Friday, February 21, 2014

Appreciating the Short Story via George Saunders

The last book I finished was Tenth of December by George Saunders. As I read and enjoyed this collection, I remembered how deceptively simple writing a short story seems. A delicate balance needs to be maintained within a compressed amount of space. Drop the reader off in the depths of the story's world. Don't waste time (or underestimate the reader's ability to comprehend) by loading up on backstory or over-the-top explanations. Give just enough to orient the reader in the new world, to help them absorb the environment - an experience similar to riding a bike after years of not pedaling. Give details at the right speed, so the reader is engaged and wants to delve deeper. An overwhelmed reader may throw the bike down and run home.

A reminder of how deceptively simple writing a short story seems.
Reading George Saunders, it's easy to forget how much nuance and thoughtfulness goes into a short story. His writing seems effortless, seamless. His characters are fully human, with all the flaws and quirks that entails. His writing doesn't feel like writing at all. More like we've suddenly been given access to each character's unique inner monologue. In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," we read a character's journal entries. They are written in the fragmented, missing verb/noun/article style we so often use in our texts and emails. Unstructured grammar can be annoying to read, but the technique adds authenticy to the character's humanity and corresponds with the character's frazzled mindset.

All of the stories in Tenth of December are compelling. I'll just focus on one to try and grasp at how Saunders does it. The story "Home" is told from the point of view of a young man named Mike.
  • In just the third paragraph, we get some vivid insight into the state of Mike's mother's house, and the kind of life Mike is used to witnessing/living: "Inside were piles of newspaper on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head above the fridge and the old orange rug rulled up halfway."
  • It soon becomes evident that Mike has returned home from war. On the 2nd page, his mother's boyfriend (Harris) asks Mike, "What's your worst thing you ever did over there?" A man comes to the house to evict Mike's mother (Ma), who tries to get out of it by saying, "This is my son! Who served. Who just came home. And this is how you do us?" Harris chimes in with, "This is how you treat the family of a hero? He's over there fighting and you're over here abusing his mother?" The story slowly feeds the reader with appropriate details regarding Mike's service and the family dynamics. We settle into Mike's world via an organic receipt of information. Saunders lets us learn via natural sounding character conversations and situations. There is no need for the narrator or the author to directly talk to the reader in a whispered aside in order to fill us in. We are never removed from the story in order to receive factual details.
  • Mike's sister Renee has somewhat escaped, and now lives in a nicer part of town with her husband and baby. Mike goes to see Renee in her fancy new house, and there is this great image: "I looked at her and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, on mushrooms, trashed the patio." I love this flash of a memory. Saunders uses a fleeting recollection to say everything about Mike and Renee's childhood - the environment they grew up in, the bond between them. Each word is telling - from the mention of Dad, who gets no other recognition in the rest of the story, right down to the way Aunt Toni spells her name with an "i." 
  • There's another flash later on. Simple words tinged with innocence, youth, abandoned optimism. Simple words touching on our complicated relationships with nostalgia and the people who raised us."Oh Ma, I remember when you were young and wore your hair in braids..."
  • Something dark is hinted at. Renee continually asks Mike if he "did it" and Mike continually side-steps the question by changing the subject. What is "it"? An atrocity comitted while fighting in the war? There's some talk of a court martial. Maybe it's the unknown reason why he no longer lives with his wife and kids?
  • The intrigue of this dark secret increases as we observe Mike acting impulsively and violently. He body slams the guy who evicts Ma from her house. He makes Ma and Harris watch as he sets the house carpet on fire. "Something had been happening to me lately where a plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet. When that happened, I knew to trust it. My face would get hot and I'd feel sort of like, Go, go, go. It had served me well, mostly. Maybe he wrestled with a temper before his service, and the seedling of anger was exacerbated by war. Perhaps in the present tense of the story, he struggles with an act he shouldn't have committed and/or PTSD. 
  • An interesting scene occurs between Mike, Renee, and her husband Ryan. Mike wants to hold their baby, but they won't let him. Is this refusal tied to the "it" that Renee has been questioning Mike about? Mike did something - or was at least accused of something - that makes Renee and Ryan doubt him. They don't trust Mike with their child. 
  • "Having all these people think I was going to hurt the baby made me imagine hurting the baby. Did imagining hurting the baby mean that I would hurt the baby? Did I want to hurt the baby? No, Jesus." Mike's inner monologue piques the reader's curiousity and suspicions. It walks a line between indignation and self-doubt. He tries to convince himself that he can actually handle holding the baby. He pushes deeper, recalling recent experiences of having no intention of doing something, then suddenly finding himself in the middle of doing it anyway. He tries to diffuse the situation by picking up a pitcher of lemonade and holding "like a baby." The lemonade spills everywhere, he spikes the pitcher to the floor, and runs outside. We feel bad that Renee and Ryan hurt Mike's feelings. At the same time - judging by how he handled the lemonade pitcher - maybe they were right to keep him away from the baby and what the hell did Mike DO before we enter the story?
  • We hear snippets about Mike's experience in the war from Ma. She says he has a Silver Star, that he was cleared of the court martial. It's hard to tell how much truth her words carry - as she has proved to be an unreliable character, and Mike neither confirms or denies her assertions. She also seems to mention Mike's veteran status for self-serving reasons. To get others to treat her better.
It's hard to articulate exactly why the Tenth of December stories work. In many ways, the stories are perfectly ordinary. Ordinary in the sense that they feel like the words and worlds of real people, desires and struggles we recognize in ourselves and in those around us. Yet they are extraordinary because they capture the ordinary so completely. Everything is familar - with a subtle splash of science fiction and absurdity, borne on an undercurrent of humor. These stories resonate because at their core, they explore the multitudes of existence that many of us encounter everyday. Family tensions. Conversations that say everything and nothing at once. Heartache. The awkwardness of growing up, of trying to exist beneath strange rules. Uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. Chance encounters with strangers. Trying to identify and do the right thing. Material tokens of success, petty jealousies. Just trying to make it from one day to the next.
Reading Tenth of December is like eavesdropping
on the words and worlds of real people.

And like my favorite flavor of short story, the endings in each Tenth of December story are not endings at all. It's not THE END, not exactly. It is a shift, an understanding that this character we've been drawn into is making a noticable change. The reader must say goodbye at a pivotal crossroad. This stirring change may take hold and push the character to a new place (positive or negative). Maybe the change will drift away and the character settles back into old habits. We don't know. But as the story ends, there is still satisfaction in knowing that a shift occured. The uncertainity of whether or not the shift will stick - and even the uncertainty of whether or not the shift itself can be identified as positive or negative - makes these characters real. As we turn the page or close the book, the characters seem to go on living in a paralell universe. We just can't eavesdrop on them anymore. We must leave them on the cusp of something pivotal.