Late in Jonathan Franzen’s recent, fourth novel, Freedom, Patty Berglund, six years estranged from her husband Walter after her affair with Walter’s best friend, takes an unusual path to reconciliation. On a wintry October night, Patty arrives unannounced from her home in Brooklyn at Walter’s distant, frozen, monastic, northern Minnesota door. Sitting down on his front step, she refuses to engage with him. Walter yells; Walter storms; loglike, Patty sits. Walter demands that she leave. Patty’s reply, in full, is “No.”
Not dressed for the frosty night, Patty sits, minutes passing, temperature dropping. Incredulous, Walter tramps off behind his house where he fulminates until “the bite in the air became…more serious [and] he began to worry about Patty.” He returns to find her “tipped over, less tightly balled up, her head in the grass…ominously, no longer shivering.” So Walter acts. Berating her all the while (“This is so fucking stupid of you…you can die when it’s thirty degrees out”), he carries her inside, deposits her on the couch, covers her in blankets, turns up the furnace, and tries, unsuccessfully, to make her drink hot water (“she blew it right back onto the upholstery [making] vague noises of resistance”). Touching her (“fingers icy, her arms and shoulders cold”), Walter understands that desperate measures will be necessary:
She fell asleep while he took off his clothes, and she woke up only a little as he peeled back the blankets and took off her jacket and struggled to remove her pants and then lay down with her, wearing only his underpants, and arranged the blankets on top of them. “OK, so stay awake, right?” he said, pressing as much of his surface as he could against her marmoreally cold skin. “What would be particularly stupid of you right now would be to lose consciousness. Right?”
“Mm-m,” she said.
He hugged her and lightly rubbed her, cursing her constantly, cursing the position she’d put him in. For a long time she didn’t get any warmer, kept falling asleep and barely waking up, but finally something clicked on inside her, and she began to shiver and clutch him. He kept rubbing and hugging, and then, all at once, her eyes were wide open and she was looking into him.
It is an unvarnishedly romantic scene: Patty, who has come in hopes of bridging, at last, the distance her affair imposed years earlier, goads Walter, through a pose of submission that becomes a show of commitment, into relying on nothing more than his human heat to save her, them.
In October 2011, a year after Freedom appeared, The New Yorker published “Tenth of December,” a long story by George Saunders after which his new, fourth collection of short fiction and seventh book is named. The story and the collection it closes seem to have Franzen’s novel in mind, most visibly in their salvational conclusions. What’s more, the two tellings may be seen as representative of two distinct directions fiction might take as it moves into the twenty-first century—two paths that have, in fact, been debated through recent years and that we may see, in Franzen and Saunders, flowering into competing visions, not merely of fiction but of being.
“The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs,” begins “Tenth of December,” is at solitary winter play (pellet gun, invisible antagonists, imaginary ally in peril) in snowy woods near his home. Tramping through 10 degree weather, he happens upon a coat, discarded and pristine (“Inside of coat still slightly warm”). The boy scans the landscape, spying the coat’s apparent owner halfway up a nearby hill:
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super-skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
The plucky voice inflecting the narration is that of lonely, plump, preadolescent Robin Kendall, who, grabbing the coat, goes after the man. (“It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last.”) As Robin enters the woods, coat in hand, pursuer hands third-person narration to pursued: bald-headed, fifty-three-year-old Donald Eber. Suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, despairing of life, Eber has fled his hospital deathbed to commit suicide by exposure. Though Eber has a final resting place in mind (“cross-legged against the boulder at the top of the hill”), the ascent exhausts him and he finds himself “wrapped fetally around [a] tree.”
This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here. This incredible opportunity to end things with dignity was right in his hands.
All he had to do was stay put.
And yet, he will not be allowed even that much-diminished “all.”
Concentrate on the beauty of the pond, the beauty of the woods, the beauty you are returning to, the beauty that is everywhere as far as you can—
Oh, for shitsake.
Oh, for crying out loud.
Some kid was on the pond.
Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.
Within moments, Eber watches as “on the pond” becomes in: Robin—who takes a perilous shortcut to reach Eber more swiftly—falls through the ice. Faced with a choice, Eber, approaching death, finds he has no choice at all:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head….
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks.
Recalled to life, Eber stumbles downhill to the pond. With enormous effort (“It took four distinct pulls”) he drags Robin from the bank: the boy managed to flail his way to it before passing out, face down, in the snow, legs still in the icy pond. “Kid was in trouble,” Eber thinks. “Soaking wet, ten degrees. Doom.”
Eber went down on one knee and told the kid in a grave fatherly way that he had to get up, had to get moving or he could lose his legs, he could die.
The kid looked at Eber, blinked, stayed where he was.
He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.
So Eber can’t do for Robin as Walter did for Patty when the husband “press[ed] as much of his surface as he could against her marmoreally cold skin.” Eber has no human heat to give. Rather, after Eber crosses the unstable ice of the pond to retrieve his own coat that Robin carried but dropped onto the ice as he fell through, he attempts to clothe the boy:
It was like the old days, getting Tommy or Jodi ready for bed when they were zonked. You said, “Arm,” the kid lifted an arm. You said, “Other arm,” the kid lifted the other arm. With the coat off, Eber could see that the boy’s shirt was turning to ice. Eber peeled the shirt off. Poor little guy. A person was just some meat on a frame.
And so it goes, Eber excavating Robin from the ice (“He loosened the pants up with little punches”) and stripping down to his own underwear as he reclothes the boy, hat to boots, in all he has. Robin thaws, flees the woods, is saved. Eber sits down in the snow, barefoot, all but naked, free to die.
Were the story to end there, there would already be much to discuss about the different ways in which Saunders and Franzen approach the practice of fiction. We could compare the language in which the stories unfold (Franzen’s “pressed…his surface…against her marmoreally cold skin” and Saunders’s “Popsicle-on-Popsicle”), Franzen reaching for a “serious” register that will make many of us grab a dictionary (“marmoreally” is new to me), while Saunders is dedicated to jocoserious language that any of us has at hand (I am familiar with the Popsicle). But the Saunders story doesn’t end there, and the varieties of stylistic register are supplemented by divergences of plot.
Robin reaches his house nearby, whereupon his mother acts. Into the woods she goes to complete the “real rescue” her son began. “Strong as a bull,” the mother seems to have brought a household of clothing to swaddle Eber in (“He was piled high with clothes. He was like the bed at a party on which they pile the coats”), and all but carries him back to her house where she plants Eber on a couch before a fire, fills him with hot liquid, and bundles him up further. Eber marvels at the moment:
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this!… It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was—
The woman reached down, touched his scar.
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn’t do that out there, did you?
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever.
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through.
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
But Eber will not live, neither happily ever et cetera, nor much longer. So he wonders:
If some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it?… Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.