The 'Semplica Girls' of George Saunders
Dominic Preziosi January 21, 2014 - 9:15pm
On release of the paperback, The New York Review of Books gets around to George Saunders’s Tenth of December in its current issue, with Wyatt Mason spending as much time on David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and his own Buddhism as he does on the stories collected in the volume the New York Times Magazine last winter called “the best book you’ll read this year.“ Even Saunders’s pre-Tenth output seems to receive more of the spotlight than the putative subject of discussion, though granted it’s for the purpose of identifying his larger achievement—what Mason sees as the “unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings” of Buddhist sitting meditation that school the mind “in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness.”
I can’t say I read Saunders the same way, in part because I’m not sure how to read Mason. But I guess I’m willing to be persuaded, especially since I haven’t been sure how to read Saunders at all (moralist? realist? lapsed Catholic still drawn to what he’s called the “sublingual kind of magic of Catholicism”?), which I have a feeling puts me in the minority.
At times I’ve come away reminded of writers like Jim Shepard or Denis Johnson or Karen Russell, whose St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves even echoes Saunderian titles like Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (and some of whose stories, to me, might out-Saunders Saunders); they're similarly skilled at mining humor from everyday horror in ever-surprising prose as they track the progress of the hapless or damaged through vividly imagined conditions. So, why is Saunders accorded such pronouncements as “best book this [last] year”?
One story doesn’t make a collection, yet “The Semplica Girl Diaries”--which, unfortunately, has escaped discussion by Mason and many of the other reviewers of Tenth of December – has helped me understand the praise better. Told as a series of diary entries by a struggling forty-something father earnestly recording his trivial thoughts for an intimately addressed “future reader,” it slowly sheds light on a community of haves and have-nots, the latter trying to keep up with the former with the help of cheap but finite credit and the promise of lottery payouts. The latest fad among the moneyed are “Semplica Girls”--young women from the world’s poorest countries who function as living yard ornaments, strung together in suspended displays, the larger the better. More satirical than dystopian (though still plenty upsetting), the owning of SGs, as they're called, represents a disquieting but not unimaginable progression from the Porsches, pet llamas, daily yoga lessons, and other status symbols flaunted by the story’s entitled class. Everyone wants them, including finally the diarist, whose well-intentioned efforts to spare his children the indignities of his own childhood compel him to make some very bad financial decisions.
Stuck in this trap, the diarist walks the line between self-pity and fortitude, complaining about the bad breaks but resolving to overcome, in utterances that grow more fragmentary as the diary goes on: “Was Paul Revere timid? Edison cautious, Jesus superpolite? At end of life, they will not regret not what they have done, will only regret what they failed to do.” But there’s little in the way of epiphany. When the quartet of SGs he’s purchased flees their display, the diarist can only wonder why “they should ruin it all, leave our yard.” The cop called to investigate has his theory: “Smelling that American dream, baby.”
“Future reader” may be left to pin her hopes on youngest daughter Eva, who seems to understand what’s wrong with the world around her, and whose innate fairness and moral compass are simultaneously the pride and bane of her father. He momentarily reflects on the origins of the SGs in his closing entries, which hint more at despair over material happiness so briefly held than at recognition of its meaningless: “Why did they go?” he wonders in the aftermath of the SGs' self-liberation. “Just do not get.” “Semplica Girl Diaries” is a moving and important story that could help me get what others see in Saunders.
About the Author
Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.