George Saunders: “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”

11/09/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, 10/15/12

As usual, I love the implication of Saunder’s piece a lot more than the implementation of it. The idea, that middle class workers extend themselves on shakily thin credit in order to try to keep up with the status symbols of the rich is something not all that alien from our America. Nor, really, is the exaggerated status symbol itself: young foreign women who subject themselves, under contract, to being strung up via “microline” in people’s yards, like human paper dolls. (Or, as Saunders alludes elsewhere in the piece, like a chain gang.) No, we don’t actually do this, but we do exploit others with illegal labor contracts, indentured servitude/sweatshops, and so on. This sort of parallel condemnation is where Saunders excels, and I’ve no doubt that if The Twilight Zone still existed, he’d be writing for it. 

That said, Saunders tells this story via a diary that the protagonist, the father of a family of a three, is recording in attempt to show future people how life “really was/is now.” (Side note: he makes a great observation here that, really, all the things we believe today will seem so kitsch and require explanation to the people of the future.) However, he does so in an odd sort of shorthand that would hint at a lack of intelligence . . . if his actual language and descriptions weren’t so good: “Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passe?” It comes across,then, as a stylistic tic — a bit of show-offy post-modernism that has no place in this story . . . no, which actively hurts this story, especially when one entry notes “Am writing this still drunk and it is getting late and tomorrow is Monday, which means work” and yet that entry sounds exactly like every other entry….

This mode of narrative also lends itself to some heavy-handed introspection on the diarist’s part, as he tries to justify certain behaviors that he knows are wrong. Far better to just show him choosing to splurge with the ten-thousand-dollar scratch-off win (rather than paying down his massive debts) than to also have him explain bad credit as “Wouldn’t it be better to simply not do thing you can’t afford to do? Easy for you to say! You are not here, in our world, with kids, kids you love, while other people are doing good things for their kids, such as a Heritage Journey to Nice, if you are the Mancinis, or three weeks wreck-diving off the Bahamas, if you are Gary Gold and his tan, sleek son, Byron.” (Not that this is a bad observation, mind you, and it rings true: it’s just really, really obvious.)

The shorthand doesn’t extend only to grammatical constructions either: much about the story rings oddly because it goes unexplained. If his daughter Lilly’s friend’s parents are really that rich (and he’s really that poor), how are they at all in the same social circles? Why exactly are they friends, considering that her classmates are described as often laughing at her for the things she brings (or doesn’t bring) in for show and tell? The actual value of things isn’t all that clear, considering that hiring IMMIGRANTS TO BE LAWN ORNAMENTS only costs about $7,000, but this near-future economy is false enough to make us think about such truly unimportant plot holes. Better to cut out such bits — like a one-paragraph non-description of his job (he apparently Observes other people working and Records this for their employers?) — than to bog down the real thrust of the story. 

One final complaint: plot in a Saunders story always seems to be an afterthought, a cliche, or both. The revelation here, that their soft-hearted eight-year-old daughter has freed the Semplica Girls and that the family is now going to be financially liable for paying out the remainder of their contracts? Okay, sure. At least it leads to a satisfying final section, in which our diarist — who we’ve somewhat been sympathizing with to this point — all but vilifies himself by showing us just how self-absorbed and oblivious he really is, as he wonders why the SGs would run away, given the wonderful life his backyard enslavement had offered them. However, I’m not sure this does enough to implicate the average New Yorker reader him/herself, so really, what’s the point? 

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§ 2 Responses to George Saunders: “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”

  • Oh, I loved this one! In spite of the diary format and the style, which drove me nuts. When I first encountered the term SG I thought it was something I was just not cool enough to be in on, so it was a delight to discover the meaning. And the ending was really perfect – he’s so glib about sacrifice when he’s talking about third-world families, and now he’s strung up himself by his daughter.

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    Yeah, I was just reading your post a little while ago, and like you, I also had the pause when first seeing SG and trying to piece together what it was. I like the way you’ve interpreted the ending, too, with the whole “stringing himself up” bit — though I’d argue that even if it’s true, his obliviousness makes it hard to feel sorry for him (or his complicit wife).

    As I mentioned, I’ve got nothing against Saunders’ imagination, and I found the central conceit to be an interesting one — I just didn’t think it went far enough. I suspect we actually share the same opinion of this piece (although we differ entirely on the appreciation of the stylistic diary form) — I might just be holding Saunders to unreasonable expectations based on my love of his early work (Pastoralia).

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