The blogosphere runneth full of discussion after the feature New York Times feature article on George Saunders and his new book Tenth of December, which ran in the magazine January 3, 2013 by Joel Lovell. For me, the article was welcome news. I’ve loved Saunders’ fiction for years and the chance to read something new made me gasp, just a little. More of a quiet, internal spasm. Then when I saw the title of Lovell’s article, I again found pause. Really? Can’t be? A book of short stories? I read a lot, so when I preemptively believed that in December I’d find something that would trump everything else in the other eleven months of the year, well, I called bullshit.
But, Tenth of December is really that good. I’ll get into Kafka below, but Saunders maybe the modern day Kafka. His stories remind me of what it is to be alive and fighting in an era where our technologies, jobs, and patterns of existence try to disconnect us from our families, the people we serve in our work, and the actual breathing in and out of the world to have us, instead, micro-focus our energies in surfing for hours on tablets, in iTunes clicking wish list buttons, in swiping debit carelessly through scanners like coke addicts at mirrors, or in clicking the little shopping cart icon at Amazon. Saunders’ collection helps me deal with this disconnection. Reading it was like the axe to the frozen sea.
I’ve been a teacher who’s gone after some big names with my students in class. I’ve loved teaching Cortazar and Borges and Kafka, especially Kafka.
Of course, “The Metamorphosis” finds its way into most upper-level high school classrooms. However, I like teaching some of his other stories, namely “Above the Law,” “A Country Doctor” and most eminently, “In the Penal Colony.” What I love about bringing students to Kafka is their immediate discomfort at the stories, their continued displeasure at meaning’s illusive nature, and that getting Kafka means being satisfied with uncertainty. What is “Penal Colony” about? Is it a story about imperialism, about faith and Kafka’s questioning of Old and New Testament philosophies, about torture, or an ars poetica following a motif through many of Kafka’s stories about the tortured, tortuous nature of writing? Perhaps it’s all and perhaps none. But, that’s what’s so cool about this story for me as a teacher working with students.
In Saunders, we find a companionable neighbor to Kafka. They should live next door to each other and their children should play together on the weekends. Those who are looking to accomplish the kinds of thinking and reading goals for their students may wish to try to pair Saunders with their next reading/unit of Kafka. And, if I were looking for a place to start, I would begin with the exquisite “Semplica Girl Diaries.”
I don’t want to give anything away about the story, and several good synopses exist—see the above Lovell feature from the Times. However, “Semplica” is a story that works on many levels. It’s a father-daughter story, a story of capitalism, consumerism, and imperialism. It defies, as do Kafka’s stories, easy explanation. But, so do our lives.
I’ll put forth in these blog posts for English teachers about using contemporary classics that our students must be placed face-to-face with the mirror image of our own lives for the reading to feel real and practical to them. The worlds in Saunders’ stories give that mirror, just a slightly warped, fun-house one that makes us look as if our heads are too big and our hearts too small, or perhaps the other way around. That’s the way the make us feel, too.
To my colleagues, take on the challenge of Saunders and Tenth of December. It’s great to work with a text that is new and fresh and weird. It’s okay try to work with something serious, complicated and that defies the simple explanations of the world. Too often, teachers are tricked into providing writers such Rowling or Sparks or Picoult to create life-long readers, or at least, readers of the moment if at least the kids are reading. We should take Lovell’s best books headline at its word and know that we do disservice to students if we’re not trying to get this book into their hands. They’ll know the choice and thank us for it too.