Anne Carson vs. George Saunders
The first quarter of 2013 sees new works by two of the most highly regarded North American authors. George Saunders’s Tenth of December, a collection of stories published over the last five years, and Anne Carson’s forthcoming Red Doc>, a conceptual sequel to perhaps her most popular work, Autobiography of Red.
It has been seven years since Saunders’s previous collection, In Persuasion Nation. While that book enjoyed a relatively positive reception, it was still a far cry from the reaction to his second book, Pastoralia, which for the most part established Saunders as the kind of guy who is regularly referred to as things like “one of the most important and blazingly original writers of his generation.”
And for good reason. The stories in his first two books were funny and surprising both in voice and image. You never knew what would happen next, and no matter what did, the way the story was told carried you through. Great humor and light could be found in stories that might take place in a strip club or an insanely premised theme-park and still meet the criteria of “feeling human.”
I think most people’s first reaction upon hearing that Anne Carson, who identifies as a poet, had decided to write a sequel to a novel in verse about a quasi-mythical coming-of-age erotic meta-epic was somewhere amidst surprise, excitement, slight confusion, and expectation: a good mixture of whys.
But I couldn’t curb my curiosity toward seeing what Saunders had done now. Like many of my generation, Saunders was exciting to me early on, and I’d already seen no less than three people call this book, released on the 8th day of the year, “The Best Book of The Year For Sure.” That immediate and fawning praise might have had something to do with the sudden foreboding sense of unreasonable dread the idea of actually reading the book, putting a face to what it is, elicited in me.
And yet I went in ready for the world. I always want things that have an expectation of greatness to actually be colossal, particularly in the hands of those I’ve loved before. I never give up expecting another burst like the ones I felt as a young reader finding work that changed the way I thought.
I read the first story in Tenth of December waiting for that punch. It clearly had all the mechanisms of Saunders’s best abilities: amazing timing; surprising tic-like outbursts; post-corporate entities pressed upon the human to what end; light jabs of funny sexuality; a melding of charming observation and personal slang eliciting a quick familiarity with the narrator; a sense of contemporary-condition understanding faced with moral gray area allowing vague emotional pull without forcing the issue, and so on.
When I finished the story I was left with the sense that we could go anywhere from here. It felt like an opening pending on the worlds I’d been through in his work before in a way that almost seemed ready to go past them, to build off of what had been long ago begun.
The book, for me, never transcended that beginning. It worked the territory that it knew, if always in the grand style to be expected of George Saunders, but only as far as before, and in less robust versions of what it modeled. It felt to me in the same terrain and manner of his previous ideas, working the same strings in a new way after a few relatively failed attempts in previous books at shaking a new leg. That opening story’s title, “Victory Lap,” suddenly seemed a bit too telling.
Since Saunders’s first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in 1996, his style has become in many ways a high-water model for a certain kind of story, one where the narrative provides a frame for the voice to propel itself toward an understanding. One finishes a Saunders story with the feeling of having been through something with someone, tasted their mind, and experienced a catalyst of change that many narrative writers would call essential.
Saunders is often able to do this without the active elements seeming as directed as others working in such form. He charms you into his world, incorporates you alongside the vision. He makes you laugh and sounds like George Saunders. It weighs more than a pound. The temporary feeling is kind of nice, if only in the way we knew it would be.
I want more.