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Satirically demented tales for mainstream readers

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Tenth of December

By George Saunders

Random House, 251 pages, $30

GEORGE Saunders is having his day in the sun.

The New York State-based short story writer, hailed by the literati for more than a decade as the equal of Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, has broken through to mainstream appeal with his fourth collection of satirically demented tales of American losers.

Tenth of December -- the title comes from the final entry, about a fat boy who saves a cancer patient from drowning himself in a freezing lake -- has been riding high on bestseller lists since its release in late January.

The peculiar stories are accessible in their own quirky way, and Saunders' sentences are simple, short and laced with wit. But you have to wonder what makes this book stand out from his past ones.

It might simply be a matter of Woody Allen's old dictum -- 80 per cent of life is showing up.

It takes a few stories to figure out Saunders' tricks. But once you do, you begin to notice repetitive aspects. The typical Saunders narrator is a deluded sad sack grasping for his share of the American dream.

His characters obsess about their parents or their children. The stories drop you into the middle of a nearly plausible future dominating by pharmaceuticals and eccentric theme parks.

This, in fact, has been his approach since his debut collection in 1996, the title of which, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, pretty much sums up his catalogue.

Partial sentences

The best story of the 10 here, The Semplica Girl Diaries, is 60 pages of journal entries, often related in partial sentences. ("Nine days to Lilly's b-day. Kind of dread this. Too much pressure."

In them a debt-ridden father recounts his attempt to make his daughters happy by buying them lawn ornaments that are, in reality, women from the developing world lured to the U.S. and held captive by a string of wire through their brains.

No doubt Saunders deserves his MacArthur "genius" grant just for dreaming up this stuff.

In an other impressive story, which calls to mind Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, a prison inmate recounts being used as a guinea pig to test behaviour-altering drugs.

"VerbaluceѢ" increases his vocabulary, "VivistifSTmk" ups his libido. Saunders depicts the personality change through the prisoner's language.

"The garden still looked nice," he says before the VerbaluceSTmk kicks in. But soon: "It was if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled."

It's an amusing conceit, but Saunders uses it again in a later story about a teenager working in a Disney-like theme park in which its actors take drugs to enhance their performances as characters from the Middle Ages.

Saunders has been hailed as a daring experimentalist, but it's mostly his premises that break with convention.

His linear plot lines, the first person or limited omniscient narrators and the colloquial language begin to feel mundane as the stories pile up.

Maybe it's time he mainlined some AliceMunrosiaSTmk.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J9

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