October 15, 2012

"The Semplica-Girl Diaries"

By George Saunders
~8900 words

In a future world in which low-wage female workers are strung up on high wires as lawn decorations, a family gets more than it bargained for when it buys into the fad.

The narrative is written by the main character in the form of a first-person diary, for reasons he explains in the opening paragraph:
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 the diary headers include months and days but not years, and because the setting at first glance feels like our world—complete with OfficeMax and DVD players and NPR—it's not until several entries in that the reader realizes we're dealing with a futuristic scenario. In addition to goldfish ponds, perfectly manicured gardens, and faux-Oriental bridges, the Joneses of the future hang garish displays of so-called SGs (the Semplica-Girls of the title): young immigrant women who are hoisted up together on thin "microlines" that pass through their temples and the newly-discovered "Semplica Pathway" of the brain. Like fish flopping on a stringer, they hang in this lobotomized state—"Is very gentle, does not hurt, SGs asleep during whole deal"—presumably for all the non-SGs to see and enjoy. When a fortuitous lottery winning allows the narrator to purchase an SG display that would otherwise lie beyond his means, he is initially ecstatic with his purchase, "as if at last in step with peers and time in which living." But things go awry when his youngest daughter begins to object to the cruelty of the lawn display and sets the SGs free.

What to say about this bizarre story? I love the critique of a consumption-obsessed world that exploits its underclasses while patting itself on the back for its humanity; and I love the sheer quirkiness of the plot and setting. Saunders is either brilliant or insane—probably both. The journal format, however, is close to a death sentence in my opinion. First, it drains the story of drama, for we never feel as though we're witnessing events in the heat of the moment; it's always after the fact, like watching a time-delayed sportscast when everyone else already knows the score (an inherent weakness of the epistolary genre in general). Second, reading the main character's prose is about as pleasant as chewing on a mouthful of nails. Presumably the point is the extent to which the English language of the future has been debased and corporatized by an instant-gratification society—tellingly, the narrator's father-in-law, who appears to be the only one who lives within his means, writes in beautiful complete sentences—but surely this could have been accomplished through dialogue.

I have some more minor objections as well. First, the futuristic setting seems out of sync with itself: on the one hand we're still in the world of OfficeMax and Burger King and Home Depot; on the other the SGs suggest a technological evolution far beyond the present. I suppose there's an argument to be made here for suspension of disbelief. A bigger objection is that things seem to happen just a little too conveniently: the lottery win, for example. Why not just make the narrator wealthy to begin with? His financial struggles feel like a transparent attempt to portray the difficulties of the current recession. Finally, though the narrator says his plan is to write for a year, we get only twenty-three days' worth—September 3-26—which makes the story feel incomplete.

As you can probably tell, I'm a bit torn about "The Semplica-Girl Diaries." There's much to admire, including the risks Saunders has taken with his form. In the end, however, the defects drag down a great story to a mere pass.

Satisfactory.

Reader poll: I found "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" to be ___.

12 comments:

  1. I loved it. It was so weird and eerie and ridiculous, but still recognizable re: the way that members of society who have not yet been fully inculcated with the ideology of their native culture (children) can show compassion toward outsiders in ways that surprise and perplex other, more seasoned members of that society (adults).

    And I liked how the analogy was there (don't worry about the exploitation of immigrants, they're just happy to be here), but it wasn't condescendingly obvious. But yeah, I agree: the journal format (especially the weird lack-of-subject-in-sentences syntax) he uses ultimately takes away from it. I found the syntax itself unrealistic and unnatural--the simple, abbreviated tone was more that of someone jotting down a quick note, not someone composing long, detailed diary entries. Also, the whole "I'm writing in a journal, and you're reading it" (epistolary?) short story format has been done so many times, I can only really appreciate it if it's intrinsic to the story. And in this case, IMO, it was not.

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    1. Great observations! Thanks for reading.

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  2. I really enjoyed this story a lot. I liked the way that it was our exact world but with only a few modifications. It made it almost a little more eerie, in that way, because I couldn't just go "oh, this is set in the past" or "oh, this is set in the future," like so many other stories.

    I have to say I was a little let down by not getting to SEE more of the Semplica-Girls themselves. When the narrator goes inside with Pam so that they won't see the traumatic, squeamish-inducing "installation" I was expecting something a little more climactic than a sketch on a napkin of a brain with some fake-scientist name (that seemed a little bit like a cop-out).

    At first the journal style did bug me but by the end of the story I appreciated it. I liked how, just from that style, I assumed that the story was one of those day-in-the-life ordinary day "look at humanity!" types of stories... I didn't see the surreal element coming until after I googled "SG" a few pages in!

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    1. Ah yes, the "hoisting." That was one of the most powerful moments in the story for me, and I think a more detailed description would have actually lessened the impact. The reference to handling raw chicken is more than enough to set the imagination reeling and the stomach churning. More importantly, the episode perfectly encapsulates the consumer mentality that simply turns away from the consequences of its rapaciousness, which I think is central to Saunders' message.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. I had mixed feelings about the story. Basically it's a merciless skewering of suburban America, which has already endured decades worth of free-fire exercises from stories like this. Saunders doesn't really deal with anything new - only that consumerist and self-centered American paterfamilias see only their own lack of fulfillment and not the horrific exploitation suffered beyond our borders. Unlike other readers, I wasn't jarred by the setting which mixed the SG's with DVD's and Officemax. My guess is that this is the near future, the Semplica pathway being a unique innovation. DVD's are still around in that future era, much as compact cassette & VCR outstayed their welcome. I also had little problem with the journal format, since TNY ran a great story about a year ago (cannot remember the name, DAMMIT) following a young woman's travails in a near future England following ecological and economic collapse. The most hearbreaking moment in this story - and it was a deep wound - was the author's learning of his SG's real names. That aside, this was another notch in the belt of artiness v. suburban complacency and narrow-mindedness, and offers nothing new.

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  4. I definitely found the style in which the diary was written off-putting. It sounded exactly like Bigfoot, as in Graham Roumieu's hilarious "Me Write Book." Not really the ideal tone for an exploration of suburban hell and keeping up with the Joneses!

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  5. I found the whole idea that people would tolerate a situation like that of the Semplica girls totally implausible and silly--something a bright 14-year-old would come up with for a story in his middle-school newspaper.

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  6. Saunders is a master of POV and I found the voice compelling. The SGs are clearly meant as a satire of current exploitation of low wage workers and it seems to me that this isn't a future world, rather an alternate world. I loved it.

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  7. Telling a story through the point of view of a journal entry might be a stylistic convention-- but it's a damn funny one.
    Eliminating it would sap the humor and make the darker underlying message all the more difficult to bear.

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  8. You ask, "Why not just make the narrator wealthy to begin with?" To me, the narrator needs to feel this inferiority compared to his peers and neighbors and the drive to compete with them within the context of his materialistic world or the story loses its sad, ironic punch. The lottery win is used to analogize the narrator's situation to that of the SGs themselves (or at least how he views their reasons for coming to America). So when he contemplates their escape, mournfully wondering, "What could she want so much, that would make her pull such desperate stunt?", he could just as easily be describing his own predicament since winning the ten thousand dollars. That, to me, is why both the lottery and the family's economic status are integral to the story.

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  9. I didn't like the general unpleasantness of all the characters except maybe the little daughter. The story is a tv fantasy cliche, wiith no redemption for anyone: bleak, humorless and ugly, a bad acid skewering of consumerism. No redeeming social or literary value and no fun to be had.
    Vancouver

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  10. I loved this story and I actually thought that the broken grammar and jotted-down style made the whole thing more unsettling and darkly humorous. I also found the characters to be not unpleasant but human and likable. I definitely that winning the lottery is necessary to the story, creating a haphazard world that lies somewhere between real and whimsically unreal.

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