#14: I Can Speak! by George Saunders


Available: The Burned Children of America

Zadie Smith was riding on the success of her debut novel White Teeth in 2001. By strange circumstance, she met Italian publishers Marco Cassini and Martina Testa during a literary festival in Mantova. Cassini and Testa ran a publishing house from home and one of the manuscripts they were working on was a collection of US fiction writers exploring what it meant to be an American citizen. David Foster Wallace once described it as “a stomach level sadness... a kind of lostness (sic).” Smith took this original collection and pitched it to Penguin, with her own words as a new introduction. By 2003, The Burned Children of America was released, including Dave EggersJonathan Safran FoerMyla Goldberg, and David Foster Wallace, all of whom were either already on their way or went on to major literary success.

The Story

The story here is in fact a letter from Rick Sminks, Product Service Representative at Kidluv, Inc to disgruntled customer Ruth Faniglia. Ruth has purchased an I Can Speak 1900 model from the company. As the story progresses, we realise both that the I Can Speak is a micro chipped mask placed on a baby’s face to verbalise their thoughts, and that Ruth was deeply dissatisfied with her model’s lack of interesting vocabulary and the mask’s tendency to make her baby look like a nervous middle aged woman.

Rick tells her he is writing this letter at lunchtime, so passionate is he about the I Can Speak. Moreover, he is keen to visit her house personally, and fit the newest model for her baby, one that takes a cast of the baby’s face to replicate their unique features of her first born. He goes on to explain how much joy him and his wife get from their son Billy’s model, and that not only will she improve her life, but the baby’s life too, who can’t be happy sitting around all day going “glub, glub, glub.”

The story continues, but giving more away more would spoil the many surprises in this story.

Why It Sticks

As mentioned by Zadie Smith, our generation (however loosely it may be defined) is the first to grow up with truly invasive advertising. Today’s advertisers no longer want our dollars, they want our commitment, and they want to be ingrained in the very acts of living we once considered exclusive. A certain soft drink now has “Open this can to hear the sound of happiness being unleashed” on its side, and a brief stroll in Malvern yesterday uncovered two shoe ads offering you the opportunity to reinvent yourself.

In this story, Saunders takes his product that next step further, where retail not only redefines your life, but that of those around you. Sminks’ tone in the letter is one of an old friend, yet beneath the surface friendliness is his patronising tone, a chilling belief that corporations really do know more about life than the consumers they serve.

At turns horrified and amused by Saunders story as I was, beneath these emotions was indeed a sadness. I felt lost, left gazing at a world where even our most basic loves and life journeys are under the threat of being commodified at any given moment.


David Foster Wallace's life was sadly cut short when he hung himself in September 2008, making this collection all the more relevant; of all the authors featured, his spoke most often about this sense of loss, wrtiting stories about the American experience that were in turns tragic, funny and provocative. Though his writing was also challenging (featuring elongated footnotes and at times distressing subject matter), his voice was authentic, and it's this authenticity that must remain in writing, in speech, and in our interactions with the world, when and wherever possible.