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.

Background on George Saunders

George Saunders is a bestselling American author, whose fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism and corporate culture. Though his writing is laced with “tragicomic” elements, critics cannot ignore the moral questions that arise in his works. Saunders is often compared to American author Kurt Vonnegut, who in fact served as an inspiration for Saunders, with his blend of satire, gallows humor, and science fiction.

George Saunders was born on December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, Texas but grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Oak Forest High School and went on to receive a B.S. in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado in 1981. In 1988, he obtained an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University. Saunders’s scientific background has played an important role in his writing. From 1989 to 1996, he worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, a New York based environmental engineering firm. After working with an oil exploration crew in Western Indonesia, he joined the faculty of Syracuse University in 1997 and has been there since. Saunders teaches creative writing for Syracuse’s MFA Program while still publishing his own fiction and nonfiction works. In 2006, Saunders was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship later that year. His nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone, published in 2007, was featured on The Colbert Report and the Late Show with David Letterman.

Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and in 1997, he won second prize in the O. Henry Awards. In an interview for The New Yorker, Saunders said of himself, “I’m a teacher at Syracuse and I write short stories. That’s about it.” Some of his short story collections include: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, In Persuasion Nation, and Tenth of December. Published in 2013, Tenth of December contains ten short stories that appeared in various magazines between 1995 and 2009. One of the stories, “Home,” was a 2011 Bram Stoker Award finalist. The collection won the 2013 Story Prize for short story collections. The book also contains the story, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” the idea for which came to Saunders in a dream.  In the dream, Saunders went to his bedroom window and looked down into his backyard. What he saw gave him “an incredible feeling of happiness,” though the image was that of the Semplica Girls hanging from their microline. Saunders wrote the story as a way to explore why he was so delighted at the sight of human lawn ornaments. He wanted to describe a world in which such a feeling was reasonable and even justified.

Saunders says that “the thing I get really excited about is dramatization.” As crazy and unrealistic as “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” seems, Saunders remained true to the original conception of the story from his dream. The futuristic aspects of the story serve to emphasize a world that is not our own, but, when considering the familiar allusions in the story as well, it is a world that may one day become a reality if humans remain concerned with materialism and competing with one another in matters of possession.

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.