I rarely read a short story. I respect that writing a good short story can be as challenging, if not more challenging in many respects as writing a novella or novel. There is less time to dawdle and get to the point in a short story, but in my experience the fleeting taste that one experiences in a short story is not as satisfying as a well-developed character, cast of characters, and extended plot of a novel. In several of George Saunders' short stories in Tenth of December , I was left with that same level of satisfaction (I don't want to say dissatisfaction, because that is not what I mean; but I do mean to say less than satisfying). I expect a short story to figuratively punch me in the face and get my attention. And one of Saunders' stories, Escape from Spiderhead, did just that. A world manipulated by soma -- Huxley's Brave New World --- comes to mind.
Saunders introduces a brave new world of drug-induced manipulation imaginatively different than Huxley. Soma leaves Huxley's masses anesthetized; Saunders' imaginary pharma cocktails manipulate and heighten every subcortical emotional system in Jaak Panksepp's lexicon (see May 19, 2013 post). The drugs from Saunders' imaginary MobiPak manipulate the Seeking, Lust, Fear, Care and Rage systems, for example, driving passionate sex among people who would likely have no interest in one another. Add some Verbaluce to the cocktail, and suddenly your cortical regions are verbalizing your feelings more honestly than your emotional systems can feel them. Veritalk and ChatEase are also available to manipulate communications capabilities. And so are the drugs to reverse everything that the other drugs manipulated in the first instance.
And who submits to this life? Very subtly Saunders unfolds this regime. I nearly missed it when one of the manipulative experimenters begins a conversation, "Do you even know her story? You don't. You legally can't. Does it involve whiskey, gangs, infanticide? I can't say. Can I imply, somewhat peripherally, that her past, violent and sordid, did not exactly include a dog named Lassie and lot of family talks about the Bible while Grammy sat doing macramé, adjusting her posture because the quaint fireplace was so sizzling?" And then a page later: "Mom always looked heartsick when our time was up. It had almost killed her when they arrested me. The trial had almost killed her. She's spent her savings to get me out of real jail and in here." These lab rats are criminals diverted from the penal system; something like a halfway house where the only escape may be suicide. But the suicide that closes this short story --- in stark contrast to Albert Camus' treatment of suicide as a rejection of freedom and a refusal to embrace life passionately --- presents one of the more enobling characteristics of human behavior: sacrifice in order to avoid harm to another --- altruistic behavior of a type considered in several previous posts (see October 13, 2010 post). This is the stuff that vividly punches you in the face. It could have been a novel.