Category Archives: Short Blog Posts

The Normalcy of Absurdity in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” and Relevance to Slavery

Quite prominent to me through this story was the sheer, inhumane absurdity of the concept of the Semplica-Girls, and the ideas surrounding this notion. The narrator begins his journaling in a rather difficult financial situation, rueing the wealth disparity between his family and their friends. He marvels at the grandiose birthday party, and it is clear that his entire family feels equally deflated as the protagonist following the lavish party, evident in the comment “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate.” and “Kids only slumped past and stood exhausted by front door.” The narrator strikes gold in a lottery scratch off, and decides to invest in the coveted Semplica-Girls. The concept of a Semplica-Girl is quite horrifying; a woman from a poorer country allegedly selling herself to support a family back at home to have a doctor “route microline through brain” to cause some sort of cognitive deficit.

Yet the protagonist continues to rationalize the process, claiming that it “does no damage, and causes no pain” and waves back to a Semplica-Girl “ like, In this household, is O.K. to wave” as if though he is being a merciful individual by permitting the Semplica-Girl to wave. The sheer absurdity of the concept and how it is a coveted, normal practice is striking, and echoes some of the concepts of slavery. Slaves were a luxury only available to the upper class plantation owners, much like the wealthy families in Saunders’ story. In addition, the (at least from current perspective and hindsight) perplexing detachment and dehumanizing attitudes adopted by the owners of the Semplica-Girls reflects the notion that slaves were lesser beings undeserving of equal rights. Another aspect of the story seeming to reflect the concept of slavery is the advocacy groups against the Semplica-Girls. During the eras of slavery, there certainly were groups of individuals that were against the ownership of slaves, much like the “Women4Women, Citizens for Economic Parity, Semplica Rots in Hell.” in Saunders’ story.

Perhaps Saunders is highlighting the sheer absurdity of the era of slavery, and the unfortunate normalcy with which it was regarded by establishing the ownership of Semplica-Girls as a coveted luxuries in his short story.

George Saunders – “The Semplica Girl Diaries”

“SG’s very much on my mind tonight, future reader.

Where are they now? Why did they leave?

Just do not get.”

The “Semplica-Girl Diaries” is an unsettling story told through the lens of a father in his 40’s. After attending a party at his neighbors house, he realizes that the multiple garages, exotic animals, and large mansions are far from anything he could ever provide for his daughter. With a stroke of luck, however, he wins a 10,000 dollar lottery and spends the money on an extravagant party for her, complete with a set of Semplica girls. The Semplica-Girls are women who live in such poverty that they are forced to sell themselves to the wealthy as lawn ornaments. The women in this story are strung up by strings through their brain in large groups and suspended to serve as symbols of wealth and status. The Semplica girls mirror the treatment of immigrant workers in our society today. The narrator is seemingly happy with this arrangement: people admire his lawn, he’s competing with his neighbors, and his daughter is popular. However, Eva, his youngest daughter decides to fight back and frees the girls, plunging her family into deep debt. Ironically, the youngest child, whose mind is supposedly the most malleable, is strongest in her morals. She serves as a glimmer of a hope in a dismally morbid futuristic society.

After I finished reading this story, I realized that the narrator has much more in common with the Semplica girls than he realizes. He’s been keeping both an emotional and physical distance from them throughout the story, but when he begins to think about their home countries and lifestyles, he begins to realize that they are more similar than he thought. The above quote demonstrates this. They’re both willing to make sacrifices for their family. He spent excessive amounts of money on his daughters to ensure that they had comfortable lives. On the other hand, the Semplica girls were willing to sell their bodies and their pride to provide for their families in impoverished countries. Both the narrator and the Semplica girls have an aspiration and a desire to better the lives of those around them. The only difference being that the dad was born to a life of privilege. I believe the reason that he blocked himself from any relation to the Semplica girls was because he saw too much of himself in their reflections.

An Examination of Style in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”

George Saunders’s short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” presents a uniquely disturbing and creative dystopian world in the not-so-distant future in which the marginalized members of the world sell themselves as lawn decorations for the wealthy or, in this case, for the “middle.” The premise has loads of potential, an idea that can be expanded to examine the present discrepancies between the über-rich and the über-poor and to comment on the slippery slope down which we appear to be headed. Tragically, I believe, the style in which the story is written, while attempting to further the argument, detracts from Saunders’s overall message by turning readers away. The story is told through the diary entries of the narrator, a middle-class father of three trying to make ends meet. The story begins:

September 3rd: 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.

The omission of articles, subjects, and pronouns persists throughout the story, sometimes causing a bit of frustration. The reader wishes the narrator would enter diary posts consistent with the way he thinks or speaks, not in an informal shorthand. Unfortunately, the diary entries continue. Dialogue is presented in a form consistent with a play

Lilly: Wouldn’t you love to live here?

Me: Lilly, ha-ha, don’t ah . . .

Pam (my wife, very sweet, love of life!): What, what is she saying wrong? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you love to live here? I know I would.

and articles and pronouns continue to be omitted in the narration. However, if the reader can look past his initial and prolonged annoyance at the style, he can perhaps glean a deeper commentary provided by the style. The primary argument in the story is the obvious dangers that accompany and widening wealth gap. Underprivileged workers are seriously exploited, children become spoiled and ungrateful, and adults measure their value by their material possessions. I believe the style of the story is indicative of this changing society. The omission of necessary connector words (pronouns, articles, subjects) corresponds with the loss of personal connection to humanity in a world that strings up third-world women by their brains. Furthermore, a lack of commitment to tasks is apparent in both the plot and style. Leslie Torinni, the spoiled rich friend of the narrator’s daughter, jumps from hobby to hobby (llamas to yoga to horses) without serious commitment to either one. Additionally, the narrator promises the reader a rate of “one page/day” for an entire year, yet promptly skips the second day’s entry and ends his narration only 23 days after he began. Not only can he not commit to the diary entries, but the ending of the story appears to show his lack of commitment to the SG arrangement to begin with. After the girls have been set free, he takes a brief moment to fully conceptualize the loss and the impending troubles to follow, but eventually he looks out his window and notes, “Empty rack in yard, looking strange in moonlight. Note to self: Call Greenway, have them take ugly thing away.”

Although the style of this genuinely creative short story may be unnerving to many (myself included) a more generous look at the author’s conscious decision to write it as a series of diary entries proves beneficial in further understanding the dystopian society in which it takes place. A lack of commitment and connection to humanity is present throughout, in everything the characters do; from stringing humans up as lawn decorations, to writing in a journal.

Comparison between Pawn Shop and Crow Testament

“I wonder where all the Skins disappeared to”—when you read this line from “Pawn Shop,” it clearly implies that he’s wondering to what place all the Indians went, but if you read it aloud, it could sound like he’s wondering where the Indians went too. Which he also does, as in the next scene he’s “searching the streets” for them until he arrives at a pawn shop. Pawn shops are not generally viewed in a positive light—they are places where people sell things they no longer want, or when people down on their luck sell their valuables out of necessity. Thus it hurts the narrator to see something so precious, a “heart beating under glass,” remain unwanted, wasting away in such an undignified place.

If “Pawn Shop” is a mourning of sorts, then “Crow Testament” is a stand-up comedy. Stanza 3 has a particularly comedic line when Crow, on commenting that Crow God looks like him, says “Damn…this makes it so much easier to worship myself.” The repetition of “damn,” not used in the Christian sense of being condemned to suffer in hell, but rather used as slang for surprise, also adds humor throughout the poem. While the poem is funny, the actions portrayed in the poem (injustice, war, alcoholism) are not. It’s not the first time pain and comedy are juxtaposed, but I don’t think Alexie uses humor as a coping mechanism to hide pain. While “Pawn Shop” openly shows raw emotion, “Crow Testament” uses humor to help heal and portray pain in a different way.

On a side note, it’s also interesting to see Christianity and Native American culture juxtaposed in “Crow Testament” as well. Since crows are trickster figures in some Native American cultures, I thought the pale horse was another Native American symbol, but it seems to be a Christian reference. In the Revelations, there are four horsemen of the apocalypse riding different colored horses: white, red, black, and pale. The last horseman, Death, rides the pale horse. I took stanza 7 to mean when Crow arrives as a harbinger of death, none of the Indians panic because “they already live near the end of the world.” Perhaps Alexie is commenting on the nearing death of Native American culture, and how Native Americans have already accepted that fate.

Both “Pawn Shop” and “Crow Testament” approach different kinds of pain in different ways. The pain in “Pawn Shop” is no less in magnitude, and arguably greater, than the pain in “Crow Testament,” but the incident that the pain stems from in “Pawn Shop” is small. It’s not land theft or the imposition of Christianity or war, but the appearance of a Native American possession in a pawn shop. From experience, big things don’t always hurt us because they’re not necessarily personal. A lot of times it’s intimate events that end up breaking our hearts.

Stagnation and Routine in Junot Diaz’s “Drown”

Throughout this portion from Junot Diaz’s Drown, there is a pervading sense of stagnation. The characters within the story seem to be unmoving. Though the narrator “tries to explain, all wise-like, that everything changes” (1668) to his mother, the reality of the situation is that for him, nothing really actually does change. The narrator’s life is very much stagnant and routine in the way he describes his life and activities. For example, he states, “In the mornings I run” (1670). The way he describes the things he does are described as if he does them routinely, with frequency, every day. Additionally, in his life, nothing has really changed since his teenage years. The main illustration of this being in the way that he still frequents the pool where he used to hang out with Beto and his other rowdy friends. The narrator himself even comments on how “little has changed, not the stink of the chlorine, not the bottles exploding against the lifeguard station” (1667).

Yet, it seems that this sense of stagnation and all-consuming routine to come was foreshadowed in the narrator’s high school teacher’s statement that, “A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters. But the majority of you are just going to burn out. Going nowhere…” (1672-1673). This statement obviously deeply affected the narrator as he “could already see [him]self losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath [him], hard and bright” (1673). He felt he could already see his bleak, going-nowhere-fast future in this teacher’s statement. He would, he was certain, not be an orbiter.

Perhaps, then, in order to deal with this crushing sense that he has already “burnt out”, and that his dreams – whether they be that he could potentially leave this place and make something out of himself or even that he could find and make amends with Beto – are unattainable, the narrator attempts to get lost in routine. For example, though “with the air conditioner on” his mother and him “never open the windows” in the first place, when his mother asks him to make sure the windows are locked, he “goes through the routine anyway” (1668), just for the pure purpose of the mundane-ness of it. This attempt to get lost in routine is echoed further by the narrator’s mother who, when she falls asleep while watching the television, gets lost in dreams of her old life with her husband “strolling under the jacarandas” in her home of Boca Raton (1673). Yet, once she wakes up from the dream to return to her reality, she feels that she must gain a sense of purpose and control again in the routine, and so she demands the narrator, “you better check those windows” (1673).

The story serves the purpose of depicting how easy it is to fall into a routine in order to escape from the possibility of unattainable, seemingly ridiculous dreams, or in order to escape from a very real sense that one is destined to burn out and fail. This idea is perfectly summed up when the narrator thinks about stopping by Beto’s apartment but then simply doesn’t, stating, “I can go back to my dinner and two years will become three” (1667). This means to point to the absolute easiness with which one can completely undo any attempts to change the path they are currently on, and thus continue on that same path, keeping everything just the same.

The Television in “Drown” by Junot Diaz

In Junot Diaz’s  “Drown” the television seems to play a continuous role throughout the story.  In the first sentence, the story begins with the narrator watching TV: “My mother tells me Beto’s home, waits for me to say something, but I keep watching the TV” (1666).  The TV seems at times to mirror the life of the narrator, the event he’s describing or his state of mind.  He is trying to forget Beto and their history, immersing himself in the television programs when his mom mentions him.  The “families” of the neighborhood went out on their porches at night while “the glow from their TVs [washed] blue against the brick.”  This reflects the activities of the younger people during the nights as they swim in the pool.  The narrator and his mother watch television together, “Spanish-language news: drama for her, violence for me” (1668).  The horror of what is being shown on the television echoes the horror in the narrator’s past, a horror his mother wishes he will share with her but he refuses, continuing to ignore her and watches TV instead.  At another point in the story when the narrator is talking about being a “truant” he says he watches a lot of TV.  It seems like the television is also an escape from school, and later in the same passage, it was something that he did when he wasn’t hanging out with Beto, or when Beto was busy with his other friends.

Then the incident happened with Beto, while they were watching a porno on television.  While he was being molested, the narrator continues to watch the television, trying to pretend it isn’t happening.  Again, he is trying to escape his reality as something along the same lines as what is on the television is occurring in his life.  And the second time it happens, again, the narrator mentions the television, saying “[we] sat in front of the television…” (1672). Afterward, he has his “eyes closed and the television [is] on…” (1673).  He is trying to escape from where he is and what has happened.  The story ends with the narrator and his mother watching a “classic” Spanish dubbed movie on television. This movie reflects their lives; they are from the Dominican Republic living in New Jersey, a mix of English and Spanish like the movie.  But while watching the movie he and his mother become “friendly” (1673).  They share similar lives in the United States and have similar experiences which allows them to be close if only briefly.  The television acts as a way for the narrator to escape from his reality, yet what he sees on it only reinforces the problems he faces in his life and his experiences.

Style in Junot Diaz’s “Drown”

“Beto got polite and stopped. No problem, he said, slamming the heavy bag into her face. She hit the cold tile with a squawk, her palms slapping the ground. There you go, Beto said” (Diaz).

Diaz’s stylistic choice in the way that he structures his sentences really stuck out to me as I read the short story “Drown.” It was very easy to read and each sentence seemed to be in a flowing rhythm. This type of writing reminded me in some way of William Carlos Williams. In the poem “A Red Wheelbarrow”, his writing is rhythmic and doesn’t use any superfluous word. Similarly, Diaz’s writing is direct, to the point, and stripped of any unnecessary wordiness. For instance, this style was particularly evident during the scene of brief violence that I have quoted above. In just four sentences Diaz captures the unexpected suddenness of violence. The casual way the author brings the violence into this scene conveys a nonchalant sense of realism. The narrator seems to have no trouble relating this story to the reader and its as if this type of violence is nothing at all out of the ordinary.

Another interesting stylistic choice is Diaz’s use of the Spanish language mixed in with English. The use of Spanish is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s world and highlights a distinction between the Dominican and American cultures. Additionally, the choice to not italicize the words in Spanish was different from most texts that I have seen involving foreign words. By doing so, reading his prose flows very easily between the Spanish and English words without any highlighting or any notable difference between the transitions. This is able to integrate the language into the English text and serves to legitimize both the language and the experiences of those who speak the language.

“You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There’s a lot out there.”

Throughout this story, we are forced to see certain aspects of life differently. More specifically, we are forced to take notice of things that constantly happen in the world that may be considered “wrong.” For clarification, we tend to know good and well that things like shoplifting(p. 1669), need for money(p. 1670), blatant disrespect(p. 1668), and molestation(p. 1669) are done by both good and bad people alike, but we tend to push the notions to the back of our minds. We see a lot of things like this presented in this story; and it’s one thing to know and be passive about things like this, but another to read it and bring it to light.

This sentence is important to the overall story because Beto not only seems like a best friend to the main character, but almost like an older brother that is teaching his younger brother about the world. This is interesting because when Beto mentions this to the narrating character, he is simply talking about why he (Beto) interacts with people, yet what is said is so applicable to their relationship in the means that he actually teaches him “good” and “bad” things including sexual encounters.

Another interesting thing related to this sentence is that while it can be agreed that what they are doing is “wrong”, it isn’t necessarily consider it “bad.” For instance with their shoplifting, there is more concern (by all included parties) about them getting caught than the moral implications of it. Likewise, the speaker is clearly unsettled about being touched by Beto, but never really acts to stop it. This relates to what was being mentioned earlier and the topic sentence because is harsh conditions, one must often do what they have to in order to survive and change their mindset in order to cope with it.

Situating David Foster Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair”

            I’d like to start off by explaining what I’m trying to do in the blog post before I dive into it. Instead of doing another close reading, I chose a bit more of a radical path, although not quite as radical as a deformation. I’m going to try to situate the text of David Foster Wallace according to my knowledge of the time period in which “Girl With Curious Hair,” was written: 1989.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, or the two opposing superpowers, never engaged directly in full-armed combat on any scale. However, each side was heavily prepared to arm or rather bomb the other in what came to be known as a nuclear war. Yet, because the Manhattan Project stressed the idea of the atomic bomb, the mass destruction that it would manifest, neither side wished to use their arms. Nuclear possession became known as nuclear deterrents. While proxy wars involving third parties around the globe fought the battle that the two superpowers did not, the only kind of war that actually occurred was the war of the mind. The threat of mutually assured destruction along with propaganda and psychological warfare was enough to craze that generation of youth but also to simply make people crazy.

The reader first of Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair” comes to see the psychological state of the main character known as “Sick Puppy” on the first page of the story. Sick Puppy explains why he wears the cologne that he does, but then he transitions into a rather erotic spiel about the commercial that advertises the cologne. In this moment, the reader can see that the propaganda of the Cold War era is affective and influential above the norm, but he can also see that Sick Puppy is deeply disturbed, a fact that is realized when Sick Puppy gives the reader his name. Wallace plays with the name Sick Puppy and his disturbance when Sick Puppy’s punkrock friends allow him to burn a puppy after pouring gasoline on the poor thing, POOR SICK PUPPY. But sick puppy has now the pejorative connotation of a mentally disturbed or insane who does or says revolting, disgusting, bizarre, and perverted things. Sick Puppy is crazy.

As Sick Puppy obsesses with fire, it comes to be a physical motif of the story. He associates fire and his “golden lighter” with sexual arousal seen by his interactions with Gimlet, his sexual partner, and the desire to burn the backs of her legs (63). Her tumescent hair plays with his desire. At a Young Republican’s Party, Sick Puppy uses his gold lighter to set a man’s beard on fire simply because he did not like the man’s demeanor or reaction to Sick Puppy’s story about his family. The reoccurrence of the gold lighter becomes much more than representation of sexual arousal and passion; it becomes related to Sick Puppy’s past. Sick Puppy had told a story about his family’s military history. His father is prominent in the Marines and his brother is honored in carrying the black box of nuclear codes for the president. However, Sick Puppy was not admitted into the military like the rest of his family because he failed two tests for reasons unknown to the reader. Besides the logical conclusion that he is disturbed or has some kind of psychological disorder, his personal past is tied up with a contextual one of the nuclear era, deployed and unused troops, and the psychological effects of the Cold War.

While the members of Sick Puppy’s clan trip on LSD and are pulled over by a police officer near the beginning of the story, Gimlet attempts to throw a revolver at a tree, claiming it is radioactive. When Gimlet sees the curious blonde girl with the hair in the Irvine Concert Hall later in the story, she repeats herself: the hair “represented radioactive chemical waste product anti-immolation mojo” (63-64). The definition of immolation is to kill or destroy something or SOMEONE by fire. Here Gimlet is trying to extinguish both the power of the gun and the power of immolation despite her intoxicated state. At once, it seems that she is trying to extinguish the Cold War and the psychological effects that have taken over Sick Puppy as a result. But at the same time, these two scenes seem to mock the Cold War for being something so powerful that never materialized.

A sadistic pyromaniac, Sick Puppy was part the product of his upbringing. His father burned his private parts with that gold lighter as a child after a disturbing sequence of incest (72). Because Sick Puppy is always happy until he recalls any of his history, he almost attempts to use the lighter on his new friend Cheese who has reminded him of it at the concert hall. The relaxing of tension that occurs when he refrains mirrors the détente policy of the Cold War or the relaxing of nuclear threat. The images of both ice and sunrises in Cheese’s eyes refer to this “un-freezing” or “thawing” that occurs. However, it is a mistake to think that the Cold War was nothing because it had barely any casualties. Hence, the attempt to discount or to deny the existence of the Cold War is as “challenging to try to convince a jury or a jurist that what really happened didn’t really happen and the manufacturer’s product did not injure the customer” (65). The “Cold” War was a war of inner fires, and the psychological warfare and damage that resulted was in a way much more long lasting than quick death.

Sick Puppy’s Appearance in “Girl with Curious Hair”

“I am fortunately an entirely handsome devil and appear even younger than twenty-nine.  I look like a clean cut youth, a boy next door, and a good egg, and my mother stated at one time that I have the face of a heaven’s angel.  I have the eyes of an attractive marsupial, and I have baby-soft and white skin, and a fair complexion.  I do not even have to shave, and I have finely styled hair without any of dandruff’s unsightly itching or flaking.  I keep my hair perfectly groomed, neat, and short at all times.  I have exceptionally attractive ears” (65).

Sick Puppy’s self-descriptions establish many of the odd contrasts within Sick Puppy’s characters.  He appears to be a “clean cut youth,” but the company he keeps and the activities he enjoys contrast sharply with this image.  Sick Puppy maintains that he only dresses the way he does because he has to for his profession, but he clearly takes pride in his appearance when he says that he has “exceptionally attractive ears” and “finely styled hair.”  He douses himself with “English Leather Cologne,” which acts in a way as a subtle substitute for the mohawks and leather that his friends wear (55).

Sick Puppy also describes himself as a “handsome devil” and says that his mother described him as having the “face of a heaven’s angel,” which may be referring to a fallen angel, or the devil.  Again, Sick Puppy is describing himself as entirely likable and clean-shaven on the surface, yet suggesting that his appearance is not representative of his true nature.  Sick Puppy also says that he has “the eyes of an attractive marsupial,” which creates the idea, especially when combined with his nickname, creates the idea that he has some animalistic tendencies.  Sick Puppy’s self-descriptions in “Girl with Curious Hair” demonstrate the contrasts within his personality and appearance.