"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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