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