Between the lines

George Saunders’ prize-winning short stories are scintillating

George Saunders with his prize. Ian West/PA

George Saunders has become the first to win the £40,000 Folio Prize for his collection of short stories, Tenth of December. A contentious prize, the Folio has raised questions about elitism in fiction and America’s dominance on the literary scene. But its American winner seems to be someone who defuses debates about esotericism.

As Saunders tells us in the introduction to this, his fourth book, he wanted to “make a basket big enough” to engage the “good and dedicated readers” whom he might have lost through his earlier work – work which had earned him recognition as “a writer’s writer”. And in his acceptance speech, he stressed his belief that fiction is about “softening the borders between myself and other people”.

It becomes clear on reading this mesmerising collection of short stories that these “other people” extend beyond a literary coterie. True, Saunders’ first person, stream-of-consciousness style places demands on the reader. And there are moments in these stories when we want to turn away. Saunders directs us, as judge Lavinia Greenlaw put it, “towards the things we are not ready to face”.

But we don’t turn away. We’re compelled to read on. We want to, need to, know whether these uncanny narrators are abducted and abused, marginalised and misunderstood, whether they turn to killing others or killing themselves (as in the title story), or succeed in freeing themselves and those around them.

For me, the power of Saunders’ stories comes not so much from textual trickery but from the tension he generates. As Raymond Carver, an important influence on Saunders’ style, once observed, fiction needs tension, and tension is more than simply the arrangement of words:

It’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

This is the “iceberg” technique deployed so successfully by Ernest Hemingway, another key writer for Saunders. One of Saunders’ stories, Sticks, is but two pages long and seems to self-consciously probe the short story’s preoccupation with transforming everyday objects and events into moments of revelation. And yet there is a pervasive and arresting emotional – even tender ­­– aspect to this collection that testifies to Saunders’ astounding skill as a storyteller.

Often it is the futuristic settings that intensify reflections on our own time. The narrator of The Semplica Girl Diaries, for example, records his futuristic present for a future reader, who is, of course, us in the past. This disorienting effect sharpens the tale’s disturbing vision. Women from the poorest countries of the world travel to America to be strung up alive on wires to serve as decoration in ordinary people’s gardens.

That these “Semplica Girls” are status symbols and an aspirational goal for our less affluent narrator brings this nightmarish scenario to bear on ourselves. Saunders’ “SG’s” are not all that different from the sweatshop workers of developing countries churning out designer clothes for the West. We’re all citizens of the world now, Saunders seems to point out (with an eye to his early experiences of working as a geophysical engineer in Sumatra), and that means that we’re all inextricably and inevitably meshed into a transnational flow of capitalist exploitation.

Escape from Spiderhead (with a nod to Orwell, Huxley and Burgess) is set in a dystopian correctional facility that uses offenders to test how chemical substances control human emotions and abilities. We’re confronted with some uncomfortable questions: how do we locate our authenticity, our humanity, if experiences such as love can be externally triggered by altering our brain chemistry? What separates the human from the mechanical?

We might complacently assume that one aim of human existence is to strive for happiness, but even this deceptively simple motivation is scrutinised throughout the collection. The enigmatic story Exhortation places the reader in the position of a team of workers commanded to enjoy the unspecified objectionable work they’re given. We’re left contemplating how in striving to be happy with our lot, we’re also complicit in an unspoken, even unspeakable, violence.

At one point, one of Saunders’ narrators admits he has “been sleepwalking through life” – and this is precisely what this collection refuses to let readers do. We’re propelled forwards in time, tossed from one narrator’s head to another, twisted to confront brutality then sympathy and back again.

In an interview with BBC Radio Four after receiving his award, Saunders revealed that he wanted his stories to leave readers exhilarated, as though they’ve stepped off a “theme park ride”. With this award, Tenth of December looks set to be one ride that might spell a broader awakening to the new directions, thrilling and terrifying, in which the short story can take us.