THE BANALITY OF POSTMODERN EVIL: GEORGE SAUNDERS’S “SEMPLICA GIRL DIARIES”

For this week’s “Deal Me In” short story challenge, I picked the 2 of Diamonds, which is George Saunders’ story “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”  This story is part of Saunders’ collection Tenth of December. For more information about the “Deal Me In” challenge, click here.  For my full list of “Deal Me In” stories, click here.

 tenth-of-december

My first reaction to reading “The Semplica Girl Diaries” was “wow!”  My second reaction was “wow!”

I had never read Saunders up until now, but I’d been hearing more and more about him.  Now I understand why he is getting so much attention.  I don’t recall reading anybody quite like him before.   The best comparison I can think of is Franz Kafka meets Raymond Carver; he combines the true horror of postmodernity with its utter banality.  Was it Hannah Arendt who wrote about the banality of evil?  George Saunders illustrates it in his stories.

The “Semplica Girl Diaries” is written as a diary of a man who wishes to record for posterity “how life really was/is now.”  Much of what he writes about concerns the ordinary trials and tribulations of middle-class families who wish they had more money.

It is only in passing, as an aside, that he first mention the SG girls.  He and his family are visiting a wealthy family’s home, and he sees “on sweeping lawn, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze” (114).  At this point, the narrator does not explain what the SGs are, and I thought maybe they were some kind of flower arrangement (?).

As the story unfolds, we gradually start to understand what SG girls are. They are girls/young women from poor countries who are displayed in yards of Americans for their decorative effect.  They are connected together by a microline through their brains. Then the microline is hoisted up three feet off the ground so that the girls are all hanging in the air, rather like laundry from a clothes line.

Here’s a description from the narrator who is proud of buying some SGs to show the neighbors how affluent he is:

We step out.  SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze.  Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Phillippines).  Effect amazing.  Having so often seen similar configuration in yards of others more affluent, makes own yard seem suddenly affluent, you feel different about self, as if at last you are in step with peers and time in which living.

Pond great.  Roses great.  Path, hot tub great.  (133)

As if hanging up girls on a microline for aesthetic effect isn’t brutal enough, the real horror of this story derives from the utterly casual way affluent Americans regard the SG girls.  These girls are just yard ornaments, barely worthy of notice, much less concern.

I find this story a powerful illustration of the way in which the wealthy classes of the world can exploit poorer people cruelly, without even blinking an eye.  Obviously, this story is fiction and a bit outlandish.  Only a bit, though.

If you don’t think humans are capable of this sort of cruelty to young women, then you should read Half the Sky, which I discussed here.

George Saunders
George Saunders