Thursday, December 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 20 & 27, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 69.

What makes us human? What makes us tick? This is the sort of unanswerable philosophical conundrum some turn to fiction for, and what I, particularly, appreciate about the speculative satires of George Saunders, who takes things to extremes in order to deal with some very basic truths. In this possible future, Jeff works as a glorified lab rat, doing this world's form of prison service, and he'd be angrier about it, save for the fact that what they're testing on him are drip-controlled modifications to humanity itself, from the physical of Vivistif (a sort of Viagra) to the mental of Verbaluce (a boost to one's IQ re: verbal communication), and now the emotional of ErthAdmire, which in the first segment is simply being used to make nature look better, but in the rapidly escalating second section is being used to convince Jeff that he's in love with fellow subject Heather . . . and isn't he? And therein lies the tragedy of this opening, as the drugs wear off:

"I spent all lunchtime thinking. It was weird. I had the memory of fucking Heather, the memory of having felt the things I'd felt for her, the memory of having said the things I'd said to her. My throat was like raw from how much I'd said and how fast I'd felt compelled to say it. But in terms of feelings? I basically had nada left."

The problem with Saunders is that his stories all sound the same, which is to say, clinical. And even the plots tend to be the same, as they all gradually ramp up and escalate. And moreover, they always feel false, in a way that the better work of David Foster Wallace manages to avoid. This is not to say that this story is a poor one, but there's something too on-the-nose about Saunders's situations. For instance, as a control, Jeff is now made to fall in love with Rachel, and though he's pumped full of all-consuming lust for her, he manages to narrate to us -- reservedly, in his subconscious -- exactly what is going on: "I guess I was sad that love was not real? Or not all that real, anyway? I guess I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone, and all because of something Abnesti was doing." 

To his credit, especially given the length of the story (ten pages), Saunders manages to fully explore the surface of his world, showing us Utica Labs, giving us a picture of Dr. Abensti's callous testing attitude and his coldly logical banter with assistant Verlaine, and to refine the nuances of the test -- not just about identifying whether Love can be turned on and off at whim (so that we are no longer doomed to be "rudderless ships") but whether vestiges of those artificial feelings will remain. To that end, they force Jeff to watch Heather pumped full of the suicide-inducing Darkenfloxx, and make him narrate his feelings toward her: though she dies, at least they know Jeff feels only natural empathy for her. There's also a neat twist in that although Jeff is required to OK each procedure ("Drip on?" they ask; "Acknowledge," he is supposed to reply), if he refuses, they can simply get a waiver to give him Docilryde: "'See, that, to me, makes zero sense,' Abenesti said. 'What good's an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?'"

Ultimately, despite the great premise, Saunders doesn't really do anything substantive with the concept, and as I've mentioned, his writing is more functional than flashy, so there's not much there, either. For language and speculation, I find myself thinking of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy; for the meaning of love? I'd rather read Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story again.

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