21st Century Literature discussion

Tenth of December
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2014 Book Discussions > Tenth of December - Victory Lap (May 2014)

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message 1: by Terry (last edited Apr 29, 2014 11:51AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Terry Pearce This for discussion of the first short story in the book, 'Victory Lap'.

I'll kick things off with a question or two, but feel free of course to say or ask whatever you like about the story.

As a reader you are thrust straight into a stream of consciousness with a very idiosyncratic style. How did this affect you?

In the introduction to the book, Saunders view that stories should have some kind of 'moral heft' is communicated. What do you think is the moral heft of this story? What do you think it is about, other than the characters on the page?

message 2: by Sam (last edited May 01, 2014 04:59PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam (synkopenleben) | 21 comments As said before, I'm going to contribute my essay I've written on this story. Hope you enjoy! (Note: I just saw that all formatting vanished - mostly italics. TL;DR at the bottom!)

After George Saunders released his fourth collection of short stories, Tenth of December, in January 2013, it was immediately met with critical acclaim. Lovell called it the “best book you'll read this year” (2013), and Junot Díaz explained that “[t]here's no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital.” (qtd. in Lovell, 2013). In his review for The New York Times Journal of Books, Charles Holdefer especially lauds the opening story, Victory Lap, as “one of the strongest [stories] the author has ever written” (2013). For this assignment, I want to analyse Victory Lap to examine if critical acclaim and creativity correlate with each other, and how creativity and literariness is realised in this story. I want to predominantly use the socio-cultural and inherency approach to creativity, but will also make some references to the cognitive approach.

Is all of the acclaim Tenth of December received an evidence of creativity? Not necessarily, but it does serve as an indicator. I would argue that Saunders' story is a manifestation of P-creativity, based on the socio-cultural approach to creativity. Boden defines P-creativity as “coming up with a surprising, valuable idea that's new to the person who comes up with it” (2004: 2). While some of the inherent features of the language are highly creative, the basic plot of the story is not. According to Booker's Seven Basic Plots, Victory Lap falls into the category of 'Overcoming the Monster': “Our interest centres on the threat posed by some monstrous figure of evil, who is then challenged by the hero and finally, after a climactic battle, killed” (2004: 5). While Booker’s interpretation of plot is predominantly interested in psychological meaning, it serves as an interesting approach to this particular story. Saunders' basic plot is rather formulaic: Kyle is our hero who overcomes the unnamed rapist in order to save Alison, his princess. One cannot deny that most narratives can be boiled down to such a simple plot, which does not mean they are uncreative but simply stick to basic principles of storytelling. Eagleton asserts that creativity is in the eye of the beholder: “If I pore over the railway timetable […] to stimulate in myself general reflections on the speed and complexity of modern existence, then I might be said to be reading it as literature” (2008: 8). Victory Lap is certainly not uncreative because it uses a basic plot. One has to admit though, that there are other parts of the story which are far more creative.

I have hinted before at the fact that the most creative part of the story is its inherent features, which are one of the manifestations of creativity in the text. Saunders employs three different points of view, all with different choices of grammar, syntax and lexis. While the main plot is somewhat lacking, the distinct characterisation of our protagonists through their language is where the story deviates from a run-of-the-mill, basic story. Holdefer writes that “the bold shifts of consciousness here positively sizzle” (2013), as the multi-perspective view on the narrative almost blurs the boundaries between them. According to Fludernik, these points of view “shape the narrated world creatively and individualistically at the level of the text” (2009: 6). I have analysed the narrative points of view and condensed them into figure 1 below. Every POV acknowledges the others at some point, either passively or actively, through reminiscing, dreaming or interacting with them. The outer part, starting with “Alison, #1”, is the main point of view, while the inner part describes the subplot and the direct and indirect interactions each leading character has with the other characters.

***** Here is the table I've compiled for this assignment: http://i.imgur.com/Li17npP.jpg *****

Every character is realized vividly, with their own quirks and peculiarities. Alison Pope is a romantic dreamer, a fourteen-year-old girl fantasizing about the what-if's of adolescence (ll. 1-39). Her use of French ballet terms accentuates her character even more: In her mind Alison performs in front of others (ll. 34-5, 56-7, 71, 95-6, 126-7). Kyle Boot is described as the “palest kid in all the land” (l. 83). His parents impose a plethora of rules and duties on him (ll. 140-5, 159-64, 185-210, etc.), against which he internally (ll. 167-184) and externally (ll. 150-161) rebels. Alison's close abduction enables him to overcome his parents' rules (ll. 344-51). It is interesting to note that only the fear of being accused of not helping Alison made him help her (ll. 331-43). The unnamed rapist and abductor is riddled by self-doubt. He tries to prove his worth by abducting Alison and trying to rape her (ll. 301-8). Even if he is portrayed as the archetypal evil in the story, there is a lot going on under the surface. As Yu points out, this third character is defined by past abuse that has been done to him. He adds that “Saunders widens the field of vision, showing us not just what the monster does, but who the monster is” (2013). The rapist's rehearsed speeches and actions (ll. 280, 291-7, 300-1, 312-24) seem almost comical, were they not of such a grim subject matter. In the end, all of our character's narrative roles become transmutable: Alison turns from self-confident princess (ll. 1-131) to distressed victim (ll. 418-450), Kyle from subservient, passive teenager (ll. 132-276, 325-344) to hero (ll. 344-366) to self-righteous avenger (ll. 367-74), and the rapist from attacker (ll. 277-324) to victim (375-417). As Yu sums up, this is “an interlocking triangle of shifting roles, a model of the world, of people, the range of what we are capable, not just within a lifetime, or even a day, but from moment to moment” (2013). Saunders manages to fit a substantial amount of character- and role-shifting into his 5743-word story, which is both a demonstration of his writing skills as well as of creativity.

Carter and Nash's criteria of literariness (1983: 123-41) are another approach to describe the creativity in Victory Lap. This falls into the domain of the inherency approach to creativity. The short story is medium-independent, as it does not need any supplementation whatsoever to understand it. The interaction between reader and author is displaced. There is some slight genre-mixing apparent in the story, as Alison narrates an allegorical fable (ll. 39-55). Register-mixing on the other hand is one of the essential sources of creativity in the text. Register is “a configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a particular situational configuration of field, mode, and tenor” (Halliday & Hasan, 1990: 38f.), and as there are three different points of view, this situational configuration switches persistently. One of the most evident examples of this are the different lexical approaches to cursing. While Alison never swears – using “Egads!” (ll. 17, 82) is her only euphemistic attempt at doing so -, Kyle swears as a means of subverting his parent's patriarchy, often with seemingly endless successions of obscenities (ll. 174-183). The rapist finally swears casually: Both of his paragraphs are riddled with swears and curses, hinting at a lower-class background than Alison and Kyle. The rapist also makes use of biblical or non-modern English discourse (ll. 282-8, 395-8), fashioning himself as a king. This is juxtaposed with modern colloquial English, often in the same paragraph: “And she would be brought unto him. And they would duly be betrothed and if she gave birth unto a son, super, bring out the streamers, she was a keeper” (l. 285f.). The genre- and register-mixing apparent in the text plays with and subverts the reader's expectations by deviating from stereotypical personae. Polysemy can be seen throughout as the story can be interpreted in multiple ways. This can be witnessed on an overarching literary level, as the story has different meaning and significance for each character: For Kyle it is the story of “Overcoming the Monster”, for Alison a Coming-of-age story, and for the rapist an archetypal tragedy. The reader must adjust his expectations constantly. There is some text patterning apparent in the text: The first instance of this is Alison's use of French ballet terms. Another, more prominent, is the shift of perspective, which changes from POV 1, to 2, to 3, to 2, to 3 and finally back to 1. Alison uses “love” and its derivative forms multiple times (ll. 25-33), as well as various instances of awesome and amazing when she describes her role models (ll. 72-77) and her parents and teacher (ll. 107-9). Her part of the narrative is interspersed with daydreams (ll. 2-16, 39-55, 58-69) which turn into nightmares in the end (ll. 430-441). Another example is the use of imagined dialogue, which are apparent in every point of view. These dialogues are not marked by inverted commas, but often feature a distinct address-and-response formula (ll. 101-6, 149, 156-8, 170-4, 190-211, 274-6, 280-2, 301-3, 327-9, 372-4, 399-401, 442-450). For the most part, they serve a function of mirroring the clashing moral beliefs in the respective character's head, similar to the romantic plot device of the shoulder angel and devil. The character's try to justify their actions and thoughts through these dialogues. The last of Carter's criteria is semantic density, which he defines as “a text that is perceived as resulting from the additive interaction of several superimposed codes and levels” (1997: 133). Semantic density is often achieved through contrast, and one of the most prominent is the contrast on the syntactic level. Saunders switches between hypotaxis and parataxis to indicate agitation in a character (ll. 418-422) and back to hypotaxis to indicate deep-set concern and adoration for others: “But there he was, in those comical shorts, so confident he was goofing around, hands clenched over his head like a boxer from some cute alt universe where a kid that skinny could actually win a fight against a guy with a knife.” (ll. 422-4). There are parts resembling stage directions (“Curtsy to self in entryway mirror”, l. 23), and repeated passages. This is of course an evidence for foregrounding, which is achieved for the most part through parallelism (see Jakobson, 1960: 368). The first lines of the story establishes a variety of contrasts: First we have a third person limited narrator (l. 1), which switches to a first-person narrator (l. 2). It is of course also possible that Alison refers to herself in the third person, but as the narrative voice constantly changes, this is hard to determine. Her teenage-narrative about standing on a marble staircase, French ballet terms and lionising her role models, parents and friends is contrasted with down-to-earth, comical passages: “Poor thing. He looked like a skeleton with a mullet.” (l. 84). After her abduction, she never uses French words again, an indication that her romantic dream has ended. The semantic density in Kyle's parts is also mainly achieved through lexical contrasting: He uses “Gar” (l. 146, 165) and “Yoinks” (l. 150) instead of actual curses because it is “absolutely verboten” (l. 167) for him to do otherwise. His outbreaks of swearing give both a lexical and pragmatical contrast to his normally repressed state of mind. All in all, different levels of language interact with each other all the time. While the text does not deviate from standard English on a phonological or morphological level, lexical and pragmatical contrast are apparent throughout and adjust to the situation at-hand to mirror the mental state of the characters.

*** Conclusion in next post! ***

message 3: by Sam (last edited May 01, 2014 05:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam (synkopenleben) | 21 comments Defining and analysing creativity is always extremely subjective. Even if we have certain criteria to define literariness and creativity, every reading process starts and ends with the reader: If their expectations and previous knowledge of genre, tropes and conventions are subverted, challenged or enlarged, one might say that that text is creative or even highly creative. Victory Lap is definitely read differently by readers from other backgrounds than my own. The deviation from well-known schemata, a foray into the domain of the cognitive approach to creativity, is evident. The story as a whole is “schema-refreshing” (Cook, 1994: 182-4). I would wager that most would agree with me that while his plot is not very original, the technique of how Saunders tells the story is what makes Victory Lap creative. The text plays with human emotion in a way: Even the rapists, as the glaring “evil” counterpart, elicits compassion from the reader. Saunders builds up relationships through his subplot – Alison and Kyle played together as children (ll. 89-94), Alison pities Kyle (ll. 82-8), Kyle is madly in love with Alison: “In the dictionary under “beauty” there should be a picture of her in that jean skort.” (l. 238). Most of their discourse has a quality of a repressed stream of consciousness, switching freely through spatial and temporal constrictions and going from topic to topic. Saunders' story is a prime example of postmodern literature, combining black humour, pastiches – mixing of genre and conventions -, temporal distortion and a tri-fragmented narrative voice. Considering the long tradition of postmodern fiction, Victory Lap is probably not a seminal work of creativity. But it is very clear from my observations that it is a highly literary text, fulfilling all of Carter and Nash's criteria. I want to end this assignment with a quote from Charles Holdefer's review:
"George Orwell remarked of James Joyce’s Ulysses that “his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared—for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique—to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody's nose.” In “Victory Lap” and other stories, George Saunders accomplishes something very similar and he does so without imitating Joycean stream-of-consciousness, which for many writers can result in a faux-lyrical froth. Instead, Saunders’ internal monologues are hyperkinetic, at times explosive. Reading these stories can be like making popcorn with the lid off the pan."


Boden, M. (2004) The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. London, New York: Routledge.

Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London, New York: Continuum.

Carter, R. (1997) Investigating English Discourse: Language, Literacy and Literature. London, Routledge.

Carter, R. & Nash, W. (1983) 'Language and Literariness'. Prose Studies 6(2), pp. 123-41.

Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eagleton, T. (2008) Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fludernik, M. (2009) An Introduction to Narratology. London: Routledge.

Halliday, M. A.K. & Hasan, R. (1990) Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of Language in a Social-Semiotic Perspective. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Holdefer, C. (2013) 'Review: Tenth of December: Stories.' The New York Journal of Books. Retrieved 28th February, 2014 from http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-....

Jakobson, R. (1960) 'Closing statement, linguistics and poetics.' In T. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 350-377.

Lovell, J. (2013) 'George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year”. The New York Times. Retrieved 25th February, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/mag....

Saunders, G. (2013) Tenth of December. Random House: New York.

Yu, C. (2013) A Drop of Concentrated Empathy: On Brokenness and Beauty in the Stories of George Saunders. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 28th February, 2014 from http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/a-d....


TL;DR: "Victory Lap" by George Saunders is a highly literary and creative text, as I have argued by using the definitions provided by Carter & Nash, Fludernik, Jakobson and others. Saunders' text is a postmodern take on the "Overcoming the Monster"-plot. In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this story are the fragmented narration, genre-mixing (coming-of-age, romance, thriller, etc.), creative use of temporal distortion and the three distinctive narrative voices.

message 4: by Lily (last edited Apr 30, 2014 02:04PM) (new) - added it

Lily (joy1) | 2472 comments Sam -- see "some html..." in upper right corner of editing box if any of the formatting is important enough that you still want to insert it. < i > < /i > without spaces will give you italics. A similar function is available for bold. Comments can be updated indefinitely by the author.

Terry Pearce Sam, thanks for this. It seems like you've done a lot of work. It might help some contributors if you are able to provide some kind of (even informal) executive summary as well as the full text. If you have the time of course.

message 6: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam (synkopenleben) | 21 comments Thanks, you two! I have added a summary to my second post. If this helps: This was written for a module on Creativity in English, and we were free to choose any text we wanted for analysis.
As a short wrap-up of that module, there are basically three approaches that try to explain what makes a text creative:
The Inherency Approach focuses on the language of the text, the Socio-Cultural Approach on the socio-cultural context, and the Cognitive Approach on the effect a text has on a particular reader or audience.

message 7: by Lily (last edited May 02, 2014 04:52AM) (new) - added it

Lily (joy1) | 2472 comments Sam wrote: "Thanks, you two! I have added a summary to my second post. If this helps: This was written for a module on Creativity in English, and we were free to choose any text we wanted for analysis.
As a s..."

So what about an "executive summary" of what that means for "Victory" -- we are a sound-bite audience here, at least I am this morning!:-)

(I have printed out your entire essay for reading -- just haven't gotten to it.)

Terry Pearce Lily, did you misread? Sam's added a summary to the bottom (under the line, starting 'TL;DR') of the second part of the long post.

message 9: by Whitney (last edited May 04, 2014 01:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
Thanks for posting your essay, Sam. I got a bit lost in some of the lit-crit verbiage, admittedly :-)

I think you're right that on the surface of it, Saunder's 'plots' are fairly unexciting, it's the writing that makes the stories come alive; primarily the internal monologues of the characters. I also like the way you discuss the transformation of the characters, but isn't there one more step for Allison? You say how she goes from self-confident princess to distressed victim, but it seems to me that in the end her strongest identity is of a compassionate savior. Her nightmares in the end aren't about her abduction and near rape, but about Kyle smashing in the head of her abductor; an act she prevented by her invention.

I'm also not sure that it was just the thought of people knowing he did nothing that motivated Kyle in the end. It seemed like just one of the million thoughts pouring through his head. When he started charging across the yard, he was more surprised by his own actions than anything else, and his thoughts were still about how many rules he was breaking - right up to his transformation into conquering hero. Without Allison's shout, the transformation was headed in the direction of him becoming like the would-be rapist’s own idea of himself as king, above the dictates of average people (in Kyle's case his controlling parents). And, with that consideration, Allison is also Kyle’s savior. Thanks to Allison, Kyle’s rebellion makes him a hero, but stops short of turning him into a monster.

I like that it’s the geode that Kyle uses as a weapon. What was a symbol of his parents completely overbearing control of him becomes the instrument of his violent liberation.

message 10: by Lily (new) - added it

Lily (joy1) | 2472 comments Terry wrote: "Lily, did you misread? Sam's added a summary to the bottom (under the line, starting 'TL;DR') of the second part of the long post."

I did. Mea culpa. Thx, Terry.

message 11: by LindaJ^ (last edited May 04, 2014 06:26PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2318 comments Thanks Sam for the your essay. Being unfamiliar with any of the authorities you quote, I had to read it a few times before I got the jist! Who knew there were objective criteria for deciding whether something is creative! I agree that the plot and the ethical questions it raises were not new or original and that the creativity was in its presentation. I found that true in a lot of the stories, which I think is the important thing -- to be able to make the old new and attention grabbing through presentation is true creativity.

Whitney, I agree with you about the last stage that Allison enters. She was a hero when she saved Kyle from going too far. They are ultimately both heros. But the rapist deserves consideration as well - he was a victim from the beginning to the end, with no option to be a hero.

Whitney | 2102 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "But the rapist deserves consideration as well - he was a victim from the beginning to the end, with no option to be a hero..."

Hmmm, I agree with 'from the beginning', not sure I agree with 'to the end'. He's become the victimizer, like so many previous victims do. He dose deserve consideration, and I think he got it in the prevention of his death by geode. Do you think Saunders intended him to be more than the agent of danger / transformation for Allison and Kyle?

I hadn't thought of the issue of free will versus programming based on experience to be one of Saunders' main themes, but maybe it is. I saw it as a consideration in "Escape From Spiderhead" as well (see said discussion). A main point being made in Victory Lap is Kyle's 'conditioning' and his overcoming thereof. Is the rapist's history too extreme for him to be given the same kind of choice? Is this beyond the text, or do you think Saunders considered this in terms of providing a counterpoint to Kyle?

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2318 comments Whitney, very interesting questions. Is the rapist more than an agent in this story? I think he is. I hadn't thought about him and his conditioning in respect to Kyle's but it is an interesting comparison. And it leads to trying to ascertain why Kyle was able to overcome it and he was not. Kyle was stopped from moving from victim (through hero) to victimizer by Allison. Could there have been someone who could have prevented the rapist from moving from victim to victimizer? (I agree that the rapist was a victimizer between his turns as victim.)

message 14: by Hanne (new) - added it

Hanne (hanne2) Finally got around to this book - still have half the month! I have to say that i didn't expect such a heavy literary discussions here when i signed up, but it's interesting. (even though i secretly hope that this won't happen for all stories, or i will feel incredibly stupid)

What i loved the most about this story is Allison's character building, especially at the start. There is wonderful contrast between the elegant 'ballet' woman she longs to be and the clownesque kid she might still be when her toughts are slightly less controlled. I noted down this passage when i first read it:
"Jeté, jeté, rond de jambe.
Pas de bourrée.

On a happy whim, do front roll, hop to your feet, kiss the picture of Mom and Dad (...)"

There is so much being told about her through that inner dialogue, and as previous posters mentioned, it's fabulously done.
As characters Kyle and the rapist are written a bit more extreme, but it still works.

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Quite enlightening thanks to all especially Sam. I came to this group to ponder and eventually learn more about intellectual writing and argument.

This short story and your comments have my head spinning and I am deeply moved.

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