“Limitations so frustrating” (Saunders 126) writes the narrator of George Saunders’ The Semplica Girl Diaries. But the self-imposed limitations and restrictions Saunders impose on his writing make for a more interesting story, building its narrative out of disturbing incompleteness. Set in an unspecified but near future, Saunders communicates everything about his narrative through the sparse, seemingly illiterate, and oddly inhuman narration of his protagonist’s diary. Through this method, which reveals little about the real horrors of the world the protagonist and his family inhabits, Saunders interrogates how a writer can consider a world full of “future people” (Saunders 109) without allowing his characters to define the differences between their world and our own.
Saunders muddies the waters of his narrator’s mental state by doing the writing so unlike speech, and more like notes that the protagonist doesn’t expect to be read by others. Communicating in mostly sentence fragments, the writer also often drops his personal pronouns. The style of narration seems oddly childish, and strangely inhuman. Saunders gives emotion and action and exposition, while also cutting out all but the fewest and most necessary words. His narrator doesn’t say “looking at my house made me sad”, but: “Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why Sad?” (Saunders 113). His narrator is uncritical, both of himself and the situations of his world, and so he writes uncritically.
Because of this lack of introspection, it is up to the reader to pick out the things about Saunders’ imagined future that are different from ours. We understand that the capitalism of this world has accelerated, first only because of the narrator’s manic obsession to “be rich” (118). The strained divide between the narrator’s family and those they interact with drive home a desperate need to join the one percent. The first half of the story repeatedly mentions the narrator’s shame at having a “blank empty yard […], not a single SG.” (117). Saunders’ future world is a horrifying dystopia. The titular Semplica girls are young, third-world refugees who are sold into slavery, then crucified and paralyzed, and hung up in the gardens of the wealthy like Halloween decorations. But Saunders doesn’t tell you directly. I only realized halfway through the story that the SG’s suspended in the yard were living beings, because the narrator doesn’t see them that way.
There is a subtle horror when finally described: “SGs up now, approx.. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze […]. Effect amazing” (133). Saunders’ protagonist does not interrogate the moral issues of his world. He is corrupted and indoctrinated by his culture. By removing a kind of moral intelligence of the narrator, Saunders leaves it up to the reader to understand the horror of the world he has created. This subtler and more mature method of producing a dystopia is something I want to explore further in my own writing, but in particular, I find Saunders’ experimentations with voice fascinating and something that I’ve begun applying to my own writing. I’m interested in continuing this concept of challenging readers to see the world through a seemingly inhuman narrator. Saunders’ challenge is one of limitations, which can be frustrating, but create an effect and a voice that could not have been replicated by a more literate, traditional narrator.
Saunders, George. Tenth of December: Stories. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014