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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

One horrifying concept and what it means: The Semplica Girls

At the conclusion of George Saunders's story The Semplica Girl Diary in his collection Tenth of December the narrator-diarist, Dad (do we even know his name?) comes to a painful and wistful and in some ways touching realization about his life: he will never achieve his ambitions, his life will be full of trials and disappointments, there will always be others who have or seem to have more. And he realizes, without stating this in any direct or didactic manner, that life is this way, probably for all - and the best he can hope for is to be kind to his family and to others, and that is and must be good enough. It's a perfect Saunders ending - especially for this story that is built upon one of the most horrific concepts in recent literary fiction: the Semplica Girls are women from impoverished countries who sign a contract to decorate the lawns of wealthy Americans as living lawn ornaments - groups of SGs connected by a "microfiber" line that passes through their brains and holds the girls together on a strand - they're hoisted up above the ground for display. So weird and terrifying, like a nightmare - and then we pause and wonder how close this comes to our current use of immigrant labor, to clean our houses, to trim our lawns, etc. - and the SGs are just another step further along that line. The diarist in this story buys a strand of SGs and for a time feels great - his lawn is now as beautiful as everyone else's, people start paying more attention to him, his daughter now has friends who come over to play - until daughters begin to rebel at the horror of the whole concept, freeing the girls, plunging family back into debt (they have to make good on the loss). Story is filled with Saunders's grim humor - the visit from the claims rep for the company, who keeps referring to "them," distancing himself from the contract he's enforcing, the language in Dad's diary with his odd uses of = in place of verb forms of "to be", the crazy TradeMarks such as EzyReleese for the buckle that holds the SGs in place. But it's not a funny story - it's deeply sad and disturbing - and the end, though the SGs are free, is by no means upbeat. They're free to be and do what, exactly? Where have they gone and how will they survive? And the family is back in its sadness, outsiders and misfits who have just blown through a windfall that could have helped them straighten out their lives. The knowledge Dad gains comes at great cost - and in that way, pathetic though he may be, I think we all can identify with him at least to a limited extent. I wouldn't go so far as Berryman - Life friends is boring, but we must not say so - but I do believe life is full of disappointments, and like this narrator somewhere in our interior monologues we are constantly striving for what we don't have, constantly comparing ourselves with others, constantly measuring our lives against the fake standards we see on TV, in magazines, even in books, and our life seems by comparison, sometimes, empty - and it's important to realize that yes, this is our life, this is our family, these are our friends and neighbors, and it's good, it's enough. 

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  1. Excellent summary of this story.

  2. Stunning story, the matter-of-fact way the SG's are talked about is indicative of may things in our society. 'Future readers' may be appalled at many things we take for granted.

  3. It was a pleasure to read your thoughts on this excellent story. I had just read it before finding your blog. Wasn't it odd how the concept of the Semplica Girls was doled out bit by bit? I wondered what the hell SG meant for a while there, and the discovery was like slow torture followed by a jolt of recognition. Saunders is brilliant. I'm a lifelong fan of the short story genre, and I am always delighted to stumble across superior talent. Critical writing helps me to gain perspective on my favorite works. Thank you for contributing to my reading pleasure.

  4. Thanks, Don. This story has moved, frightened, or puzzled a lot of people; this post has attracted more "views" than any other post in my 5+ years of keeping this blog.

  5. Enjoyed this story and very much related to dad's feelings of inadequacy with regard to providing, or what he feels he should be providing, for his family.

  6. thank you for your analysis. i justs finished the book of stories (Tenth of Deccember) Only this SG one did i have to quit on. I will go back and try again now but...all the other stories are amazing. My emotions ranged from laughing out loud, tears running down my face to...tears running down my face in sadness.

  7. Yes thanks for your analysis, I was horrified at this too and like above commenter, felt internal tension just figuring out what an "SG Girl" was on account of how Saunders chose to drag the definition/explanation out. At an early point when it is implied the SG line is something human, it's almost like it's too terrible for the reader to take all at once, so slowly we are introduced to this concept of humans as decoration and once we realize, yes it is in fact a line of tortured women, it is also the point when "Dad" is coming to the same realization. So the clearer this image comes into view for the reader, the clearer that this concept is actually horrifying to the narrator. It allows us to still empathise with him because if we had known the whole time what it was and that it was something he endorsed, would we have been able to root for him? Doubtful. That particular point was so cleverly written as was this entire story and it's such a great story that holds a mirror back to the reader in terms of what it means to be successful, society's disregard to an immigrant's pain when they leave their families to be a public display of wealth to another family with no regard to what that must really be like,and so much more. I'd love to have a real life discussion of this story with all of you!

    1. Thanks for this insightful comment!