Sunday, March 13, 2016

tenth of december: the swell and crash of a good short story

 From Tenth of December by George Saunders:
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn't died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn't dead. He'd killed no one. Ha! Somehow he'd got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was-- 
The woman reach down, touched his scar. 
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn't do that out there, did you? 
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever. 
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through. 
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live? 
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.

The thing - or, I should say, one of the many things - I love about short stories is how intense they can be. All crammed into something to be read in one sitting. So you, the reader, get it all in thirty minutes or so - all that build up and then the thing that breaks open. It's like an afternoon spent in the ocean, wave after wave crashing over you. The best are the ones you don't see building so high, the ones that take your over your body and toss you about and then return you to the sandy ground again, maybe a little scraped up by the shells but the joy of it all was worth it.

That might sound like melodrama (we're talking about reading, I know), but the best short fiction gives me this kind of thrill. And I was kinda expecting it from Tenth of December by George Saunders because I kept hearing so much about it... Halfway through the book, I'd say half of the stories lifted me off my feet, but overall it was a pretty average day at the beach. (To be honest, his voice was annoying me, it felt too affected to me. Like Rachel McAdams in half of the movies she's acted in. Just tone it down a little bit.)

Yesterday, I sat down on my couch with book in hand, intending to finish it. I was coming off a weird, emotional week, one in which I'd been able to push through some of the hard situations thrown my way. But there was one that felt like a last straw, that internally somewhere I was deciding to give up on. These little choices can be insidious because you don't realize that each one is really a choice to stop living. I was choosing to let my heart get a little bit harder, which feels like protection but is actually a living death.

This is how I found myself when I started the last story in the collection. The premise is two stories that intersect, that of a young boy playing make believe outside in ten degree weather, and a middle aged man who has decided to end his life my freezing to death because of a brain tumor. Their stories are filled out with wonderfully particular details - you understand why this man might end his life - but then he makes a decision to save the life of the boy when he is threatened, a decision which, in the end, leads him to choose to live himself.

I've excerpted that section above, the one where he realizes he wants to live after all. It came in a perfect swell, one that lifted me out of myself and made me realize that I, too, wanted more than little death.

That's the thing about a good story, it can make you want to choose the bigness of life.

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