George Saunders' horrifying tale of sex, drugs and manufactured eloquence, in the New Yorker

Illustration for article titled George Saunders' horrifying tale of sex, drugs and manufactured eloquence, in the New Yorker

This week's New Yorker features a new story by the master of postmodern alienation, George Saunders. In "Escape from Spiderhead," a man named Jeff serves as a guinea pig for a love potion... and then things get really weird.


"Spiderhead" is in many ways your standard George Saunders story — the protagonist is a guy who's almost completely devoid of distinguishing characteristics, there's institutional cruelty so extreme, it lurches into absurdism, and civilization itself is revealed to be a kind of coercive hallucination. Where "Spiderhead" shines, though, is in the description of Jeff's experiences on the love drug ED556, especially once he takes Verbaluce (TM) and becomes hyper-eloquent about what he's experiencing. The idea that love could just be a chemical reaction isn't a new one, but Saunders' callous scientists find increasingly bizarre and Zimbardo-esque means of testing that idea.

Here's how it starts:

"Drip on?" Abnesti said over the P.A.

"What's in it?" I said.

"Hilarious," he said.

"Acknowledge," I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

I said out loud, as I was supposed to, what I was feeling.

"Garden looks nice," I said. "Super-clear."

Abnesti said, "Jeff, how about we pep up those language centers?"

"Sure," I said.

"Drip on?" he said.

"Acknowledge," I said.

He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

You can read the rest at the link. [The New Yorker]

Top image: I Modi by Bill Armstrong.



Wow. That had me flashing back to freshman-level Ethics with more than a pinch of Existentialism and some Metaphysics thrown in. It's times like these that I'm glad I was a philosophy major.

Personally, I believe we are already facing these very issues today, just in a relatively crude fashion. If the accuracy and control of psychotropic drugs continue to improve at the rate they have been, we will see this scenario play out easily within our lifetimes.

On a completely unrelated note though, the product placement for iMac and Skype really disrupted the narrative for me.