Two new books will enter the ring, but only one champion will emerge.
The first quarter of 2013 sees new works by two of the most highly regarded North American authors. George Saunders’s Tenth of December, a collection of stories published over the last five years, and Anne Carson’s forthcoming Red Doc>, a conceptual sequel to perhaps her most popular work, Autobiography of Red.
It has been seven years since Saunders’s previous collection, In Persuasion Nation. While that book enjoyed a relatively positive reception, it was still a far cry from the reaction to his second book Pastoralia, which for the most part established Saunders as the kind of guy who is regularly referred to as things like “one of the most important and blazingly original writers of his generation.”
And for good reason. The stories in his first two books were funny and surprising both in voice and image. You never knew what would happen next, and no matter what did, the way the story was told carried you through. Great humour and light could be found in stories that might take place in a strip club or an insanely premised theme-park and still meet the criteria of “feeling human”.
I think most people's first reaction upon hearing that Anne Carson, who identifies as a poet, had decided to write a sequel to a novel in verse about a quasi-mythical coming-of-age erotic meta-epic, was somewhere amidst surprise, excitement, slight confusion, and expectation: overall, a good mixture of whys.
But I couldn’t curb my curiosity toward seeing what Saunders had done. Like many of my generation, Saunders was exciting to me early on, and I’d already seen no less than three people call this book, released on the 8th day of the year, “The Best Book of The Year For Sure.” That immediate and fawning praise might have had something to do with the sudden foreboding sense of unreasonable dread the idea of actually reading the book, putting a face to what it is, elicited in me.
And yet I went in ready for the world. I always want things that have an expectation of greatness to actually be colossal, particularly in the hands of those I’ve loved before. I never give up expecting another burst like the ones I felt as a young reader finding work that changed the way I thought.
I read the first story in Tenth of December waiting for that punch. It clearly had all the mechanisms of Saunders’s best abilities: amazing timing; surprising tic-like outbursts; post-corporate entities pressed upon the human to what end; light jabs of funny sexuality; a melding of charming observation and personal slang eliciting a quick familiarity with the narrator; a sense of contemporary-condition understanding faced with moral grey area allowing vague emotional pull without forcing the issue, and so on.
When I finished the story I was left with the sense that we could go anywhere from here. It felt like an opening pending on the worlds I’d been through in his work before in a way that almost seemed ready to go past them, to build off of what had been long ago begun.
The book, for me, never transcended that beginning. It worked the territory that it knew, if always in the grand style to be expected of George Saunders, but only as far as before, and in less robust versions of what it modelled. It felt to me in the same terrain and manner of his previous ideas, working the same strings in a new way after a few relatively failed attempts in previous books at shaking a new leg. The opening story’s title, “Victory Lap” suddenly seemed a bit too telling.
Since Saunders’s first book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in 1996, his style has become in many ways a high-water model for a certain kind of story, one where the narrative provides a frame for the voice to propel itself toward an understanding. One finishes a Saunders story with the feeling of having been through something with someone, tasted their mind, and experienced a catalyst of change that many narrative writers would call essential.
Saunders is often able to do this without the active elements seeming as directed as others working in such form. He charms you into his world, incorporates you alongside the vision. He makes you laugh and sounds like George Saunders. It weighs more than a pound. The temporary feeling is kind of nice, if only in the way we knew it would be.
I want more.
I want to be kicked off the horse; to be made to laugh in incredulity at where we were going, rather than be given other angles or whole other continents of what was already known to work. And I certainly don’t like the idea of a state where “The Best Book of The Year For Sure” is one that could have come out ten years earlier. Maybe that’s the biggest reservation I have in regards to this whole thing: to limit the future by admiring the past.
Some works are for passing time and entertaining, but I think the desired function of a piece of art is to feel differently in some way or another after having experienced it. It can be as subtle as just remembering. Some things take function over time, and accrue space without you even knowing. Some things hit you like you were looking the other direction. To say, “He’s fucking George Saunders!” is not enough.
The fact that an artist doing-what-they-do-well can be blurred by his own league of imitations (including prior versions of himself) should force a demand to stay ahead of what is known, to be seeking out a way to defy one's own best image.
Anne Carson is certainly the sort of artist that seems to continue pushing herself ahead. Besides being quite a bit more prolific than Saunders, you never know exactly what will come next. Her work borders constantly on collage, doing whatever it wants to, and fuck all.
Anne Carson differs from Saunders in that she uses language as a framework through which the narrative is almost incidentally progressed. There is motion, but it seems to develop its own intention sentence by sentence. We are not being led, exactly… it’s more like being surrounded.
In Carson, an image, or smattering of dialogue, or description of the way something happens rather than what happens, provides the engine through which we continue. A slew of fragmentary sentences vaguely describing the sense of a feel of a place such as “Crows as big as barns rave overhead” or “horrible laugh” are butted up against more direct declarations, like “You could take the entirety of the common sense of humans and put it in the palm of your hand and still have room for your dick.” Where we end up is where we are.
I’m not sure how Red Doc> connects to Autobiography of Red except in an amorphous, almost emotional sense. There are the mythic references and the sense of travel and desire and ambition, as well as a shifting between concrete forms, a kind of hinging around a kind of space not wholly on the paper. There is action but seemingly only as a vehicle for what is written, not how it is written. The effect is more oblique and fragmentary, like actual consciousness. The language is the skin.
Though I finished Red Doc> with a sense of not quite having been pushed to the extent that I had wished, unlike with Saunders, in this case it was not a question of disappointment. I was not even sure what had been done. And even though I didn’t love it, at the very least the book caused me to continue thinking about it some time after, to get caught with something about it I could not quite place.
In Carson, a single sentence can transcend the entire operation. But then the sentence is a part of that, and continues to accrue. The sentences fit together where they touch, and the feeling that knits itself together as you go opens the world up. It continues the world rather than seeking to explain it. It provides mystery among so much meat.
To pit these two against each other regardless of their eventual effect is rather beside the point. Maybe the point for me is to consider where we’re going at least as much as where we’ve been, both as consumers and as creators. In America it seems like we are more and more expected to find at least some pleasure in whatever we’re given, regardless of its quality, and over time we are run down. There is a point at which you might not even remember to notice.
It’s hard to nail down the idea of the shape of the whole arc in any living person, and you can never really choose where you end up. Yet each sentence or still frame or way of seeing – or whatever your medium is – is a small edge in the road. Suddenly you see yourself doing the things that make you where you are, and yet every minute you could say anything.
Follow Blake Butler on Twitter: @blakebutler