George Saunders's story "Escape from Spiderhead," in the current New Yorker, has echoes of Daniel Keyes's "Flowers For Algernon," as well as some previous Saunders stories: the clinical horror of "93990" and the clinical entrapment of "Jon"; along with an ending that's quite similar to the ending of "CommComm." At times it veers on the edge of the thought-experiment quality that made "In Persuasion Nation" and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil less successful as fully realized fictional worlds. But, on the whole, it's a gripping story, a "wild ride," to use Saunders's own term from this fascinating and illuminating interview with Deborah Treisman—and it lingers in one's mind.
In the interview, Saunders asserts that "if the writer is doing his job the story will have an understory that steadily becomes more apparent." In Saunders's own best work, the "understories" are multifaceted and echo off each other in interesting ways. Thus "Jon" can be a re-working of Plato's cave allegory, a satire of our modern advertising-soaked brains, an intiation story, as well as a human drama "about having to rise to the occasion of love," as Saunders puts it.
One of the understories in "Escape from Spiderhead," I think, is the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who was not only a friend of George Saunders but also very much akin to him as an artist.
Though another of Wallace's friends, Jonathan Franzen, dismisses the notion that DFW's suicide can be explained as being the result of a chemical imbalance, most accounts of Wallace's final months make it clear that he had gone off his normal meds because he disliked the side effects, but that the change in medication left him adrift, feeling the kind of terrifying depression that a character in Infinite Jest memorably compares to being in a top floor of a burning building, weighing the fear of immolation against the fear of jumping out the window to one's death. It seems to me that, in fact, recognizing the chemical aspect to Wallace's suicide is actually part of a humane and sympathetic response.
"Escape from Spiderhead" forces us to think about chemicals, about how much of what we think of as our identities depends upon the chemicals that our bodies produce. The prisoner test subjects in the story are all equipped with "MobiPaks" by which researchers intravenously pump drugs into them. These drugs can make them obedient, articulate, or sexually erect. Indeed, they can make them fall in love. Or they can make them suicidally depressed.
In the climax of the story, the main character chooses to dose himself with Darkenfloxx, which has already driven one test subject to destroy herself, in order to avoid being a party to the death of yet another. Here's the result:
Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined.... Then I was staggering around the Spiderhead, looking for something, anything. In the end, here’s how bad it got: I used a corner of the desk.
It's a horrifyingly succinct description of suicide—and the first thing I thought of as I read it was David Foster Wallace, and how his death could be summed up just as briefly and horrifyingly: belt, patio rafter. Also, how Wallace's death, judging by his own descriptions of suicidal depression, was probably precipitated by just this type of unbearable psychic pain.
Saunders's story, perhaps at some level inspired by its author's response to his friend's suicide, moves beyond Franzen's snarkily dismissive statement about chemical imbalances and confronts us instead with profound mysteries: What if our personalities, our actions, our happiness or sadness are, in large part, determined by the chemicals in our bodies, our brains? How do we understand ourselves and each other? How does that affect our notion of morality? How should that influence the organization of our societies? What does it mean to be human? To be humane?