You may not know this, but George Saunders is a holiday writer: he writes about trying to bring joy to people you love and messing it up. In “My Flamboyant Grandson,” a grandfather risks governmental discipline to smuggle his grandson into the musical extravaganza “Babar Sings”; in the personal essay “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” a young Saunders watches his fellow roofer gamble away all his Christmas money, and another coworker take it from him; in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a father uses his scratch-off winnings to decorate his family’s yard like richer families he knows so his daughter won’t be embarrassed at her birthday party.
These stories make me panic, the same way I do when I think about a child spending all their money on a claw machine: don’t you know it’s rigged? Saunders knows, of course; in his New Yorker interview accompanying “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” he says, “You love [your kids] so much and, especially in our culture, you don’t want to come up short . . . in a time like ours, when materialism is not only rampant and ascendant but is fast becoming the only game in town.” And dystopian materialism’s all over these stories (duh). To make sure his daughter isn’t embarrassed in front of her wealthy classmates, the father of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purchases a strand of trendy Semplica Girls: women from third-world countries who have signed contracts to serve terms as living lawn ornaments, their heads modified so they can be strung on a thread. These women, in turn, send the money they earn from working as Semplica Girls to their families back home.
This is what we are willing to do for our loved ones: exploit others, pay ungodly sums of money, and do hard, debasing, boring work. In our Santa equals Coca-Cola world, to do so is necessary. The grandfather of “My Flamboyant Grandson” is punished for skipping mandatory ads to get to “Babar Sings!” on time by being forced to travel back to New York and walk the streets of holographic advertisements that he missed, as blood soaks his socks.
But “Babar Sings!” is actually wonderful, and actually changes the grandson’s life. That’s the dream: that the blood spots in your shoes are worth it for those joyful moments. We get another rare Saunders second of respite in “Festive,” a bedtime story Saunders wrote and performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015. It takes the form of a diary entry from a recently laid-off father attempting to get his children on board with a more modest Christmas; it reads like a realist “Semplica” without the casualties, with hope instead of devastation at the end.
Take a look: