I just read this book, which various people have called “the best book you will read this year” and other similar superlatives. My best tip to you, before I get started writing about this book, is DO NOT READ THE REVIEWS. Just read the book. The reviews all focus on the best stories, and I really wish I had read those stories without knowing the subtle ways he introduces the shocking elements – lulls you into a sense of normality and then rips the ground away.
So, that said, this review contains spoilers, and if you haven’t read the book and ever think you will, you should probably stop reading now.
Now, for the rest of you:
I did like this book. I don’t think that this is the best book I will read all year. In fact, I hope that is not true. But it is a truly good – possibly great? – book of short stories. I really love short stories lately, and I think the last several books I have read are short story collections. Lately, I really loved the writing in John Burnside’s Something Like Happy, although I’m not sure how daring or “important” that work is. My favourite – still – is Yiyun Li’s Golden Boy, Emerald Girl. I will be surprised if anything can compete with that – I found it both inventive, amazingly written and daring.
This book is different than those. This book is extremely daring, and the writing is very varied – intentionally. He is clearly a man of intense devotion to language, and attention to how language influences scenes and the way we judge characters. We as readers are thoroughly manipulated by the writing in this book, in a very artistic way, and that can be very uncomfortable at points.
I think I got off to a weird start with the book because I didn’t really love the first story, “Victory Lap”. It was interesting, gripping and intense, but I found the style grating and the main character’s voice unbelievable – a self-absorbed teenage girl. The voice of the self-absorbed teenage boy is also unbelievable, at least to me. But impressively different, and it sets a tone of edginess for the book.
I liked the next story, “Sticks”, which is very short, but super weird, and a really strong piece in the book. The way it ends – “He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died int he hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.” It sort of intensely encapsulates exactly how no one wants to die, I guess, and left me physically shaking my head.
“Puppy” is one of the stories that everyone talks about, so if you really are going to read the book, I do really think you should skip this paragraph. It is not clear initially that what is tied to the tree is a child, but hence the cover picture of this edition of the book, and the story is very, very strange, and very affecting. Who chains their child to a tree? Perhaps, this story asserts, someone who has no other way to keep the child at home while letting it go outside. You enter the world of that family with this “normal” family (not super normal in itself), who comes to get a puppy from the family – and you see everything through the mother’s eyes, and you feel yourself judge them and want to run away… and then you run away with her, narratively speaking. A very strong story.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of my favourite stories, and it’s not one that gets written about a lot in the reviews. It is a piece about a drug testing centre in a prison for murderers, as far as I could tell. It that reminded me strongly of the New Yorker story about drug testing, “Operation Delirium” – a testing centre where the long-term effects of the drugs on the taker was not taken into account, and people were given drugs that they didn’t know what they did. It is really dark – about how these drugs impede decision-making, and the helplessness that comes from that, and ends with the narrator making a final decision to assert his will in his life – by killing himself. I liked this part:
What’s death like?
You’re briefly unlimited
It’s a complex story, talking partially about the drugs’ ability to take away the will of someone, and at the same time the social and genetic precursors of these murderers – asserting that the “murderers” had not wanted to kill anyone, and yet do not deny having done so. And at the end, the character gets some peace: “My only regret was Mom. I hoped someday, in some better place, I’d get a chance to explain it to her, and maybe she’d be proud of me, one last time, after all these years. … and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
“Exhortation”, the next story, plays on similar themes, and I liked it as well, but I found the contrast in the narrator – a sort of flippant “we’re just doing our jobs” tone – jarring. And interesting.
“Al Roosten”, about a sort of small-town failure, was fine but sort of unremarkable.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is the one everyone talks about everywhere, and it is the one you shouldn’t read about if you are going to read the book. Believe me! I really wish I hadn’t. So anyway, it’s the one about these women who float in people’s yards, suspended by wires through their heads. It is an amazing and jarring story, and sort of irritatingly written at points – effectively, but irritating because it is in diary format (it reminded me of, but is nowhere near as extreme as, the hillbilly-type narrator in Cloud Atlas). But it is amazing. As amazing as people say, and it stays with you for a long time after, and I just wish I hadn’t read about it before I read it. Because I was just waiting to get to the part where it explains that they are floating on a wire through their head.
“Home” is amazing – about a veteran just back from a war – one assumes Afghanistan, because there is a really apropos conversation towards the beginning:
“Welcome back,” the first kid said.
“Where were you?” the second one said.”At the war?” I said, in the most insulting voice I could muster. “Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“I have,” the first one said respectfully. “Thank you for your service.”
“Which one?” the second one said. “Aren’t there two?”
“Didn’t they just call one off?” the first one said.
“My cousin’s there,” the second said. “At one of them. At least I think he is. I know he was supposed to go. We were never that close.”
It is a really smart way of describing how Americans actually do still relate to those wars, which seem so far away, and almost-over, and inconsequential. And yet, everyone he meets also robotically says, “Thank you for your service.” It is actually what happens as well – I travelled with my brother, who is newly in the Navy (hasn’t gone anywhere yet), and everyone does say it. All the time. In this story, it is really striking how it sits alongside this total indifference.
It is a very tender story, and complex, as this writing about the military shows. It is a story about things that go wrong, and military discipline, and how an individual deals with depressing decline in his own personal life (“Oh, Ma, I remember when you were young and wore your hair in braids and I would have died to see you sink so low”). And it is very much about loss, and the unfixable loss of war:
“Then suddenly something softened in me, maybe at the sight of Ma so weak, and I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking: 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.”
“My Chivalric Fiasco”, the penultimate story, is again an interesting concept (a sort of knight theme park story, with some of the drugs in the previous story used again), but I didn’t love it. But it was amusing.
And, finally, “Tenth of December”. This is another of the best of these stories, where there is deep tenderness, and amusing predicaments, and Saunders takes us deep into the idea that I think we all hear so much: we might as well kill ourselves if we start to get a terminal illness – you’re just a burden, etc. (I have a whole hysteria about this, which I will spare you.) This book goes deep into that – one of the main narrators is a person who, it seems, is getting Alzheimer’s or something similar, and knows it is happening. He is walking into the wilderness to kill himself.
“It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told that the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.”
And then it is a story that is about redemption and about life, and I loved it, and it made me really really close to crying.
“Because, okay, the thing was — he saw it now, was starting to see it — if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many — many drops of goodness, is how it came to him — many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to withheld.
And so on.
So that’s a lot of spoilers.
In sum, my favourite stories were:
- Tenth of December
- Escape from Spiderhead
- Semlica Girl Diaries