The SG Diaries: Colonial Pasts, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders’ Vision of Contemporary America

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The SG Diaries: Colonial Pasts, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders’ Vision of Contemporary America

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   Nalerio, Juliana 1 The Patriarch’s Balls: Class-Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Saunders’ Vision of Contemporary America Every day I understand more deeply how violent we are.   Violent to others and violent to ourselves.   -Robert Olmstead, War and Baked Beans (2013) In late 19th Century America, the elite class of wealthy New York families was united by the Patriarch’s Balls. The Society of the Patriarch organized lavish balls to foster a content class-consciousness among the society of “The Four Hundred” who mattered against the rest who  plainly did not. In 21st Century America, the tables have turned and the class-conscious are less able to enjoy the fruits of their labor sans the guilt (or the realization of a nasty pun). As Slavoj ! i " ek asserts in the book   Violence: Six Sideways Reflections , contemporary America’s “culture of capital” is marked by the systemic violence that allows the West to maintain its First World status and North American writer George Saunders, for one, knows it. This paper will look at how Saunders returns to those East Coast, greater New York communities in the 21st Century, communities that are now more egalitarian and “open” yet equally as preoccupied by keeping up with the Joneses. Writing their stories with a dystopic twist, he intimately explores the anxieties that plague their communities, while also maintaining a sense of the universal in his work that allows for its wider interpretation and relevance to American national identity in general. Saunders writes as the moral compass of a community that while successful according to American standards cannot help but feel dirtier after “the help” have cleaned the kitchen. In this  paper we will discuss some of the techniques Saunders uses to explicate the violence at the heart of American life, from the most obvious—the image of the Semplica Girl—to his more subtle use of analogy, co-opted discourse, and embedded narrative. Drawing on Slavoj ! i " ek’s tripartite notion of violence, this paper reveals how the Saunders short story “The Semplica Girl Diaries”   Nalerio, Juliana 2 engages with the latent violence inherent in America’s post-colonial capitalist system. The paper aim to show that Saunders’ figure of the Semplica Girl metonymically embodies the violence of outsourced and slave labor while invoking colonialist America; whereas, Saunders’ protagonist is a moronic confluence of modern-day liberal guilt and historical colonialist desire. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” tells the story of a few unusual weeks in the life of a petit- bourgeois American family whose class anxiety leads them to fear not meeting the parameters of their community. That is until they win “TEN GRAND” from a scratch-off lottery ticket and can  join the status quo in their dystopic admiration of the Semplica Girls. Narrating the story in his diaries is the naïve, but caring family guy who “having just turned 40…embark[s] on grand  project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax,” (Saunders 2013: 109). After this characteristically satirical yet realistic point of departure Saunders reveals the  budding writer’s motives: a desire to share with future generations, family and otherwise, what life “was really like” (2013: 109). However, just two pages later the unnamed narrator hides the discovery of a “dead large mouse or small squirrel crawling with maggots” in his family garage (2013: 111). Hiding certain ugly truths is a mere obstacle to maintaining the discourse of optimism, a discourse essential to the American psyche and its uncanny ability to normalize the absurd. Shortly after, the narrator also hides a subsequent moment of sadness looking at his house, feeling it inadequate (2013: 112). This feeling of inadequacy will subsist and become essential to the conflict as it provides impetus for the family’s hegemonic aspirations, or social striving. In fact, it is the confluence of the protagonist’s feelings of inadequacy (as a father) and a familial urge to “keep us with the Jones” that leads him to the Semplica Girls. In the book Violence and the Sacred  , René Girard unpacks the mimetic nature of desire, which he claims is always “directed toward an object desired by [a] model” (1972: 147). The lavish and over-the-   Nalerio, Juliana 3 top birthday party of their daughter’s classmate becomes the scene of the narrator’s initial identification with a model worthy of his desire. Finding the family, their home, and their garden enviable the narrator adopts the patriarch of the wealthier family of “refined taste” as the center of his own mimetic desire. The scene also becomes the location for the initial encounter with the Semplica Girls (though Saunders does not yet reveal what they are) which the narrator then incorporates as the object to be mimetically desired. Recounting the party, the protagonist writes, “Very depressing birthday party today at home of Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini. House is mansion where Lafayette once stayed: now their “Fun Den” (2013: 113). Soon after, he sums up the experience feeling pathetic: “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor. I would say that we are middle. We are very very lucky. I know that. But still…” (2013: 119). In this way readers are introduced to an unreliable narrator inhabiting an ominously recognizable world of bourgeoisie America, concerned with maintaining appearances and feeling the ravenous pull of mimetic desire, the urge to “keep up with the Joneses.” As a point of departure and for the sake of clarity it is necessary to further discuss Saunders and class representation. It is important to note that while the affluence of the families represented in the Saunders short story “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is moderate compared to the families of the Patriarch’s Balls, the comparison of the naivety with which prior generations of Americans enjoyed their wealth to today’s sense of self-aware guilt is telling as it marks a critical change in American culture (and perhaps in Western culture in general). Most critics categorize Saunders as essentially a writer of working class Middle America, or, in a continuation of that line of thought, the direct descendent of Ray Carver or better yet, Kurt Vonnegut—inheriting their literary project. However, that would be a gross simplification of what Saunders does.   Nalerio, Juliana 4 Along the lines of Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, Saunders continues to grapple with America’s violent imagination, a mythology astutely articulated by American intellectual Richard Slotkin when he pronounced, “that the myth of regeneration through violence [was] the structuring metaphor of the American experience” (1973: 5). As critics David Rando and Sarah Pogell have pointed out, aesthetically, Saunders  borrows and assembles techniques from both high and low art, from both realism and  postmodernism. Thematically, he is able to embody the sliding scale that is class in First World countries, as well. So that even if one could argue that “The Semplica Girl” is another story representing the middle class, that would be an error, as the story in large part problematizes class in America and in the First World in so far as Saunders endeavors to establish the relativity of socioeconomic standing not only within America’s boundaries, contrasting one family’s expectations to another’s, but also peripherally in comparison with the others who populate and work at the margins. 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 the story. In sociology as well as in conflict and peace studies, we often find the term ‘structural violence’ cropping up in the research papers. Ascribed to peace studies scholar Johan Galtung, it signifies the presence of violence arbitrated without a clear actor that may also include or refer to institutional violence, cultural violence, or social injustice. While this term is certainly useful and has since its penning  promoted the burgeoning of various fields of study in the Humanities and Social Sciences focused on structural violence as it pertains to gender, class, and race, it will not be the preferred term for the current study. We will be using a term that builds upon structural violence but is more astute when it comes to naming the author of this violence. Like ‘structural violence,’   Nalerio, Juliana 5 Slavoj ! i " ek’s “systemic violence” refers to forms of “objective violence 1 ” that while not necessarily visible, hold sway on society a to large extent through its systems and institutions.  Nevertheless, ! i " ek moves quickly to specify the actor of this violence as Capitalism. ! i " ek explains systemic violence as: “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems,” (2008: 2). A few pages later ! i " ek 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,” (2008: 8). While both ! i " ek and Galtung 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 (SGs) are a clear and palpable embodiment of systemic violence in short story. This point of departure implies a certain kind of reading; and our particular take on the story is that it can be best read through the guise of “cultural artifact” or “socially symbolic act” in the sense that Fredric Jameson so infamously upholds in The Political Unconscious , claiming that “there is nothing that is not social and historical—indeed, that everything is ‘in the last analysis political’” (1981: 5). Clearly, Saunders’ story is neither the first or last analysis of its topic and many narratives have recited the exploits of colonialism, exploitation, and the domination of one culture or worldview over another. Nevertheless, Saunders joins the ranks of the few who have undertaken such an analysis from a locus within the dominating country and with such a touching and profound prosaic simplicity. (He has already spawned look-alikes, i.e. Charles Yu.) 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 1   In Six Sideways Reflections on Violence   ! i " ek differentiates between three types of violence: (1) subjective forms of violence being the most obvious abuses of force, (2) objective violence being the standard level of violence to which we compare the subjective forms in order to perceive them, and, (3) systemic violence explained further above ( ! i " ek 2008: 1-2).  
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