape from Spiderhead” is unsettling and alluring; “Al Roosten” makes you feel sorry for the protagonist in one sentence and ready to guffaw at his expense in the next. Throughout all of these stories, Saunders has an eerily perceptive knack for bottling stream of consciousness at its most basic and embarrassing level.

He is an artist at the most bare-bones level because what he creates does not require any whistles or bells to touch the reader. And despite a somewhat melancholic, resigned tone, he emerges as an optimist. Take the final, titular piece, “Tenth of December,” which presents two apprehensive characters — one very old and one very young — who act out of compassion and prove that innate humanity can spring forth even in our weakest moments. If that’s not optimism, I don’t know what is.

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