George Saunders’ Dream Story

Style and substance achieve peak of accomplishment

Semplica-Girls Diaries is sharp, humorous satire

Understated comedy more telling than any tragedy

Its famous cartoons aside, there is humor elsewhere in the New Yorker, even in the fiction department, where it can serve to make a point more sharply than any sober prose might do. For example, the Semplica-Girl Diaries by George Saunders in the Oct 15 2012 issue reads at first like another priceless Pooter saga from Diary of a Nobody (one of the highest peaks in English humor), essayed this time by a middle aged suburban father some time in the future.

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 on 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. Because what do we know of other times really?….

Soon, however, the amusing story reveals a much darker layer, and finally – beware! – turns out to be not at all a lighthearted work of unintended self mockery so much as an alarming satire taking to task the thoughtless American exploitation of the immuigrant underclass, as if we ourselves aren’t in the same boat, struggling to improve our family’s lot by doing undignified and often degrading work.

But there is something about the style in which the story is told – truncated but heartfelt notes on his supposedly humdrum day – which strikes a note of humor throughout, nonetheless. The truth turns out to be that this only conceals the cruelty of which the protagnist is completely unaware. Saunder’s explanation of his writing the story on the New Yorker site has an interesting encapsulation of this tendency of culture to have blind spots of cruelty or stupidity of which anyone immersed in it is completely unaware.

If you have a copy of the Oct 15 2012 issue still around, you are lucky. You can enjoy this remarkable story first, which you will have to do if any of the following is going to make sense:

THIS WEEK IN FICTION: GEORGE SAUNDERS POSTED BY DEBORAH TREISMAN>

“The Semplica-Girl Diaries” deals with a family in a not-too-distant future (or perhaps an alternate present or past?) that is struggling to keep up with the Joneses—which, in this society, means leasing some unusual garden ornaments. How did the idea of the Semplica Girls come to you?

Well, it’s embarrassing. Somewhere around 1998, I had this incredibly vivid dream in which I went (in my underwear) to a (non-existent) window in the bedroom of our house in Syracuse and looked down into our backyard. Balmy summer night, beautiful full moon, etc., etc. I was looking at something, and it wasn’t clear what, but I was getting this incredible feeling of happiness and well-being and deep satisfaction, as in, Wow, I finally was able to really step up for our family. I am such a lucky guy—to have this amazing wife and kids and now, at last, to be able to do justice to them in this super way. Then the yard came into focus, and what was out there was … as I describe in the story. And the weird(er) part was that, even having seen that, the “I” in the dream continued to be happy: “Jeez, just look at that, it’s so beautiful, and I was able to do that—man, I have really arrived.” And so on—this lush feeling of gratitude (which I was actually feeling, those days, in real life) but grafted onto this strange vision.

[spoiler title=”Click the button to see the rest of the discussion by George Saunders and readers of his story The Semplica-Girl Diaries” open=”0″ style=”1″]

Now, there have been lots of times when I’ve had a dream and woken up thinking, Hey, great story idea! But most of those fizzle out as soon as I realize that, for example, a chess-playing penguin with the voice of Marlene Dietrich may not “signify.” This one was different—it just lingered. So I thought, O.K., let’s start with that image and see if we can figure out who that guy is, and what world he’s living in. That is, what conditions pertain in his world that make those feelings possible, natural, and reasonable? What intrigued me was not so much the image in the yard, but his delight about it. In all other respects, the guy in the dream was me.

I hate to be so black-and-white about your work, but it’s easy to read the SGs as a metaphor for all the underprivileged immigrants and refugees who come to this country and work menial jobs in order to survive and to support families back home. Was that at least part of what you wanted to explore here?

Sure, yes, I think anybody would have that interpretation of it. The minute I woke up, I knew that the women in the yard were symbols for, you know, “the oppressed,” and that the whole story, as I was imagining it at that moment, would be “about” the way that people of means use and abuse people without. So that was the danger—that the story might turn out to be (merely) about that. In which case, who needs it, you know? If the only thing the story did was say, “Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,” that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already. It had to be about that plus something else.

I find this is often the case. Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” So this was an example of that: my “original conception” (i.e., the dream and its associated meaning) had to be outgrown—or built upon.

These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language. So, in this case, I just started out by trying to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.

A twist in your story is that, instead of being virtually invisible to the middle-class and the rich, these immigrants are given pride of place as decorative elements. Is this job worse—or better—than doing back-breaking labor harvesting crops or cleaning bathrooms? Or even, say, reporting on one’s coworkers’ recycling and ergonomic errors?

Well, I think their job is worse. They’ve got holes in their heads, for one thing; the surgery is risky; they’re away from their families for years at a time; it’s incredibly boring; and all the while, they have to watch this other family happily living right over there, in that warm, cozy house. Although at least they’ve got health insurance, ha ha ha.

But it was kind of interesting. As I said above, I first got the germ of the story in 1998 and started plunking away at it. Then, in 2003, I got sent to Dubai for a writing assignment, and it was like being surrounded by real-life SGs. The whole city was built and run by people who were contracted to be away from home for years at a time, were very low-paid, and were housed in horrific conditions (or, at least, the most poorly paid laborers were). I went into that non-fiction assignment imagining I’d write that story—the story of the rich crapping down on the poor in the name of luxury—and I sort of did, but, once there, also found that (1) yes, this was true, and yet (2) there was another side to it, namely that a lot of the workers were wildly happy to be there, because, even given the hardships, they (and their families, to whom they were often sending their entire salaries) were far better off than they had been back home.

So that made me think, Well, as weird as my story is, it isn’t entirely without corollary in the real world. And it also suggested a possible complication that might get me out of the too-easy-metaphor dilemma described above: make the SGs happy to be doing this “work.” Suddenly, anyone who was “against” it (i.e., the reader, Eva) was sort of out of step with everyone else in the fictive world, including the SGs themselves.

Why the microline through the brain, instead of a less invasive harness?

The honest answer is because it was that way in the dream. Part of what moved me about the dream was the extremity of it—it was very unreasonable. And since I was interested in writing the story because of the lingering power of the dream, I was loathe to change the basic terms of the dream—especially in the direction of softening them.

To look at that choice as a reader, instead of a writer: If we imagine two cultures, one in which the residents harness poor foreign women and hang them in their yards, and another one in which they surgically put wires through the heads of poor foreign women in order to hang them up—well, those are two different cultures, and the second one is, I think, more interesting. Why? Because that second culture is more intense. It’s more direct in enacting its desires. It has to be richer (to afford the surgeries); its taste is more refined and strange and perverse/decadent. It is a more demanding, narcissistic culture. It doesn’t like the harness idea because the harnesses would look baggy, the SGs would hang at strange angles—something like that. But another (nastier) difference is that there is an element of complete physical domination/subjugation in the surgical approach that this culture (subconsciously) likes and wants; and that, in turn, says something deep about the lengths to which this (imaginary, I assure you!) culture is willing to go to optimize its aesthetic landscaping choice, i.e., its “pleasure.”

But actually, I just thought all that up. The real reason is that the “through-the-head” thing was what came to me in my dream, and I continued to find it interesting, and whenever I thought of softening it, I went, “Bleh.” Or, as the kids say, “Meh.”

Where do your sympathies lie here? Is Eva right to deplore the practice? Is her father right to think of it as a potential step up for the women and their families?

My answer is YES. “Yes” to both questions. You’ve put your finger on the essential energy of the story. It felt like the more I could get the reader to answer “yes” to both of those questions, the more powerful the story would be.

The artist’s job, I think, is to be a conduit for mystery. To intuit it, and recognize that the story-germ has some inherent mystery in it, and sort of midwife that mystery into the story in such a way that it isn’t damaged in the process, and may even get heightened or refined.

So the job here was to push the story in the direction of “more mystery” (i.e., make it less reducible to a simple reading), which (it turned out, after all those years of work) meant: make Eva’s decision more problematic. If, in the world of the story, Eva’s decision is a no-brainer, and she is a complete hero, then the energy goes down. The story becomes (merely) a Demonstrative Moral Tale, which rings hollow, because it’s been rigged. So I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make it more of a close call at the end. My loyalties are with Eva, completely—I mean, I think she’s sort of a moral giant. She does this thing with everyone against her—the culture, her family, even (at first) the SGs themselves. And then her family’s reaction is pretty harsh: they’ll forgive her. But nobody says, you know, “Honey, you were right, thanks for being so good and saving us from ourselves.” But, at the same time, if I were her father, and I lived in this world (where nobody I knew had an ethical problem with the SGs), I’d be worried: Why is Eva so impulsive? Why so rash? So heedless? Is my kid delusional? Why does she seem so unaware of, and unconcerned about, the effects of her actions on us, her dear family? This level of disengagement and narcissism and self-righteousness may not bode well for her future. Etc, etc.

Through this well-intentioned, sad-sack diarist, you also get at some crucial and universal things about aspiration and envy and the conflicting impulses of parenthood. As a mother, I can definitely identify with the Whac-a Mole analogy. Is there some of your own experience in there?

Oh, sure. I think anyone who is raising kids and doesn’t have infinite money will identify with the pressure he’s under. You love them so much and, especially in our culture, you don’t want to come up short. You don’t want to be that parent—the one who dresses his kid in a cloth sack when all the other kids are in Armani cloth sacks—especially in a time like ours, when materialism is not only rampant and ascendant but is fast becoming the only game in town.

When our kids were small, we were always overextended on our credit cards and, at the same time (recognizing that the period during which they would be small and at home and influenceable, etc. etc., was very brief), were always trying to put together the best life possible for them, cash on hand be damned.

I always keenly felt the fear that we might be running materially behind other families. I knew this wasn’t ultimately important—that morality and love and art were the most important things, of course, of course—but, still, I sort of wanted to do all of that PLUS be able to run with the pack, or even slightly ahead of the pack, if it could be arranged. To be morally correct AND eternally blamelessly gleaming and beautifully dressed, somehow.

In thinking about this guy, who was mostly but not entirely me, and trying to understand how “I” might come to not only tolerate but even crave having four SGs in my yard, I thought a good bit about our slavery days here in the U.S., and also about the Holocaust, especially as presented in that amazing book by Victor Klemperer, “I Will Bear Witness.” When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo. The average person in the U.S., in, say, 1820, assumed white superiority, and, if he happened to be against slavery, was for a gradual solution, which probably involved sending all the slaves back to Africa, notwithstanding the fact that most of them had never been there and were Americans in every respect. And this would be the nice, moderate, urbane, educated person of that time, who fancied himself “progressive.” Likewise, even Klemperer, a Jew who would end up losing everything to the Nazis, didn’t seem to see it coming. He would note things about Hitler and the Nazis very peripherally in his diary, but his main focus was on the minutiae of his life—his wife was being difficult, he’d hit the fence with the car, he was having panic attacks, etc. etc. (Whenever his colleagues or his neighbors took something away from him because he was a Jew, they would always explain it to him à la “Those dopes in Berlin are making us do this,” and he would accept this gracefully—“I know, I know it’s not you, it’s Berlin.”) Also, interestingly, he was a professor who wrote about French literature, often from the perspective of “the French personality.” So even the idea that there was some sort of Jewish personality—i.e., an innate national or ethnic personality—seemed O.K. to him. I’m guessing that when the Nazis started talking about “Jewish tendencies” he objected to the mischaracterization of those “tendencies” but not necessarily to the idea that a “race” had “tendencies.”

Anyway—it’s interesting when you realize that, whatever your (our) culture is doing that will have future generations laughing at you, or hating you, you are, by definition, blind to it at the moment. Or most of us are. I’m guessing I am, for example.

So that was who I imagined the narrator to be: a loving, kind guy, who is just like us (me) in his concerns and his basic values and his love for his family—except he’s got this one blind spot, which I might have, too, if I were living in his world.

Another thing the story ended up being about, at least for me, was this notion that you can do everything right and still bring the whole house down with just one such blind spot. Life, in other words, can be a very harsh affair, morally. It exploits/punishes even a very small defect in a person.

Where did the word “Semplica” come from? Does it have some special meaning for you?

That was what they were called in the dream. I think I woke up knowing that. There’s nothing symbolic or secret about it. And I somehow knew from the beginning that “Semplica” was the name of the guy who had “pioneered this innovative technology.”

One thing I always feel in the midst of trying to talk coherently about a story I’ve finished is that, you know, ninety per cent of it was intuitive, done at-speed, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, except in the “A felt better than B” way. All these choices add up, and make the surface of the story, and, of course, the thematics and all that—but I’m not usually thinking about any of that too much, or too overtly. It’s more feeling than thinking—or a combination of the two, with feeling being in charge, and thinking sort of running around behind, making overly literal suggestions, and those feelings being sounded out and exercised and manifested via heavy editing and rewriting (as opposed to, say, planning and deciding). The important part of the writing process, for me, is trying to make choices that push the story in the most interesting direction, by which I mean the direction that causes the story to give off the most light. The story’s goal is to be fascinating and stimulating and irreducible; the writer’s job is to micromanage the text to make this happen.

Here, it felt to me that what made the light come off the story was (1) the language (the way the truncated diary syntax produced strange little textual moments) and (2) anything that heightened the ambiguity of Eva’s actions.

What I realized very late in the game was that the narrator has something deeply in common with the SGs, which is aspiration—he can’t see it, even at the end, but it’s true. Or maybe he’s just starting to see it, there at the end of the story. When he starts thinking about the SGs’ families back in their home countries, I imagine him getting a bit of a red face and not knowing (or pretending not to know) why. Through the whole story he’s been keeping himself apart from the SGs, physically and emotionally, but, at the end there, he might be starting to see that he’s actually quite similar to them, in his love for his family and in how far he’s willing to go to satisfy his family’s needs. The only difference is that he was born here, and his job affords him (a little) more dignity. The reason he hasn’t felt more sympathy for the SGs, or really thought directly about them in a simple human way, is that he’s been blocking. They remind him too much of himself.
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11 COMMENTS |
Splendid! This is a keeper. From the very beginning it took root in me and is one of those stories that is going to stay with me and revisit as it chooses. In your discussion of father’s maybe/maybe not coming to new understanding, it was in these last few paragraphs that the notion of Eva (or perhaps Pop)would be put on “contract” to get the family out of the hole they were in. So is growing understanding/ambivalence was there for me. Thanks so much!
POSTED 11/10/2012, 10:24:16AM BY MEHORTON
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I think you can have a morally corrupt narrator, as this story does, without the story becoming “(merely) a Demonstrative Moral Tale,” if you allow the narrator enough complexity, which the story also does. I disagree, however, with the author’s apparent need to draw the reader into the narrator’s delusions for him to feel the story is a success. In other words, no, I did not feel the SGs were happy and I did not feel this was any kind of a step up for them, which made the story even more powerful for me. Also, given what had gone before, the family’s ambivalent response to Eva’s heroism felt absolutely true to me, and I did not see how this could even be matter for an authorly decision. The whole story, which completely engaged and stimulated me, put me in mind of Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of the decoration of one’s servants (finely dressing footmen, etc.)as a component of conspicuous consumption.
POSTED 11/5/2012, 11:56:18AM BY MONAWILLIAMS
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This story hit me in my solar plexus. Loved it so much!
POSTED 10/30/2012, 10:09:22PM BY KATIENORTON
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I love this story!! Genius!!
POSTED 10/21/2012, 10:00:18AM BY ADOLGER
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I read this story after a day at work during which my ‘performance’ was ‘managed,’ and my bleak mood was immediately lifted by reading George Saunders’ portrayal of the same process. Even though the story has a bleakness of its own, its overwhelming effect on me is to lighten the burden of social oppressiveness. I’m not surprised that part of the story comes from an actual dream; I find that some dreams have the same mentally liberating effect. Satire this good is medicinal.
POSTED 10/21/2012, 9:50:02AM BY PAVLOV
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This is one of the most affecting short stories I have ever read in my 60 years of life (did a degree in English literature).
POSTED 10/16/2012, 12:18:52PM BY PJANE
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Mr. Saunders and to whom it may concern: I just finished reading this story – had to read it twice.(Cringeworthy confession: I almost came down to Google “Semplica Girls” before the penny dropped). I grew up with the New Yorker and have been reading it my whole adult life. I have read many brilliant things here but never one better than this. I am thinking of taking one of my 19th Century Staffordshire transferware platters off its wooden stand and replacing it with this issue, opened to this story. Perhaps I will put some tealights in front of it and turn one page a day. (Well, maybe best not light the candles; my copy got splashed when I climbed out of the tub and its structural integrity has been compromised). Still. I think it merits a kind of altar. Thank you. I salute you.
POSTED 10/15/2012, 1:45:27PM BY KIMVE
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Very powerful story. Actually, perfect. Only one thing puzzles me: On the first page, Eva is described as “middle child.” On the last page, she is referred to as “our youngest.” Am I nuts, or is this an actual error on the part of the amazing George Saunders? (Much more likely am nuts, but need to ask & make fool of self anyway.) hellonwheels
POSTED 10/13/2012, 8:48:21AM BY HELENWEAVER
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How very interesting on so many levels…Mr. Saunders presaged the whole 1% phenomenon, the gross excesses they exemplify, and their disdainful attitudes toward “the rest”; at the same time, the delusional Mr. Everyone aspires to those same excesses, believing them to be “the good life.” In fact, sadly, these people share the same world view, albeit, with little in common. Eva’s father at least knows what he should be doing with his children – he just can’t get around to it. Easier to emulate that 1%, just in WalMart style. Both oblivious to the suffering of others, at least those outside of their immediate families. At the same time, the description of concern, love and care that Mr. Saunders allows Eva, Lilly, and Thomas’ parents to show for them is so heartfelt and universal. So sad that while trying to give their kids the best they are really just inculcating them in the vapid, empty calorie lifestyle they aspire to. Great story. Very provocative.
POSTED 10/12/2012, 11:31:41PM BY MAGNOTTA
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I love George Saunders because the people he creates are trying so hard to make a completely insane world normal. When I read Semplica Girls I got an awful feeling that Eva’s power to be heroic could end with her and her sisters hanging up in someone’s garden, indentured for the debt they owed.
POSTED 10/12/2012, 7:21:15PM BY NINJANURSE

Thank you Ms Treisman and Mr Saunders. After listening to Mr Saunders read this wonderful story on my phone, finding this interview put the cherry on top. Love New Yorker short stories!
POSTED 10/10/2012, 4:42:32PM BY MAIRIBE
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Hidden content[/spoiler]

In thinking about this guy, who was mostly but not entirely me, and trying to understand how “I” might come to not only tolerate but even crave having four SGs in my yard, I thought a good bit about our slavery days here in the U.S., and also about the Holocaust, especially as presented in that amazing book by Victor Klemperer, “I Will Bear Witness.” When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo. The average person in the U.S., in, say, 1820, assumed white superiority, and, if he happened to be against slavery, was for a gradual solution, which probably involved sending all the slaves back to Africa, notwithstanding the fact that most of them had never been there and were Americans in every respect. And this would be the nice, moderate, urbane, educated person of that time, who fancied himself “progressive.” Likewise, even Klemperer, a Jew who would end up losing everything to the Nazis, didn’t seem to see it coming. He would note things about Hitler and the Nazis very peripherally in his diary, but his main focus was on the minutiae of his life—his wife was being difficult, he’d hit the fence with the car, he was having panic attacks, etc. etc. (Whenever his colleagues or his neighbors took something away from him because he was a Jew, they would always explain it to him à la “Those dopes in Berlin are making us do this,” and he would accept this gracefully—“I know, I know it’s not you, it’s Berlin.”) Also, interestingly, he was a professor who wrote about French literature, often from the perspective of “the French personality.” So even the idea that there was some sort of Jewish personality—i.e., an innate national or ethnic personality—seemed O.K. to him. I’m guessing that when the Nazis started talking about “Jewish tendencies” he objected to the mischaracterization of those “tendencies” but not necessarily to the idea that a “race” had “tendencies.”

A wonderful example of how a fine intelligence can inform not only a perfect story but the comments of the author, which make perfect sense.

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