Yes, I know, unbelievable that it took me this long to get around to reading Tenth of December, but now I've done it and...well...*mind. blown.*
I think Karen Russell (another fantastic writer of short stories) says it best: "[I] read Saunders because he always makes me want to write. He reads like he's having such a good time..."
Yes, yes, and yes. I find I get as much enjoyment out of Saunders as I do, say, when I read Arthur C. Clarke (one of my favorites). The energy, stylistic experimentation, and twisted satire in Saunders' stories reminds me of how incredibly strange the world is and how ultimately unknowable are the people in it.
Many of the stories in this collection are variations on that old free will vs. determinism debate: must I live up to my family's/friends' expectations or do what I think is right under the circumstances? Am I brave enough to do something original or unexpected? Do I have to always consider the consequences?
The bizarre and dark "Escape from Spiderhead" is a powerful example of such concerns. Despite being treated like a lab rat in a maze, controlled by drugs and used for behavioral experiments, one former criminal decides that being a bystander to another person's suffering is ultimately intolerable. Thus, in one of the most constrictive, deterministic settings a writer could create, one man does the unexpected, sacrificing himself in the process.
In "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December," Saunders deftly moves among his characters, presenting multiple perspectives on the same situation, as if trying to give the reader the "whole" story. Gaps remain, though, and the basic psychological isolation of each character is made even more apparent, because for every action, there are pages of inner monologue. And once again, these characters are confronted with a decision: do the usual/safe thing or the right/"honorable"/helpful/dangerous thing?
It is children, ultimately, who do the latter in the horrifying but also weirdly-funny story "The Semplica Girl Diaries," when they set loose a group of poor immigrant girls strung up on the family lawn as an ornament (they hang- alive- with a wire threading them together through their skulls). Told through the diary entries of a middle-aged father and husband, the story is so ABSURD that you can't even laugh you want to laugh so hard. This character digresses, veers quickly between joy and desperation, and often uses shorthand expressions involving the "+" and "=" signs, suggesting a hectic mind. His intense interest in his own affairs render him ridiculously blind to the outrageousness of hanging living humans in his yard as an ornament, or for any other reason. His worries over what his family thinks of him border on the obsessive. And it is this blindness that allows his children to act humanely when he cannot.
So, will I be reading more George Saunders? You bet your bookcases I will. Like Karen Russell said, he inspires you to write, to explore your own world and its weirdnesses. And that is the mark of a great writer.