The dust jacket alone has puffs to die for. Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood declare undying love, outdoing each other in their exaltation. He is the new Mark Twain. And Vonnegut. And Orwell. He is "ferocious and funny", "dark and demented", "achingly humane", "hilarious". We are "lucky to have him". Dave Eggars says "there is no-one better". He's also the new Chekov. I doubt the publishers care – with that kind of slavering, Saunders's books are going to sell – but for the reader a letdown is pretty much inevitable.
"Devastating" and "inventive" are the two most used adjectives in Saunders's arsenal of tributes. Inventive he certainly is. In one story here, Escape From Spiderhead, prisoners in some future dystopia are administered mood-enhancing drugs like Verbaluce™, Vivistif ™ and Darkenfloxx ™. They are guinea pigs for multinational conglomerates out to rule the world with biochemicals.
Amid the hurrahs on the cover of Tenth Of December there is, however, an odd note. The New Yorker, we are told, named him one of the "Best Writers Under 40" in 2002. A 10-year-old semi-commendation feels like faint praise. (In the accompanying photo he looks well into his 50s.) Escape From Spiderhead does, however, feel like the work of a young writer. There's something adolescent about the idea and the way the narrative pans out.
To be fair, Saunders likes writing about people much younger than him, and no harm in that. He's good at mimicking American teenagers' speech rhythms and slang; he gets their angst and their self-obsession. What he's not quite so good at, in this story, is delivering fully-fledged and wholly-imagined people. They all feel like constructs, with rather pat backstories that conveniently underline his message.
Saunders, judging by this collection, is an ideas man. Characters often only exist as vehicles for the polemic he's out to discuss. The least successful stories here (apart from The Semplica Girl Diaries, which I confess to giving up on halfway through) have such protagonists. The soldier returned from either Iraq or Afghanistan to a world that has no idea what he was fighting for seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a serious and timely point to make – how we subject our youth to cynical barbarism. I'll sign the petition, go on the march, but I need something more than a faintly veiled lecture to keep me reading. (That said, it has one of the funniest lines in the book. The soldier looks at his baby nephew and sees its eyes demanding "Hurry up, tell me what all this s*** is, so I can master it, open a few shops.")
Likewise the eponymous antihero of Al Roosten is nothing but a cipher for American middle-class self-loathing and loss of meaning. Saunders is billed as a satirist and comedy writer and, although I didn't laugh outright, there was a smile on my lips often enough. But even satirists should put a bit of flesh on the bones of their victims.
There are better stories here.Victory Lap and Puppy do merit "dark and demented", if not quite "devastating". His language sizzles at times and there is a left-field pizzazz to much of his work. I suspect this isn't his best book but there's enough to make me want to read more. If Eggars and Atwood and Frantzen think him Twain, Chekov and Orwell rolled into one, then maybe it's just me. Even so, something from his back catalogue might be the better place to start.
Tenth Of December