‘Meet The President!’ by Zadie Smith

Smith, Zadie 2013a

Meet The President! by Zadie Smith, 2013 Continue reading

‘Escape From Spiderhead’ by George Saunders

Saunders, George 2010

Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders, 2010

The magic trick:

Using a sci-fi world to comment on an aspect of our society’s real-world behavior

I praised Saunders last week for inverting the science-fiction paradigm in “Semplica-Girl Diaries:” he took an otherwise normal American society and blasted it into emotional outer space by inserting one surrealistic element. I guess that’s not really that novel, come to think of it. That’s pretty much the basis for all of magic realism. OK, whatever. I never claimed to know what I was talking about, and I’m sure as hell not going back and editing last week’s Semplica entry to account for this realization. Point is: Saunders is sticking to the sci-fi template in today’s story, “Escape From Spiderhead.” And that’s great, because it works.

“Spiderhead features a foreign, futuristic world filled with real-life emotions. As such, it recalls Saunders’s story, “Jon.” I was most impressed by the way the story comments on modern America’s propensity for rapid-fire sexual relationships. Jeff, our narrator, is forced to engage in a series of sexual encounters with two women early in the story. The experimental drugs all parties are on create the illusion of love and joy, only to be followed by disappointment and indifference. If that isn’t a shot fired at the way we fall in and out of love and lust, well, I just don’t know. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.

The selection:

That is to say: 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.

Every utterance, every adjustment of posture bespoke the same thing: we had known each other forever, were soul mates, had met and loved in numerous preceding lifetimes, and would meet and love in many subsequent lifetimes, always with the same transcendently stupefying results.


‘Jon’ by George Saunders

Saunders, George 2003

Jon by George Saunders, 2003

The magic trick:

The litany of cheap, hilarious product placements

Welcome to George Saunders Week on the SSMT site. It’s gonna be a weird trip.

We start with “Jon,” a story that’s otherworldly tension recall previous SSMT favorites, “The NRACP” and “In The Penal Colony,” among others. I’m most dazzled by the humor. Saunders is never not funny.

Here, my favorite running jokes are the product placements that turn up throughout the story. Jon is trying to escape some kind of terrifying near-future world that only mostly resembles our modern society. Among the key conncetions between the story’s dystopia and our world? The cheap name brands. And oh man, are they cheap. I love it. Saunders isn’t taking down Coke or McDonald’s here. That would be too easy somehow. Instead, we get references to intentionally doomed-to-be-dated-very-quickly brands like Honey Grahams, Old Navy, RE/MAX, Handi Wipes, Tommy Hilfiger, Baby Gap. Oh, and I guess Coke actually is in there too. Anyway, it all combines to create a strange alternaverse that is part terrifying, part hilarious and all parts commodified. And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.

The selection:

Then came the final straw that broke the back of my saying no to my gonads, which was I dreamed I was that black dude on MTV’s “Hot and Spicy Christmas” (around like Location Indicator 34412, if you want to check it out) and Carolyn was the oiled-up white chick, and we were trying to earn the Island Vacation by miming through the ten Hot ‘n’ Nasty Positions before the end of “We Three Kings,” only then, sadly, during Her on Top, Thumb in Mouth, her Elf Cap fell off, and as the Loser Buzzer sounded she bent low to me, saying, Oh, Jon, I wish we did not have to do this for fake in front of hundreds of kids on Spring Break doing the wave but instead could do it for real with just each other in private.

And then she kissed me with a kiss I can only describe as melting.


‘The NRACP’ by George P. Elliott

The NRACP by George P. Elliott, 1949

The magic trick:

The portrayal of Andy and Ruth at the core of the story

Forget about the shock value of the story’s context and concept. Mostly. This is a story about America’s greatest talent: the ability to rationalize. It is a simple story, really. A man sleeps his way into separation from his wife and daughter, loses himself in a job he doesn’t have a good feeling about, convinces himself to overlook his doubts and fall in love with a new, younger woman, and, finally, focuses on his own provincial potential for familial happiness in the midst of large-scale human suffering all around him.

It’s the whole creature comforts vs. society and justice debate again. We saw it last year in Chekhov’s Little Trilogy, and Elliott is barking up the same tree here. “The NRACP” enters the argument with a bit more Twilight Zone horror and 1950s race politics. At its core, it’s the same old selfishness. And that’s quite a trick on Elliott’s part.

The selection:

The key to the answer came from my long-limbed, mildly pretty, efficient, but (I had originally thought) frivolous and banal secretary – Ruth. She is one of those women who, because they do not have an “intellectual” idea in their noodles, are too frequently dismissed as conveniently decorative but not very valuable. And perhaps Ruth really is that. But she has made two or three remarks recently which seem to me to display an intuitive intelligence of a considerable order.


‘Welcome To The Monkey House’ by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut, kurt 1961

Welcome To The Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1961

The magic trick:

Giving the reader a no-win sympathy situation

The reader, much like the characters in this story, has nowhere good to turn in this monkey house. Vonnegut’s picture of the future is pretty bleak. Now perhaps this is an immature, even stupid, approach to art, but I find that when I read fiction, I need a character, or at least an idea, with which to sympathize. I need to know right from wrong at least. I’m guessing this is a not-uncommon expectation. Vonnegut, though, has no patience for readers like us.

Consider the options he provides here. You can sympathize with the suicide nurse who believes in a sexless life of robot efficiency. Not so great, right? Well, the “hero” – the advocate for sex and passion and emotion – believes kidnapping, imprisonment, and rape are the only means for his message. It’s very difficult to read those passages, let alone sympathize with his agenda.

So where does that leave us? Well, I’ll tell you. It leaves us alone and anxious and fearful and full of disdain for both sides of the sexual revolution. In other words: exactly where the author wants us. And that’s quite a trick on Vonnegut’s part.

The selection:

“I never listen to a woman till the pills wear off,” sneered Billy. That was his plan, then – to keep her a prisoner for at least eight hours. That was how long it took for the pills to wear off.

“That’s a silly rule.”

“A woman’s not a woman till the pills wear off.”

“You certainly manage to make a woman feel like an object rather than a person.”

“Thank the pills for that,” said Billy.