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

“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?

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This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/

 

In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

Anne Bradstreet: Badass Puritan Poet

Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet

Because Thanksgiving season is upon us and because I will soon be travelling to Boston, I am continuing my series highlighting early American writers.  Yesterday, I wrote about the literary duel between Thomas Morton (the bad boy of early New England settlers) and William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth Bay Colony.

Today, I am focusing upon the first English-speaking poet published in America:  Anne Bradstreet.  As you might guess from her name, she was a woman.  She was also a devout Puritan who married at age 16 and raised eight children in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Managing to become the first published poet of North American while being a female Puritan makes Anne Bradstreet distinctly Badass, in my humble opinion.  Bradstreet lived from 1612-1672, and she published her collection of poetry called The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650.

let us now praise badass women

During this time period, women—to put it mildly—were considered inferior to men and were expected to conform to female duties of running a household and raising children.  They were not expected to become published poets.

To give a example of the cultural attitudes that the prevailed, one historical document suggested to women readers that they should “derive their ideas of God from the contemplations of her husband’s excellencies.”

[Excuse me while I gag.]

So it was against strong odds that Bradstreet managed to publish a book of poetry.  It helped that her brother-in-law was a strong advocate of her work; he took a copy of her work to London to get it published.

The preface her brother-in-law wrote to the book explains much about the attitudes of the time:

.. .the worst effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible?  If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments(my emphasis)

In other words, it is hard to believe that a woman could write poetry.  It is also rather disgraceful.  But, since the woman still managed to be well-behaved and did her domestic duties, I guess we can allow it.

Bradstreet tended to write about issues dear to many women’s hearts:  her husband, her children, her home, and her struggle to reconcile her faith with her more worldly desires.  People today who read her work out of context probably find it conventional and unremarkable.  (I know that was my first reaction to it.)

However, given her time period and her context as a Puritan settler in North America, her choice of subject matter was actually quite rebellious.  The Puritans in America were generally quite literate and promoted reading and writing—up to a point.  The only subject matter they really approved of was religious subject matter.  If a person was going to write poetry, they should be sure to write poetry in praise of God.  There was no other point in writing.

Bradstreet was a religious woman and she did often write about God.  But she also wrote about private, domestic matters.  For many of her fellow Puritans, such topics were considered frivolous or inappropriate. But that did not stop Anne Bradstreet.

In one of her poems, for example, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she wrote a poetic letter to husband.  In this poem, she expressed her fears that she might die in childbirth (a realistic fear at the time) and hoped that her husband would remember her lovingly.  She also hoped that he would raise their children well, and not let any wicked stepmother abuse them:

“And when they loss shall be repaid with gains,

Look to my little babes, my dear remains.

And if thou love thy self, or loved’st me,

These O protect from step-dame’s injury”

Other topics of her poetry include love poems to her husband, poems in memory of a deceased young grandchild, and even a poem lamenting the loss of her house to fire.  She often wrote about her faith, but when she did so, she highlighted the very real struggles she often faced in trying to understand why thing happened the way they did.

Despite the centuries that separate contemporary readers from the 1600s, I think most women can relate to at least some of Bradstreet’s poems.  Reading her poetry helps me to understand early Puritans as full-blooded human beings, rather than just one-sided symbols of early America.

National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month