"Escape from Spiderhead"
by George Saunders
Originally published in the December 20 & 27, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

I love reading George Saunders, so I’m glad The New Yorker‘s 2010 year of fiction is ending with him. I usually read The New Yorker stories in the order they are published, but I made an exception here, hoping that Saunders would provide a needed bump in my New Yorker reading energy. I glad to say that, though this is not my favorite of his stories, I got the bump I needed. Really, George Saunders is fantastic.

And, as seems to often be the case when I read him, Saunders begins this story by making the reader completely disoriented. What is going on?

“Drip on?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“What’s in it?” I said.

“Hilarious,” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

It turns out that our narrator, Jeff, is a test subject. What we just read above is a test for a new druge called NatuGlide, or maybe ErthAdmire. Through some type of MobiPak™ that Jeff carries on his back, Dr. Abnesti is able to control his emotions and his abilities. It’s fun when Abnesti drips into Jeff some Verbaluce™ to help him express himself more clearly and more poetically (his initial response to Abnesti’s question after getting the NatuGlide drug was “Garden looks nice . . . .  Super clear.”).

Now, it’s true that I usually don’t like these types of futuristic stories where the author declaims our current state of affairs, exaggerates all of our worst inclinations, and tries to be clever with future brand names. I despised Margaret Atwood’s latest for just this type of cutesy warning about big corporations and the destruction of the environment in The Year of the Flood, and I didn’t find Gary Shteyngart’s short story “Lenny Hearts Eunice” any more appealing. And, honestly, often Saunders scares me by making me think he’s trying to eke out a verdict on contemporary life by showing a dystopian future. But somehow, he always gets by.

The story continues when Jeff is put in a room with a “pale tall girl.”

“What do you think?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“Me?” I said. “Or her?”

“Both,” Abnesti said.

“Pretty good,” I said.”

“Fine, you know,” she said. “Normal.”

Abnesti asked us to rate each other more quantifiably, as per pretty, as per sexy.

It appeared we liked each other about average, i.e., no big attraction or revulsion either way.

But soon they have a drug dripped into them that makes them feel a heated passion for one another. They make love three times right on the couch, unashamed in the fulfillment of their heart’s deepest desire for each other. Afterwards, they lie together on the couch, deeply in love (“That was what we had just made three times: love.”), and they have the benefit of Verbaluce™:

Afterward, our protestations of love poured forth simultaneously, linguistically complex and metaphorically rich: I daresay we had become poets. We were allowed to lie there, limbs intermingled, for nearly an hour. It was bliss. It was perfection. It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

But then, as part of the experiment, Abnesti would like to bring them down to baseline again. Neither Jeff nor the girl really wanted this — they were, after all, in love — but they accept it and are soon baffled they had had any feelings toward each other at all. Later that day, the same experiment is carried out again with a different girl, to the same result. Jeff cannot believe that in one day he has had sex three times with two different women, fallen in love with each of them, and then fallen out of love just as suddenly.

This is, really, just the beginning of this experiment, and just the beginning of this story which gets much darker and much more disturbing. Thankfully — and this is why Saunders uses these strange elements to better effect than either of the two I mentioned above — the story is not about the runaway amoralism of science. It is not about the dangers of doing social experiments on human beings (in this case, convicted felons). That is all just part of the structure of a story that delves much more deeply into human nature and into feelings we all experience, even if we haven’t lived the horrors Jeff does. Saunders can make the ludicrous feel (too) close to home.

Of course, Saunders himself says it much better than I can in his interview with The New Yorker about this story:

I’ve done a lot of (mostly defensive) thinking about this darkness thing, and have formulated a good amount of shtick along the way. So thanks for asking!  One of the most truthful answers I’ve come up with is just to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, who said that a writer can choose what he writes about, but can’t choose what he makes live. Somehow — maybe due to simple paucity of means — I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining.  And he’s made of sugar.

Are people made of sugar? Is it raining? How often does a guy get cut in half on his birthday? Still, the story about the sugar-guy being cut in half on his birthday in the rain is not saying: this happens. It is saying, If this happened, what would that be like? Its subject becomes, say, undeserved misery — which does happen. We know that, we feel it. And maybe (the argument goes) it was necessary to make this exaggerated, sugar-guy and cut him in half in order to remind ourselves, at sufficient volume, that undeserved misery exists — to sort of rarify and present that feeling so we might feel in anew.

Anyway, that’s the theory.

I hadn’t actually read his interview before I wrote up this post, but I’m glad to see Saunders and I are inline on another point. The interviewer asked, “Seems to me there are many layers of sociopolitical commentary here. Do you have a particular target in mind, or are there several? Animal-testing? Death row? Big pharma?” And Saunders answer:

I think what I do (more by inclination than design) is to put these surficial, quasi-political elements in my stories, just as a means of getting the story told; that is, their function may be more distractive than instructive. A reader might feel, at first, “Ah, I see, this story is making a social commentary — that’s what it exists,” and then, while she’s distracted, the story does . . . something else. Hopefully something a little more, if you see what I mean.

This story certainly does. I’d be disappointed if the point of this story were to shoot down the easy targets of animal-testing, death row, and big pharma.

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By |2016-06-27T14:34:51-04:00December 14th, 2010|Categories: George Saunders, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett December 14, 2010 at 2:16 am

    New fiction up — this time from one of my favorites, George Saunders. This is also the last issue of the year, giving me plenty of time to read it and the two I’m behind on.

  2. Thomas December 15, 2010 at 7:34 am

    For the most part, this was one of the better stories I’d read in TNY in some time. Saunders is one of my absolute favs too, mainly because he consistently delivers.

    I couldn’t help but recall Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” which came out last summer, but then I chided myself and remembered that Saunders is the true creator of this brand of fiction. However, I do think there are sections where Shteyngart would have done it better. I think there were a few missed opportunities for additional humor.

    The only part of this story I really didn’t like was the ending. As I neared the end, I thought to myself “Oh boy, I hope he doesn’t…” and then he did. It just felt like a failed attempt to pull at the heartstrings–something Saunders has done way better in stories like “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”. The ending didn’t come as a surprise to me in “Spiderhead” and I kind of felt cheated.

  3. Ken December 16, 2010 at 5:28 am

    I liked this too. He’s a very imaginative writer and stylistically a virtuoso. The central idea that it’s ironic to make people kill as punishment for being murderers is nothing special. It’s similar to the irony of the death penalty as punishment for murder. The idea of freedom via suicide as a redemptive act and showing of free will in protest against this corporate future as a prisoner/product-tester is not terribly original either. But the imaginative and gripping way which he tells the story makes it completely compelling.

  4. Trevor Berrett December 16, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    I couldn’t wait until I’d caught up to read this story. Happy to say, Saunders delivered for me, and my thoughts are posted above.

  5. Trevor Berrett December 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Thomas, I also thought of Shteyngart, but not in a favorable way. I hope I explain it decently in my thoughts above, but I appreciate that for Saunders the humor and the commentary on society does not come before character and some deeper themes. I agree that I kind of felt cheated by the ending. I would have liked to see Saunders come up with a more unique way of helping Jeff escape, or, heck, just make him go through with the experiment.

    Ken, I also agree that those themes are nothing new, but I don’t think they are central either. To me, they are part of the structure of the story and not the story’s themes. I’m no lover of big corporations, but I would be disappointed if Saunders used his talents to predict a bleak future due to current corporate greed and amorality. For one thing, what he is describing in this story was much more likely to happen (though not technologically possible) in the recent past and then throughout history. It may be likely to happen again in the future, but I’m glad Saunders isn’t making this story a warning story. Rather, to me, he is examining human nature in extremis, and what causes the extreme is incidental. I liked the deeper look at human nature. Here is a murderer (though not, I believe, an unrepentent one) who feels nothing for a girl and yet cannot bring himself to be a part of her suffering.

    Again, not his best story, but a great one nonetheless.

  6. Joe December 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    My feelings about this story echo some of what Trevor wrote above. Like him, I don’t normally like futuristic stories. And I’m not usually a fan of “clever” writers who have a particular schtick. But George Saunders always seems to pull it off. This story really pulled me along for the ride.

    One of the things I like? Is how George Saunders captures the maddening way young people speak these days. Where everything is a question? If any other writer did this, I’d probably say “Okay, I get the joke” and stop reading after a few minutes, but all the verbal shenanigans actually makes some sort of larger sense when Saunders does it.

    An end-of-year-note to Trevor: I haven’t been as constant a contributor as I’d hoped when I first discovered this site, but I’ve really enjoyed the reviews and the community you’ve built here. Thanks you, and best wishes to you and the rest of the Mookse gang for a happy 2011.

  7. Trevor Berrett December 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, Joe. I’m looking forward to 2011 too. I will be changing slightly the format of this New Yorker forum, but it will still be here — in fact, I’m hoping it will be a more visible part of this blog.

  8. Betsy December 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for the bit from the interview with Saunders. That was interesting. Yes. He’s entertaining and puzzly and funny and very good at the interwoven future/now colloquy and just catches us into the whole fascinating story. But most of all, I was deeply moved that Jeff, having seen Heather suffer, would take the Darkenfloxx without knowing whether he would die, and without knowing whether his death would save Rachel. There’s a question here about who of us is Abnesti, who is Jeff. Who of us really sees the suffering we ought to see. Who of us would make that same leap, not knowing if it would do any good.

  9. Aaron December 30, 2010 at 5:41 am

    It’s funny; I also immediately though of Atwood (Oryx & Crake, in my case) and the recent Shteyngart novel, but in my eyes, I found both of those to be better. I’ve laid out more of my problems with Saunders in general here, but in addition to agreeing with everyone about the lame ending, I’d add that while I like the situations, and I think he organically builds the tension and comedy, I once again have no connection to his clinical narrator, no real grip on the emotion. I say this because I’m struck by your observation that “for Saunders the humor and the commentary on society does not come before character and some deeper theme”; in my eyes, character is almost always what’s missing.

  10. Tim December 30, 2010 at 5:41 am

    While the ending was predictable, I don’t think it was bad. Interesting that Saunders thought this story would be his next novel, and had Jeff escaping the facility, but got stuck with what would happen after the escape. Easy fix: death.

  11. Lee Monks February 11, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I think this is the strongest story in the collection, although I enjoyed most of them. I do see why you’ve grown a little tired of Saunders, though. I think his main problem now is that he seems very interested in writing ‘O Henry vs Modernity’ tales that are very conscious of a Flannery O’Connor/John Cheever precedent but which flaunt their contemporality as a kind of apology for their increasing conventionality. Most of the tales in Tenth of December seem to have had a quirky futurism bolted on to encompass matters he feels too ashamed of failing to incorporate more subtly. He’s a brilliant comic writer who clearly doesn’t trust his elan enough to write something indirect, and that’s a shame. I thought that Home was, in parts, dazzling, and more amenable to his attributes (I know it irked you). The Semplica Girl Diaries similarly has moments of great comic brio but ultimately feels like George Saunders pretending to be Donald Barthelme pretending to be George Saunders, with an eye on the hiplit crowd.

    The title story has a problem that I think most short stories that appear in the New Yorker have: it’s briliiantly constructed but it vanishes once you’ve rolled your eyes over the last word. I don’t suppose re-reading Everything That Rises Must Converge straight after Tenth of December helped much! Though it’s a useful parallel: the Flannery O’Connor book contains stories that slowly build and then jolt beautifully: you can kind of see where she’s going and yet every time you shudder. The Saunders stories are often warped whimsicalities that flaunt their ephemerality but with a kind of metahope of evincing substance. When it works (here) it’s fantastic. Too often it’s admirable, and everything works, but it’s too neat and ineffectual.

  12. Trevor Berrett February 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    I’m glad you shared your thoughts with us, Lee. I have to say, I’m sad that you see why I’ve grown tired of them. I hoped it was just me.

    I’m still hopeful he’s got his best work in him; hopefully that trust thing you mention will come through, but with the reception this book has received I’m not sure it will go in the right direction.

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