The Semplica-Girl Diaries

George Saunders

First, THANKS again for the rich and insightful discussion… can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying these conversations as a wind-down to every week.

We ended the hour talking about Eva. Afterwards, I wondered: Could we read the title as a way that makes the story about Eva? (Is Eva a ‘simple girl’ too?)

What do you think about the fact that we never find out the narrator’s name? Or the cat’s name? (or even whether the family has just one cat or several different cats, thanks to the article deletion… sub-tweeting LING-214 students here)

We talked a lot about form. It was lovely to read this story back-to-back with Flowers for Algernon, another diary – and by happenstance, I also read Dracula recently for the first time, another epistolary work.

In all three of these stories, the narrator/author complains or at least comments about how time-consuming and inconvenient it is to keep their diary/records (e.g. ‘was tired and had to come in and write in this stupid book.’ SGD 9/6). But hilariously, only in the two older stories – Dracula from 1897 and Flowers from Algernon from 1959 – do the writers try to actually solve this problem with technology: shorthand, voice recordings, typewriters. The Semplica-Girl diarist, who lives in the most technologically advanced world, insists on writing longhand on paper; in fact the whole inspiration for the diary is the purchase of this black book at OfficeMax. Ugh! More fake simplicity, commodified and sold.

I really enjoyed your observations about the diarist’s use of (!) vs. !. As I said to you, I think this narrator is performing, writing down thoughts and feelings that he thinks he’s supposed to have and stifling his true feelings of bitterness and despair. The ! shows up in places where I think his enthusiasm seems especially forced:

Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us! (9/5) Still, must fight good fight! (9/14) Ha-ha! Must keep spirits up (9/15)

The (!), on the other hand, may be where a more genuine voice is trying to come out, expressing authentic surprise or even disgust:

who appeared disappointed by the lock of mummy hair, and said so, because she already had one (!)…the next gift was a ticket to the Preakness (!)

I ended up thinking that this is a very scary story, as well as a very funny and very sad one. This guy is really afraid of saying anything critical of the rich. And the ending now feels ominous and terrifying to me, rather than just confusing.

This is why I love re-reading things. What are y’all’s favorite things to re-read?

Have you read Dracula? (I was kinda disappointed. I think I had an unreasonable expectation that it would be more like Frankenstein.)

This is Banned Book Week. What are your thoughts about banned books?

And what else would you like to say about “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”?

2 thoughts on “The Semplica-Girl Diaries

  1. Danielle Sherman

    Thank you everybody for such a great discussion! I was fascinated with this story to begin with and our conversation made me appreciate it all the more.

    I didn’t consider the namelessness of the narrator at first, but I just finished Rebecca–a novel with another notably nameless narrator—for another class, so now I’m thinking about how the significance of namelessness in du Maurier’s novel translates to Saunder’s story. In Rebecca, the narrator’s lack of name signifies her lack of identity and her struggle to extricate herself from relentless comparison to her new husband’s first (dead) wife. I think we get a similar lack of identity in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, for different reasons. The narrator cannot reconcile his aspirations of wealth with his current lower class, nor can he admit to his own financial crisis: “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor, I would say we are middle. We are very very lucky.” The narrator can’t say whether he is poor or middle class, whether he hates the rich or not, whether he is “lucky” or “inadequate”. This confusion and delusion may explain his lack of identity and subsequent namelessness, but on the other hand, his lack of identity may be a symptom of his job. The narrator’s job is to make sure other people in his office function as efficient, risk-free working machines, who “just sat very still at desk.” Perhaps Saunders is pointing out how capitalism and office cubicles make people nameless, nothing more than anonymous, mechanized producers of labor.

    I also think the respective forms of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and Dracula offer a really interesting comparison. I am a huge fan of Dracula—I actually did an independent research project on it last semester, in which I was able to access Bram Stoker’s letters through the Rose Library (so cool!) and apply them toward analysis of the novel’s epistolary form. To generalize (maybe oversimplify) the effect of Dracula’s conglomerated, multimedia epistolarity: the contribution of several ‘writers’ in several modes serves to unify the group of disparate characters, accumulate information about Dracula, and thus reduce the vampire’s threat. If Dracula’s form reveals information to make the characters’ world feel safer, the form of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” hides information in a way that makes the characters’ world increasingly dangerous. Because the journal-writing is filtered through the voice and perspective of the narrator (and only him, as opposed to the polyphony of Dracula), the language obscures what the narrator assumes (and perhaps fears) of his world. His references to “SGs” can be easily missed by the reader because of the narrator’s casual, abbreviated application of the term. It is only later in the story that the reader finally understands the truth of the Semplica Girls—as well as the moral, financial, and ideological threats they present—because the narrator can no longer avoid mention of them or their impact on his family. This also begs the question of whether Semplica Girls are actually referred to as “SGs” in the narrator’s real world, or the abbreviation is the narrator’s own invention for the purpose of directly naming them. (He makes them as nameless as he is, yet his daughter learns and forces the recognition of their names…) So I guess the truth unfolds in both works, but Dracula’s epistolarity strives to accrue information while the epistolarity of Saunder’s story strives (and fails) to conceal information.

    Lastly, in regards to Banned Book Week: I went to Woodruff Library’s group dialogue themed “Are Banned Books Forbidden Fruit?” and it was really interesting. The librarians guided us toward the understanding that censoring or banning books only makes people more inclined to access them out of curiosity—like Eve reaching for the apple and its forbidden knowledge. I think they’re right, and I wonder how many American schools would ban (or have already banned) stories by George Saunders…

    1. Marjorie Pak PhD Post author

      Dani, I had no idea you’d done this work on Dracula! Did you write a paper on it? Can I read it?
      It’s funny; I was looking up the publication date of Dracula for this post and I was surprised that it wasn’t older. I think the epistolary form made me associate it with Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, etc. rather than a more modern novel (although the phonograph technology really should have tipped me off). One of the things I thought was most interesting about Dracula was what you pointed out here – its multitude of authors, and the way they continually comment on their own construction and shared reading of the text. Among other things, it makes this little gang – with Jonathan and Mina’s marriage at its core – seem astonishingly intimate, in a way that reminds me of the deep, intense friendships that develop within the monster-killing gangs in Stephen King’s IT, Stranger Things, etc.
      Maybe I’ll give Dracula another chance sometime.
      “The form of ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ hides information…” – yes. I keep going back to the end of the 9/21 entry, the post-party scene. The parents find Eva pouting in the closet and all she says is “I don’t like it. It’s not nice” and they *immediately* know that she’s talking about the Semplica Girls. And then they continue the conversation in this cryptic way, using only ‘they’ and ‘it’ pronouns, without ever saying ‘Semplica Girls’ or ‘the fact that we bought these women’ or even ‘SGs.’
      This story is so creepy.
      One more quick follow-up: As I mentioned on Thursday, I went to the library before class looking for Tenth of December and couldn’t find it in the stacks – but I did find The Braindead Megaphone, a 2003 collection of essays (and essay-ish pieces) by Saunders. I just read “Ask the Optimist” this morning, and it does the thing I described above with exclamation points, and takes it to a ridiculous extreme. You can read it in the New Yorker if you have access – if not, I scanned an excerpt so you can get the idea.


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