Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘popping pills’

Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?

TMcE

(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)