The story is “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders. The main antagonist of the story is Abnesti, the leader of the experiment who uses the prisoners as guinea pigs to create a drug to control love.
I found the second part of the story to be interesting as it journeys through the mind of a character whose feelings are being controlled and tampered with.
Throughout the story, there is a kind of baseline tone that is calm and to the point, and then there is a heightened tone when Jake is on drugs or he is trying to prevent torture or he is having an out of body experience as he accepts his death. In the baseline tone, sentences are shorter, ideas are more repetitive, and the characters seem to care less about their surroundings.
The baseline tone reminded me of a movie I watched recently called The Lobster directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s about an exaggerated future dystopia in which people find a relationship and stay in it or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. One of themes is the grey area between true love and society pressuring people into relationships. In that movie people talk like robots and act emotionless. The characters get angry and sad, and they get happy, and their dialogue carries weight, but the way they act reflects emptiness. I found similarities between that movie and this story in the way that the prisoners have a lessened sense of reality which causes them to act strangely, as well as the way society in this story wants to control love.
My favorite quote in this story is on page 78. “Why was she dancing? No reason. Just alive, I guess.” In this part of the story, an indifferent Jake watches a character act strangely and doesn’t care enough to give an elaborate response to the situation. Whenever Jake is not high on Verbulace, he is indifferent to his surroundings. He accomplishes two things in the story: he solves the mystery of what Abnesti is doing, and he kills himself. And most of the story is very repetitive: he has sex with Heather and then he has sex with Rachel. He is put in a room with Rogan, and then Keith. Jake asks the same questions, and follows the same orders, and in the climax of the story he acts on “basic human emotion” and saves Rachel from torture, in a decision to end his life that lasts a few lines.
“Escape from Spiderhead” presents society within the walls of a prison and allows the protagonist to break out in the end. I think the way Saunders presents love is interesting, as a drug to be played with rather than a serious emotion to focus in on. And I think the way Saunders presents his characters is used to convey a sense of detachment from reality in a society where higher-ups have control over emotions like love.