A Different Kind of Love Language: “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders

I thought I’d do something a little different this month. Rather than writing about a novel, I want to look at a story from George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December. An adaptation of “Escape from Spiderhead” is hitting Netflix on Friday, a thing I have repeatedly forgotten. It was written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, the person who made a lot of dads’ summers with Top Gun: Maverick, and stars Chris Hemsworth as a character named Abnesti and Miles Teller as a character named Jeff.

More on them in a second.

Where this gets weird is: the story is unadaptable. Which obviously makes me more interested in the film, because I love it when people make films from unadaptable stories. I’m going to talk about it in some depth below, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want to be spoiled, or if you want to go in cold to Spiderhead, maybe skip down to the last paragraph and come back to this after you’ve read/seen them.

George Saunders is one of my favorite authors. (Full disclosure, I’ve met him once or twice, and he said very nice things about a short story of mine [in print no less!] but he was one of my favorite writers long before that.) He’s primarily a short story writer, which is great because the short story tends to be under-appreciated in litfic circles—people are always asking when the novel’s coming, as if novels are a superior art form, it’s weird. The stories have been collected into four books so far, with a new book, Liberation Day, coming this October. He’s written essays, some of which have been collected in The Braindead Megaphone. He did in fact write a novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which tore my stupid heart out of my chest, and which I reviewed for this very site. But maybe my favorite work of his so far is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, which is a craft book, but a very specific kind of craft book.

Saunders has been a professor in Syracuse’s MFA program for years, and he taught a particularly popular class on the Russian short story. And for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he took that class and turned it into a book, drawing from all the years of lectures, class discussions, and office hours with students, so the book is basically a guide through seven classic stories, presented in full, with a written “lecture” and writing exercises after each one. (And if you want to read an interview about a craft book, this one’s fantastic.)

Many of his stories tip into speculative fiction, sci-fi, and horror, and “Escape from Spiderhead”—well, actually, “Spiderhead” is probably more realistic than I want it to be. Like a lot of Saunders’ stories it’s about the subjective experience of consciousness, and how that translates into a moral worldview. The story opens with this:

“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.

Immediately we know we’re in something of a sci-fi story. A man named Abnesti is administering some sort of chemical drip to a subject; he thinks the idea of telling the subject what’s he’s about to be dosed with is funny; the subject is hooked up to something called a MobiPak™, which is trademarked; Abnesti doesn’t dose him until he says “Acknowledge.” We are utterly and completely in the perspective of the subject. (This is the Jeff I mentioned, btw.) These opening sentences kind of tell us everything we need to know about the story we’re about to enter. We witness Jeff’s thoughts as a constant, usually inarticulate stream, and slowly piece his situation together.

He’s part of an experiment. The man in charge, Abnesti, may or may not be a scientist—he seems to think and speak more like a marketing exec. The experiment involves flooding Jeff’s brain with different chemicals to enhance or suppress emotion and/or ability, e.g.: chemical compounds with names like Verbaluce™, which helps people express themselves in flights of poetry, and when in combination with a new compound like ED763, results in this:

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.

Abnesti’s thinking either NatuGlide™ or ErthAdmire™ for ED763’s brand name.

Then there’s Vivistif™, which doesn’t so much help you maintain an erection as force the erection to come back as an eternal return, and VeriTalk™, which is good ol’ fashioned truth serum, and things like the seemingly-unnamed ED556, which lowers your impulse toward shame. And while these seem like maybe, in careful doses, they could be helpful to humanity, the real goal of the study we see is much darker.

This story is spare. We have no idea how long the experiments have been going on. It’s told almost entirely through the terse dialogue between Jeff and Abnesti (with occasional interjections from Abnesti’s assistant, Verlaine) and through Jeff’s own thoughts. And unless Jeff’s on Verbaluce™, he can’t really describe things in much detail. We don’t know the size or shape of the facility, or how many participants there are. We know Jeff lives in a “Domain” but we have no idea what it looks like, if he’s allowed to personalize it. We know he gets to Skype with his Mom once a week, and that his day is divided by mealtimes. We know nothing of Abnesti and Verlaine beyond their willingness to test these chemicals on human subjects. We slowly learn that the participants are there voluntarily, in that way where “voluntary” means “it was this or prison.” The room where almost all the action takes place is Small Workroom 2 and the Spiderhead—the the room in the center of the various Workrooms. The Workrooms have a desk, a couch, and a chair, and they’re outfitted with one-way mirrors—but Jeff doesn’t describe carpeting, or wallpaper, or anything beyond saying the furniture is “impossible to disassemble”. In the Spiderhead itself, Abnesti sits at the table watching the Workrooms through one-way mirrors, while Verlaine sits at a different table (presumably more of a console) where he controls the amounts of chemicals flowing into the MobiPak™s. We know that the MobiPak™s are on the subject’s backs, and that Abnesti can also control the chemicals via a remote control.

We never learn the name of Abnesti’s company, or even if he’s the one fully in charge—is there a board he answers to? There’s a legal department, we hear about them. But there’s no moment where Saunders zooms out to let us see an enormous island complex full of enslaved test subjects. There’s no moment of Abnesti entering a glass-walled corner office to take a sinister phone call from a government official, or a low-level worker waiting at the docks to receive a shipment of new chemicals. The only other place name we hear is Albany, so presumably the complex is somewhere in New York State.

The story is mainly concerned with one test—a test of chemical so new it doesn’t have a snappy name yet, just a number: ED289/290. And what it does is make you fall in love.

Sort of.

In the test that we see, Jeff is given the new compound twice, each time in the presence of a woman, first Heather, then Rachel. In both cases he goes from thinking they’re perfectly OK-looking girls, but nothing special, to being madly in love with them, and they with him. Or, to let his Verbaluce™-enhanced brain describe having sex with each of them:

“…a desire would arise and, concurrently, the satisfaction of that desire would also arise. It was as if (a) I longed for a certain (heretofore  untasted) taste until (b) said longing became nearly unbearable, at which time (c) I found a morsel of food with that exact taste already in my mouth, perfectly satisfying my longing.”

Abnesti allows Jeff and Heather to have sex three times before cutting the ED289/290, and then does the same with Jeff and Rachel.

Both times, Jeff protests, not wanting to lose the love he feels. The first time Abnesti simply bosses him into it, the second time he seems vaguely annoyed. And both times, Jeff stands naked in a room with a girl he was just crazy for, and tries to talk about how it feels as his love ebbs away into nothing.

He tries to talk about it, but can’t, because Abnesti also cut the Verbaluce™.

When he’s back to “baseline” and he and Heather awkwardly shake hands, he doesn’t feel bad, exactly—he can remember what it felt like to love her, he knows he doesn’t now. When the second experiment is conducted with Rachel, he remembers loving Heather, but also experiences that love as a memory, and the current feeling as real love. And after Rachel, he starts to feel terrible. (“Why sad? Was I not a dude? Had I not just fucked two different girls, for a total of six times, in one day? Still, honestly, I felt sadder than sad.”)

But that’s nothing compared to the rest of the experiment. The efficacy of ED289/290 is tested by making all the participants in the study choose whether to administer Darkenfloxx™ to each other, Darkenfloxx™ being an extremely strong-instant-suicidal-depression serum. After everyone passes the first round, legal calls for a second, more intense test, in which Jeff will have to watch as each girl is given Darkenfloxx™ for five minutes, while he describes what he’s feeling, under Verbaluce™.

Jeff only says “Acknowledge” when they threaten his weekly call with his mother. Heather lasts three minutes before she kills herself with one of the impossible-to-disassemble chairs.

Then they move on to Rachel.

You’d think that this is the point where Jeff either cracks completely, or where the “Escape from Spiderhead” happens, as he attempts to fight Abnesti, break out of the complex, free Rachel, something like that? Or that the second test would inexplicably be scheduled for the next day, to give him time to plan the titular escape? As is often the case, though, Saunders is telling an entirely different story than what you’d think from the title. And it’s very bound up in language.

Apparently somewhere in the contracts it says that Abnesti has to have verbal consent from the subject, and having seen what happened to Heather, Jeff clams up and refuses to give that consent a second time. It’s the only act of resistance he has, and unlike earlier, he won’t allow Abnesti to bully him out of it.

“Fuck it, enough,” Abnesti said. “Verlaine, what the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?”

“Docilryde™,” Verlaine said.

“Is there Docilryde™ in his MobiPak™?” Abnesti said.

“There’s Docilryde™ in every MobiPak™,” Verlaine said.

“Does he need to say ‘Acknowledge’?” Abnesti said.

“Docilryde™’s a Class C, so—” Verlaine said.

“See, that, to me, makes zero sense,” Abnesti said. “What good’s an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?”

“We just need a waiver,” Verlaine said.

“How long does that shit take?” Abnesti said.

“We fax Albany, they fax us back,” Verlaine said.

“Come on, come on, make haste,” Abnesti said, and they went out, leaving me alone in the Spiderhead.

After a few minutes thought, Jeff goes for the only choice left available to him. He knows that Abnesti will definitely get approval to hit him with Docilryde™. This will, effectively, end his free will. But since Abnesti left his remote on the table, Jeff can use it to Darkenfloxx™ himself. The pain of the Darkenfloxx™ drives Jeff to suicide within a few seconds—he tells us he used the sharp corner of a table—after which he’s narrating from outside of his body.

NOW we get the zoom out over the complex, but it’s from someone who is in the process of dying. He sees and names the other six inmates who remain; he sees his Mom, Rachel on the other side of the one-way mirror, and Abnesti and Verlaine running back into the Spiderhead. But what he’s really focused on is the fact that, for the first time, he can truly express himself as himself. He even wonders for a moment if he’s still on Verbaluce™ before he realizes “…this was all me now” and turns his attention to the birds singing in a “frantic celebration of day’s end.” He follows the birds as they fly, leaves the complex below him, and thinks really hard and at some length about life, free will, and destiny as he rises away from all of it. The “Escape from Spiderhead” isn’t some action-packed, nail-biting chase through a sinister testing site—it’s suicide.

See? Unadaptable.

Saunders often uses the language of bureaucracy as a fulcrum in his stories. The language isn’t just there to be funny, or to hold a dark mirror up to our society, or any of that. The characters are trapped in a bureaucracy that is made of the language, thus the characters are bound by the language as in an unbreakable spell. In this case, Abnesti is bound by the legal language surrounding Jeff’s indentured servitude—he has to obey the letter of the law for the tests to be valid. He can coerce Jeff, but only through the means all parties agreed to. The dystopia is built off the need for Jeff to say “Acknowledge”—when Jeff keeps refusing to say the only word Abnesti needs to hear, Abnesti has to go get other language, from a higher source, that can be used like a spell to force Jeff’s compliance. The bureaucracy will be satisfied; the letter of the law will be honored.

Can love be given and taken away via an IV drip? What about a person’s will? Are humans chemistry sets to be manipulated and recalibrated by those willing to treat others as objects rather than people?

I mean, maybe. (Probably.) But Saunders posits a world where Jeff finds a very different kind of love than the one Abnesti is playing with. Having seen what happened to Heather, Jeff doesn’t want that done to anyone else, for any reason, and he resists in the only ways open to him. First via a refusal to engage in the language of the bureaucracy, then in beating Abnesti to the Darkenfloxx™ button. He quits before he can be fired.

I’m undecided on the ending. Or, let me say that better: I’m of two minds on the ending. The part of me that loves the jolt of harsh realism in fiction would probably prefer that the story stop dead, with Jeff looking at the sharp corner of a table and making a choice. But a lot more of me loves that Saunders doesn’t leave Jeff, or us, in that room. He’s willing to risk sentimentality to show us Jeff post-death, not to pummel us with a moral lesson, but to push back against the Abnestiï of the world, and invite us to think about choices.

In the interview I linked above, Saunders and his interviewer, Brianna Di Monda, talk about the general idea that art’s purpose is to “ask the big questions” and more specifically Chekhov’s idea that “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”

And I think that’s one of the things in this story I keep circling. On the one hand, in the reality Saunders creates, death isn’t an ending of consciousness but a freeing of it. Jeff describes himself as being “briefly unlimited”, he’s able to think eloquently without any chemical aid (he’s pure spirit, presumably, [whatever that means] so there’s nothing for the chemical to aid), he’s able to understand his mother, and to feel at one with the birds and with life itself in a way that he couldn’t when he was alive.

And it would have been easy for this to read as a happy ending. Jeff sacrifices himself for Rachel, he dies in her place—but huzzah, he gets to fly away with birds now! Except I don’t think that’s quite what Saunders is doing. The ending pushes back against Abnesti and his chemistry experiment, yes, but there’s no gooey certainty here. We have no idea what happens to Jeff next. Rachel’s probably still going to get hit with the Darkenfloxx™—Abnesti will simply bring one of the other subjects in to observe. The experiments will continue, the chemicals will go on the market, Jeff’s mother will mourn his death, and she won’t know that he died for a heroic reason.

So is Jeff’s sacrifice even worth it?

What I think the story’s doing is, as I said, turning on the use of language, and turning on the idea of choice and destiny, to push readers into thinking about impossible situations. About the way they’re trapped in their own lives, about their own personal uncrossable lines. Is drawing a line and refusing to cross it worth it? What does “worth it” mean?

A fun problem to formulate.

This is what I mean when I say “Escape from Spiderhead” is unadaptable—which is why I’m intrigued to see how Kosinski adapts it. A lot of my favorite movies over the years have taken their source material as platforms to leap from, and with this platform you can go in so many different directions. Presumably Abnesti will have more to do than deliver a few snappy corporate monologues—anything else would be a waste of a Hemsworth. Will the movie take a more typical sci-fi adventure path, and give us a giant labyrinthine complex full of experiments? Will Jeff manage a more traditional escape? Will he sacrifice himself for the good of another subject? Is there any way a film can capture the audacity of Jeff’s thoughts, as he flies away with the birds?

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! Come contemplate free will and language with them on Twitter!

Footnotes

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