In the midst of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, a successful novelist, Bill Gorton, demands that his friend, Jake Barnes—the novel’s narrator—give him “irony and pity” one morning in a friendly repartee. Jake Barnes has been trying to write fiction, and Bill Gorton is razzing him: “Give me irony and pity, irony and pity.” If you want to be a writer, you must be able to generate irony and pity abundantly and with alacrity. Finally, toward the end of the exchange, Bill Gorton asks Jake to say something pitiful. Jake answers: Robert Cohn—the name of another character who is pitiful in his self-absorption, self-delusion and failure.
In his collection of short stories, Tenth of December, George Saunders’s characters would all be worthy of Jake’s deadpan irony. All are pitiful. Some are revoltingly pitiful. Even the manner in they write and speak and punctuate (!) is pitiful. They are pitiful because they are poor, sick, self-absorbed and mired in hopelessness. There is no way out for many of these characters. There is a middle-aged, debt-ridden father who pleads with God to give him what others have. There is a cancer patient who seeks to commit suicide so as to preempt “all future debasement.” (Saunders, 231) There is a recent war-vet who returns home to violence, exacerbated mental illness and dread in his own family. There is a prisoner manipulated by experimental pharmaceuticals and ground down to choosing his own death over the injury of others. There is a cross-country nerd whose heroic actions are almost precluded by the fear of overbearing parents. There is a poor, ghastly overweight mother who chains her young son to a tree. Accompanying these characters, there is a persistent yearning on the part of the reader that the characters in these stories cease being so pitiful. Furthermore, there is both the persistent inclination in the reader to distance him or herself from the pitiful nature of these characters and the cold ache of recognition that these characters represent elements of the reader’s own life: debt, boredom, envy and a long slide of mediocrity, vanity and unattainable wishes. As Flannery O’Connor’s characters are monstrous in ugliness and cruelty, Saunders’s characters are monstrously ordinary and pitiful.
Yet, Saunders’s fictional characters serve a purpose—one relevant to the individual seeking to grow in Christian virtue. The characters one meets in Tenth of December serve to pierce the fictional accounts that we—the reader—tell to ourselves about ourselves. They shake us, not only calling us to greater self-awareness but to the awareness of those around us. Having stripped the stories of some sci-fi elements, Saunders’s characters could be inhabitants of any town between Albany and Rochester, N.Y. They are poor, and their lives are burdened and confined by their poverty. These characters exist among us and parts of them exist in us, which only serves to challenge the Christian notion of love. Ordinarily, it is quite difficult for a human being to love the corrosively pitiful, the poor, the men and women who seem to dive headlong toward their own misery and suffering. It is difficult to recognize the sinner in us, and it is difficult to love others when we recognize the depth of sin in them. But, this is exactly what Christ calls his followers to do.
In the midst of all this pity, there is much irony sewn into the stories: a young girl in “Victory Lap,” the opening story, repeats a series of questions put forth by her high school ethics teacher: “But seriously! Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?” These questions are cleanly resolved in her class by taking a survey. In “Exhortation,” a lengthy ferverino by a corporate employee urges his underlings to shed their moral misgivings about the nature of their work and go about their task with a positive attitude. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a father’s advice to his children about moral courage and boldness causes him more failure and further embarrassment. Above all, Saunders highlights the irony of the universal American drive toward becoming exceptional, accomplished, unique and rich in the face of a blindingly bland life. This drive toward exceptionalism seems only to intensify a dissipation—the creation of nothing out of something—that might characterize modern American life.
Some points for discussion:
1. Do you read fiction? What do you read? Does what you read affect you deeply? Do the works of fiction you read burgeon your faith or gnaw at it? Does fiction make you a better person—more self-aware and aware of those around you?
2. What do you think of Saunders’s stories? The New York Times Sunday Book Review bestowed great praise on George Saunders. The Times also profiled him in their Sunday Magazine and called Tenth of Decemberthe best book one will read this year. Talk shows have likened George Saunders to Kurt Vonnegut. What do you think of Tenth of December or any of his other works? (“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is available online.)
3. The title story deals with serious illness and suffering on the part of those who care for a loved one who is dying. Reflect on the story. What do you think of the fear of the man who is dying—not fear for his own death, but the fear of his “future debasement”? What do you think of the sentences that flow through his head toward the end of the story?
So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange and disgusting? Why should the s--- not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and the bending and the feeding and the wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld…Withhold. (Saunders, 249)