The initial impression that swirled around in my gut, leaving an acidic burn deep in my chest, was that “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” was about murder, precisely the exceedingly abhorrent kind that involves children.
As always when reading New Yorker fiction pieces, I spend a few minutes examining the illustrations, trying to connect details with the title and infer any themes or pieces of the narrative arc beforehand.
With this piece, I studied the image of the backyard, the fish and the lily pads floating aimlessly in the dirty pool, the four sets of what (at first) appeared to be youthful legs hanging lifelessly at the top of the page, the three gardeners – heads down and tending to various kinds of residential vegetation – completely oblivious to the four sets of lifeless legs hanging in their presence. And the red tint of the photograph – it resonated as blood to me, although there aren’t any overt signs of blood, or even death itself.
Of course, my initial reaction from the photograph was pretty much all wrong.* The house and backyard did not get airbrushed with fresh mammal blood. The legs were not lifeless at all. If anything, they were full of life and meaning and power and disguised truth.
* That happens a lot. I’m terrible at inferring things from illustrations and connecting the dots. I can rarely see two steps in front of my own nose when it comes to books and films. It’s good that I don’t ruin stories for myself (unless they are laughingly obvious) – I like to let the narrative play out on its own terms. But most of the time, it’s a damn frustrating way to live life with the arts.
But, in some ways, the story was about death — just not the physical kind.
First, the hanging legs.
From the moment you look at the piece’s illustration, the legs kick you in the face, and that kicking never weakens throughout the story. The legs belong to “SGs,” these kind-of-living, kind-of-zombie creatures that “live” in the backyard of the narrator’s home. They were rented as part of a lavish birthday gift for the narrator’s 13-year-old daughter Lilly, and they hang from a wire out back.
Through a procedure, “microlines” are weaved through the temples of the SGs and through the “Semplica Pathway,” allowing them to be strung together and hung, like carcasses roasting over an open flame. If the SGs are released, there is a hefty fine to pay ($8,600, as we found out when Eva, the younger sister of Lilly, releases them).
It’s quite unseemly, the idea of four women being paid for and hung from a line in a backyard as part of a celebration – of self, of royalty, of prosperity, of virtue, and on and on – and I think George Saunders, the author of this piece, wants you to grapple with that. He wants you first to face the brutality dripping from his piece, and then he wants you to consider what those hanging legs stand for.
In my view, they stand for the weak and the lower class and the poor and the minority and all of those – regardless of all demographics – taken advantage of. There is no dignity to be gained from hanging on a line in a backyard, of course, and there is no dignity in being the one who watches those legs hang from your back porch, perhaps early in the morning with hot coffee, thinking about the day and its infinite possibilities – for you, the powerful – ahead.
The second primary theme to be digested here is the actions of Eva – and it’s Eva who drives the narrative and shapes its meaning. What does it say that this little girl, the one who is supposed to be influenced by older siblings and parents, has the tenderness and the heart to set the SGs free? And what does it say that there are strong consequences – mostly financial, of which her family doesn’t have the means to pay – for her actions?
What’s the price of doing what you know is good and right and honest in this world? What’s the price of not?
I’m not sure, but those are the kinds of questions that sprung from Eva’s character for me. And I think that was the driving intention of this piece – to contemplate Eva and consider the balance beam of moral decisions.
But, for me, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the piece. I was captured much more by the underlying motivations of the narrator than what actually happened in the story.
Precisely: What was it about the narrator that led to those legs hanging there in the first place?
The diary entry for “September 6th” gets at the crux of this. Lilly has a friend, Leslie Torrini, who is celebrating her birthday and Lilly’s family is invited to the party.
It’s a grand party, as the Torrini’s possess great wealth, and it’s held in a mansion on 30 acres. There are six garages for fancy cars. There is a stream full of fish with a bride crossing over it that was flown in from China. There is a huge, beautiful vegetable garden with a caretaker named Karl. There is a magnificent tree house for the kids that the narrator estimates is one-third the size of his actual house. The Torrini family owns nine horses and used to have six llamas.
Everything about the party screams affluence, and while Pam, the narrator’s wife, and their three children bask in the riches, the narrator remains distant. He can’t help himself. He walked around the property with Emmett Torrini, a surgeon, who makes degrading comments about the kind of degrading jobs that many people must perform in order to make a living (including the narrator).
While they’re walking and talking, you can sense that the narrator isn’t listening. He’s there, but he’s not present. Lilly’s birthday is coming up, and he knows that he can’t possibly provide anything close to this for her, but he watches her run around with the other kids, little tornadoes of unbridled joy, and he thinks about what he can do. How can I give more. I must give more.
It’s an unreasonable burden to place on himself, but the narrator does, because he is breathing in the aromas of the tangible pleasures that are all around him at the Torrini’s, and he’s wondering how he can get some of that for himself. I don’t think it is lost on him that what he has is a healthy and, generally, happy family, but it is forgotten in the moment.
As the family drives home from the party, Lilly is enthused about her own birthday coming up. Pam asks, “What do you want to do for your party, sweetie?” The narrator, drunk and sitting silently in the passenger’s seat, braces for his daughter’s response.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lilly says. “Nothing, I guess.”
Lilly knows. She knows what she wants, and she knows that her family doesn’t have the means to provide it for her. And the narrator knows that, as much as he wants to give his daughter everything, he will have to check his credit card statements and shift a couple hundred dollars in different accounts just to give Lilly any sort of birthday joy at all.
Here is where we get to death.
Throughout the entire story, the narrator fights his own reality, ignores it even. This isn’t all good (it leads to some illogical and shortsighted decisions). He has not given up on his American dream of getting rich and providing a lavish life for his family, but as each paragraph passes, those chances perish a little more.
And while the narrator may not be literally poor – although his bank accounts flirt with the coldness of $0.00, he still manages to keep a home and a job and provide necessities for his three children – semblances of poverty are everywhere. The narrator acknowledges them, even goes so far as to almost admitting them before backing away, as if that’s not acceptable, that’s not him and that’s not the life he’s going to live.
Is that denial? Is that a strong will? Is that the “American spirit?” Probably a little bit of everything.
While his own personal dreams die, so does the narrator’s grand image of being a provider. The entire story is an inner dialogue of consequences and perceptions. What will his kids think of him if he can’t give them everything they want? What will others think of him if he doesn’t share their same status? Will Lilly think he’s cheap if he can’t throw a birthday bash in the same stratosphere as the Torrini’s?
This is when I became enraptured with the narrator and the story of Eva and the SGs took a backseat in my own reading. The story revolves around Lilly and Eva, but here was a father debating his 13-year-old daughter’s ability to comprehend frugality, as if he was so unsure of his own standing with his children that he needed to solidify it with gifts. For me, the story no longer was about Lilly and the rest.
It was about the insecurities and self-doubts of the narrator. It was about the death of how he viewed himself as an achiever and how he viewed himself as a provider and a parent. It was about the death of purpose – i.e. a lack thereof – in his life.
The narrator won $10,000 on a scratch-off and used a lot of that money to obtain the SGs (part of his answer for the big birthday celebration). Yes, the SGs hung in his backyard, seemingly under his control and at his mercy, an ornament of success.
But if we view them as intended, as a metaphor for the oppressed working to become independent of oppression, then they have always had something they narrator does not. The have a direction. They have goals in front of them.
They are not wandering aimlessly in the world, wondering if their dreams were no longer ahead, but behind them, wondering if it’s quickly becoming too late to live up to one’s self-inflicted expectations.
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