What did you do over spring break? I read. I went to the Bay Area to stay with my sister for a bit. I was struck by the place and decided to study up on stuff that happened there. Obviously, I read about Ken Kesey, acid, appropriated Buddhism and Thomas Pynchon. But by far the most enjoyable aspect of all was Oedipa Maas.
I started by reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” on the journey back to Oregon. I live in Eugene, which is basically the town where Ken Kesey grew up, and the hippies and the acid and the whole Oregon connection really drew me in. I got 100 pages in, stopped, then picked it up again on the plane back to New York. I’ll let you know when I finish it. What I took away from this book were two quintessential ’60s texts: Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” (admittedly, “Siddhartha” was written in the ’20s, but it became popular in the ’60s).
And while we’re on the subject of critiques of ’60s culture, let me add a brief aside: What the fuck was Timothy Leary on when he advocated for LSD as a personal growth tool? Like, I’ve read Nietzsche, I know what it’s like to question society. I’ve read “Dune,” I know what mind-bending drugs are like (and I’ve “heard from friends” that the stuff is pretty powerful). But, like, why did this man have to blend the two together so painfully? The best guide for the acid-trip, Leary writes somewhere, is Herman Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha.” Supposedly, this is the best guide for the acid-trip besides Leary’s own acid-Buddhist bullshit guide, “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
If that last sentence didn’t make you cringe, “Siddhartha” will. It’s a novel that follows a character named Siddhartha as he searches for meaning after breaking away from the teachings of the Brahmins and the Buddha. “Siddhartha” has been likened to other spiritually-inclined coming-of-age texts, which I feel is a bit unfair. The book seems like a coming-of-age text, but its protagonist is a fully-grown man for much of the story—as in fully grown but completely irresponsible. This man makes so many poor decisions that it is utterly astounding. Like, yes, it is totally fine to leave your “wife” and child because you feel like your spirituality tells you to. What I hate the most about this book in terms of character and plot is that there is never any genuine attempt to demonstrate how the main character has changed. He is a proud, pompous man from beginning to end.
And I am not going to come up here and state what Buddhism is or isn’t because that isn’t something I can say with certainty. Hermann Hesse, at one point, seemed to be a Buddhist. “Siddhartha” at least tangentially connects with some core ideas of Buddhism. But, for the majority of this book, Buddhism is really only espoused as a sort of tool for Herman Hesse’s whiteness. It’s something that the character Siddhartha moves away from when it doesn’t help him anymore. Buddhism is seen as a fantasy to be enamored by, not a facet of life.
Even worse, Hesse deploys “spirituality” as a tool to battle the all-important aspect of life: critical self-examination. Siddhartha searches so tirelessly to find a life that is his own. He struggles until his life is all but over, but I was always left with the feeling that he never really changed. Unlike the Dantes, Lao Tzus and Le Guins of the world, Siddhartha never fails; he never makes a mistake, because he never thinks. Mirroring its protagonist, “Siddhartha” is a book that will be forever comforting—as long as its reader forgets to question it.
In this context, the protagonist of the next book I’ll review is refreshing. “The Crying of Lot 49” is a book about a character named Oedipa Maas who, after being named an executor in her ex-lover’s will, apparently discovers the existence of an alternative mail system whose history extends far back into history. This is a novel that glares back at us with an uncomfortable sense of self-knowledge. Here is a plot of breadcrumbs we can follow down into the confusing, meaningfully meandering ends where the reveal of American Nazism is treated as back-handed facts. “Oh you didn’t know that Nazi intelligentsia immigrated into the U.S. after war?” the book seems to ask, “Well, consider that later. Right now we must stay focused. In front of us is evidence of the corruption embedded in alternative mail courier systems.”
It is a book where all possibilities are open, where two women are given center stage (Oedipa Maas and Remedios Varo) while we are brought along to pounce around the literary aesthetics of this reality until we forget what part we read, and what part we saw beyond the page. It is a book that opens with the Bordando el Manto Terrestre and tactfully leaves out the black-clad figure, forcing the women to compose the regalia of the world’s mantle. Here is a book that forces you to consider just what it means for Pynchon to stage such an event at such a point. More importantly, here is a book that accomplishes this in a way that is engaging. If you aren’t already intrigued by Maas’ name, maybe you will be by a character named Genghis Cohen, or the mystery behind the enigmatic W.A.S.T.E. bins you’ve seen in cities before. This is a book where a painting is just as illuminating as the actions of the protagonist, and where insanity ramps up right until the last, beautiful page.