The Semplica Girl Diaries: Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders’ Vision of Contemporary America

To speak meaningfully about those who ‘work at the margins,’ it is advantageous to have a term with which to contextualize the presence of the Semplica Girls in this story. Like Johan Galtung’s ‘structural violence,’ Slavoj Žižek’s “systemic violence” refers to forms of “objective violence” that while not necessarily visible, hold sway on society to large extent through its systems and institutions. Nevertheless, Žižek moves quickly to specify the actor of this violence as Capitalism. Žižek explains systemic violence as: “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.” A few pages later Žižek clarifies, “[it is] the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” While both go far in naming the insidious presence of a supposedly invisible violence, it is Saunders’ story that provides a most tangible representation of systemic violence. His Semplica Girls are a clear and palpable embodiment of systemic violence in short story. The SGs are literally the metonymic representation of the commodification of life and living beings by and through capitalism. The girls strewn on the line are ‘a part’ alluding to ‘the whole’ of the history and actuality of migrant/illegal/slave labor—the subjugation of marginal bodies for the use and benefit of the dominant classes—a part of Foucault’s “the asymmetries of power.” The family, on the other hand, is at times victim to and at other times benefactor of Pierre Bourdieu’s “symbolic violence.” That is, the power and honor mistakenly ascribed to status its real source being economic and cultural capital and which authorizes the perpetuation of its practices and resulting stratification of the social space. They are victims and perpetuators of what critic Ana Manzanas calls “the society of sameness and accumulation” in which the SGs represent the “dominant model of life” as much as if not more so than their predecessor, “the assembly line of the early decades of the twentieth century.” 

Aesthetically, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” works on readers in ways subtle and yet jolting. Saunders employs a variety of techniques to reveal the violent ‘heart of darkness’ at the opaque center of affluent American life. This opacity is something like a dusty mirror to a narcissistic America that finds itself embarrassingly impotent to avoid or adjust the reflection away from its unwanted margins. Just as in the story the narrator cannot maintain the discourse of optimism however hard he tries. Although obfuscated this mirror represents a growing postmodern sense of self-awareness about inequality and violence in the North Atlantic societies, a subject we return to later in this paper. To make matters worse, though this violence is considered deplorable, its presence is accepted because it is the very system upon which America was and is constructed. This appears in “The Semplica Girl” via the threatening presence of a sub-textual narrative—a doppelganger narrative of violence and fear—juxtaposed on the story being told, looming just below the surface at the subconscious level like a nightmare, or at the subterranean level, like the basement of a suburban home. In particular, Saunders builds an extended analogy between the Semplica Girl diary and historical slave owner diaries. This simulacrum rises to the surface in poignant moments offering semantic clues. When the Semplica Girls escape, they are described as “connected via microline like chain gang”. In another example, during oldest daughter Lilly’s birthday party—what should be the happy, domestic scene of a family celebration—the children play a game of “crack the whip.” Although a real children’s game, in the context of the story and in light of the backdrop of the Semplica Girls swaying on their line as did punished slaves, the name can only be read as a satirical allusion to lashing slaves. This analogous story of slavery from the “naïve” colonialist perspective is arguably more disturbing than when told from the slave perspective. The family’s indifference, and, moreover, pride in the SGs agonizing existence marks the party with violence. This extended analogy with colonialist slave owner narratives is also present in the characters’ obsession with their yards. Their overabundant admiration for their lawns is not unlike the colonialist’s pruning of the plantation. In fact, the SGs’ presence can be equated to the colonialist estate’s mandatory spectacle of human property working on the horizon. Saunders acknowledges having read slave owner and abolitionist diaries during the writing of “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” One can imagine that Saunders’ story imitates the tone of quotidian normalcy with which the slave owners approached their daily habits on the plantation: at nine in the morning, breakfast, at ten, study Latin, and, at noon, a slave lashing.

In his book on violence, Slavoj Žižek takes as a point of departure a childhood story about the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky. He and his family were members of the Russian bourgeoisie exiled during the Bolshevik revolution. As a boy Lossky could not understand why he received scathing remarks in school or why the others seemingly wanted to destroy his comfortable and normal way of life. What problem was there with the family’s servants, nannies, and love for the arts? Žižek argues that the boy was blind to the systemic violence latent in the social arrangement beneficial to him—like those slave owners that had normalized even the subjective violence of life on the plantation mentioned in the paragraph above. Similarly, in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” the latent violence beneficial to wealthy American families is realized and embodied through the Semplica Girls. While most of the family feigns naivety in order to legitimate their middle class desires, the Semplica Girls are a constant reminder of the violence used to maintain and secure their position. The Semplica Girls are a specter, an embodiment of the modern day and historical structures of systemic violence that loom over the postcolonial world as sustained after-effects. The Semplica Girls bring to the fore those mechanisms Foucault describes as being “on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power” as well as “those ‘sciences’ that give it a respectable face.” The Semplica Girls remind of the proximity of a bloody past and an equally troubling present; one that relegates the violence at its center to its margins in an incredible exercise of the illusion of distance and periphery to gain a profit. The dehumanization of the Semplica Girls as products and docile bodies that can be bought, sold, and strewn up on a line as an adornment is mirrored by their place in the narrative—they are not even characters in their own right. In our diarist’s account they are purely background, never really stepping into the foreground and speaking only through indecipherable whispers.

Here we pick up the loose end in our comparison between the modern sense of guilty self-awareness in the face of affluence vs. the historical naivety. In the continuation of the description provided by the narrator of his initial sighting of the SGs in the paragraph above, he writes, “Wind stops, everything returns to vertical. From across lawn: soft sighing, smattering of mumbled phrases. Perhaps saying goodnight? Perhaps saying in own lingo, gosh that was some strong wind.” Here we can see the difference between our modern day narrator and the slave owners in their diaries. The modern day narrator seems to know the SGs are people even if dehumanized and occupying the place of lawn ornaments. In trying to interpret their signs, he displays an at least minimal comprehension and awareness of their humanity and possibly their subjugation. Yet his perspective is limited showing little to no understanding of causality as the story progresses. He seems incapable of--or positions his narration in such a way as to avoid--offering meaning to his readers, especially concerning the reality of the SG trade. The construction of this limited perspective adds another layer of intertextuality to the already layered scene, one in which the narration displays commonalities with the slave narrative form, as well: “To varying degrees all slave narratives are conditioned by the narrator’s partial understanding of his situation [...] He is a blind receiver whose perspective on the motive behind all the demands and actions which govern his life have been short circuited.” At a difference from the slave owners who held a justified stance backed by law on why the slaves were only three-fifths of a person, Saunders narrator simply avoids providing a realistic frame for the SGs subhuman conditions. It is common knowledge that in the past, wealthy planter aristocracy effectively conceptualized slaves as property or animal livestock in the same way that a pig or cow was (is). Again, this is not to say that the slave owners were somehow on moral high grounds because of their belief in this fallacy. Both groups, the modern and historical, have their delusions that allow for them to sustain a sense of morality in the face of the unethical. Rather, the point here is similar to the one brought forth by the anecdote about the Patriarch’s Balls; part of modernity is a sense of self-aware guilt about perpetuating inequality and benefiting from it. There are no more Nikolai Losskys. The modern day affluent class is aware that they benefit from the domination of the poor and working classes of the world and that they live at arm’s length from its margins, even if, as is the case for Saunders’ narrator, they simply try to avoid it. On a different note, it goes without saying that the use of the limited point of view in slave narratives had a different expected outcome: to avoid accusations of falsehood on the part of the author (accusations that white abolitionists were writing the diaries) and to defamiliarize the images of the slave trade to which contemporaries would have been desensitized. 

Saunders’ stories can often appear at first glance comical and absurd, yet their messages require audiences to reexamine cultural notions that may feel as intimate to them as a “second skin.” Saunders compels readers to confront the realities of their societies while urging us to continue onwards towards individual responsibility and purpose given that current, prevalent methods of confronting those same realities can echo the absurdity of the condition itself. To illustrate Saunders' use of the absurd as rhetorical strategy, one has only to look at the verisimilitude between his formulations and the absurd (and manipulative) rhetoric emerging in the American linguistic landscape of today.  Saunders' playful revisiting of these linguistic realities involves using them as the basis for absurd themes and situations in the fictional worlds he creates. Ultimately, their 'absurdity' serves a function, inciting readers to question the logic underpinning the supposed values and ethics of contemporary consumer culture. Warranting Saunders’ caustic humor, in the United States inequality already has a meme, a twitter hashtag, a name in popular culture: “#First World Problems.” Referring to a problem that is relevant to the First World but admittedly irrelevant and gloating when contextualized globally, the phrase seems to get to the heart of America’s digitally enhanced self-awareness and American pop culture’s peculiar way of addressing it. Furthermore, as in the curt, jumpy, almost journalistic language of Saunders’ narrative, the hashtag points towards the violent severing of language necessary to rationalize the irrational. If there is, as well, some kind of perverted ethics implicit in the hashtag, the character most representative of this ethical sense in the story—if in more genuine derivation—would be the narrator’s youngest daughter Eva. However, she does engender her honest concern with an almost anachronistic sincerity only capable of a child, or, of Saunders himself. Literary critic Sarah Pogell has pointed out that Saunders’ reverent treatment of human conflict and emotion could easily garner him accusations of maudlin triteness. I would have to agree that his desire to address real world problems demonstrates an optimism he may not share with the majority of postmodern writers and theorists, but which may be exactly what Literature with a capital “L” needs. Saunders’ attention to real-world problems and his Eva character, rather, link the story generally to the realist tradition of anti-slavery literature and specifically to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The seminal American text prominently features a character—“little Eva”—that is also a depiction of the innocent girl-child vehemently against slavery. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as we know, Eva befriends Uncle Tom after he saves her life and she begs her father to buy him. Towards the end of the story Eva once again pleads with her father this time to free his slaves and specifically to free Uncle Tom. The resonances with “The Semplica Girl Diaries” are quite clear, again pointing towards the story’s intricate and intentional connections with slave literature. In a kind of sad, happy and ironic ending, “Eva” of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” eventually frees the SGs out of sympathy to their pain, this time leaving her parents with loads of debt to pay—modernity’s brand of indentured servitude. 

The intuition that the story is set in our own contemporary world—Saunders’ brand of realism—is joltingly suspended when the mechanism of the Semplica Girls’ acquiescence is revealed. In a postmodern, sci-fi twist characteristic of the writer, we are asked to observe the apparatus of the semplica girls’ pain but also to ontologically question the proximity of this world to our own: “[A] microline though brain that does no damage, causes no pain. Technique uses lasers to make pilot route. Microline threaded through w/silk leader,” explains the father to the story’s most conscientious objector, aforementioned Eva. Saunders writes the SG girls as literally having a hole burned through their skulls for easy hanging in the yards of yuppie Americans. Nevertheless, this invention approaches reality when the narrator assures Eva that the mechanism does not hurt as doctor “Lawrence Semplica” ingeniously designed it. This is Saunders’ nod towards a world not only entrenched in corporate discourse, but also as Foucault diagnosed in the 1960s and 70s, hegemonically invested in the rhetoric of science and medicine to a fault. Consider that many people are willing to undergo potentially lethal and expensive cosmetic surgery based on the promise of comfort and ease doled out by doctors (and, of course, those mimetic desire machines called “style magazines” aid the process). The establishment of science as the official discourse of knowledge—“an indefinite discourse that observes, describes and establishes the ‘facts’”—endowed the medical/scientific community with alarming power (as during slavery). In short, the violent mechanism used to hang the SGs is disturbing but so is the narrators willed belief that it could be as innocuous as a simple haircut, again revealing the violent subtext underlying the characters’ daily-lives which surfaces at key points in the story.

But the SGs’ acquiescence, we are told, is not only a byproduct of the subjective violence that literally holds them in place. Short bios on the girls called “microstories” comically gesture towards the saturation of “societal marketing programs” in modern media while also realistically providing a backstory to the SGs forced immigration to the US. Saunders employs the postmodern aesthetic of embedded narrative and discourse to remind readers of the similitude between the world of the short story, however absurd, and their own. At the same time, Saunders also sardonically points towards how “#First World” guilt is co-opted and managed by the capitalist system.  By now, most people are quite aware of the methods of “societal marketing” and can immediately identify the sort disseminated by the Semplica Girl Company and reified by the family themselves:

Pam: Sweetie, sweetie, what is it?

Eva: I don’t like it. It’s not nice.

Thomas: They want to, Eva.  They like applied for it.

Pam: Don’t say like

Thomas: They applied for it.

Pam: Where they’re from, the opportunities are not so good.

Me: It helps them take care of the people they love.

Then I get idea: Go to kitchen, page through Personal Statements. Yikes. Worse than I thought: Laotian (Tami) applied due to two sisters already in brothels. Moldovan (Gwen) has cousin who thought was becoming window washer in Germany, but no. sex slave in Kuwait (!). Somali (Lisa) watched father + little sister die of AIDS, same tiny thatch hut, same year. Filipina (Betty) has little brother “very skilled for computer,” parents cannot afford high school, have lived in tiny lean-to with three other families since their own tiny lean-to slid down hillside in earthquake. 

Saunders’ family portrays postmodern American culture’s concepts of responsibility and idealism, as well as its political, economic, and social superiority and personal identity. In his aforementioned book on violence, Žižek critiques the tendency of modern-day capitalists like Bill Gates to refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and with fanfare laud their latest donation to charity in front of the media. Žižek asserts that it re-establishes the balance essential to the capitalist system’s ability to perpetuate itself and the objective and systematic violence at its heart. “The same structure-the thing itself is the remedy against the threat it poses-is widely visible in today’s ideological landscape” poses Žižek. Like the nuclear family version of Bill Gates, the American family are “good people who worry…the catch, of course, is that in order to give, first you have to take.” The societal marketing method of packaging the human element via story for consumers is used to accommodate the family’s sense of the charitable. Their profiles, and the family’s bourgeois sense of philanthropic righteousness, are consequently bought and consumed along with the physical girls themselves legitimating their violent and painful existence on the lawn. For the speaker the embedded semplica girl narratives undoubtedly re-invoke his existant sense of guilt—but their true function is the one of evoking a sense of relief and complacency. As a father, he is also able to or at least hopes to transform the microstories into manageable tales of hope for daughter Eva. Žižek analyzes this function of ideology in The Sublime Object of Ideology concluding that “the function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel.” Hence, the “microstories” engender that false sense of knowledge that Žižek alleges exists in today’s ideological landscape; the father escapes the real of his guilt into the social reality of the girls’ awful conditions on the lawn—finding a solace in them that is in equal parts utterly believable and preposterous so as to be offensive. Furthermore we see ideology at work in the family’s paradoxical belief that the exchange of money for power over human beings, however marginal, is the morally correct action to take in order to combat the very issue of modern slavery. “Only violence can put an end to violence, and that is why violence is self-propagating”. 

On another level, these prepackaged narratives of the lives of each Semplica Girl are a form of symbolic violence themselves—just like the narrative, another “line” to assuage the pain. Symbolic violence, a term used by Bourdieu and later by Žižek, can describe the violence enacted by a symbolic community via its rites and rituals of stratification, or, by its use of language and representation. Here language’s capacity for violent “essencing” is used to strip the girls of humanity reducing their entire lives into nothing more than a sterilized pair of compressed sentences. Furthermore, this is yet another form of the linguistic distancing that the narrator practices throughout his archiving of the girls’ story. He consistently uses semantics to deceive himself, as in his refusal to acknowledge the girls’ utterances as “language” instead calling it “lingo” or in his willed belief that the microline “does no damage, causes no pain.” Across the story, this symbolic violence enacted through language and discourse is generally evident in the pervasiveness of the curt, reduced syntax the narrator uses to write the diaries—more reminiscent of journalistic briefs than of the diary form in which he claims to write. As some would argue about modern news media, the narrator’s focus on ‘the now’ and on his own desire blinds him to the importance of history and more importantly to the particular history behind the Semplica Girls and their seemingly immaculate and estheticized presence on the lawn.

Saunders writes an all too familiar America with a sardonic twist, but does so for the purpose of revealing an urgent need for readers to overcome beliefs made popular by modern times, chiefly the grass root tendencies that cultivate and protect systemic violence at all levels. Saunders incisive criticism of the capitalistic ways of the USA is at its best when unpacking (or ridiculing) the sense of class-consciousness that informs the hopes, desires, and decisions of its households. As we noted at the beginning of the paper, the speaker’s impetus for buying the Semplica Girls derives from his feeling of inadequacy and ineptitude at not being able to “keep up” with his affluent peers. In a critique of capitalist dogma, Saunders helps us to understand that class-consciousness today simply equates to acquiring the same or better products as the others in our imagined community. Our narrator buys the SGs in order to “keep up with the Joneses.”

We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze...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 you are in step with peers and time in which living. 

Saunders could just as easily have written that the family had “stepped up” a rung on the invisible ladder that is social mobility and class (at least conceptually) in the USA. He includes the narrator, “stepping out,” and reportedly finally feeling “in step with peers and in time.” This is what class-consciousness translates to in contemporary America warns Saunders. An invitation to The Patriarch’s Balls would signify less today than the size of one’s house and its contents. The systemic and subjective violence implicit in the seemingly miraculous apparition of the objects that populate our domestic lives is of little importance although one can imagine. Nevertheless, by story’s end the family no longer owns Semplica Girls, who having escaped with the aid of the narrator’s youngest daughter, Eva, are now labeled illegal immigrants “on the loose.” The loss of the SGs results in the Greenway Company indicting the family with some $8000 dollars in due back-charges. This, of course, plunges the family into debt. And with that the family’s precious social status descends to equal or less than that of the beginning of the story. Debt in modern-day America is clearly the primary capital of the working classes, if not of the petite bourgeoisie, as well.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is an attempt to narrate the violence we inflict on ourselves and on others during the mindless and irresponsible pursuit of happiness. Saunders’ rendition of the modern American family takes into account power as a byproduct of colonization or in the least globalization as it is contemporarily understood. He offers a critique of the coloniality of power and those ways of knowing that often complement and uphold its systems, which are also constitutive of modernity. This critique, or Saunders’s message, appeals to readers to free themselves from social and political definitions of success, instead embracing individualized concepts of ethical responsibility towards others. It is this sense of responsibility that child character Eva seems to represent, suggesting that we are born with a capacity for empathy that society and its funny games quickly takes from us. Furthermore, Saunders reveals discourse as one of the mechanisms used to rationalize the irrational and humanize the profoundly inhumane. As a result we contemporaries may suffer a guilty awareness, more so than our historical counterparts, but as in the wealthy estates of the past there always is a trapdoor, a manner in which to ask to be excused from the table, to leave early from the ball. Nevertheless, by bringing the First World’s exploitation and dehumanization of third world bodies to the center of American family life, Saunders also performs an act of magic allowing the Semplica Girl to be in two places at once: at the center of his story and sweating in the factories of the Global South.

Excerpt of “The Semplica Girls Diaries: Class Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders' View of Contemporary America”, first published in Miscelenea: A Journal of English and American Studies.

Juliana Nalerio is a PhD researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in American Studies and Comparative Literature. Working at the intersection of literature and critical theory, her research explores the aesthetics and ethics of modern American literature in the continental sense. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, a project that attempts to unpack literary violence in its symbolic, systemic, and subjective forms in both North and South American novels and short story texts. She holds a master's degree from The University of Valladolid (Premio extraordinario) and a B.A. from New College of Florida-the Honors College of Florida, as well as certificates from studies at Middlebury College, The University of Chicago, The University of Edinburgh, as well as Birkbeck, University of London, and Texas A&M University (upcoming).

Juliana is a member of the national research group, "A Critical History of Ethnic American Literature: An Intercultural Approach," directed by Dr. Jesús Benito Sánchez.