Thanks to Keith Hood for playing my “Puzzle the Prof “ game during Short Story Month. Keith’s query is about George Saunders' story “Escape from Spiderhead,” which was selected for Best American Short Stories: 2011 and was included in his highly praised collection this year, Tenth of December. I commented briefly on “Escape from Spiderhead” in blogs on both those collections, but said little about it because it is a “concept” “satiric” story, which I did not see as one of Saunders’ best.
What bothers Keith about the story is the ending, which is narrated by the first-person narrator after he kills himself. Keith says when he realized that the ending of the story was going to be narrated from the beyond, he did “a mental equivalent of throwing something at the TV saying, "No, no, no. You can't end a first person narration that way. You've destroyed all believability."
For me, the issue of “believability” in a story is determined by my understanding of the “kind” of story it is, and since for me “Escape from Spiderhead” is a concept/satiric story, its believability is not dependent on its sticking to the rules of everyday reality, but rather sticking to the rules of the concept or satiric target that unifies it.
Saunders is not coy or mysterious about the concept at the center of this story. At one point, Abnesti, the lab tech responsible for administering the experimental drugs to the human lab rats in the Spiderhead lab, states it quite explicitly. After having been induced by drugs to fall in love with (not just be sexually aroused by) two young women, Jeff is asked to decide which one he would choose to be administered a drug that induces suicidal depression. When he cannot make a choice, Abnesti says the fact that he is totally cleansed of love for the two women is a “fantastic game-changer,” that they have unlocked a “mysterious eternal secret.” If someone cannot love, the drug can make him love, if someone loves too much, the drug can tone it down. “No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift…. Can we stop war? We can sure as heck slow it down!” With the drug, soldiers can be made to feel fond of each other, dictators can become great friends.
The satiric target is, of course, the contemporary use of drugs, many of which already exist, to govern the emotions,—drugs that induce euphoria, reduce (or cause) depression, create or increase desire, increase energy, etc. The broad concept that governs the story is the eternal problem of human aggression. Perhaps the most famous fictional exploration of this issue is Anthony Burgess’s novel Clockwork Orange, which Saunders obviously echoes in “Escape from Spiderhead.”
At every given moment throughout human history, people have killed each other for a variety of reasons, or sometimes for no reason at all. It is the ultimate element of human freedom to be able to do so. The Judeo/Christian mythos situates the origin of this freedom in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s murder of his brother is the first sin of man against man in the Old Testament. But it is a sin that is possible only because of the previous Original Sin of humans against God. As a result of eating the apple, the first humans are cast out of the Garden—separated from the God and nature with which they were formerly at one. However, perhaps the most important result of the Fall is the separation of human beings from each other.
The story of Cain and Abel is the inevitable result of this separation--a series of cumulative symbolic objectifications of the implicit reality of the Fall. No real explanation is given for God’s making a distinction between the two brothers. Cain has given his best just as Abel has. It is certainly not, as many casual readers think, that Cain offered rotten fruit. Moreover, it trivializes the symbolic significance of a powerful story simply to attribute the distinction to the historical notion that the Old Testament God was partial to blood sacrifices.
God’s distinction may be better understood as an explicit objectification of what is implicit in the Fall: All humans, even brothers, are ultimately separate. By this act, God says, “You are isolated from one another. It is therefore possible to make a distinction between you.” Cain reacts to this realization by testing it in the extreme—by rising up against Abel and slaying him. Cain kills Abel because he can, because he is separate from him, because he is free to do so. God’s response is, of course, to make Cain the original symbol of isolated man. He cuts him off from other men completely: “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Thus begins the nightmare reality of man’s isolation from his fellow man—a reality that makes him horrifyingly free to slay his brother because he is separate from him.
When Jeff witnesses Heather’s anguish after being given the drug Darkenfloxx, and when he is given the drug Verbaluce, he eloquently expresses the central concept of the story: “Every human is born of man and woman. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love.” He feels a great tenderness hard to “distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain?”
When Jeff must witness the other girl Rachel suffer, for the sake of the experiment, the suicide-inducing Darkenfloxx, he resists even though Abnesti tells him, “ A few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel, years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks.” When he realizes that they are going to Darkenfloxx Rachel just to hear him describe it, he knows that if he is not there to describe it, they would not do it.
Jeff’s decision to take an overdose of Darkenfloxx himself is a decision to sacrifice himself for the sake of Rachel. Within the Judeo/Christian mythos, it is the Christ like decision to endure death in order to be resurrected to eternal life. Death, of course, is the ultimate human mystery—a mystery that gives rise to all religion. Since an experience of the afterlife cannot be verified, there is no way the ideal of redemption can be substantiated except to follow Jeff’s consciousness into that afterlife.
The notion of dying and then immediately hovering above the world one has just left is one of the most common concepts of after-death stories--from simple popular ghost stories to complex theological resurrection stories. Within the Christian mythos, the ultimate aim of a life of sin and separation is to achieve redemption, thus ending a life of separation and entering that pre-Fall state of complete at-oneness. To quote the words of an old hymn I heard my father sing as a child: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” Thus, “Escape from Spiderhead” ends with an experience of the ultimate escape from our fallen state:
“From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
In my opinion, from the perspective of the concept on which I think Saunders’ story is based, Jeff’s ascension into the afterlife of at-oneness, is not only believable, it is inevitable.
Thanks again to Keith Hood for his “Puzzle the Prof” challenge. I do not pose my explanation of the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” as the only answer to his query—merely as my attempt to solve a narrative puzzle.
More "Puzzle the Prof" challenges in a couple of days.