Quirky Narrators and Occasional Irrealism in George Saunders’ Tenth of December

[posted by Alice]

At the Café Irreal we often receive stories which the author considers to be irreal because they feature a strange or unexpected narrative style. Sometimes the narrator of these stories uses unusual language or the narrator may have a psychiatric problem or is delusional because of illness. But the story itself depicts events that can actually be explained by the narrator’s mental or physical state (or unusual manner of speaking). To us these stories, though they might be entertaining and well written, are not irreal at all — we want to see reality itself, not an individual’s consciousness, being undermined in some way.

As I read George Saunders’ most recent short story collection, Tenth of December, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every story in the collection features a first person or third person subjective narrative style. In most cases the narrator also uses odd colloquial language and may also be mentally or physically impaired. Many writers in the United States — from Mark Twain onward — have shown a strong preference for quirky and colloquial narration. Examples would include Alice Walker in The Color Purple and J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye. Like both Walker and Salinger, Saunders crafts memorable narrators and often makes serious points about the nature of our society, how it is going awry, and how social problems affect the lives of ordinary people. But even when he is writing stories that could clearly be called science fiction, Saunders’ stories are not particularly irreal.

Tenth of December gives us quite a range of quirky narrators, and Saunders uses their narrative quirks to show us, in the space of a short story, what their lives are like and how they relate to others. In “Puppy” we feel a sense of revulsion toward both the woman taking her children to look at a puppy and the woman whose puppy is at the center of the story. We see into these women’s lives, know their thoughts, and are given their rationalizations even as they do ugly things. This is not always pleasant, but despite an odd incident in the puppy owner’s yard, the story is not irreal. In the science-fiction-inspired “Escape from the Spiderhead” we come to see the narrator from a more sympathetic point of view, despite what we know to be true about him. This story takes Stanley Milgram’s experiments to a new level, as managers psyche themselves and others up to do unspeakable things. (Milgram’s 1965 study on obedient behavior saw “teachers” giving electrical shocks to “learners” despite the pain the learners seemed to endure.) But though the setting of this story is near future and the narrator’s language and explanations are constantly altered by the administration of drugs, the story is sadly plausible and again is not irreal.

In my opinion the only story in the collection that has a truly irreal aspect is “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” This is not because of the narrative style, which reminds me of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, nor because of the near future or alternative universe setting in which most things are very much like our own world. It is instead because of the existence of an irreal phenomenon that is never fully explained, in much the same way that Kafka never tells us why Gregor Samsa turns into a very large insect. In this story the narrator is a father trying to keep a daily diary for benefit of future readers (a nice device that lets the reader know why he explains things so completely) and worrying that his family is not able to enjoy a high enough standard of living. He describes his life in a frequently annoying yet likeable way and says, for example, that he doesn’t like rich people because they make poor people feel “dopey and inadequate,” but he also wants what rich people have. We know that he is not well off — his bumper falls off at the beginning of the story, he says that people at work only ever see him wearing a a blue shirt or a yellow shirt, and his credit cards are nearly maxed out. When he comes into a small windfall in the form of a $10,000 “Scratch-Off win,” he consults with his wife and they decide to upgrade their landscaping so their daughter can have a birthday party at home and feel comfortable inviting her better-off friends to her house. The investment works well, the party is a success, but one of the upgrades the family has made — the installation of four SGs — upsets the family’s other daughter, a sensitive girl who worries about the pain and suffering SGs might experience.

We don’t learn very much about these SGs (Semplica Girls), but we are told that they are women from economically and politically challenged societies. They are brought to people’s homes by a landscaping company that also sees to their physical needs while they are engaged in the service they are being paid to perform. This involves dressing in white smocks and being hoisted into the air, attached to each other by “microfilament” that joins them brain-to-brain, so that they float above people’s backyards. And because of interviews done by one of the daughters, we even learn some “fun facts” about the narrator’s SGs, including their names and that they hail from the Philippines, Somalia, Moldava, and Laos. But I think that this odd notion of the SGs, which is at the heart of an otherwise only slightly nonrealistic story, has more depth and resonance than the illustration at the New Yorker site implies when it shows the white skirt hems of four brown-skinned women float-flying above a koi pond. Nor do I think it is accurate to describe them as “third-world women strung up as bourgeois lawn ornaments” as Gregory Cowles did in his February 1, 2013 review of Tenth of December in the New York Times. I think that the SGs are truly an irreal notion, every bit as much as Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’s been turned into a very large insect. The idea that young, mostly dark-skinned and dark-haired women would be hung so thoughtlessly in people’s backyards calls to mind the wide range of suffering inflicted on dark-skinned people, such as lynching and the mistreatment of undocumented workers. The surgeries they must undergo also call to mind the surgeries women endure to participate in the sex trade (breast enhancement, etc.). SGs wear white, float above the ground and are often described as singing, bringing to mind an image of angels; yet, several times in the story we see a tethered dog suffer at the end of its chain so we can also see SGs in terms of the sad life of a yard dog. In many ways the SGs point to an unknown meaning, even as they also more obviously show us the irrational spending that fads can induce and the suffering of deprived and impoverished humans in our world. And finally, as the diary ends abruptly, we are also left feeling that the fate of the SGs will affect the lives of the narrator’s family who are running the race to the bottom themselves, their two daughters perhaps more vulnerable than they know. The irreal plight of the SGs is inexplicable yet surprisingly meaningful.

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Flash fiction and the Irreal

[posted by Greg]

We are pleased to announce that some stories published in The Cafe Irreal (including Ana María Shua’s “Respect for Genres”  and Marco Denevi’s “Lord of the Flies” ) were included in the new Norton anthology Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America. And this isn’t the first time stories or translations that we originally published have been so honored: another flash fiction that we published, “All-Girl Band” by Utahna Faith, was included in an earlier anthology in the series Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories (2006).

And this leads us to the conclusion that there is apparently some affinity between what we publish and the flash fiction form. Why might this be? There are several reasons, I think, but I will emphasize here a very practical one: the brevity of flash fiction more or less eliminates the possibility of the writer indulging in that mainstay of contemporary American literary fiction, excessive description. This point was brought home to me by my current reading of the (and here we can speak of some synchronicity) Norton Critical Edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, where I found an interesting essay by Robert J. Clements titled “Anatomy of the Novella.” In one revealing section, titled “Word Length”, he writes: “For two centuries most novellieri respected the word lengths they found in the Decameron. Boccaccio had encouraged simplicity of intrigue and brevity of composition by the quick plot summaries which preceded his tales, a curious counterpart to Dante’s summary recapitulations of his Vita Nuova sonnets.” However, “by the time of Cervantes, characterization and psychological justifications of behavior increase wordage,” such that “whereas [Matteo] Bandello required 2,300 words to relate the fortunes of Giulia da Gazuolo, [Elijah] Fenton helps himself to 13,000.” Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote, Fenton “loads or stuffs every rift with rhetorical, proverbial, and moral ore.”

Sadly, I believe that we are currently having to endure another era of excessive verbosity in our literature, one which emphasizes the need to fully describe the characters (whether there’s any point to it or not), to fully describe the settings of the fictional work (whether there’s any point to it or not), and which tries to compensate for a lack of content with an excess of poetic prose. And therefore a “default” positive of flash fiction is that it forces, and legitimizes, a return to Boccaccio’s brevity, which is especially a plus for a publication such as ours that seeks irreal stories. Kafka was famous for his brevity of description, after all; so much so that Raymond Carver was often likened to Kafka simply because the brevity of description that characterized his style created an ambiguity in his fiction that was reminiscent of Kafka, even though Carver was very much a realist (or, more precisely, a hyper-realist).

But for an irrealist there is more here than simply a stylistic preference, for excessive description of the setting of a story not only disrupts the dream-like quality typical of an irreal story (dreams, after all, tend not to have a lot of detail), but also disrupts the instrumental nature of the objects that constitute the setting. As Sartre writes, in Kafka’s fiction, “the protagonist never gets a glimpse of forests, plains, and hills. How restful it would be if they could come within sight of a mound of earth or a useless piece of matter! But if they did, the fantastic would immediately vanish; the law of this genre condemns it to encounter instruments only.” But if the writer, intent on demonstrating his or her writing prowess, takes several lines to fully describe the room in which the action is taking place (using several choice metaphors and similes in the process, of course), and thereby convinces the reader that this room is as real as the room in which the reader is now sitting, they will have, in essence, created such a neutral bit of matter. With this act (which the brevity of flash fiction discourages) a story that might otherwise have interesting irreal elements will be transformed into a standard fantasy story simply by virtue of the fact that it takes place against a very concrete, indeed “real,” backdrop.

Of course, there are other positives about the flash fiction form for us. Just to mention one by way of conclusion: many irreal works have an allegorical aspect — even if they are so many pointers to an unknown meaning — and many an allegory, parable, and fable is on the short side (and, again, features minimal descriptive detail).