Do you even understand how hot George Saunders is right now? With his critically worshipped new book, Tenth of December, George Saunders is super hot right now. For the people just now tuning in to all this hotness, we felt it might be helpful to provide a kind of ranking/review of all four Saunders story collections. Thing is, that's super hard! I mean, "Best to Worst" doesn’t even mean anything, "Most Accessible to Most Obscure" is just boring, and "Most Effective Pull on the Heartstrings" takes too long to write. So what follows is the order in which I would save his books from a burning building, though I swear to you I would gladly burn my delicate, immaculately maintained hands on each and every one of them.
1. Pastoralia (2000) is my favorite George Saunders collection for several reasons, the simplest one being that it is the George Saunders collection I read first. Reason number two is the story “Sea Oak” — in particular the character of Aunt Bernie, who instructs her nephew to show his cock at work in order to save the family. Reading Saunders, you spend a lot of time with characters who get dumped on from every angle while trying really hard to rise above the depressing shitstorms that are their lives. But Aunt Bernie, after a life of uncomplaining subservience, comes back from the dead foul-mouthed and totally in charge. She’s like the sweetest revenge pie ever served. Also, the title story? And how well the setting, a section of a theme park reenacting caveman times, is established? It's kind of a perfect story. One more reason: “The Falls.” Interior monologues of two characters, both massively preoccupied with their respective hopes/anxieties, and how well the momentum of each speeds toward the impending crisis and then! The ending takes my breath away. Like I literally gasp, as if someone just punched a puppy in front of me.
2. In Persuasion Nation (2006) is my second favorite for the very basic reason that it
contains the most stories of any Saunders collection. In
Persuasion Nation has twelve stories. Pastoralia
only has six. Six! Good thing I read it way back in college! (Tenth of December comes close with ten.) “Bohemians” stands out
for me because Saunders creates this classic small Chicago neighborhood and these two old ladies
from Eastern Europe totally intimidate the crap out of the hard-luck spazzy
nerd kids and it’s all just adorable, how messed up but ultimately how great
everybody is. “Jon” is what I imagine all the MTV
reality shows are really like on the inside — if the producers had total control over everyone's life and kind of isolated a bunch of hip kids in order to more effectively sell stuff. Yes, Saunders is exaggerating and poking some fun at entertainment and advertising, but he doesn't do this lightly, and the struggle that these characters go through goes way beyond easy parable or sly satire. “Brad Carrigan, American” contains some of the most vulgar depictions of television ever put down on paper. You might laugh and cry simultaneously at what the TV puppet dog has to endure.
3. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) Okay, so what’s funny is that, while reading Tenth of December, I felt like “damn, these are dark for George,” and then when revisiting his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I was like “damn, these are darker than I remember! So much darker than December!" Tenth of December stories feel darker because they're more realistic; the stories in CivilWarLand are more extreme in their darkness and horror, but because they are more fantastical, absurd and, well, funny, I remembered the laughter and not that several characters are accidental child murderers and that a lot of dogs die, which is something I cannot even joke about. CivilWarLand is Saunders gone wild — but instead of boobies, he's is all creativity and deep heart and dark humor. Plus who doesn’t love the “400 Pound CEO,” with his embarrassing hope (that we can all totally relate to) and flair for decadence (that we would all savor, given half a chance)? Or the devastating “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” — I still don't have any answers to the ethical questions brought up by that story. Or the title story, and its exquisite use of the word "milquetoast"?
4. Tenth of December (2013) I’m really super sorry but I have to put Tenth of December at the bottom of this list, because everyone else in the whole world is so worked up about it and calling it “by far” his best. I’d like to propose that, instead of trying to classify and rank experiences that are super personal, we should all just slow down here and admit that Tenth of December is the George Saunders gateway drug. Everyone’s been told they should try it, and once they try it, they’re gonna want more. And they’ll be more willing to try the more absurd and surreal and sarcastic flavors that characterize his other collections because they’ve had a taste, and one taste just won’t be enough. So I don’t even have to pimp it on any level. But if I were to rank the collections based on how hard each one pulled on the heartstrings and not at all take into consideration the order in which I personally read them, or the number of stories in each? Tenth of December might very well be at the top.
Alas, no aunt comes back from the dead in Tenth of December to make her nephew show his cock, so Pastoralia is still number one.