Funny and strange and sad and beautiful, Saunders' is a unique voice. Take the story "Escape From Spiderhead" in which the protagonist Jeff is a criminal co-opted into taking part in a medical experiment in order to escape a lengthy prison sentence. The experiment sees Jeff given a series of drugs, each enhancing certain abilities - his eloquence, his awareness of the world around him and finally his capacity to love, which we learn is the goal of the exercise. Can human beings be made to love simply by altering our chemical make-up? Yes, Saunders seems to be suggesting, but to what end? "You say, 'All you need is love?' Look, here comes ED289/290. Can we stop war? We can sure as heck slow it down! Suddenly the soldiers on both sides start fucking. Or, at low dosage, feeling super-fond. Or say we have two rival dictators in a death grudge. Assuming ED289/290 develops nicely in pill form, allow me to slip each dictator a mickey. Soon their tongues are down each other's throats and doves of peace are pooping on their epaulets... And who helped us do that? You did." Chemicals are one thing, but you can never account for human behaviour, our capacity to reason. The story ends tragically and brutally, but beautifully.
However, "Escape From Spiderhead" is not the most unsettling in this anthology. I award that dubious prize to the story entitled "Puppy" in which a mother sets out to buy her young daughter a pet only to make a truly disturbing discovery. My favourite story in the collection, however, is the title one which sees a young, awkward boy try to live up to his fantasies of being a hero - only to fail disastrously. This is the anthology's strongest story by far and one of the most gripping I have read. I literally raced through it, anxious to see how it would end.
Saunders is a great one for internal reverie. We see directly into his characters' minds - their secret dreams and fantasies - before he reveals these reveries for what they are: delusions. If I have any criticism it is this: he has a habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas, which in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing read.
Tenth of December (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is available 3 January 2013Suggest a correction