What Can We Steal From George Saunders’s “Tenth of December”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Tenth of December,” short story
Author: George Saunders
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  You can read the story here.  You can also find the story in the 2012 anthology of Best American Short Stories.  The story headlines Mr. Saunders’s book Tenth of December.  Why not pick it up from an independent bookseller such as Reno, Nevada’s Grassroots Books?  (They seem very cool!)

Bonuses: Here is an interview in which Mr. Saunders discusses “Tenth of December.”  Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought about the story.  (She makes interesting points about the POV and describes her understandable “struggle” with the story.)  Here is Mr. Saunders’s page at This American Life.  (You know you love This American Life.)  Yes, Mr. Saunders is a very influential man.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
Robin is a slightly chubby schoolboy.  Don is a middle-aged father who is suffering from cancer and is determined to commit suicide.  How are these two unrelated characters related?  One of those good, old-fashioned twists of fate.  Don leaves his coat on a chair to help the authorities locate his body.  Unfortunately, Robin decides to try and do a good deed and bring it to him.  Robin takes a shortcut across a frozen pond.  What happens when Robin falls into the freezing water?

Mr. Saunders’s story is a very interesting study.  The narrator is a very close third person alternating between Robin and Don.  The narrator absorbs each character’s idiosyncracies; Robin is pretending he is talking to a girl he likes and that he is surrounded by supernatural woodland creatures and Don’s brain is failing because of illness.  I noticed that the story “threw” Ms. Carlson at first; the same thing happened to me, but in a different way.  For a few pages, I was under the impression that the “Nethers” were real.  (You know, short story real.)  Mr. Saunders describes the world of the Nethers and what they look like and how they act and so on, going into a great deal of depth.  Very quickly, however, I was right on track.  Mr. Saunders had to do what he did in order to immerse the reader in Robin’s brain and to establish the close POV that works so well in the story.  What lesson can we take away from this?  A reminder that the first couple pages of your piece establish the unique world in which your characters live.  Readers are willing to follow you ANYWHERE, so long as you make the ride smooth.

Think about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  Remember the first sentence?

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

Kafka (like Saunders) doesn’t mess around when establishing his conceit.  Guess what, Kafka seems to say.  This is a world in which Gregor Samsa turned into a giant bug.  Deal with it.  Saunders has the same strong kind of declaration: Hey, reader.  You’re in the head of a young boy who likes a girl named Suzanne and has a great imagination.

The choice to craft the story from the separated points of view of two different characters gives Mr. Saunders at least two big bonuses:

  1. Mr. Saunders can offer, very gracefully, two different accounts of the same event.  And why not?  Each POV character is experiencing them on their own terms.
  2. Mr. Saunders can allow the characters the same kind of first-person confessional without allowing the other character to get in the way.  We don’t need Don’s commentary on Robin’s crush on Suzanne and Robin shouldn’t be allowed to give us his commentary as Don does what he can to keep the kid warm.

As we can all attest, coming up with titles is a pain.  How did Mr. Saunders do it?  “Tenth of December” is great because even if it’s not the date on which the story takes place, it evokes a time in which the weather (in the Northeast) is cold, but not cold enough for there to be ten feet of ice on the local lake.  I also get a Tropic of Cancer vibe from the title.  (Ooh, and that’s one of Don’s problems.  Cool.)  So here’s another title formula:

TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of your first few pages as orientation for your reader.  Before you get in a ride in an amusement park, you spend 45 minutes in the queue, learning about the “world” of the attraction.  (Your stories are attractions too, right?)
  • Employ parallel and severely limited third-person points of view.  You gain contrast and a kind of intimacy. 
  • TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

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