Contact Highs: Five Fine Writers of Altered States
Here we go, then: five writers who, I think, write drugs right. I could have added a few more, and I’m sure there must be more that I’ve not yet encountered — I’m disappointed to see I’ve produced a list of white male writers, for a start, and have only my ignorance for an excuse — and so I’d be very grateful for suggestions so I can broaden my reading.
It wasn’t the best-kept of secrets, but Rucker’s recent autobiography, Nested Scrolls, revealed him as not just a sometime dabbler in psychedelics, but a now-reformed weedhead of considerable tenure. Rucker’s work has always been replete with drugs as metaphors and novums alike, but his portrayals of them — like his portrayals of pretty much everything — are generally playful, exaggerated for effect.
But I’d argue that the effect which Rucker chases with those exaggerations is, intentionally or otherwise, the affect of the habitual stoner: the endless chain of “Dude, whoa” moments; the plots that turn weird on a whimsical and easily-distracted dime; the curious and questioning odd-ball outlooks from which his characters view his worlds, each other and themselves. Add to that the sunny So-Cal simplicity of his style — like R. Crumb got set loose on a Disney-budget project, all bright colours with gnarly fractal detail — and reading Rucker feels like being spun a tall and day-glo yarn by some tousled beach-bum genius who’s few big bongs past the boundaries of consensus reality, y’know?
Be sure to have ice cream in the fridge, is all I’m saying.
Philip K Dick
Dick is a literally tragic example of authentic drug fiction, as his unparalleled ability to convey the paranoiac solipsism of the amphetamine addict stemmed from living it, a lifestyle that contributed to his eventual (self)destruction. Correlation and causation are muddled here, however; it’s clear from early accounts of Dick’s life, and even from his earliest fictions, that those mindstates were innate in him — a schizoid consciousness, for whom amphetamines perhaps felt like a spiritual vindication, or even a returning home.
What is less conjectural are the number of paranoia-driven plots and hyperintrospective identity crises at the heart of Dick’s fictional (and exegetic) output where appearances only ever exist to deceive, where one is always both watching and being watched (and watching oneself from within), and where no one can be trusted — least of all oneself. This paranoia chimes with the reds-under-the-bed McCarthyism of Cold War America; as such, much criticism of Dick’s early work frames the tone of his work in those terms.
But it is worth considering that this was the same period as the golden age of “Mother’s little helpers” — the casual and profligate dispensation of amphetamines and similar stimulants to the American populace. Like most drugs now on the controlled lists, amphetamines had a lengthy reign as cure-all wonder-chemicals from the bounteous labs of Big Pharma — and while I’m not sufficiently paranoiac myself as to suggest conspiracy, it surely merits considering that, as a result, McCarthy and his followers — and, as a side-effect, Dick’s fiction — may well have had a fertile cultural furrow in which to sow suspicion and fear, hmm?
Well, you can’t prove they didn’t plan it, can you? 23 skidoo, man. Keep watching the skies.
Dick’s body of work stands as a caution, not just at the level of the individual narratives — which, whether directly involving a fnord drug as a symbol or prop or not, are deeply rooted in altered states of mind, however caused — but also as a grand narrative, as the abstracted fnord fictionalisation of Dick’s intellectual parabola. Like Icarus, he placed too much faith in false wings.
Cyberpunk always had an astringent phenylalanine whiff about it, but Gibson’s addict characters — of which there are more than you may remember or realise — are never stereotypes. Another way to put it might be to say that Gibson understands the difference between the rare but highly visible amok addict — the addict whose impulse control and circumstances are both so blighted that zi descends rapidly into crime, severe illness or both — and the vastly more commonplace functional addict. The functional addict has an otherwise normal life, of which a reliable supply of their drug of choice is a vital but elided part; their addictions are often invisible to those around them.
Note how often in Gibson’s work a character’s addiction is used as a primary vector of control or manipulation by those to whom they are useful. In cyborg theory we can describe a drug as a tool, an extension of our baseline human abilities, but Gibson shows the double-edgedness of such tools. Drugs are a metatool, a tool that can shape its user whilst it shapes the user’s world, making a tool of the user.
The true power of drugs lies not in taking them, then — though there may well be gains to be had from that, illusory or otherwise — but in controlling access to them. Dependency on drugs leads to a dependency upon the hierarchy down which the product flows. Even in the rhizomatic global cultures of Gibson’s novels, the functional addict is always already enslaved, always at the bottom of somebody else’s private pyramid of clout, an asset to be passed or traded between clients and associates as required, a human resource with a built-in and fully transferable loyalty program.
But zoom out from the explicitly addict characters, and look beyond: everyone in a Gibson novel is caught up in some sort of hierarchy of control, somehow enslaved through their desires — sometimes willingly so, sometimes not so much — by someone else who’s wired a little more tightly and thickly to the distant off-page deities of globalised capital, legally or otherwise.
Gibson’s addicts are inevitable products of their culture, and we are all Gibson’s addicts.
In his earlier work, especially, Welsh scores double points for the peerless realism of both his portrayal of the Ecstasy culture of the UK in the 1990s, and that of the drug experiences which were at its heart.
The latter stems from Welsh’s command of vernacular voice and subjective narrative, the way he lets his characters chatter their way through the peaks and troughs of the physiological and psychological rollercoaster, letting the reader eavesdrop on their stimulant-addled internal monologue. Of special note is the jolting and hard-to-parse account of Lloyd’s LSD adventure in “The Undefeated” (the third story collected in Ecstasy), where the narrative’s vortex of time-shattered intro(per)spective is further complicated by the narrator’s Glaswegian slang and speech patterns; a masterclass in uncanny and disorienting technique. (See also, of course, the cut-up works of William Burroughs.)
But the former is important, too. Welsh’s critics in the conservative press loved to hound him for his perceived “Glorification” of both rave-scene drug culture and the lifestyles of heroin addicts, but in doing so demonstrated their inability (or perhaps refusal) to understand either; Welsh’s most positive depictions of drug culture were always knowing and ironised, for a start, and what chimed most with the rave culture audience that propelled Welsh to fame were not the occasional euphoric experiences of his characters, but their dread of the grey, grim grind of the work-a-day world to which their comedowns were always-already returning them.
The writers above have worked hard to portray drugs in their writing, but Noon is among the few I’ve read who have attempted to drug language and literature itself. (Again, see Burroughs.)
That needs unpacking, perhaps, so let’s try this: rather than attempting to explain them, Noon’s work consists of repeated attempts to make his imaginary drugs operate upon the text itself, as well as on the world within the text. In his debut novel Vurt, for instance, the titular feather-based drug-tech fragments and abstracts and alienates its users, the remixed Manchester in which they live, the narrative’s reality and the narrative itself; vurt contains the possibility of itself, contains its own universe(s), its own self-referential logic; the feathers can operate upon one another, be used within one another. It’s feathers all the way down.
All of which somewhat undermines his place on a list of realist writing about drugs, wouldn’t you think? But no: there is a higher, deeper truth in Noon’s work, which is that consensus reality, our supposed baseline of experience, is subjective and relative in exactly the same way as the altered state of the user; the realisation that, in an important but invisible way, there’s no stable place, no “Normal” to come down to.
I took Vurt one night back in 1994, and I swear I’m still flying.
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer and researcher.