It’s clear that Saunders is deeply skilled when it comes to voice, and that he must have spent years and years honing this craft. It’s clear that there was patient and meticulous investment put into moulding the thought patterns of each story’s narrator. In ‘Puppy’, told from two perspectives that sit on opposite poles of the American class system, there’s an awareness that the meaning and impact of a story lies almost entirely in how it’s told and who is telling it, rather than just the exact events that took place. This awareness sweeps across the collection and ultimately grounds it, making it so that, despite the variation in styles and subjects, all the stories are clearly by the same author.
However, it must be said that a by-product of Saunders’ variation in that the stories don’t feel like they’re all happening in the same universe. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, were the variation applied consistently. Too often, we find ourselves settled in the Saunders’ strange Middle America, with seemingly cohesive themes about class struggle, community and honest folks just doing the best they can, only for the next story to enter some kind of rich sci-fi landscape such as ‘Escape From Spiderhead’. This is a story about a futuristic drugs trial that uses convicts as test subjects. It’s entertaining enough, but feels far less like a subtle, sensitive insight into the backwaters of everyday life, and much more like an okay episode of Black Mirror. This is one of a handful of missteps the collection takes, also including all sixty pages of ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, presented entirely like short, handwritten notes which, when included alongside the one-page-long ‘Sticks’, throws the book’s pacing off to an almost nauseating extent.
But despite its faults, when Saunders applies all the best parts of himself, these stories strike into a vast oil well of humanity. At its best, Tenth of December is odd and gloopy and viscous, but rooted in the planet we buy groceries on and raise families on and break hearts on. As an overall project, there is plenty of room for improvement and refinement, but if you’re one to approach the short story medium with pessimistic apprehension, this may just be the book to nudge you off the fence.