The states they’re in

Tenth of December, by George Saunders, Bloomsbury RRP£14.99/Random House RRP$26, 272 pages

George Saunders, lavishly blurbed on his new collection of short stories by grandees such as Jonathan Franzen (“We’re lucky to have him”) and Thomas Pynchon (“An astoundingly tuned voice”), came to writing via an unusual route.

As a Chicago teenager in the 1970s, he fell under the influence of Ayn Rand, libertarian author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Her vision of an America rescued from the tentacles of socialism by virile men of enterprise and action – free-market Übermenschen – inspired young Saunders to become an engineer, one of Rand’s “earth movers”.

He graduated in geophysical engineering in 1981 and set about finding a Randian role for himself in oil exploration. But disenchantment followed and his politics shifted.

Saunders’ eventual break with Rand’s ideas was the subject of a recent piece he wrote in The New Yorker: “I was Ayn Rand’s Lover”, a satirical fantasy in which he imagined himself at 17 becoming Rand’s sex slave before being displaced by a “handsome and confident and ripped” rival: Tea Party pin-up Paul Ryan.

The repudiation of Rand is also the theme uniting the stories in Tenth of December, in which Saunders deploys his mastery of the short story form to reject his former guru’s belief in selfish individualism as the truest expression of human nature.

The book, his fourth short story collection, comes 16 years after the first, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which he wrote while still working for an engineering company. Its titular story, a blackly comic account of a failing theme park dedicated to the American civil war, narrated by a genial loser who becomes implicated in terrible acts of brutality, is Saunders in a nutshell: deceptively folksy in prose style, unsettling and bleak in outlook. Chiefly set in lower-middle-class exurbia, at a surreal point in time somewhere between science fiction and the present day, Saunders’ stories depicted America as a place of inauthentic consumerism, uncaring corporations and unsettling outbreaks of violence.

The stories in his new collection continue in the same vein. “Escape from Spiderhead” is about convicts being tested with drugs to alter their emotional, sexual and intellectual life. “Exhortation” takes the form of a corporate memo from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” whose feel-good banalities (“So the point of this memo is: Positive”) mask the sinister quality of the work being undertaken. “Al Roosten” rehashes the loser-in-a-theme-park setting from “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”.

Each story is written with an acute ear for the rhythms of everyday life. The feisty 14-year-old girl in “Victory Lap” is a brilliant blend of Disney princess-isms and girl-power (“ixnay on the local boys”), while the teenage boy who lives next door is in constant imaginary dialogue with his insanely prohibitive father. “Swearing in your head? Dad said in his head. Step up, Scout, be a man. If you want to swear, swear aloud.”

The tone goes seamlessly from comedy to whimsy to horror. When a vocabulary-enhancing drug is tested on the convict guinea pigs in “Escape from Spiderhead”, Saunders’ language grows flowery and convoluted, subsiding as the drug wears off. Tension is ratcheted up with unobtrusive skill. Characters’ fantasy lives blur neatly into their real lives.

The combination of rigorous conceptual focus and distinctive style can make Saunders seem formulaic. “Home” is a cartoon-like treatment of a stock figure, the psychotic war veteran, while “Puppy” turns a dog-buying outing into a grotesque and claustrophobic mini-portrait of American society. An echo of Rand’s strictures remains in the stories’ distrust of the state, illustrated by the cruelties of prison life or the misguided actions of well-meaning social workers.

Ultimately, however, Tenth of December is lifted by its sustained attack on Rand’s ideology of individualism. Each story is about people doing good, or wanting to do good, often in situations when they would profit from doing nothing. Their actions may have unintended consequences, as in the bleak parody of heroism in “My Chivalric Fiasco” – but the point lies in the impulse to act morally.

The theme reaches its peak in “Tenth of December”. Set on a freezing winter day, it is a beautifully framed encounter between a bullied overweight boy fantasising about bravery and a suicidal skinny man suffering terminal illness. (“Wednesday he’d fallen out of the med bed again. There on the floor in the dark it had come to him: I could spare them.”) What happens next overturns Rand’s belief that altruism is evil, and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being.

Saunders relates this to family life; in the book’s acknowledgments he thanks his daughters for teaching him that “goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state”. The arch-rationalist Rand would have detested this appeal to sentiment – but Saunders deploys sentimentality as superbly as he does other modes of writing. If storytelling is a form of kinship network, binding readers together in a shared experience, then Saunders is as much an “earth mover” as the best engineer.

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