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George Saunders' 'Tenth of December': Satire with heart

Author George Saunders. His new book is a

Author George Saunders. His new book is a story collection, 'Tenth of December.' Credit: Getty

TENTH OF DECEMBER, by George Saunders. Random House, 251 pp., $26.

I can recall the precise moment I went from thinking that George Saunders was a talented writer of funny stories to thinking that he might be a genuine Swiftian force in American fiction, a satirist capable of causing real damage. In one passage from "Bounty," his 1995 novella, a slave master in a barbaric America of the near future explains to his newly purchased human chattels the nature of their relationship -- but in the language of a garrulous, enlightened CEO who's just returned from a three-day human resources retreat.

Before becoming an award-winning fiction writer, Saunders worked for such large companies as Kodak and Radian, an environmental engineering firm. From both experiences, he clearly took an awareness of how the ridiculously obtuse jargon one hears echoing throughout the meeting rooms of corporate America has infected our discourse. In Saunders, no less than in Orwell, language is routinely mutated and manipulated by the powerful to divide humans and obscure inhumanity. In Orwell, it's terrifying; in Saunders, somehow, it's hysterical.

It can be poignant, too. In one way or another, all the tales in "Tenth of December," his amazing new collection, are about the tragedy of separation. What distinguishes it from the three equally fine collections that preceded it ("CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," "Pastoralia," "In Persuasion Nation") is the added pinch of semisweet salvation, an ingredient most satirists avoid for fear of ruining their sour-by-design recipes.

"The Semplica-Girl Diaries," the longest and weirdest story here, is about one devoted family man's attempt to brighten his daughter's birthday by plunking down the money for the latest "must-have" suburban accoutrement: an artful arrangement of white-robed women who are quite literally strung up and displayed in the front yard as living, breathing lawn ornaments. You could take every class offered in the Oberlin liberal arts catalog and still not get as close as Saunders does in these pages to understanding the connections among sexism, racism, post-colonialism, late-stage capitalism and white middle-class anxiety. (And you certainly wouldn't find yourself laughing uproariously at it all.)

As the proud owner of those strung-together Semplica Girls explains to his dubious daughter, she needn't feel sorry for them: The money they'll be receiving at the end of their contract "helps them take care of the people they love" upon their return to whichever impoverished, war-torn home awaits them.

He would seem to share a moral compass with the rationalizing technicians in another story, "Escape From Spiderhead." They administer mood-altering chemicals to prisoners to find the formula that will finally allow for total human mastery over sadness, anger, lust and other volatile emotions. (As one of them puts it, sounding like a Silicon Valley whiz kid seeking venture capital for his start-up, such a discovery would be "killer," a "fantastic game changer.") When the story's test-subject narrator is made to understand just how far he is expected to go in the name of science (and pharmaceutical company profit), his terror is absolute. With his last act of defiance, he manages to achieve a redemption that society and his jailers never considered.

In other stories, one detects a movement away from surrealism and toward the wintry, Rust Belt naturalism we see in the fiction of Charles Baxter or Saunders' fellow Upstate New Yorker William Kennedy. It's represented here in such stories as "Puppy," in which the prism of class so distorts one woman's vision of another that empathy is out of the question; in "Home," which follows an emotionally unstable war veteran as he reconnects with his family members; and, most effectively, in this collection's title story, the tale of a suicidal man's encounter with a socially awkward boy on a lake.

The author has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut, whom he regards as a major influence. But even Vonnegut's biggest fans acknowledge his cynicism: The eyewitness to the bombing of Dresden never fully forgave humanity for it and other 20th century sins. Saunders hasn't given up on us all -- not yet. As one despondent character says about the value of staying alive, of remaining connected to those he loves: "There could still be many -- many drops of goodness." Those are fighting words to most satirists, and they happen to appear in the very last pages of the very last story in this collection. One wonders, eagerly, how his next story will begin.

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