BASS 2011: George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” from The New Yorker, 12/20/10

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

New Yorker art: Bill Armstrong, “I MODI” (2009)

It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this comtemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

Hello I am Zin! I seem to be on my own here so I will take on the mantle of responsibility and talk about this story as well! The idea was to complete this anthology by January 1, and although that did not happen, now is not the time to stop short. I hope things will get back to normal in the next day or two.

I like George Saunders. I like his general outlook and I like many of his stories! I liked this story. But I liked it when he wrote it in Persuasion Nation and I liked it when I saw Clockwork Orange and I liked it when I read 1984 too. It is just a little too been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt-saw-the-movie-learned-the-theme-song-played-with-the-action-figures. Still, it was gripping. And it took a while before I realized I had read it before.

The beginning of the story is very confusing. It is like coming into a conversation where people are talking in shorthand or their own jargon and I had no idea what was going on. That is exactly what was happening! Jeff and Abnesti are having a conversation, using phrases like “Drip On” and “Acknowledge” and we have no idea what that means. It straightens itself out soon enough.

Jeff is a criminal of some kind (we find out later he killed someone in a rage when he was a teenager) and is in a treatment facility testing rehabilitative drugs in lieu of prison. The drugs are not necessarily targeted to him. One drug creates the sensation of romantic love. Another bestows eloquence (one of my favorite things about this story is the change in prosody when Jeff is on this drug, as in the above quote, and then he changes back to ordinary speech as the effect wanes). And then there is the dreaded Darkenfloxx, which kindles a deep and painful depression. I wonder what kind of use that has, other than as used in the story: a threat.

You can read the story online, so I will not recap the plot. It is pretty much what you would expect: Jeff is in a position where harm will be inflicted and he can not prevent it, so he needs to escape from Spiderhead. Spiderhead is the name given to the control room of the facility. When I heard the title of the story (a long time ago; I actually read it last year) I thought for some reason it had something to do with a wilderness adventure on ski trails. I have no idea where that came from!

Thing is, Jeff is cured in that he will no longer kill ever, but his cure means his death, so it is a rather Pyrrhic cure. The stated objective of the experiment is to see if he has any romantic feelings of any kind for either of the girls he was chemically in love with, but I think it is more complicated than that! I think he is provoked into his death, thus proving his cure! Of course, it is a mess, but that is what George Saunders usually has to say about government or corporate interference.

The Book Bench interview is wonderful! He jokes about having taken a small dose of the eloquence drug, and it is funny, that is exactly what I was thinking as I read his long answers! But they are very interesting and I highly recommend you read the interview even if you are not interested in the story! Here are some of the things he says:

I am not very good on questions of intentionality, i.e., questions of the “Why did you do that?” variety. I think the writer’s main job is to provide a wild ride for the reader. So most of what I’m doing on a given day is just trying to ensure that the wild ride happens, trusting and hopeful that the thematics will take care of themselves.

In his BASS Contributor Notes, he says he does not really remember what he was thinking when he wrote the story, but he has always been interested in “who we are seems to have an awful lot to do with just simple chemistry, much as we like to think otherwise.”

… you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water.

That reminds me of what Steve Almond said about the writer forcing the characters up against their deepest fears and desires!

…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.

Many people I respect love this story, and I enjoyed it, I just thought it was not his most original work. And George Saunders is someone who is usually so very original, I guess I have a different standard for him. That is the price of greatness!

One response to “BASS 2011: George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” from The New Yorker, 12/20/10

  1. Pingback: BASS 2011: Final Thoughts « A Just Recompense

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