Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from Spiderhead

**Spoiler Alert**

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?


k. beachy said...

I like this very much, Frank. And without much time, I'll just add another thing that seems interesting and perhaps revitalizing about the story, is that when Jeff makes his decision to dose himself as a way around dosing Rachel, he isn't under the influence of any (beyond the default...) intrusive chemicals. That is to say, his is a decision that transcends the chemical component of the story, true human volition indicative of a true human "self" immune, or at least tangential, to the "self" defined by chemicals. "But no," he says. "This was all me now."

That "me," it seems, is not only the hero of this story, but the heroic option for any of us -- one of ownership and responsibility.

framiko said...

Thanks, Kyle. And great point. I felt the same way about Verlaine's interpretation of Jeff's commentary on Heather's pain: “That’s all just pretty much basic human feeling right there.” When it comes down to it, Saunders does seem to have a faith that, whatever being human might mean, it means feeling empathy and, in one's best moments, choosing self-sacrifice for the sake of others. You see that at the end of "CommComm," and "The Falls," and "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz," and this story as well, of course.

It's an idea that has lots of Christian echoes. I saw Saunders read at Webster U. a number of years ago, and as he was signing my book I mentioned the religious elements of "Jon" (the facility as a type of inverted Eden, etc.). He said that he'd been raised Catholic, and that that stuff was "buried deep."

Tom Beshear said...

Nice blog, interesting subject. I came here via the link at The Millions.

The implications of all the questions you list: What if our personalities, our actions, our happiness or sadness are, in large part, determined by the chemicals in our bodies, our brains?, etc. -- are explored in a fine story by the Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan, titled "Reasons to be Cheerful." Egan is deeply interested in issues of identity and individuality -- another story, "Learning to be Me," might also be of interest.

framiko said...

Thanks, Tom. I hadn't heard of Greg Egan before. I'll have to check out the stories you mention.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's idea that "happiness is chemical," which he talked about in several speeches and in Breakfast of Champions: "Dwayne's bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and stick it in his mouth."

framiko said...

You're right, Anon. I forgot about that, even though I love Breakfast of Champions.

Laura B. said...

@kyle: I don't know about the "true self" notion. Once your brain chemistry has been wildly altered (several times in rapid succession no less), how can you know what or where your true self is anymore? Is Jeff's suicide really a self-sacrifice for the sake of another if he has no "self"? Is it this lack of self that allows him to make the decision to kill end his life (no self = no will to survive)?

@Frank: the above makes me wonder if one of the backstories of Escape is that the other, perhaps main goal of the prison chemical project was not simply behavior/emotional modification of the general population but also this very outcome, a kind of poetic justice: a murder's self-annihilation. What a nice, neat package, for in the process of creating a more controllable populace, you also eliminate the most volatile ones. (shiver)

Laura B. said...

Clearly the spelling/grammar part of my brain has not had enough coffee today. :-)