Drunk on words

Pub date August 19, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


1. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, 1973. When jazz singer Anita O’Day found herself stuck with an odd group of musicians who weren’t drinking alcohol or smoking anything between sets — they were reading books — she considered such behavior the other side of life. A very Pynchonian phrase. I know more people (two) who claim to have read this novel on acid than any other — the writer Kevin Killian and the poet Joshua Clover.

2. The Soft Machine, William Burroughs, 1962. A whole cosmology, and an antidote to the hideous language virus from outer space.

3. Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick, 1974. In a future where manufactured drugs bend the parameters of space and time, our characters are still also dropping mescaline.

4. How I Became a Nun, César Aira, 1993. Poisonous ice cream is the agent that instigates a trip coextensive with the mysteriously-gendered childhood of poor little César Aira. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Genet.

5. Any book by Wilson Harris. Really. They all blur together. Staring at most any page of Harris is like staring at a painting by Rufino Tamayo, Anselm Kiefer, Charles Burchfield, or Wilfredo Lam.

6. The Book of Lazarus, Richard Grossman, 1978. Dropped into the middle of this collage-novel, with its sophomoric poetry, cartoons of crossing guards, and plot about kidnapping a mobster’s daughter, is a fragment from an eternal sentence. Seventy single-spaced pages of psychedelic cartoon as cosmically weird as Tamala 2010.

7. Guide, Dennis Cooper, 1998. Once, when I was 19 and tripping, I wandered into a room full of cadavers. Whoa, I said. Later that night, I glimpsed the secret structure of the universe. Guide is kind of like that. "Dennis" struggles to convey the unpleasant insights from a bad trip.

8. Ice, Anna Kavan, 1967. Born Helen Ferguson, Kavan named herself after one of her own fictional characters. In and out of mental institutions. On and off heroin. Devoted to gay men. Found dead with lots of heroin and lipstick in her room. In this novel the world is freezing over and a poor thin girl is always getting tormented. Or is she?

9. Gone Tomorrow, Gary Indiana, 1993. For just one scene — a gay sex acid trip at Dachau. Burroughsian flesh-melds, fairy tales bubbling into reality, and the discovery that the Holocaust has been reduced to kitsch.

10. Dream Jungle, Jessica Hagedorn, 2003. Another one-scene wonder — an acid trip on a Manila-bound airplane. Yikes.

11. Already Dead, Denis Johnson, 1998. Starring a toad whose secretions contain DMT.

12. On Heroes and Tombs, Ernesto Sabato, 1961. Three-quarters of this is just okay, but "The Report on the Blind" makes it worth the price of admission. A paranoid misanthrope explores the sect of the blind which he believes secretly rules the world. Does for the visually impaired what The Orphan does for foreign adoptees.


1. Cool For You, Eileen Myles, 2000. Introducing his latest, prescription drug-addicted memoir The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott writes that "… only a fool mistakes memory for fact." Chris Kraus, as quoted by Myles: "Because capitalism’s insincere, it demands sincerity from its art."

2. Mama Black Widow, Iceberg Slim, 1969. "Under the crazy hypnosis of pills and alcohol I had the strange feeling I was in a fantastic flower garden, hearing the hum and buzz of insects …" Sounds like a sentence from —

3. Discovery of the World, Clarice Lispector, 1984. Except Clarice wouldn’t mention the pills and alcohol. It’s all subtext. Who’d have guessed she was addicted to sleeping pills the whole time?

4. Good Times: Bad Trips, Cliff Hengst and Scott Hewicker, 2007. Lit and art world luminaries describe their experiences, with illustrations.

5. A Voice Through a Cloud, Denton Welch, 1950. Excruciating pain is hallucinatory, and painkillers, too. "I was exquisitely conscious of the texture of things. There was torture in the smooth sheets, in the hair of the mattress and the weight of the blankets …"

6. Valencia, Michelle Tea, 2000. You can call it fiction, but I’ve been involved in illicit transactions with one of the characters.

7. The Peyote Dance, Antonin Artaud, 1976. A French Nobel Prize winner thinks Artaud didn’t even take that trip in the 1930s. Maybe not, but this book still gives me mescaline flashbacks — like the peyote trip in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996).

8. Go Ask Alice, Anonymous, 1971. I haven’t read it, but my partner Jonathan says our teen heroine’s (to quote the cover text) "harrowing descent into the nightmarish world of drugs" — acid trips and gay sex — convinced him to follow her path.