More and more these days what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed, like a couple of PeeWee football players, to see what happens. Who stays standing? Whose helmet goes flying off?
In that regard, “Escape From Spiderhead” is a straightforward enough tale from the PeeWee trenches: Its narrator, Jeff, is a prisoner forced to take part in an experiment to determine whether a drug is capable of generating feelings of love. To prove the hypothesis, Jeff pharmaceutically romances/is romanced by two women, then is asked to choose which of the two will receive a high dose of a Darkenfloxx, a joy-annihilating, potentially fatal drug. This particular Sophie’s Choice is a bust—Jeff could honestly take or leave either woman, so neither gets chosen. But the stakes get raised: The prison’s minders decide a better proof-of-concept would be to dose the women anyway, then record Jeff’s reaction.
Small wonder the story didn’t work out as a novel, as Saunders told the New Yorker. (“I had written many, many pages of a draft [“A novel,” I was thinking, all last summer, finally my novel!”] in which Jeff escaped, and it became a story about him hiding down in the town. But it didn’t really have much life in it.”) In imagining a environment where authority figures are concerned about “underloving or overloving,” Saunders has written a cousin to stories like “Harrison Bergeron”, in which the urge to keep a society even-keeled leads to all manner of cruelty and oppression. But Saunders has at least two new tricks up his sleeve. The first, as usual for him, is his tinkering with language—though “Spiderhead” isn’t as playful as another recent good-versus-evil story of his, “Victory Lap,” it captures Jeff’s joy as he rides the wave of Verbulace, a drug that makes him emotionally and rhetorically expansive (“…a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing…”), then falls dumb and simple as the drug wears off and Saunders yanks the leash (“Lunch came in. On a tray. Spaghetti with chicken chunks.” “Our talking became less excellent.”). And by setting the story in such a drab, institutional place, Saunders knows each image becomes almost absurdly vivid—none better than a fellow prisoner’s tattoo of a stabbed rat stabbing a rat.
The second trick is a little more devious: Saunders is asking the reader to make the same kind of choice that Jeff is compelled to. In the same way that Jeff is eventually told about the less-than-charming traits of the two women he artificially fell for, then asked to recalibrate his feelings toward them, Saunders delays telling us about Jeff’s “fateful night”—the reason he’s in prison—until near the end of the story. How much judgment can we throw down on a narrator who’s shown us such a good time before then? How can we begrudge the guy the urge to express the same kind of free will that we get to casually bring to reading a short story in a magazine? We root for him: story itself is roughly analogous to the love drug that got Jeff into this mess in the first place. “Spiderhead” would be harder to pull off in the third person—we have to be invested in Jeff to care about his concerns about freedom and control. Those themes are dangerous turf for fiction writers: Stories like this get easily co-opted as political fables (not for nothing did the National Review decide to reprint “Harrison Bergeron” in 1965). But Saunders isn’t that didactic and, well, un-fun; he makes sure to keep our focus on the “I” (Jeff) in prison, not the “we” who put him there and debases him.