Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The small but undeniable role of drugs in modern fiction

Drugs are an area for profitable enquiry, especially when you’re dealing with fiction writing. Right from Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to arbit coming of age Pakistani authors like Mohsin Hamid, the roll and twist of a heady joint is evident, whether in practice or perception. Freud was on Cocaine, Coleridge was on opium and two women with the same name, why even Lewis Carrol put Alice in the wonderland of Fly Agaric (a potent mushroom), but none of them particularly wrote of what had caused all the inspiration. While production, trafficking and racketeering of narcotics, hallucinogens and stimulants have shaped some of the eras most fundamental philosophies and provided much of its economic wealth, authors and writers who wrote under its influence or wrote about the effect of drugs seemed to have done equally well with themselves.

Take the ‘beats’ for instance. The 'Beat' generation, a phrase coined in 1951 by Kerouac consisted of a set of dope heads who took road trips looking for odd jobs, quickies and kicks and churning out in the bargain some of the best American literature and poetry. But why was it such a big deal? Well, it turned out to be extremely reactive when faced with forces such as Vietnam, hippie culture, eighties consumerism and so on. In fact, Jim Morrison summed it up quite tritely "I'll tell you bout Texas radio and the big beat, wandering the western dream". That’s what it was ‘The Western Dream ’. American Pie with a cherry on top.
Almost all the beats wrote under the dictation of some drug. Some of the best beat books like Kerouac’s 'On the Road' and Burroughs 'Junky' were written under the heady influence of Morphine and Cocaine. Hallucinogens like these produced visionary states, a sort of cleansing and spacing of the mind to allow abstract thought, 'Junky' incidentally being one in a series of novels recounting the perils and ecstasies of drug addiction.

The beats of course took all the credit. They theorized and concocted terminologies; the 'spontaneity' technique of writing that hailed the beat generation was Kerouac's personal creation. There was also a deformation of the senses that went along with it and lead to the most radical and rigorously adhered to theme used by the beats of 'spiritual investigation', this again much to their delight sparked off a Buddhist connection where they claimed, writing exuded the archaic shamanic style of Zen non-attachment and irreverent modern wit, as seen in Kerouac’s 'Dharma Bums'. In fact books written on cannabis had an elaborate marijuana openness to them, so we have Doctor Sax, a daytime football coach and night-time bogeyman crafted by Kerouac.

So while the beats grew their pot and smoked it too, other writers like Irvine Welsh experimented on and off and thereby wrote strictly of the experiences under acid and drugs. Welsh though presented an nauseating picture, of all the withdrawal, filth, turd, and every other form of excrement that goes along with the addiction to hard core acid. Welsh did get tiresome though. Acid trips seem to have the same symptoms all the time. But that’s where Welsh steps in as a cult writer – he spices up his narratives with typical Irish problems of unemployment, homosexuality (phobic, of course), gang rape and voila! His books are almost always bestsellers, some even becoming critically acclaimed movies. His books are easily identifiable, look at the titles – Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth, Ecstasy, Porn, Acid house and the like.

In April 1995, a not so young anymore American was released from Terre Haute – America’s toughest penitentiary after serving seven years of a twenty five year sentence for drug trafficking and promotion. Without losing heart or time the man in question – Howards Marks kept himself busy and steadily wealthy by writing about (and in the process continuing to promote) in the best way possible, the very stuff that landed him in trouble in the first place. His autobiography smugly titled ‘Mr Nice’ was an instant bestseller not to mention having indirectly raised the sales of cannabis by a rocking 52 percent after its release.
Realizing that he was getting away with everything in the name of popular fiction, Marks went one step ahead and published a tape of all his nefarious activities – Howard Marks : A Video Diary. In 1997, Howard even stood in the UK general election on behalf of the Legalize Cannabis Party. And his life continues to be in a marijuana state of transcendental bliss with his second best-seller ‘Dope Stories’ released in November 2001. Howard even has songs written about him and dabbles in DJing and remixing more than just music on the side...

‘Moth smoke’ written by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, is a sensitive look at Pakistani upper middle class decadence. The book is refreshing, in the sense that for starters, its not about cross border terrorism and that it suddenly shows a human side to a society that has always appeared to us Indians as turban clad, gun wielding barbarians. That we all lead such similar, desperate and frustrated lives, on either side of the border makes the book all the more endearing. The story line is simple enough, a cocaine addicted, horny hack writer desperately trying to lay his best friends wife. That he does get laid, OD’s and dies in the process is presumably the twist in the tale. I just finished reading Hamids’ next after a seven year hiatus (how do these writers survive?) – 'The Reluctant fundamentalist'. This one was sober. Like he had been in rehab in the interim. It had structure, was concise, crisp and compelling.

I've encountered potheads in every stage of my life. In college they were the cool ones. They came into class dazed and confused. (um actually at the time we all were so it didnt quite matter). But they were the intelligentsia. They were the writers, the cul team, the lit team.
When I started working though, it was a whole different equation. The Potheads were now like old army generals with a bad case of shell shock. They were slow on the uptake and didnt take to team work very well. They still spounted profundity from time to time. But it was too sporadic for anyone to take them seriously anymore.

So they all did it and wrote under its influence or didn’t do too much of it (the liars) and just wrote a lot about it. The bottom line being that though no one expressly impresses the use of drugs as an assistant or catalyst in churning some great modern fiction, all we’re saying is that if you are an extant druggie, or better yet a druggy cum writer (that classic combo), you could very well be writhing with laughter all the way to your neighborhood ATM.

Funny that I can’t seem to put my finger on any famous Indian writers on dope or acid. There’s Arundhati Roy and the more recent Mizz Desai. Though on second thoughts, in their case the whole booker jury must’ve been on something.

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