Tom Wolfe Drinks the Kool-Aid

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” – Hunter S. Thompson

“I’d rather be a lighting rod than a seismograph.” – Ken Kesey


Well, Ken Kesey may have been a lightning rod but it looks like it was Tom Wolfe’s job to be the seismograph, to record the vibrations caused by the earthquake and the wave that was the counterculture of the American 60s. The problem is that a seismograph is a machine for recording, not a machine for interpreting. So, Tom Wolfe writes a book about the upswell of LSD use. It is an exemplary text of the New journalism, a subjective excursion that takes various liberties with the conventions of journalism, to the point of becoming part of the story itself. Wolfe’s explicit aim is to recreate in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test the kind of acid experience that the merry pranksters themselves created. He succeeds in the sense that he creates a bewildering experience that fails to question it’s own assumptions and, for want of a better way of putting it, is too fucked up on drugs to actually DO anything.

Not to say that this book isn’t interesting as a historical document. In fact it is as that that it succeeds. The various countercultures of the 50s and 60s have always interested me, and as for who did what, where, and when, Electric Kool-Aid is a comprehensive look at a period in time when it looked like something might happen, and the world might change for the better through a surge of energy. The how and why fall by the wayside, betraying a hollowness to this ideology, the book mirroring the failures of the project that wasn’t a project in and of itself.

This is possibly because it was first published in 1971, a closeness to the recorded events that did not afford it a large enough perspective. It could also be a peculiar tic of the method Wolfe used and helped pioneer, subjectivity in this instance not lending itself well to analysis. Or, it could be Wolfe’s fault. I’d lean towards it being Wolfe, and for a particular reason. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas was published in the same year and, in a general sense, employs the same method. But where Electric Kool-Aid is a day-glo mess, Fear and Loathing is a thorough post-mortem on the very same period of history. Both engage with the 60s counterculture-as-utopian-project, but every utopian project that we’ve known has needed it’s detractors and it’s people who can, after the fact, help diagnose where it all went wrong. In this sense, Fear and Loathing would be a fantastic book to read as an epilogue to Electric Kool-Aid, and would much better fulfil the purpose than the epilogue Wolfe provides us. I would venture to say that Thompson says more in the wave speech than Wolfe does in the whole book.

Not that I intend entirely to denigrate Wolfe for executing his aesthetic. Wolfe’s typographical inventiveness as a means to replicate the estrangement of the drug experience is an admirable effort. I’ve always felt that text is a difficult medium through which to communicate the drug experience (except, perhaps, for the paranoia), owing to the fact that it is an experience that is so often visual, auditory, tactile or temporal. In the sense that Wolfe forces you to look at something you know is text, but isn’t quite like the text you would normally see, Wolfe’s method does its job. Particularly interesting is the use of ::::colons::::: to highlight a word, which also produces the effect of lingering on the syllables, like reading a word in slow motion, which I enjoyed very much as a trick and will be sure to steal for my own use. He gets an A for effort, but sometimes these effects fall flat. Wolfe is very upfront about being a square to the prankster’s hip, but sometimes he comes on so square-trying-to-be-hip that it produces the same feeling as knowing that Gordon Brown (or one of his press officers) thought it would be a good idea for him to talk about his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Also of note for “oh please just stop” value is Wolfe’s occasional insertion of (bad, really, really, bad)

free verse poetry
free verse poetry
the main
free verse poetry
body of the text
free verse poetry
that also needlessly
free verse poetry
repeats lines
free verse poetry
because they don’t even scan

free verse poetry

Also, why in the hell does he constantly use the phrase “cop a urination”? I get it Wolfe. You are using slang. Once, I’d understand. But if I remember correctly, after hitting upon this magic phrase, he never refers to taking a piss by any other means. Oh, and remember, this was published in 1971. 1971! And, he never, ever, refers to a person of colour as anything but “spade”. Fuck sake.

The biggest problem, though, is that Wolfe simply records all the bullshit, particularly Kesey’s bullshit. Again, this is partly method; he is being subjective, not objective/analytical, and his target is not as big as Thompson’s, who was concerned with the lingering death of a dream. Wolfe, by comparison, is concerned with Kesey and his pranksters and what they were doing. But there is no bigger concern. Wolfe spends the first two thirds of the book parroting Kesey’s line that what the Pranksters were doing was something entirely new, an experiment in intersubjectivity, without stopping to question it, and then, uh oh, Kesey gets arrested and it all goes to shit. Why? Who cares. Wolfe, then, may have simply ended up, in describing intersubjectivity, falling prey to it himself. This would be fine if it were, as Kesey said, something entirely new, and not a personality cult in which Kesey used psychedelics and subtle manipulation to bend a group of people to his will while calling his will non-will. Am I now criticising the content of the book and not the book itself? Yes, partly, but Wolfe twins the two so closely that there isn’t a choice, because he seeks to be subjective and have his voice become part of and simulate the story itself. If I cannot separate the two, then I must have a problem with Wolfe, because I have a problem with Kesey, who was written about without a grain of critical thought, by Wolfe.

This willingness on Wolfe’s part to essentially become Kesey’s court jester leads to one of my more specific annoyances with Electric Kool-Aid. In not analysing or thinking through any of the events he is recording, he records some absolutely fucking terrible advice on the use of psychedelics. In chapter 18, Kesey, through Wolfe, speaks against Timothy Leary’s famous phrase, “set and setting.” Kesey/Wolfe sees this as a commandment to not do as you please with LSD, but to instead use it specifically the way Leary proscribes, and then caricatures Leary’s prescription as involving bourgeois environments and peace and meditation and No Fun. Yes, I understand that Timothy Leary was very much the stuffy east coast intellectual who had been part of the establishment in comparison Ken Kesey’s Randal McMurphy, but, take it from me, to discard set and setting is very fucking bad advice. That Wolfe simply recreates Kesey’s “fuck it” stance on the use of psychedelics after, earlier in the book, someone has a bad experience with DMT and has to be hospitalised because of it, is just lazy journalism, not New, exciting journalism, or even a reflection of Kesey’s more spontaneous stance on the whole LSD “thing”. It’s just irresponsible and stupid. Set and setting is a mantra for a reason, and there is more than one path to enlightenment. If Wolfe had taken the time and effort to question Kesey’s path at all, he would have seen it was the same old personality cult bullshit covered in Day-Glo paint.


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