It’s a delicate balance: writing linguistically daring stories without putting off most of your readers. Get too weird, and you’re headed for the anonymity of the avant-garde. Stay safe, and you end up boring everyone, including yourself. Give George Saunders credit. In Tenth of December, his fourth collection of short stories, and his first since 2007, he manages to achieve that balance, delivering narratives that are strange yet familiar, sardonic yet sincere.

“Victory Lap,” the first story in the book, begins with 14-year-old Alison Pope reveling in her popularity as she daydreams about a man who has asked her stand on the moon with him: “Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgement was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?”

Meanwhile, her neighbor, Kyle Boot, has just “dashed through the garage, into the living area, where the big clocklike wooden indicator was set at All Out. Other choices included: Mom & Dad Out; Mom Out; Dad Out; Kyle Out; Mom & Kyle Out; Dad and Kyle Out; and All In.” Kyle wonders, “Why did they even need All In? Wouldn’t they know it when they were All In? Would he like to ask Dad that? Who, in his excellent totally silent downstairs woodshop, had designed and built the Family Status Indicator?”

Yes, Kyle would like to ask his father, but that’s never going to happen because the Boot family brings worrying and OCD to heights rarely imagined. How then will Kyle react, when he sees Alison, on whom he has long had a crush, in the grip of a kidnapper? Surprisingly, of course.

The questions driving the other stories are similarly charged, although perhaps more preposterous. How will a convicted murderer with a remarkably big heart react when he is told to administer the horrific drug “Darkenfloxx” to a fellow inmate? What will a yuppie family do when they come to pick up a puppy but find a boy in the backyard chained to a tree? How will a pudgy, unpopular man respond when he is forced to walk down a catwalk in his underwear to help support “LaffKidsOffCrack and their anti-drug clowns”? Again, the answers are always unexpected.

Probably the most ambitious story in the collection is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” at 58 pages, close to novella length. In nearly all respects, the world we enter seems quite ordinary. However, there is one twist: In order to be considered successful, everyone with sufficient financial resources hangs “Semplica Girls” in their gardens. “SGs” are young immigrant women strung together through their heads with surgically implanted “microline,” and it is a felony to release them until they have done their appointed time.

The story’s narrator is a father driven by love for his children to keep up with the neighbors. Yes, SGs make him feel morally queasy, but when the hard-earned group he’s assembled in his own yard escapes, he can only see their situation from his own perspective. He imagines each girl and wonders, “When will she ever see home + family again? Why would she do? Why would she ruin it all, leave our yard? Could have had nice long run w/ us. What in the world was she seeking? What could she want so much, that would make her pull such a desperate stunt?”

If “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is the book’s most bizarre tale, the title story is its triumph. Don Eber has terminal cancer and is on his way to committing suicide by freezing himself to death on top of a snow-covered hill. However, just before he disappears into the woods, Don is seen by Robin, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms.” Robin is on an imaginary quest to save “the new girl in homeroom,” one of the few people who doesn’t treat the overweight boy with disdain. Eventually, though, Robin realizes Don’s intentions and he alters his goal: he will try to save the older man.

What ensues is comic and tragic, tender and tough—one of those magic stories you imagine firmly nestled in literature anthologies a hundred years from now. Even if “Tenth of December,” had been the only worthwhile story in the collection—and that’s far from the case—it would still be worth the price of the book.


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