With the release of his fourth collection, Tenth of December, short story writer (and journalist, novelist, and MacArthur “genius” grant winner) George Saunders received a wave of accolades bordering on worshipful. His tales, often set in a slightly skewed, semi-futuristic, branding-saturated America, can make you laugh until you cry—then thwack you with searing insight while you’re distracted. He’s the king of the sucker-punch last line, the one that erases the boundaries between you and the downtrodden saps who populate his stories. If you love George Saunders, these are the books you should read after you’ve raced through everything he’s written:
The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman
One man’s inability to get laid drives the plot of this brilliant, outsized comedy that begins in Berlin just before World War II. Unlucky-in-lust protagonist Egon Loeser escapes first to Paris and then Los Angeles, where he devours pulp fiction, stumbles into encounters with Chandler-novel types, and, yes, finally gets laid. Among my favorite characters is a millionaire with a very specific neurological disease, which renders him incapable of telling the difference between images and reality (give him a $5 bill, and he’ll try to shake hands with Lincoln). This seemingly one-note joke gets bigger and better every time you hear it, mirroring the trajectory of Beauman’s ever-expanding and thickening plot.
Feed, by M.T. Anderson
The bored-as-hell teens of Feed live reckless, hedonistic lives in a post–corporate apocalypse landscape, where they attend School™ and speak in slippery slang that wouldn’t be out place in, say, Saunders’ short story “Jon,” about teen trendmakers raised from babyhood by a corporation. The title of Feed refers to the implanted devices that provide citizens of Anderson’s creepy future earth with an ever-present stream of information—but when Titus, his friends, and his new crush, Violet, fall prey to a hacker who hijacks their feeds, Titus starts to see the cracks in the system.
The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
Rachman shares Saunders’ gift for devastating last lines, and final twists (of the plot or the knife) that leave you shattered. This collection of loosely linked stories centers on the drifting American expats staffing an English-language newspaper on its last legs in Rome.
Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray
World’s best elevator pitch: 50 teenaged beauty pageant contestants, one from each American state, crash land onto a mysterious island with almost no supplies. About a dozen survive, and under the indefatigable leadership of Miss Texas, make a go at survival. But, of course, they’re not alone on the island. Its other inhabitants include, at one time or another: the mostly shirtless, all-male cast of a sexy pirate reality show; a delusional dictator (seemingly modeled on Kim Jong-Il); the most famous former Miss Teen Dream, now an international mogul; and shadowy government operatives working from inside a dormant volcano. Bray’s vision for a future America is similar to Saunders’, but her message is ultimately one of affirmation and empowerment—which goes down extra easy when you’re busy LOL’ing at the chipper corporate double-speak that soundtracks the story.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower
In this debut story collection, set largely in a restless middle America of endangered children, burned-out adults, and casual violence, Tower is often as funny as Saunders, but without the futuristic whimsy. Standouts include “Wild America,” following a teenaged girl’s dangerous flirtation with victimhood, and the title tale, a period piece about Vikings that comes the closest to producing any male Tower characters that might be called “men.”
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, by Rachel Cantor
Cantor’s book explores another vision of a corporate future, this one dominated by fast-food chains affiliated with archaic sects—the Pythagorans run a pizza joint; tapas restaurant Jack-o-bites is, you guessed it, run by the Jacobites. (The Dadaists just run around making mischief instead of food.) But Cantor’s characters, including unlikely possible prophet and pizza-chain employee Leonard, his supernaturally powerful nephew, and the woman Leonard loves, are as earnest as Saunders’ in their attempt to live good, meaningful lives in a broken society.
What’s your favorite short story collection?