On a personal note, may I say how sorry I am, but also that in the grand scheme of things such as geology ten years is not so very long really.–Pastoralia (2000)
With a title that seems to wink at the recent calendrical anxieties surrounding 2012’s narrowly avoided pop apocalypse, the eponymous story in George Saunders’s long-awaited fourth collection actually offers a far more motivational metric with which to mark humanity’s precarious hold on mortality: “Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without wind-chill. That made it fun. That made it real.” Best measured in degrees, these fleeting thoughts about survival pass through the mind of spirited young outcast Robin at precisely the moment his natural environment sets its own agenda for wintertime play (secluded woods, falling temperatures, frozen pond, abandoned coat). Turning to the thinly attired older man struggling along the opposite shore, our would-be hero moves to reunite the discarded garment with its owner by strategically cutting across the ice, “thereby decreasing the ambient angle, ergo trimming valuable seconds off his catch-up time”—a marvelous bit of free indirect middle-school geometry from the omniscient narrator. Then the surface cracks and the boy’s good deed is suddenly brought up short:
In the pond he was all animal-thought, no words, no self, blind panic. He resolved to really try. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. He hit mud and pushed up. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. It seemed like it should be easy, getting out. But he just couldn’t do it…. He wanted the shore. He knew that was the right place for him. But the pond kept saying no.
Following a year in which the geological metaphor used to describe our latest imminent eco-catastrophe nearly received as much commentary as the disaster itself, Tenth of December arrives in perfect, albeit deep, time to read our contemporary moment against the ultra longue durée of geological scale. Evoking an object-oriented relation to place through arresting images of slippage, sediment, and slope, Saunders’s quasi-topographical approach to narrative quite literally addresses the stumbling blocks that often necessitate pulling oneself up and out of harm’s way. From Robin’s accidental plunge, to frostbitten cancer patient Don Eber’s subsequent slide to save him, to Don’s wife Molly “stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s house” as she reconciles with her suicidal husband—the title story, as just one example, avoids the simple exigencies of dramatic arc to construct raised-relief maps of the emotional landscapes through which its characters move.
The material implications of surface and depth are hardly a new emphasis for an author whose training as a geophysicist is regularly invoked by critics. Indeed, Saunders and scale are timely topics in the generic sense as well, notwithstanding the shallowness of recent gripes among the Brooklyn Lit-cognoscenti regarding his so-called failure to produce a novel. In fact, more significant critics have celebrated the author’s reflexive preoccupation with artful compression, as witness Mark McGurl’s excellent discussion in The Program Era (2009) about Saunders’s place in the “miniaturist” tradition. Following this logic, a critical eye for length endorses Tenth of December as the author’s most cohesive collection yet. Across an oeuvre that typically organizes into three overlapping lengths of short fiction, Saunders’s fragments (2–9 pages) function as alternately swollen one-liners and mini-polemics. In this volume, “Exhortation,” for example, is a mock-action memo in the tradition of David Foster Wallace that sends up the officiousness of business writing convention only to grow mildly officious itself. Even at the micro-level, alienated labor remains Saunders’s topic of choice, and the tension he generates between financial happiness and the ethical obligation to self and community is most successful when austerity and sustain are evenly balanced. Similarly, the roomier “sketch” length (10–24 pages) encourages an earnest tone...