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Updated: November 10, 2013 15:29 IST

Snapshots of life

M. S. NAGARAJAN
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Tenth of December; George Saunders, Bloomsbury, Rs. 399.
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Tenth of December; George Saunders, Bloomsbury, Rs. 399.

Though set in small-town America, these transcendent short stories are representative of human experience in general.

George Saunders’s Tenth of December, comprising 10 short stories of varying lengths published in diverse magazines between 1995 and 2009, presents different snapshots of life filtered through the consciousness of American small town residents caught up in the web of their own memories, desires and decisions. Their fantasies, their deeds and the steps they take to resolve or to get out of various trying situations make us feel that they can be viewed as turning points in our own experiences. In a sense, the stories call to our mind our mental preoccupations.

The opening story ‘Victory Lap’ is about the abduction of a young girl. Alison Pope is saved by her neighbour Kyle Boot — not esteemed either for his physical strength or bravery — from possible rape and murder. The two grew up together in the same neighbourhood. At home he was taught that discretion is the better part of valour while, at school, his teacher taught him that one should stand up for what is right. To act, or to ignore: that is the question. At the crucial moment this young boy rises to the occasion and quells the sexual predator.

‘Sticks’ is a meditation on life. The protagonist plants a metal pole in his yard and dresses it up to suit various occasions as Halloween, Veterans Day, etc. He leads a life so niggardly as to stretch frugality to its very limits. His children too feel that, as they grew up, the seeds of meanness were blooming within them. When he died, the house was sold to a young couple who cast away the pole forthwith as sheer garbage.

‘Exhortation’ is a corporate memo sent by the Divisional Director to his staff regarding the performance status for March. It is one of those pep talks given to arouse the slackening emotions of the employees couched in a language of irony and debunking; a biting satire on the rank commercialism and empty visions of American life.

The protagonist in ‘Simplica Girl Diaries’ resolves when he turns 40 to record his impressions every day in a diary for a year to leave for his grandchildren a picture of his life and times. The recordings in the diary are full of societal norms and insights into the meaning of life meant for an imagined audience. When his buddy Todd suddenly passes away, the priest sermonises: “This (the heartbeat) is the thin line between you and the grave. So why do you live like you are eternal?” Entries such as these unveil our masks and light up the dark recesses of our existence.

The strength of these weird stories lies in their multiple points of view and interior monologues. The stories get their shape moving around the thoughts of the characters who, as a rule, are those who have been let down in life.

The narrative mode is either in the third or in the first person; the narrative voice is terse and brief but replete with American slang carrying the weight of day-to-day colloquial speech.

There is an unmistakable feel of surrealism in the settings and descriptions. Tenth of December enhances our sense of what it is to be human. These stories that delve into the inner life of the characters achieve an aesthetic transcendence beyond the banal, prosaic material. What greater gift can a reader wish for!

Extract:

I attempted to Comfort myself, saying I had done Right, and served Truth and shown good Courage. But ‘twas no Comfort in it. It was so weird. Why had I even done That? I felt like a total dickBrain, who should have just left well enough alone and been more Moderate.

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