‘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.