The characters in Tenth of December, George Saunders’ newest collection of stories, struggle with maintaining innocence (and ultimately losing it) in a world that drives people further from each other; they struggle with doing good in a consumerist society. These are flawed characters—people who make mistakes and are terrified to rectify them. These are characters that try to go back for each other and often fail.
Victory Lap: “The Distance” –Cake : The characters in Saunders’ collection are driven by a yearning for something more—something greater. In “Victory Lap,” a high school runner sees his neighbor dragged across her backyard by a man in a Day Glo vest. He struggles with whether or not he should ignore the situation and follow his parents’ “directives” to stay in the house and mind his business. Ultimately he lets his speed take over and saves his neighbor. He experiences such a rush at his success (“It was fun! Fun dominating a grown up!”) that he nearly loses his sense to overconfidence.
Sticks: “Helplessness Blues” – The Fleetfoxes: This is a long song for such a short story, I know, but this two-pager speaks to the loneliness felt by characters across the collection as a whole. It speaks to the truth each character realizes—that no matter how we dress up our “poles,” we all, in the end, suffer the same anonymity of fate. While many of the characters in this collection believe they’re special, or—as in this story—are desperate to find some meaning in it all, they ultimately find that they’re small parts in a greater machine that doesn’t have a clear end goal.
Puppy: “Valentine” – Fiona Apple: “Puppy” is a story of misunderstandings between people, of love as blind and flawed and desperate and overwhelming. It’s about the cruelties these characters commit in the name of love and “doing the right thing.”
Escape From Spiderhead: “The Ides of Swing” – Andrew Bird: This song’s disconcerting juxtaposition of imagery and music echoes the drug-induced “love” that inmates in Saunders’ story unwillingly experience. There is the sense of being trapped in a system that has no clean way out. Bird’s instrumentation and lyrics fluctuate between being sweet and sinister, much like the chemical ups and downs in “Spiderhead.”
Exhortation: “Kiss Me Son of God” –They Might Be Giants: If I could sum up Tenth of December in one song, this would be it. A tongue-in-cheek song about class tension, hubris, and the loss of respect, this song suits “Exhortation,” too—with its mind-over-matter, don’t-think-just-do attitude. Lift that whale, boys. Get it off the beach.
Al Roosten: “Que Sera Sera” – Doris Day: So many of the characters in this collection live in a blissed-out mentality where they give responsibility for their actions over to someone else. Characters like Al Roosten give away their agency too easily. As Al says, “Why beat yourself up about this and, in so doing, miss the beauty of the actual moment?” Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be.
The Semplica Girl Diaries: “Motown Never Felt So Good”- Less Than Jake: When I think of George Saunders, I inevitably think of ska music. It’s upbeat and happy on the surface—peppy even—but damn if some of those lyrics aren’t angry and dark. This song, especially, makes me think of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a story about a frustrated father who ultimately takes a wrong turn.
Home: “Point/Counterpoint” –Streetlight Manifesto: At the end of the story, “Home,” a young man returned from war regards his family in the driveway and thinks, ”Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.”
And isn’t this true? In a world that’s becoming more and more driven by technology—technology that drives us apart as much as it brings us together—isn’t it our collective responsibility to bring each other back?
SLM’s song hypes up the tension felt between the characters in this story—one man trying to communicate, trying to come back, and needing his family to meet him halfway.
My Chivalric Fiasco: “We Are What You Say” – Sufjan Stevens: This song brings “My Chivalric Fiasco” to mind not only because of the Medieval-style music, but because the idea “we are what you say” permeates the short story. The protagonists’ boss defines their truth. Fighting against that “truth” leads to disaster.
Tenth of December: “The Pilot” –The White Buffalo: The characters in “Tenth of December” practice the art of escape. The boy does this through make-believe heroism; the man does so by physically choosing to walk out into the snow and abandon life. The yearning expressed in “The Pilot” is present across generations and experiences in Saunders’ short story.
When I first started reading Saunders years ago, I fell in love with the deceptively light-hearted and funny nature of his fiction. The stories in Tenth of December are equally in love with, baffled by, and disappointed in the people of our time. In creating this playlist I wanted to convey the duality of humor and hardship—the absurdity of such a pairing. I wanted to express the empathy and scrutiny Saunders places side by side in his writing because this is, after all, human nature. We are walking funny bones, laughing and hurting at the same time.Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?