In the Halloween 2011 issue of The New Yorker, with its cover of a vampire and his cat sitting down to dinner bowls of blood and cream, respectively, I read one of the most incredible short stories I have read in years: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders.
Probably you should read it before you continue, probably more than once.
From the fifty odd issues in my subscription, I retained only a handful. This one was set aside as a keeper right after I read this story. I came back to the story again and again. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I would read it through and then start again at the beginning. And after I had viscerally enjoyed it, holding back tears on the bus to work at the uplifting final scene, the English major in me sat down to dissect what it was that made it so perfectly constructed. From this I came up with four essential elements for a story I will love:
Humor. Sanders is known for his satirical wit and it is showcased well here, especially on Robin’s side. Like life itself, a story is not worth much without humor. Even in stories set in bleak dystopia or certain doom, an author must find the sparks to smile at, even if only in absurdity. It was hard to choose even a handful of quotes. Robin’s damsel in distress, Suzanne, announces, “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug.” Eber, in a half-conscious fog, watching Robin fall through the ice: “Kid was a bad swimmer. Real thrashfest down there.” Robin, after Eber pulls him from the pond and running halfway home, “He wasn’t going to lose his legs. They didn’t even hurt. He couldn’t even feel them.”
Image. A vivid moment that you cannot shake from your head. One that reminds you of images in your own life, or the life you wished you had. For me, this was his recollection of making up after fighting with his then-new wife Molly.
Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? And then they would–Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you…
Risk. I need to hear something new. In this story, it’s the dual narratives. Even though Eber is the ultimate protagonist, this story would not be as memorable without Robin’s side. He wants to be a hero, and he gets his chance – while at the same time forcing Eber to be a hero and save him, and so on and so on in a delightful hall of mirrors.
Voice. Any writing workshop will drill into you techniques for characterization, plot, etc. But as my favorite writing teacher, Steve Watkins, was fond of saying, “A strong voice will go a long way.” Eber and Robin both have remarkable and likable voices: Robin’s pseudo-NASA commentary on his mission, Eber’s fully realized stream of consciousness (even down to the eggcorns caused by his failing brain).
Many of these also apply to music (in as unlikely places as Blink 182’s “M+Ms”), film (Los Abrazos Rotos), and longer fiction (Catch 22). In summary, make me laugh and have a character with a unique and engaging voice reveal to me something I have never heard before. Simple as that.
When it was later published, I read Saunder’s most recent collection, of which “Tenth of December” is the eponymous finale. I still think this story is the best in it, but Sanders repeats the above formula multiple times, especially in “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” It’s the best set of stories I’ve read since Unaccustomed Earth. But that’s a review for another time.