Tuesday, March 31, 2015

George Saunders Makes the Cut for Upcoming 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories

Houghton Mifflin has announced the upcoming publication of 100 YEARS OF THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, selected and edited by Lorrie Moore and co-edited by Heidi Pitlor. A whopping 752 pages, the anthology, which contains the work of only forty authors, will be released in October.

As could be expected with Lorrie Moore at the helm, the selection of authors and their stories is first rate. The earliest is Edna Ferber’s 1917 “The Gay Old Dog” and the most recent is Lauren Groft’s 2014 “At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” In between are an array of wonderful stories arranged by decade.

George Saunders, one of my favorites, is there with “The Simplica Girl Diaries,” from his fourth collection, TENTH OF DECEMBER, which won the 2014 Folio Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
He was also awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story in 2013. All by way of saying that, if you haven’t read him, you need to remedy the omission immediately.

As Rodney Welch wrote in the Columbia South Carolina Free Times (3/11/15), The acclaim is not hard to figure. Saunders has a rare gift for tapping into the inner lives and unique language of his characters, whether they are frantic adolescents, damaged war veterans, or aging middle-class folk clinging to old dreams and nursing new resentments.

In “The Simplica Girl Diaries,” a father of three with serious money problems helplessly watches his young daughter’s efforts to somehow keep up with her wealthy, free-spending and “entitled” schoolmates. When he wins $10,000 in a lottery, he doesn’t pay off his debts. Instead, he buys a lawn makeover which includes the installation of several “simplica girls,” so that his daughter can impress her classmates. The “simplica girls” are live, “imported” young women who are strung around the yard as lawn ornaments and kept in place by wires run through holes that have been drilled in their heads. One of his children is so appalled that she frees the young women, pushing the family further into debt because they now owe the lawn company big bucks for the deposit on the “ornaments.”

The story raises uncomfortable questions: is life better for the “simplica girls” at home or as lawn ornaments able to send money back to their families? And, if so, does that justify their treatment? In an interview in the New Yorker, Saunders discusses the story and says that it essentially came to him in a dream (newyorker.com).

Included in my edition of TENTH OF DECEMBER, there is “A Conversation Between George Saunders and David Sedaris.” In it, Sedaris asks him, “Do you feel powerless? Full of rage?” Saunders replies that he does not, that he feels that things have always been “pretty much the way they are, with subtle variations.” Then he adds:

“Having said that – I know my work communicates a certain feeling of discontent or darkness, or even anger. I have this sense (which came upon me when I was young and struggling, and hasn’t left yet) that certain verities (maybe these are especially American verities?) are false and harmful. So: There is no such thing as a ‘level playing field,’ genetics and karma being what they are, and to the extent that we pretend there is such a thing (by conflating wealth with virtue) we are playing a fool’s game, taking credit for that which was given to us (a good family, health, affluence, basic ability, intelligence, et cetera, et cetera) by fate. And I expect some of the feeling makes its way into my stories. I hope so, anyway.”

Believe me, it does.

While “The Simplica Girl Diaries” is certainly powerful (and horrifying), my personal favorite in THE TENTH OF DECEMBER is “Home,” the story of a damaged young veteran who has returned from war to people who have no understanding of what he’s been through or of how to deal with his tenuous emotional state. It is raw, dark, filled with tension and yet infused with both humor and irony.

It is also interesting technically. Written in first person in the soldier’s POV, it is almost entirely dialogue. (Note to creative writing teachers: You don’t HAVE to drag out Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” yet again for the class on dialogue. Try “Home” instead.)

Photo by Blue Flower Arts
Yet, as dark as Saunders’ stories may be, “…despite the dirty surrealism and clear-eyed despair, ‘Tenth of December’ never succumbs to depression. That’s partly because of Saunders’ relentless humor …. But more substantially it’s because of his exhilarating attention to language and his beatific generosity of spirit.” Gregory Cowles, NY Times Sunday Book Review (2/1/13)

Indeed, a transcript of his commencement address at Syracuse University, “where its simple, uplifting message struck a deep chord,” was posted on the internet and viewed over a million times. It was published, in a 64 page edition, as CONGRATULATIONS, BY THE WAY: SOME THOUGHTS ON KINDNESS. Publishers Weekly called it “warm and tender.”

Saunders’ TENTH OF DECEMBER was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review and a Best Book of the Year by People, The New York Times Magazine, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, New York, The Telegraph, BuzzFeed, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage and Shelf Awareness.

And also by me.

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