George Saunders' new book shows just how terrible first world problems can be

George Saunders' stories have always been fairly depressing — there are decrepit and miserable themeparks, people trapped in miserable and humiliating situations, evil company memos and awful experiments. But his latest book, Tenth of December, feels more desolate and horrible than ever. And it's like a hilariously dreary status update from 21st century America, where everyone is struggling and becoming complicit in the awful system.

Spoilers ahead...

Top image: "Semplica Girl Diaries" by Martin Ansin.

Saunders is pretty well known for his dystopian storytelling, in which personal humiliation is linked to cooperation in a morally bereft system. What's new in Tenth of December, though, is the flavors of abasement that he manages to discover, and the many types of complicity that he exposes. These are people who participate in their own destruction, or who attempt to keep their heads above water even if that means pushing others underneath. The main constant, as always, is a sense of absurdity and its near neighbor, futility.

And these are definitely stories of "first world problems." Given that this has become something of a meme lately among the elite and the highly educated — the very sort of people most likely to pick this book up in its current hardcover edition — it's interesting that Saunders shows just what it means to live in the first world and have problems.

All of these stories take place in a United States that's either some fantastical reflection of the present-day U.S., or a slightly more advanced, more institutionalized one. And the default assumption in these stories is that everybody ought to be doing okay — we're Americans, we're hard-working people, we're all supposed to be vaguely middle class even if we're drowning in debt or getting evicted from our homes.

The more fantastical stories in Tenth of December are also the ones which seem to have the most to say about complicity. Saunders doesn't reach for science-fictional plot devices, by and large, as a means to illuminate something about his characters or to drive his plots, as such — rather, he's interested in the way technology and weird science both force us to participate in oppression and give us a degree of interactivity that lets us acquiesce in our degradation. His whiz-bang inventions are often inessential to the story as such, but allow an extra degree of knife-twisting.

For example, in the story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," you could easily remove the one fantastical element: the titular S.G.s, who are a miracle of technology and post-colonial exploitation. (I won't give away just what the S.G.s are, since it's a weird thing that sort of sneaks up on you over the course of the story.) But the surreal, science-fictional nature of the S.G.s adds a whole extra layer of weirdness to the story of a family who are barely getting by, crushed under a load of debt, until they have a windfall that finally lets them show a snooty family in their town a fancy time.

And "Semplica Girl Diaries" is probably also the best example of what I mean when I say these are stories about first-world problems. Like a lot of Saunders' protagonists, the main character of "Semplica" is a working schmoe who's got aspirations (or sometimes delusions) of fanciness in spite of his credit cards all being maxed out. And you feel his desperation to make his two little girls happy, and be a good father, and provide for his daughters not just material well-being but social status. And part of the way he manages to do this is by participating in completely heinous treatment of some girls from various third-world countries.

Part of what makes these stories so painful, and so funny, is the way that Saunders melds together the fear of total economic failure with the fear of just not being good enough, of social annihilation. He drags the reader into the heads of his pathetic characters, through their neurotic inner monologues and imaginary conversations with people who aren't present, until you have no choice but to empathize with them even as they make (in some cases) terrible choices. Saunders gets compared to lots of classic American writers, from Twain to Vonnegut, but he's also squarely in the British tradition of can't-bear-to-look humiliation comedy, from Tom Sharpe to John Cleese.

I feel like I sympathized with these characters a lot more than I did the heroes in Pastoralia, the last Saunders book I read — but that degree of identification doesn't leaven the satire in this book. If anything, it just makes the satire more vicious. This is also some of the most powerful writing Saunders has ever produced, rivaling the acuity of his old mentor Tobias Wolff.

George Saunders' new book shows just how terrible first world problems can be

The other big speculative element in this book that jumps out at you is the weird drugs that produce eloquence, or feelings of love, or despair, or the ability to do really good improv, that get administered in a couple of the stories in this book. "Escape from Spiderhead" is probably the most fascinating, memorable story in the book, as a prisoner gets dosed with various mind-altering drugs that ways that seem random at first but become more and more obviously sinister.

As with a lot of Saunders, these stories feature a kind of nattering glibness, especially from authority figures who want to crush your soul while maintaining the thinnest pretense of being your friend. I suspect a big chunk of Saunders' popularity comes from the way he captures so perfectly the voice of the "sympathetic" middle manager, and the tang of corporate double-speak. One story in the new volume, "Exhortation," is literally just a memo from some faceless team leaders to their underlings, encouraging them to keep bringing a positive attitude to some activity that — you may notice a trend here — comes to feel more and more sinister.

Perhaps sensing that we need to be eased in and out of this depressing world, Saunders starts and ends the book with two somewhat more hopeful stories. In both stories, someone breaks through his inner monologue of nebbishy despair, and actually manages to save someone else's life.

But for the most part these stories are as stark, and as savage, as any of the dystopias that Saunders has produced. The best of these stories contain images and weird turns of phrase that linger in your head after you're done reading, along with a sense of uneasiness that you've glimpsed something you really shouldn't have seen, something laying underneath the surface of your first world life.