It's no exaggeration to say that short story master George Saunders helped change the trajectory of American fiction. Near the close of the 20th century, our au courant literature was notable for its coldness and disillusion—from the gelid, hermetic worlds of Don DeLillo to the synthetic violence of Bret Easton Ellis and paranoid fantasias of Thomas Pynchon. From these writers, Mr. Saunders took a biting absurdity and distrust of corporate soullessness, but he added the ingredients of love and goodness in his brilliant first two collections, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" (1996) and "Pastoralia" (2000). Most of all, he instilled his work with an embattled but persevering sense of hope.
Mr. Saunders's characters cling to hope as tenaciously as ever in his new collection, "Tenth of December" (Random House, 251 pages, $26), set in a kind of Dark Ages middle America defined by Darwinian class striving, simulated bread-and-circus distractions (Mr. Saunders is fascinated by amusement parks and reality television) and the substitution of bureaucracy for ethics.
"Escape from Spiderhead" is a terrifying work about prison convicts forced to act as guinea pigs for mood-altering drugs. As the narrator is pumped with chemicals that alternately make him fall in love or psychotically depressed, he's given encouragement by the study's supervisor about the value of his contribution. Mr. Saunders perfectly captures the ghoulish yet jarringly comic corruptions of TED talk-esque motivational blather:
We have unlocked a mysterious eternal secret. What a fantastic game changer. Say someone can't love? Now he or she can. We can make him. . . . Say someone is blue, because of true love? We step in, or his or her caregiver does: blue no more. No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift. No one is. We see a ship adrift, we climb aboard, install a rudder.
"The Semplica Girl Diaries" is an affecting story about a working-class father of three who attempts to keep up with the Joneses by splurging on the latest suburbanite decoration craze for his daughter's birthday: lawn ornaments that are third-world immigrants trying to secure citizenship. The story, which is again wincingly funny, juggles the earnest, somewhat daft man's desire to provide for his family with his growing discomfort in exploiting the less fortunate.
Many of the stories are about average people facing extreme tests of moral or physical courage. In "Victory Lap," a nerdy 15-year-old boy witnesses the attempted abduction of a female neighbor. The story shifts from the points of view of the girl to the abductor to the boy, who must make the frightened decision either to protect himself or risk his life in intervening. The title story has a similar framework: A man with terminal cancer has decided to commit suicide by walking in an undershirt in a snowbound park. When a well-meaning boy trying to bring him a coat falls through the ice into a pond, the man finds himself called to the role of a lifesaver. Both stories powerfully dramatize the author's belief that heroism springs from selflessness and compassion.
Mr. Saunders has inspired such marvelous writers as Adam Johnson, Chris Adrian and Ben Fountain, who all have written caustic satirical or dystopian fiction that nevertheless affirms the underdog values of fellowship and decency. And Mr. Saunders may well have been an influence for Manu Joseph's wonderful new novel, "The Illicit Happiness of Other People" (Norton, 344 pages, $15.95), which injects dark, rueful laughter into an immensely touching story of loss.
Set in the city of Chennai in southern India, the novel is about the supremely dysfunctional Chacko family, which has never recovered from the suicide of wunderkind firstborn son, Unni. Three years after the tragedy, Ousep, the alcoholic paterfamilias, discovers an unfinished graphic novel that Unni was working on the last day of his life. This launches Ousep on a stumbling investigation "to piece together the circumstances of his son's death," bringing him into contact with Unni's reverential classmates and fellow comic-book artists, as well as religious mystics, schizophrenics, and a neuropsychiatrist.
Mr. Joseph creates a tantalizing picture of Unni using only the composite memories of his friends and family—we see a brilliant, burstingly charismatic young man who seemed to effortlessly deepen the lives of everyone he came across, yet was haunted by existential doubts. The book is mordantly funny—Ousep, who is nearly always drunk, conducts his detective work with buffoonish belligerence—but through them Mr. Joseph sneaks in trenchant philosophical explorations and pressing social criticism of India's sorry history of rape and sexual assault. "Unni had this theory," one of his friends recalls: "According to him, every man, even a regular decent man, has harmed a woman at least once, or will in his lifetime." "The Illicit Happiness of Other People" builds on such dark themes to a sad, revelatory ending—though one that only begins to answer the unanswerable question of why someone seemingly full of the joy of life would have ended his own.
The one-letter title of Marjorie Celona's debut, "Y" (Free Press, 259 pages, $24.99), is, as the author puts it, a "double agent." It refers to the YMCA on British Columbia's Vancouver Island where Shannon, the novel's heroine, was abandoned by her mother as a baby. It's also shorthand for the tortured questions the damaged and misanthropic foster child asks herself: "I want to know who my real family is, who I really belong to, why I look this way, why I feel this way."
The novel unfolds as Shannon seeks out the truth behind her abandonment. The trouble with this worthy quest is that Ms. Celona does not establish any distance between herself and her main character. Shannon is consumed by hatred and anxiety, and the novel seems pinched with her resentments; her pain is so great that it blocks sight of the other characters. When she spots a member of her adopted family crying, Shannon decides, "I don't want to think about her and her feelings. I've got enough swirling around inside me."
The narrowness is especially problematic in the extended flashbacks about Shannon's mother, scenes that never feel real or believable. Only at the end of the novel, when Shannon's anger has burned away, does Ms. Celona's writing become expansive enough to hint at the complexity of her supporting cast. "Y" leads to a thoughtful, redemptive conclusion, but the journey to it is dour and stifled.
A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Giving Hope to the American Short Story.