The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders, 2012
The magic trick:
The likeability factor established by our first-person narrator
This is the one. This is the story right here. This is where all that hype you heard about George Saunders and the Tenth Of December story collection shows up and smacks you in the face. I’m not saying that his other stories aren’t good. They are. Most of them are great. But this is the one where he does everything he does well all at once.
So what to highlight, what to highlight?
How about we focus on the masterful first-person narration? That really is the key, I think. Our narrator is immediately relatable. He’s our guy. He’s an everyman, just like us. He has normal concerns. He worries about his kids. He wants them to be happy. He worries about money. He worries about his family’s standing in the neighborhood arms race. He worries about his in-laws. He worries some more about his kids’ standing in the neighborhood arms race. It’s painful how relatable this character is. He is us. We are him.
So with that connection established, it’s all the more shocking when the story drops in the out-of-this-world terrible element in the form of the Semplica Girls. The sense of reality was so strong. Our sympathy for the narrator was so strong. How could this world be so off? How could our narrator be complicit in such cruelty?
Of course the answers to these questions validate the story’s thesis. Our seemingly normal way of life isn’t so normal. It certainly isn’t healthy. This story is the centerpiece of the December collection, in which Saunders continually argues that our society places even the most well-intentioned people in positions to act selfish, and that because all life is interconnected, those selfish actions – no matter how seemingly trivial – come at the cost of someone or something else somewhere else in the world. That, my friends, is quite a thesis, and one these stories do very well in proving.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is kind of the opposite of the standard science-fiction approach Saunders uses in “Jon” or “Escape From Spiderhead.” In those stories, the protagonist’s tendency toward decent, human emotion is the one recognizable element in an otherwise distorted society. Here, in “SG Diaries,” Saunders takes a seemingly normal society as his setting and drops in one, super-terrifying, surrealistic element to make his point, reminiscent of Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio.” It’s positively Kafka-esque. In fact, I’d put this story up there with the best of Kafka. I really would. For whatever my opinion’s worth, anyway.
And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
One week until L’s birthday.
Note to self: Order cheetah.
However, not that simple. Some recent problems with Visa. Full. Past full. Found out at YourItalianKitchen, when Visa declined. Left Pam and kids there, walked rapidly out with big fake smile, drove to ATM. Then scary moment as ATM card also declined. Nearby wino said ATM was broken, directed me to different ATM. Thanked wino with friendly wave as I drove past. Wino gave me finger. Second ATM, thank God, not broken, did not decline. Arrived, winded, back at YourItalianKitchen to find Pam on third cup of coffee and kids falling off chairs and tapping aquarium with dimes, wait staff looking peeved. Paid cash, w/ big apologetic tip. Considered collecting dimes from kids (!). Still, over all nice night. Really fun. Kids showed good manners, until aquarium bit.