Negative Ending of “Victory Lap” Cannot Be Dismissed

In George Saunders’ short story “Victory Lap” the ending is left ambiguous. Did the boy kill the kidnapper, ending his own life, or was he stopped? Some take an optimistic view believing that the boy was prevented. While I do not indefinitely think that this perspective is incorrect, I do think that it is incorrect to say the Saunders is overall an optimistic writer.

Saunders is notorious for using the setting of wacky theme parks to stress the ills of the US capitalistic work system. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror each feature what would normally be fun, inviting fantastical worlds: two theme parks and a museum. He chooses these settings to create controlled environments where work is central and culture is replicated for the purposes of profit.  However, in his unique storytelling way, Saunders renders these settings absurd with the horrors that unfold. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders believes that American culture and history have been reduced and molded into something simply for the purpose of profit. These theme parks show the ways American culture has been twisted into a form of entertainment. In other words, the theme park setting boils down American culture. The theme parks include a Civil War theme (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) and a caveman theme (Pastoralia). The presence of these parks highlight a broad critique of America’s way of profiting off of its history and dumbing down its cultural value.

In addition to his settings, Saunders’ story lines aren’t positive. The old lady kills herself, the man is forced to rat out his coworker, the Vietnam veteran indiscriminately shoots innocent people, human immigrant girls are used as lawn ornaments for the rich. It goes on and on. Time and time again Saunders critiques the ills of humanity, holding up a mirror to the worst parts of society. Looking at George Saunders’ writing as a whole I think it is safe to say that he cannot be categorized as a positive writer. Therefore, dismissing a negative ending to “Victory Lap” may be an oversight.

How Kyle’s Parents in Victory Lap Affected His Every Move

No. No, no, no. They'd be gone soon. There he could go inside. Call 911. Although then everyone would know he'd done nothing. All his future life would be bad. Forever he'd be the guy who'd done nothing (21).

While I think this thought would go through some people’s minds eventually, I think the timing of Kyle’s thought (listed above) says a lot about his family dynamic and mental state. His entire life, Kyle has had to live up to the expectations of his parents. With such a strict regime and their ability to take away all his privileges in a second, Kyle has frequently had to walk on egg shells. With this in mind, I think his brain is wired to always think about consequences. In particular, social consequences, like the disappointment of his parents or in this case, society.

The idea of disappointing others means a great deal to Kyle, as impressing his parents has been a difficult task leading up to this. While he was jeopardizing his safety in order to save Alison, the alternative seemed much worse to him. By not interfering, Kyle risked being a man known for his lack of action in a serious situation.

More than anything, I believe Kyle wants to be recognized. Recognized by his parents for his achievements in high school track and recognized by society as the sophomore boy who saved Alison Pope. With such little praise at home, Kyle is finding acceptance elsewhere.

Binaries and Humanity in Escape From Spiderhead

Jeff and Abnesti display a clear binary relationship, in which Abnesti power over Jeff. Jeff, a criminal, has to submit to submit to the scientific experiments conducted by Abnesti. Yet, Jeff and Abnesti interact as friends would, exchanging friendly banter and joking around with one another. While their relationship is friendly on a superficial level, one must wonder what Abnesti’s motivation is for his kindness. Regardless of how he interacts with test subjects, they still must participate in the experiments. He does not gain anything from being kind, and he wonders about the superficiality of his actions. He wonders if he is kind for kindness’ sake, or if he is “a monster” (Spiderhead, 68). Abnesti’s openness about his feelings makes him appear human to Jeff, which contrasts with Abnesti’s own wonderings about his humanity. Jeff views Abnesti as an equal, and although Abnesti treats Jeff as an equal, Abnesti is aware of and ok with the binary that gives him power.

Kyle is a Killer

At the end of “Victory Lap” by George Saunders, Alison wakes up from her dream and her parents tell her that she ran outside, yelled, and stopped Kyle from killing the kidnapper. However, I think Alison’s parents are lying to her so she is not traumatized by the events. At the end of the kidnapper’s point of view, he says “He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept going at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.” (25) This sentence can be perceived two ways. 1: he would be in Hell, it hasn’t happened yet, and this is more of a hypothetical situation; or 2: it WAS Hell, it happened, the kidnapper has died and gone to Hell. The use of the word “was” rather than “would be” makes me believe that the correct reading is the latter. In addition, at the time, Alison was shaking and scared for her life and seemed like she was in no state to be able to go outside and yell at Kyle to stop. Also, Kyle was so enraged and determined that I don’t think he would stop on his own. These facts lead me to believe that Kyle really did kill Alison’s kidnapper, and Alison’s parents are lying to her to protect her from feeling like his death was her fault.

Jeff’s Perception of Love

I find it really interesting how love is shown in this short story as being only sexual. Jeff learns nothing about Heather or Rachel as people, they don’t laugh together or know each other’s favorite things, and yet they claim to be in love because they had sex three times. When talking about Heather, Jeff says “And I was definitely still feeling love for her… Why do you think they call it ‘making love’? That is what we had just made three times: love.” (51). This means that Abnesti/the drug creators also share the same ideas about love, since they are the ones that created the love drug to do that. It seems that everyone in this story just has one idea of what love is, and it doesn’t seem to go much deeper than physical attraction.

The Cyborg in the Spiderhead

The horizon of technology has plagued humanity throughout all modernity. Though the idea of human augmentation is a multifaceted one, it can be useful to think of it as a spectrum; on the one end, the helpful, empowering, and often even life saving augmentations of Pacemakers, Cochlear Implants, or Insulin Pumps, on the other end, the abhorrent practices of genomic editing, human breeding, and other eugenic techniques. As long as this spectrum has existed, authors of the western cannon have employed their artistry to warn against moving too far with technology that alters what it means to be human.

George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” is no different — it offers a broad condemnation of chemical influence on human consciousness. While this commentary is not quite literal — Saunders does not at all make it seem like he is commenting on modern society’s use of augmentation — it is still a running battle between morality and the “pursuit of science” that defines “Spiderhead.” Saunders paints the world of chemical augmentation as corporatized, such as through the use of trademark symbols by chemical names (as in 45, 46, 54, 55, etc.). He also has his characters follow a blind, almost comical “pursuit of science” over morality, as when Absenti — the story’s main protagonist — insists that the tortures experiment on which the story centers was in the name of “the mandates of science” (74).

While this condemnation might be a useful thought experiment about human morality, it poorly reflects the possibilities of human existence. As long as medical science has existed, bio-ethical standards, practices, and procedures have been shaped with the finest precision to make medicine as morally acceptable to broader members of society as possible. For example, in contrast to the story, not only is human chemical augmentation carefully controlled in modern society, it is also useful and even possibly life saving for people with severe mental health conditions. While it is obvious that Saunders is not trying to comment on a world that currently exists per say, Saunders is still making a commentary on the ability of technology to shape human morals in a way that, as outlined above, has never been reflective of reality.

The decades to come will be filled with medical advances — bionic suits, AI, mental chemical enhancements, etc. — that will bring what it means to be human up for debate. How we understand both ourselves and the rest of humanity will evolve, and so will our sense of morality. However, these changes will happen under public scrutiny, and guided by the strict scruples that define western scientific development. Therefore, while it can be appealing to let fiction play out various though experiments on the intersection of science and morality, we should not let this preclude discovering new horizons of medicine and science that revolutionize what it means to be human.

Rats

George Saunders is a master of writing stories with authentic details and relevant imagery, and tackling serious topics with a certain nod to humor. A striking example of which is his use of the rat tattoo. “Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised” (59). This small passage actually reflects the dynamic of the story quite well. If we were to assign characters to the different aspects of the tattoo, one could argue the larger rat is Jeff, and the smaller rat is Heather. Jeff knows what Darkenfloxx does to a person, he has had it done to himself before, yet he is willing to allow Heather to be Darkenfloxxed. At the same time, Heather has no idea what her fate is, and she is taken by just as much surprise as the smaller rat. One has to wonder who knifed the larger rat. Fitting within the metaphor, Abnesti would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no imagery to symbolize him. Perhaps the fact that the rats are present, while he is not, represents that through the pain, Jeff and the other victims still have humanity, while Abnesti has none.