The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Should I have been high while reading this?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Because this is one of those things that you feel like you’ll never really fully understand unless you experience it yourself.

It’s like reading a book about the making of The Wizard of Oz and never watching the movie (basically House of Leaves but I digress).


Okay, well maybe that is a little obsessive, since neither one of those things exists. (But oh how I wish they did).

But anyways, let’s go back to the topic at hand. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a world of hysterical realism and almost pulpy narrative, telling the story of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his band of Merry Pranksters, as they cross the United States in a day-glo splattered bus, throwing acid tests and coming to collective and individual revelations through weed, speed, and of course, acid. Now, for those of you who don’t know: hysterical realism, also called recherché postmodernism, is a term coined in 2000 by the English critic James Wood in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to describe what he sees as a literary genre typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization and careful, detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena. Imagine a bunch of jazz musicians vomiting the biography of Duke Ellington into a bucket, and then you, the reader, are instructed to taking flaming Dr. Pepper shots of the stuff.

That is the best way I know of to describe this novel.

A shallow resonance of Jack Kerouac flavors this book, and beautifully flowing narrative (see below) is constantly interrupted by jarring postmodern revelations of the author, and tedious descriptions of miniscule details.

“… there were a lot of kids in the early 1960s who were…yes; attuned. I used to think of them as the Beautiful People because of the Beautiful People letters they used to write their parents. They were chiefly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, these kids. They had a regular circuit they were on, and there was a lot of traffic from city to city. Most of them were from middle-class backgrounds, but not upper bourgeois, more petit bourgeois, if that old garbanzo can stand being written down again – homes with Culture but no money or money but no Culture. At least that was the way it struck me, judging by the Beautiful People I knew. Culture, Truth, and Beauty were important to them…”Art is a creed, not a craft,” as somebody said…Young! Immune! Christ, somehow there was enough money in the air that one could do this thing, live together with other kids…

…Mothers all over California, all over America, I guess, got to know the Beautiful People letter by heart. It went:

Dear Mother,

I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende, Mazatlan, Mexico!!!!] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it is a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and…

…and in the heart of even the most unhip mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades – dope.

Another good description of this book comes to mind; You are the designated driver for the evening. You’re nursing your sweating glass of coke with just a touch of rum in it, while your wasted friend tries for the thirtieth time to tell you about the moment he had with a girl on a date last week, where, “Dude, she just had this way of looking at me you know? And I just knew, I just knew, we had this crazy awesome connecting. It was so unbelievably cool you know? I mean, she just looked at me. Do you know what I mean, bro?”

And even though you hate when people call you bro, the smell of cheap tequila on his breath is starting to make you feel clammy, and no, you don’t know what he’s talking about because the only date you’ve been on in the past six months was with a guy who almost broke your nose by *almost* holding open the door for you, and then leaving you at the very last-minute to save yourself from death-by-door, and then asked you for nudes the next day. So no, you have no goddamn idea what he means, and even if you did, you sure as hell didn’t want to dwell on it in this dive bar.

That’s what reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was like. Maybe one day if I just happen to try Acid (preferably in Kool-Aid, just so’s to be keeping with the theme here) I’ll have to run home and grab this book. I’ll start reading furiously whilst painting myself somberly with day-glo paint and crunching eggshells between my fingertips, and maybe then I’ll know what the hell Tom Wolfe was talking about.

But that brings about another interesting question. Does someone need to experience something as extreme as taking acid to empathize and experience a fictional experience? What is the limit of the imagination? Can I be there, can I feel the lilting, scattered train of consciousness that is an acid trip if I’ve never done it before? Or can my imagination get me there? Read on, dear readers, and let me know.


About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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