Friday, 2 May 2014

Of Free Will, And Not Killing: ‘Escape From Spiderhead’ By George Saunders

The stories of George Saunders never fail to create unique characters and life situations. But they can have devastating effects on readers on many occasions. I have come across quite a few such readers who react vehemently to the Saunders worldview. Why does he bend the moral situation too far that it almost breaks? But some, like me, may beg to differ. We think the very act of constant counter-cultural philosophizing is what makes his stories pertinent, and capable of disturbing the safe, established views.

     ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is a story which fights for a space between ‘Science’ and ‘Speculative’ Fiction. While science and dubious experiments are at the centre of the story, what really bothers us here is how human beings, even when they are reduced to lab rats, are capable of retaining free will. One may be reminded of all the previous works of literature and art that run on similar lines – ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Anthony Burgess), ‘The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ (Alan Sillitoe), ‘Solaris’ (the Tarkovsky movie), ‘Oryx and Crake’ (Margaret Atwood)  and so on. However, the story by Saunders doesn’t sound like a copy of any of them at any point, despite the fact that the moral dilemma presented in it is a shared feature in all of them, in various doses.
     Jeff is the central character in the story. He is revealed to be a wasted entity, the remnant of a young murderer after so many punishments, corrective measures and mind-altering experimentations. He is presented in the beginning as one among a bunch of similar people who are used for pharmaceutical tests. A set of drug-names that can be understood from the contexts are presented all through the pages –  VerbulaceTM, VeritalkTM, ChatEaseTM, TemperBerst, InstaRaje, LifeRooner, Bliss TymeTM, SpeedErUpTM  DarkenfloxxTM  and so on. They make Jeff and the other experimental scapegoats go through experiences that are monitored by someone named Abnesti. Verlaine is the one who administers the drugs.

     The first part shows how the drugs transform the perceptions of Jeff and others. They could see more than the ordinary in a garden or someone from the opposite sex under the influence of the drugs. Jeff has sex with two women, Heather and Rachel, three times each, in a ritualistic manner. He is even able to feel love in all the acts. But the catch is that when he is under another drug, everything returns to normal and the objects and human beings don’t excite him beyond a point. Even the feeling of love is erased, though the memory of love remains in his mind.
     Later on Jeff realizes that there had been a complex web of human interactions in a single day, involving him, the two women, and two other men, Rogan and Keith. They have all had the similar experiences among them and are then called to the task of choosing one of their sex partners who would then be administered DarkenfloxxTM. Jeff doesn’t want anyone to go through the emotionally damaging experience under DarkenfloxxTM. Given the choice, he says he would like them to choose someone at random, between Heather and Rachel. Abnesti is elated to know that all the participants react the same way, proving his hypothesis that love can be initiated and then erased fully, with no residual feelings, from human mind through the drugs. No one gets Darkenfloxxed.
     In the final part, Jeff is called once again for further confirmation of the findings. He is now forced to witness one among his partners, Heather, being administered DarkenfloxxTM. He has no choice but to watch her go through immense emotional turmoil immediately after the drug is administered. In a self-destructive despair she disassembles the impossible-to-disassemble chair in her room and using one of its legs she keeps harming, and eventually kills, herself. Jeff is administered drugs that stimulate his ‘language centers’ and is forced to describe what he sees: “I used my words. I spoke volumes, was precise.” Though Heather’s death upsets Abnesti, he is glad about the drug-induced Jeff’s reactions. 

Jeff is called once again to witness Rachel being administered DarkenfloxxTM. He refuses to undergo the experience once again, and Abnesti and Verlaine get busy with some red-tape regarding a waiver to administer a drug on Jeff without his consent. The quick self-reflecting time Jeff is granted reveals that he and all the fellow inmates are criminals who had gone through so many corrective measures and finally used for the pharmaceutical experimentations. Jeff grabs an opportunity to escape from all this manipulation. He decides that he cannot allow another human being to be killed, for whatever lofty concepts. He self-administers DarkenfloxxTM using the remote that Abnesti left near him in a hurry. His death is described in a chilling manner.
Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined. Soon my arm was about a mile down the heat vent. 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.
His death liberates him from the thought processes and linguistic restrictions inflicted upon him by other forces. He thinks deep on how much the so-called criminals like him were in control over their real lives, since they were born.
At birth, they’d been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuck-ups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life-enders?
Here, a striking parallel is drawn between the way the minds of the criminals are manipulated by the scientists and how the real mind of them prior to this, from the moment they were born, were manipulated by unseen forces – be it what they call God, life circumstances, or simply the way their mind is formed.
     Jeff doesn’t want to come back to life, at any cost. He just regrets the fact he was never able to explain anything to his mother. He chooses to join a group of birds and fly upwards – an image of a death and what could happen afterwards that may please a lot of readers and disappoint some others.
     Why does Saunders do this? Why does he have to disturb us so much? And why do some of us feel good after allowing ourselves to be so disturbed? His characters are allowed the freedom to escape from the traps that many of us, including Saunders, are not allowed to escape. Jeff says in the end, “…for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.” 
     It’s not all about killing. It’s about not doing what we wouldn’t, if we were fully ourselves, at any time.


  1. "It’s not all about killing. It’s about not doing what we wouldn’t, if we were fully ourselves, at any time." loved this one.. worth pondering over :)

  2. Thanks Lissy. Glad you found this interesting. I hope to post more on short fiction here.