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fear and loathing

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was written by Hunter S. Thompson, originally for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, but was published as a book in ‘72. The novel was received a somewhat mild reception upon release but has since achieved cult status, for two main reasons; Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ style of writing, and the commentary of the extravagant but ultimately doomed, drug culture of the 60s. One of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, was a big fan of the book, recognising it as one of the great, modern novels and a classic of our time.

The story is narrated by journalist Raoul Duke, and his attorney, the heavyset Samoan Dr. Gonzo (The plot is loosely based on real trips taken by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney and friend Oscar Zeta Acosta; as such, we can safely assume that Thompson is Raoul Duke and Acosta is the Samoan attorney) as they travel to Las Vegas for Duke to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. In the trunk of their car sits a stash of illegal substances, including but not limited to: cocaine, mescaline, LSD, ether, marijuana. And a lot of rum too.

As a member of the press Duke and his attorney are able to stumble with relative ease, via hotel bars and motel rooms, from the desert heat of the Mint 400 to a police conference for the war on drugs (the audacity of attending is not lost on Duke), but due to the volume and variety of drugs they ingest, are often in some mental distress. Vomiting, damage to property, confrontations and distorted, twisted visions of their environments are present and described with vivid and hilarious detail.

But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.

They drive from place to place in a hallucinatory, surreal haze and the pair represent a counter-culture from the commercialism and consumerism that is rife in America. Las Vegas centralises this mainstream American culture, and the duo try their damnedest to stretch and scratch at the glossed and shiny facade of American insincerity, their private and internal commentary both twisted and painfully honest.

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The book is illustrated by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, often depicting the protagonists (and their surroundings) as monstrous and grotesque. ‘The plastic torn away…’

“The wave” has become known as a speech synonymous with Thompson’s work. The book had served largely as a wacky and hilarious, over-the-top road trip for me, but when I read ‘the wave’ I found it both beautiful and tragic. The shared feeling of achievement and hope for the future, the depression and sadness to find it quashed before it could begin.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Lost Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

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.

Fear and Loathing also introduced the literary world to gonzo journalism and was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson himself. From what I’ve read, the gonzo style is generally narrated in the first person, the narrator often a journalist or similar, and is filled with observations, experiences and emotions (rather than facts) and usually incorporates humour, sarcasm and profanity. Throughout the book potentially serious events are interspersed with humour and it can be tough to identify between the fact and the fiction.

An over-the-top, outrageous book. The absurd insanity will disgust and entertain but there is a surprisingly touching and profound commentary of a generation of broken (American) dreams and the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s.

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In the near future, Substance D, aka Slow Death, or Death, is a highly addictive and dangerous drug which has 20% of the population of the United States hooked. It causes wild hallucinations and severe brain damage, where the two hemispheres of the brain compete with one another, causing paranoia, schizophrenia, and finally, death.

Bob Arctor is a user of Substance D, and lives with his addict friends Barris and Luckman in his suburban, rundown house in Anaheim, California. Together they spend their days under the influence of various drugs, taking part in a number of inane conversations and arguments, often escalating quickly due to the group’s shared paranoia. But Bob Arctor is living a double life, also working as an undercover narcotics officer, one of a network employed by the government, along with invasive and advanced surveillance techniques, in a desperate attempt to fight back in the failed war on drugs. When Arctor is required for reports at the police station, he must wear a “scramble suit”, a high-tech costume that constantly changes the wearer’s appearance, to keep his identity private, and is assigned a code name, “Fred”. All the narcotic informants must wear these, even Fred’s superior, Hank, keeping their identities protected even from one another.

“We’re all dreaming,” Arctor said. If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself, he reflected. He wondered how much of the garbage that Donna had overheard he had seriously meant. He wondered how much of the insanity of the day–his insanity–had been real, or just induced as a contact lunacy, by the situation. Donna, always, was a pivot point of reality for him; for her this was the basic, natural question. He wished he could answer.

Since starting his most recent assignment, Fred/Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, and formed a strong bond with Donna, a cocaine addict and supplier of Substance D; Arctor had hoped to be introduced to her supplier, getting further up the supply chain in an attempt to gain a lead. At his next review Hank informs Fred that, due to the information from an unknown informant, his next assignment is Bob Arctor; Arctor essentially has to begin spying on himself. The narcotics division installs hidden surveillance equipment throughout Arctor’s house while the group are out, and Fred must analyse the footage for anything that could incriminate Arctor, while getting an external viewpoint of the life that he and his drug addict housemates lead.

The paranoia and uncertainty that affects Arctor and Fred is jarring as the effects of Substance D addiction loosens his sense of reality. He is even called in for medical analysis several times, where doctors coldly tell him of the damage that is taking apart his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The New Path rehabilitation centre, and Arctor’s severe brain damage from coming off Substance D in the final few chapters of the book were difficult. It showed the damage withdrawing from the drug can hold, as Arctor is essentially a scrambled mess, barely able to perform simple tasks and utter short sentences.

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The film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, is pretty good. Its distinctive animated style perfectly captures the schizophrenic and paranoiac tone of the book.

It is revealed that Donna was also an undercover agent, like Arctor, and is aware that Arctor was used by the police. The intention all along was to get Arctor closer to Barris (the real target of the surveillance in Arctor’s house), to get him hooked on Substance D, to get him into NewPath, It is strongly suspected that NewPath themselves are behind the manufactures and distributors of the drug are NewPath themselves, growing little blue flowers on farmlands across the United States. It is hoped that eventually Arctor may regain his mental capacities and provide evidence against NewPath; but this is in no way a certainty.

Donna said, “I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But” – she gestured. “He doesn’t know. He never did know. He didn’t volunteer-”

“Sure he did. It was his job.”

“He had no idea, and he hasn’t any idea now, because now he hasn’t any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn’t happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse – Bob Arctor’s corpse.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t Dick’s best work, and it isn’t my favourite book of his (that will remain Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) – but it is still a great read, for its message and the emotional impact. The poignancy of the author’s note at the end of the novel is traumatic, bringing you back into the reality of a world where addiction is a problem, and the repercussions are severe.

If there was any “sin”, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. . .

. . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

If you are unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick then you may not know that he had an amphetamine habit in the 1970s. It didn’t last long and I don’t believe he was as heavy a user as some of the characters in this book, but he did once state in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” Some of the aspects of drug culture are brilliantly realised and truthful. I have no doubt Dick saw some extraordinarily dark times.

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In the theatrical adaptation Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. plays Barris and Woody Harrelson plays Luckman.

Note: When I finished reading A Scanner Darkly last week I immediately sought out the film adaptation. I really enjoyed it; a much more faithful adaptation that we might be use to seeing, in terms of plot anyway. There were no jarring changes; one reveal towards the end, which wasn’t actually detailed in the book, made a lot of sense but was a nice twist. Check it out, alongside the book.