Vegans and any individuals blessed or cursed with the ability to stand on the banks of our cultural mainstream and assess both its charms and its madness with a critical eye often feel like souls wandering alone in a surrealistic desert of casinos built of cow skulls. This is why we may gravitate to dystopian fiction or other deeply-felt books about man's place, or rather misplace, in the world. And this is why our hearts go pita pat with gratitude to find a kindred social spirit. A novel like 1984, for instance, makes vegans nod wisely, for we understand exactly what Winston Smith is feeling in those ever darkening pages. We live there; in our carnist world, everything having to do with non-human animals is an Orwellian vista of doublethink.
That is why stumbling by chance on this collection of stories by the American writer George Saunders is an experience to be deeply savored by all who understand the negation and denial necessitated by our universal enslavement of animals. This is not ostensibly a book aimed at vegans. There is hardly a non-human animal mentioned; only one of the ten stories features an animal. And when Saunders mentions a mother as "vegan" in the title story it’s almost a throw-away line, though in fact the mom resurfaces later on in the plot as a good Samaritan, with biceps no less. And there's no suggestion that the author himself is vegan, at least not yet.
But Saunders patently understands the double nelson we as a civilization have got ourselves into through outmoded traditions and cultural conditioning, increasingly shored up by a frenzy of consumerist brainwashing--all of which have their hand in that resulting arch nemesis here: moral obfuscation glazed over with spin.
His most successful story and the most subtly savageis “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” originally published in The New Yorker. The author lulls the reader at first with a happy-go-lucky first person narrator who regurgitates with bonhomie the American shop 'til you drop mentality. But then this apparently naive account of keeping up with the Jones'sbegins to toy with our waylaid discomfort over such encroaching reminders of worker rights, minimum wage, and immigration. In the spine-tingling conclusion Saunders masterfully slips in the psychological sleight-of-hand we use to justify the unjustifiable. And it is here we vegans knowingly recognize thetest pattern for animal/human exploitation.
Then the gloves really come off. Saunders' even more chilling "Escape from Spiderhead" echoes not only Marvel comic strips but elements of animal experimentation, Nazi Germany, and sociologist Stanley Milgram's ground-breaking if controversial work at Yale on obedience to authority. Not only do we know that guinea pigs in labs have it bad, but Dr. Mengele proved humans can be easily used as stand-ins.
The more traditional short story "Puppy," which is indeed about a discarded pet, surpasses no literary boundaries but still offers a heart-tugging glimpse at human egoism with pets as property, having no more status than a stick of furniture or a game of Scrabble. Though no down-with-puppy-mills manifesto, this shrewdly unveiled accountabout misguided social one-upmanship, would do the SPCA proud.
The creepiest story of all, “Exhortation,” written in epistolary form looks–on the surface–like a dull American middle manager trying to inspire his staff to work harder. It is only as the paragraphs are peeled back that we see Saunders’ fine scalpel bring to the surface the heart of darkness that is man’s ability to be convinced of anything when financial rewards or other ideologies are hammered home. No vegan or vegetarian will read this story without a shuddering sense of total recognition in an era of factory-farming. This distinctive narrative is not merely about averting our eyes from disconcerting truths, but ratchets up the consequences of our active social capacity for distorting the truth to actively pursue what we may cynically want. As the 17th century French author Jean de la Fontaine quippedwith irony in one of his most famous fables: "La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure." (Might is what makesright.)
George Saunders is an artist of uncanny ability to delineate quixotic characters with astoundingly original voices, and to poke sometimes burlesque fun at the ludicrous, even as you weep. The range of his writing styles is such that you sometimes wonder and perhaps check–as I did–to see if you are reading a collection of short stories by an array of America’s best contemporary writers, with Saunders a compiling editor? But no, by the end you know this variegated chorus of testimonials, grown as if from the hothouse of some mad scientist comes from the pen of just one extraordinary talent. The Tenth of December is a crafty and craftily constructed monument to what vegans have already learned is mankind’s unrelenting penchant for denial and hypocrisy.
Victoria Foote-Blackman is a writer, a translator, a teacher, and a vegan actively involved in animal rights advocacy. A reporter for nearly ten years for Time magazine's bureau in Paris, she covered social trends and cultural subjects such as theatre, dance, and art. She also worked as the editorial coordinator for an international online news agency in Paris. Previously sheworked in publishing(the New York Times Book Company) , in press relations, and as a documentary TV producer abroad. She has taught English and French in France and in the U.S, and taught creative writing workshops at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She obtained her B.A. from Wellesley College and a Masters in education, in educational psychology, social foundations, from the University of Virginia.