"The Semplica-Girl Diaries" by George Saunders Originally published in the October 15, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I haven’t been as impressed with George Saunders the last few years as I used to be, but I still get a bit excited when I see he has a new story out. Sadly, this one only served to strengthen my view that this short story writer is all style (and that’s getting old) and no substance.
Take a look at the first few sentences, which place us firmly on ground Saunders has mapped out time and time again. His style: to be quirky, to cut out subjects and articles, to show a type of precision about character by having that character write with a lack of precision.
Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really?
I was already annoyed by this point, but I believe I managed to sit back, to stop allowing my response to some of his other stories cloud my response to this one. So, I quickly learned that our narrator/writer is a man who has just turned forty. He has a wife (Pam), two daughters (Lilly and Eva), and a son (Thomas). They are not that well off, at least compared to others. They drive an old Park Avenue (“Note to future generations: Park Avenue = type of car. Ours not new. Our oldish. Bit rusty”), and in the second journal entry we learn its bumper fell off. Worse, the next day they go to a “very depressing” birthday party for Leslie Torrini, Lilly’s friend. The Torrinis are very wealthy and their home showcases a kind of rampant materialism Saunders often takes apart. Naturally, the narrator and his family feel outclassed, particularly when they see the wondrous SG arrangement in the beautiful yard:
In front of house, on sweeping lawn, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze, and Lilly says, Can we go closer?
Leslie Torrini: We can but we don’t, usually.
Leslie’s mother, dressed in Indonesian sarong: We don’t, as we already have, many times, dear, but you perhaps would like to? Perhaps this is all very new and exciting to you?
Lilly, shyly: It is, yes.
Leslie’s mom: Please, go, enjoy.
Lilly races away.
Leslie’s mom, to Eva: And you, dear?
Eva stands timidly against my leg, shakes head no.
We’ll get into the SG arrangement momentarily. The next part of the story doesn’t deal with them but rather with the narrator’s parental guilt. It’s Lilly’s birthday in two weeks, and they are maxed out on all of their credit cards. How can they get her anything? Particularly the things she wants most, which are around $200 or $300? Honestly, this section again felt like a retread on very familiar ground without a single new hill or hole to explore. Here is a relatively poor man in financial straits trying not to let that destroy his children, their sense of self-worth, and what a warped world we live in where that sense of self-worth is so connected to materialism. It completely lacks nuance that this subject deserves.
Their troubles appear to be washed away, though. The narrator wins the lottery! With the new $10,000 he can buy Leslie the birthday present she wants and also make improvements on the yard so they can throw her a proper party (“Do not need to even write down, as will never forget this awesome day! But will record for future generations. Nice for them to know that good luck and happiness real and possible! In America of my time, want them to know, anything possible!”). Part of the yard improvement, their own arrangement of SGs.
So what are these SGs? They are the Semplica Girls. A Mr. Semplica developed a method where you can drill a hole in the sides of someone’s head and insert “microline” — then hang them up.
SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philipines). Effect amazing. Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last in step with peers and time in which living.
Obviously, this culture is blinded by the horror. Obviously they excuse this by saying that the girls were worse off at home and that it was their own choice. Obviously not quite everyone buys this (Eva, for example), but they are looked at as radicals who don’t know what’s good for these girls. The concept of stringing up living girls with a rope through their head is original, but everything that Saunders is saying here otherwise is frustratingly clichéd.
It’s sad because often Saunders has been able to mix some bizarre concept with something completely familiar and then come up with a new, original perspective. It seems that quirkiness is the goal now, however, and that any examination of our society is going to be rote.
But this isn’t his goal. In his interview with Deborah Treisman (here), Treisman says, “I hat to be so black-and-white about your work, but it’s easy to read the SGs as a metaphor for all the underprivileged immigrants and refugees who come to this country and work menial jobs in order to survive and support families back home. Was that at least part of what you wanted to explore here?” Well, it is black-and-white, and Saunders isn’t so much exploring it as just banging us on the heads with it. But here’s his answer (a portion of it, anyway; he gets very long-winded in these interviews):
Sure, yes, I think anybody would have that interpretation of it. The minute I woke up [he dreamt about the SGs], I knew that the women in the yard were symbols for, you know, “the oppressed,” and that the whole story, as I was imagining it at that moment, would be “about” the way that people of means use and abuse people without. So that was the danger — that the story might turn out to be (merely) about that. In which case, who needs it, you know? If the only thing the story did was say, “Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,” that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already. It had to be about that plus something else.
His answer goes on to tell us what else this story is about, and . . . sure . . . it isn’t just about these girls. We have materialism and parental guilt, we have Eva’s sympathy toward the SGs, we have the idea that society is blind to horror if everyone else is doing it. But, well, “we kind of know that already.” Adding together a bunch of things we already know, using cardboard characters whose main difference from every other character of this type is that they don’t write in complete sentences, does not magically make something new. Maybe it’s a phase I’m going through since, as different as the works are, I have many of the same criticisms of Alix Ohlin’s Inside, which I just reviewed here last week.
At any rate, it’s nice to know from the interview that Saunders is aware that a quirky (I can no longer say “clever”) concept plus unnuanced social commentary is not enough, but he didn’t succeed to doing anything more here.