The Tenth of December, the Limits of Irony (and the Best Kind of Irony)

image via Goodreads

Saunders is very much a known entity, but that’s certainly no strike against the man. He’s got a style that (among many other things) seems to both mock and pay homage to a certain kind of blind American earnestness, and the stories in Tenth of December really run with that. I will admit, this is the first Saunders collection I have read in its entirety, although I have read something close to a dozen of his stories in journals and anthologies.

I was struck by how much the final (and titular) story differs from the rest of his work. Importantly, I also found it to be by far the strongest and most affecting story in the collection. The story is clearly Saunders through and through, but there’s another kind of closeness, an empathy that his more satirical stories are forced to distance themselves from to some extend if they are to function well as satirical works (which they do).

It’s tempting to say that irony blunts genuine human emotion, but that’s too easy and too simple an explanation for what’s going on. Irony forces us to empathize with a different part of our brain, different synapses firing to bring us into a similar state of empathy. The best irony (like Saunders and Vonnegut, say) forces us to confront the things we don’t want to think about in the most unpleasant way possible -by laughing at them. Any kind of decent or sensitive person, upon laughing at human misery, is forced into a mode of reflexive empathy, following up their reactionary laughter with conscious humanity, reaching out to something that they cannot help but recognize themselves in. Maybe it’s actually the jaded and cynical who can’t really get irony.

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