George Saunder’s short story “10th of December” provides an interesting perspective into someone suffering from memory loss. One narrator, Don Eber, attempts suicide during the story because he is terminally ill and no treatment has worked. He sees his death as inevitable and fears what will happen to him before he dies. His stepfather went through a similar disease, and Don watched as the man he loved faded away as his stepfather’s mind deteriorated further. Don is already suffering similar symptoms, forgetting certain words, parts of his life, and almost his own name. Don wishes to commit suicide to spare his family the pain he felt watching his stepfather die. Diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have incredibly painful effects on those suffering it. This story stuck out to me because I’ve seen how memory loss can affect people. I also understand the fear about whether something like that could happen to yourself. Forgetting who you are is a terrifying idea.
In The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders, Semplica Girls (SG’s) are immigrants that hang on a wire as ornaments in wealthy homeowners’ lawns, including that of the narrator, as signs of status and wealth. The underlying message of the story suggests that we should make visible the ways that immigrants support the lifestyles and economy of the wealthy and humanize them by building mutual recognition/respect.
Saunders shocks his audience when he reveals the conditions of the SG’s. For example, he explains how the SG’s are hanging multiple feet in the air, swaying in the breeze:
We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet of ground, smiling, swaying in a slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldova), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philippines)pg. 133
While it’s almost unthinkable to have people working in conditions like this: wires strung through their heads, swinging in the wind, Saunders brings to light an inescapable truth: most immigrants today are exploited and mistreated in their workplaces, yet done so in the shadows. Take for example, sweatshop workers that make ‘fast fashion,’ hotel housekeepers, and migrant farmworkers.
The narrator’s daughters seem to be the only members of the family that recognize the humanity of the SGs. Lily interviews the SGs and creates a poster about their real lives:
Gwen (Moldova) = very tough due to Moldovian youth…. Lisa (Somalia) once saw a lion on the roof of her uncle’s “mini-lorry”….”Fun Fact”: their names (Betty, Tami, et al.) not their real names. These= SG names given by Greenway.pg. 166
In getting to know them, Lily and Eva create what psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin would define as ‘Mutual Recognition,’ or, the idea that we look for the common traits between us rather than what’s different. In other words, they humanized the SGs. This compels Eva to free the SGs. I connected to this part of the story after my experience working in a restaurant and befriending several immigrants working behind the scenes in the kitchen. After hearing their stories, I felt compelled to help them as well. Immigrants are often villainized in our society, but Saunders’ story helps us to see the importance of humanizing them, making their stories visible, and being more inclusive.
In George Saunders’ short story “Victory Lap” the ending is left ambiguous. Did the boy kill the kidnapper, ending his own life, or was he stopped? Some take an optimistic view believing that the boy was prevented. While I do not indefinitely think that this perspective is incorrect, I do think that it is incorrect to say the Saunders is overall an optimistic writer.
Saunders is notorious for using the setting of wacky theme parks to stress the ills of the US capitalistic work system. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror each feature what would normally be fun, inviting fantastical worlds: two theme parks and a museum. He chooses these settings to create controlled environments where work is central and culture is replicated for the purposes of profit. However, in his unique storytelling way, Saunders renders these settings absurd with the horrors that unfold. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders believes that American culture and history have been reduced and molded into something simply for the purpose of profit. These theme parks show the ways American culture has been twisted into a form of entertainment. In other words, the theme park setting boils down American culture. The theme parks include a Civil War theme (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) and a caveman theme (Pastoralia). The presence of these parks highlight a broad critique of America’s way of profiting off of its history and dumbing down its cultural value.
In addition to his settings, Saunders’ story lines aren’t positive. The old lady kills herself, the man is forced to rat out his coworker, the Vietnam veteran indiscriminately shoots innocent people, human immigrant girls are used as lawn ornaments for the rich. It goes on and on. Time and time again Saunders critiques the ills of humanity, holding up a mirror to the worst parts of society. Looking at George Saunders’ writing as a whole I think it is safe to say that he cannot be categorized as a positive writer. Therefore, dismissing a negative ending to “Victory Lap” may be an oversight.