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Enthralling Books: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Here's my essay in a series of essays about enthralling books. See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark


NewImageGone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This twisted psychological suspense novel had me from the first page and I read it every spare moment I had until I finished it. It begins with a man named Nick's description of his morning on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary. Nick and Amy were once bon vivant magazine writers in New York, but the print media implosion put an end to their fun life, and for a variety of reasons ("Blame the economy, blame bad luck, blame my parents, blame your parents, blame the Internet, blame people who use the Internet") they end up in Carthage, Missouri with Nick running a dive bar (using the remainder of Amy's recently obliterated trustfund) with his sister Margo. Later that day, Amy disappears from their house, leaving behind signs of a struggle. The police, and TV viewers around the country, suspect Nick did it.

The second chapter is from Amy's diary, seven years before her disappearance, in which she giddily describes meeting the handsome and funny Nick at a party in Brooklyn.

The chapters alternate between Nick's account of his life after Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diaries entries leading up to the event. We see a happy relationship deteriorate over time. We also see signs of psychopathy and deceit start creeping in as the story unfolds. Since this is a suspense novel, things aren't necessarily what they seem (or are they?) and there are major twists and surprises along the way.

Even as a straight-ahead thriller, Gillian Flynn's novel succeeds with a tight plot that's rich but easy to follow. What made it extra enjoyable for me is Flynn's dark sense of humor, insight into relationships, cultural observations, and developed characters. As messed up as Flynn's characters are, they are believable, unpredictable (even to themselves) and complex, and that's what keeps things interesting. I've read other reviews of Gone Girl in which readers have complained that Amy and Nick are too unlikable to care about. I disagree. I care about them the same way I care about Breaking Bad's Walter White, Mad Men's Don Draper, and Tony Soprano: pathologically manipulative jerks who reveal a shred of humanity often enough that you can relate to them, especially since we all have some element of a dark side in us.

I also liked Amy’s rant about “cool girls.” Here's an excerpt:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men -- friends, coworkers, strangers -- giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.”

Flynn's previous novels, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, are queued up on my reading list.

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Enthralling Books: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImage I’ve been a pretty serious Dick-head ever since a roommate gave me a copy of A Scanner Darkly 20 years ago. The drugs and dystopian SF hooked me. But it wasn’t until a few years later, in college at the University of Hawaii, that I discovered Philip K. Dick’s literary merit, a discovery that forever altered the course of my life.

I was buying books for an American Lit class: Frederick Douglass, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, nothing I was particularly excited about reading, but then, in the next shelf over, with the books for another section of the very same class, I see Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- as assigned reading. You know, the book Blade Runner is based on?

Like the movie, the novel features Rick Deckard (ever notice how his name sounds like the philosopher Rene Descartes?) who’s been recruited to ‘retire’ six androids in a single day. Spurred on by a nagging wife and a ‘mood organ’ that keeps him in his business-like manner, Deckard hits the mean, post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco in search of some of the most dangerous machines ever conceived of by man.

I dropped the boring section of the class the next day. Little did I know, my new professor, Robert Onopa, would connect Dick’s novel to some of the most influential American literature of the 20th century including T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and, in the process, save me from an existential crisis that threatened to swallow me whole.

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Enthralling Books: Towards a Poor Theatre, by Jerzy Grotowski

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImageTowards a Poor Theatre, by Jerzy Grotowski

I had not heard of Grotowski until 1977 when I witnessed a film document of his Polish Theatre Lab's performance of Akropolis. As I left Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive screening, I wandered the streets in shock and awe. Though I had eight years' experience performing, writing, and directing experimental theatre, nothing could prepare me for Grotowski's visceral explosive and revelatory "paratheatre." I immediately walked down Telegraph Avenue to Moe's Books and found a copy of Grotowski's book, Towards a Poor Theatre. Sitting there on the floor in the Theatre section, oblivious to the world, I was enthralled and astonished by what I was reading. Grotowski's radical premises were so dynamic, yet so clearly pragmatic, they advanced the culture of theatre beyond the previous gold standard of Stanislavki's method. My young 25-year old heart, mind, and body was on fire! I knew right then and there what I would be doing with the rest of my life and that was: some version of this.

Cut to present time. For the last thirty-five years, I have been in the practice and teaching of a version of paratheatre I have been developing in groups with hundreds of actors, dancers, singers, and martial artists. It's not been a career as much as a calling that brought me to this place. Reading Towards a Poor Theatre lit the fuse on an internal time bomb that was already primed to go off to either send me to prison for very bad behavior or explode my meaningless life into smithereens. The book saved me from myself.

The dog-eared copy became my bible yet I felt that I would betray my early theatrical experience if I followed it to the letter. Instead I chose to relate with the book as a source of inspiration in an ongoing process of developing paratheatrical experiments, new techniques, and eventually finding and defining my own version of paratheatre. I even wrote a book on my paratheatrical research (Towards an Archeology of the Soul; Vertical Pool Publications. 2003). To say Towards a Poor Theatre changed my life may be an understatement. It's more like the book gave me life. And when someone of something gives you life, I don't know about you but I feel like giving life back.

Explaining the content of Grotowski's book is pretty much impossible; its luminous threads of white hot intelligence weave across the fabric of world theatre, the inspired madness of Artaud, numerous practical notes on the Actor's vocal and physical training, all towards a methodical science of the acrobatic body as the final source of energy and text as the critical framework for its articulation. My descriptions here fall way short. They also fail to convey the lucidity by which Grotwoski explains the fundamental principles and premises of his "poor theatre", a place where the actor is left alone without props and tricks, with only his naked self to plumb the depths of humanity and then, finally, share the revitalizing fruits of a terrible labor of love.

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Enthralling Books: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

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The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

A few days before the news of W.G. Sebald’s sudden death in a car accident in 2000, I had decided I was going to send him a letter. I have written about two letters to authors in my life, and I would do it more often if I thought there was way to go about it that didn’t by design come across as fannish and gushing. But the work of Sebald, particularly his 20th century masterpiece The Emigrants, had such a profound affect on me, I felt compelled to let him know.

Word of his death was a blow. Sebald was just starting to get the wider recognition he deserved with the publication of Austerlitz, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. I felt as though something important had been taken from the world, something that was essential to helping us understand what it means to be human beings agents of history, and how history works on us. This is what Sebald’s work is about: None of our lives exist within a vacuum, that we are all part and parcel of historical forces that shape us, batter us about, and in our attempts to fight against them, we often lose.

I had discovered the novel The Emigrants by chance. It was weekday afternoon, browsing the literature section of the bookstore. I often scan by logos on the spines, looking for independent publishers in the hopes of discovering authors or books I have never heard of. I spied the New Directions mark on a book, pulled it from the shelf and read the back. I had never heard of Sebald, but thought it looked interesting enough. I bought it and took it home.

I was not quite prepared for what happened next. Almost like a state of self-hypnosis, I could feel some part of my reader’s consciousness shift. I read books as if I understand books, as if I know about genre and time-periods, know what to expect from science fiction, from crime noir, from Kafka, from Vonnegut, from Roth. Of course I’m surprised at times by language, plot, and a character that comes alive in a way I never thought possible. But I am rarely thrown off course by a book, never have I had to renegotiate the very act of reading. That is, until I read The Emigrants.

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Enthralling Books: Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, by Deborah Solomon

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Utopia parkwayUtopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon

A gaunt-looking man is sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in Flushing, NY. It is nighttime and everyone else in the house is asleep. He is meticulously cutting out a photo-copied engraving of a long-dead ballerina with small scissors. Later, he carefully arranges a few small objects inside of a homemade wooden box. On the chair beside him sits a huge plate of jelly donuts. He shoves a donut into his mouth, wipes his hands with a dish towel and keeps on doing his thing. The oven is on, but he is shivering. The man is Joseph Cornell, famous American artist and insatiable lover of sweets.

Joseph Cornell, who lived from 1903 until 1972, was a huge fan of female opera stars, poets, ballerinas and actresses. He made friends with them, he longed for them, and he stared at them, but he never acted out his fantasies. Instead, Cornell spent hours collecting bits of ephemera into files. He constructed romantic boxes dedicated to the objects of his affection (from Fanny Cerrito to Lauren Bacall). He poured all of his frustrations into his art. Sometimes he presented the boxes to them as gifts.

Perhaps he had a case of arrested development. His father died suddenly when he was only 13 and, after that, he felt pressingly obligated to become the man of his family. For most of his life, he lived with his widowed mother and he took care of his brother, Robert, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. In some ways, he was a little bit like a martyr, a saint or a monk. He joined the Christian Science church at 21 and he never took an art class. His mother criticized him day and night.

It wasn’t until his late 20s, while holding down a full-time job as a textile salesman, that he began to make collages and boxes from various souvenirs that he collected. He was inspired by Max Ernst’s collage novel of 1929 (La Femme 100 Têtes) and Marcel Duchamp’s found objects.

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Enthralling Books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

ChabonThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

A smiling Amazon box arrived on the porch just in time for me to pack my new paperback copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in my carry-on bag. As my ride to the 2008 San Diego Comic Con approached cruising altitude I opened the book that my wife recommend, and settled into a rare streak of four uninterrupted hours.

The tale begins at a comic book convention where Sam Clay speaks to fans in a panel discussion much like the ones I would soon be standing in line for. Sam is co-creator of the Escapist, a character whose popularity rivals Superman in Chabon’s alternate reality. The other half of the creative team is Sam’s cousin, Josef “Joe” Kavalier. The duo met in 1939 when they were teenagers, just days after Joe had escaped Nazi-occupied Prague and moved into Sam and his mother’s Brooklyn apartment.

In those days, Sam’s career was off to a slow start at Empire Novelties, a mail-order company where his duties sometimes entailed ad paste-ups and product illustrations for things like pocket cameras and midget radios. Again, I delighted in the way this paralleled my own life. At the time, I was the sole freelance graphic artist for the century-old S.S. Adams company, the outfit that pioneered the American prank and magic trick industry.

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Enthralling Books: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Nicholas nickelbyNicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

An enthralling book, I reckon, is a function of two things: the book's virtues itself and one's opportunity to be enthralled. Back in my high school days, I had enough time on my hands that I could throw myself into a big fat novel and plow my way through it in three or four days (particularly in the summer). I took on most of the best selling potboilers by Irving Wallace, Leon Uris, and James Michener and considered myself reasonably engaged.

But for true enthrallment, I have to point to that icon of adolescent true-believerhood, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. So help me, I read through my Signet mass paperback edition twice, underlining passages, and taxing the binding to the point that I had to rubberband my copy to keep its pages together. I may have been 16 at the time.

Is Atlas Shrugged a great book? Not as I see things now. But Ayn Rand had the knack of writing with a total conviction that appealed to teenagers seeking a grand belief system. She was also influenced by (and a defender of) novelists in the vein of Alexander Dumas, and some of this rubbed off on her novels. Engrossing reads, especially for the young.

But my favorite enthralling book is Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. I came to Dickens late in life. I had to read Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in high school English classes, but I'd not been won over by either book. Decades later, I came upon a facsimile edition of Dickens' original Nicholas Nickleby's monthly chapter editions, illustrations included, and took a chance. Once I began reading, I was totally sucked in.

As I later learned, this was from Dickens' early prime period, prior to the death of his wife's sister, on whom he had a secret crush. After her very premature death, Dickens settled into a quasi-tragic mode in his books. But Nicholas Nickleby preceded that. Not that NN isn't full of tragedy and misery, but it is so over-the-top and the descriptions so droll that I found myself laughing out loud at the oddest junctures.

My enjoyment was enhanced by Phiz's illustrations which capture and drive home the book's overall farcical tone, and by the reproduction of all the ads that ran in the original periodical monthly chapters. (Aromatic Spirits of Vinegar! Labern's Botanic Cream! Eight Day Clocks!) It's a pity that this edition, originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1982, is now out of print; it's the next best thing to time travel. As is Nicholas Nickleby, no matter what edition you pick up. If you've never read it, I encourage you to give it a go. You're in for a grand time.

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Enthralling Books: Johnny Got His Gun

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Johnny got his gun Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

I hadn't read my first complete book of fiction until I was twenty-one: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it all in one night, identifying so strongly with the adolescent alienation of Holden Caulfield that I wrote a letter to Salinger, asking permission to use his character in a novel I planned to write. He gave the most appropriate response he possibly could -- he completely ignored my request. His Zen silence was so eloquent that for years I would continue to cringe with embarrassment at how incredibly naïve I had been.

In 1953, publisher friend and mentor Lyle Stuart lent me the second novel I read, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, who had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I shall answer in my own words,” he testified. “Very many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.”

As a result, he became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and won an Academy Award for best screenplay under an assumed name. He finally used his own name in the screen credits for Spartacus.

Johnny Got His Gun, originally published in 1939, was about a soldier so severely wounded that, with the aid of modern medical technology, he remained alive but without the senses of sight, hearing, smell and taste. He had nothing left except the sense of touch and his consciousness. The first half was how he came to realize his situation, and the second half was what he could do about it.

That book had such a tremendous impact on me, it served as my literary Bible. The gospel wasn’t about the antiwar stance so much as the urge to communicate. I was afraid that every book I read after that would be anti-climactic.

“There's a whole generation who never even heard of it,” I said to Lyle Stuart. “Why don't you publish a new edition?” Which he did.

He also lent me Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis. It was about a white man who discovered that he had “Negro blood.” Lyle felt so strongly about the race issue that when he had been courting a lovely redhead, smart and witty, he told her that he was “part Negro.” She passed the test and they got married.

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Enthralling Books: Blood Music, by Greg Bear

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImageBlood Music by Greg Bear is one of the most enthralling books I've ever read.

I've been absolutely riveted and enthralled by many of Greg's books, but this one has a unique quality that I found most appealing. It's the vast breadth of the progression of the story, the shear imaginative distance traveled from where it starts to where it ends. And it's not a long book!

Published in 1985, the story begins in a very plausible modern setting and deals with the world of microbiology and genetic engineering. It is credited with being the first account of nanotechnology in science fiction. It quickly develops very interesting, realistic characters and intrigue. It starts to play like a fascinating thriller about containing a science experiment gone wrong. It accelerates steadily with increasing suspense and just as you are excitedly anticipating where you think it might be going, it leaps way over your expectations. The scope of imagination is mind boggling. It pours on more and more extreme departures from the expectations established by the modest, reality-based beginning. It turns upside down every aspect of the ideas and the genre it explores.

The book escalates like nothing I've ever read. It goes so far, so quickly, yet builds very cleverly from such a realistic and familiar context, it seems like it's really happening. Over and over again I was not only surprised, but shocked by the incredible imaginative leaps. I was genuinely freaked out at times. I actually found myself exclaiming aloud!

I could not stop reading it. I was taken far beyond my wildest expectations. The utterly un-anticipatable and mind bending conclusion inspired a truly transcendent experience. Like the characters in the book, I was completely transformed. I'm different now. In a good way.

Now you should read it. Or listen to it. It's also one of the best audio books I've ever experienced.

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Enthralling Books: Mysteries, by Knut Hamsun

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

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Mysteries, by Knut Hamsun

One night in the autumn of 1882, Knut Hamsun's roommate returned home to find a knife, a cigar, and a note laid out on the table for him.

The note read:

Smoke the cigar and stick the knife into my heart.

Do it quickly, decisively and as a friend, if you value my affection.

Signed Knut H.

P.S. This note will be your defense in court.*

Hamsun lay asleep in his bed, underneath an angel of death that he had painted on the ceiling.

What intrigues me about this... prank? is that it somehow manages to come off as both playful and disturbing at the same time. This quality is present in much of Hamsun's early work, particularly in his second novel, the aptly titled Mysteries.

Mysteries doesn't have much in the way of a story. The very first paragraph sums up the plot in a couple dozen words: an eccentric stranger named Johan Nagel shows up in a small Norwegian coastal town, his odd behavior causes a stir, and then he disappears just as suddenly as he came. The writing style is similarly sparse, consisting of brief, straightforward sentences.

But this apparent simplicity conceals a murkier core. I've read Mysteries several times in multiple translations, and it always manages to captivate me. There's so much to chew on: from Nagel's deliberate, self-defeating behavior, to the haunting, visceral anecdotes that he relates to the perplexed townspeople, to all the enticing details and the questions they raise. What's the deal with the vial of poison that Nagel carries around? Who is the veiled woman who visits him halfway through the book? And why is it so important that he be wearing his iron ring when the clock strikes twelve each night?

The title of the book being what it is, it probably won't surprise you to know that most of these questions are left unanswered. But rather than being frustrating, the loose ends are a big part of the book's charm. They linger with me for days after I reach the last page and tempt me to start over from the beginning, so I can be shocked and delighted by Nagel's antics all over again.

*Cigar/knife anecdote adapted from Ingar Sletten Kolloen's Knut Hamsun: Dreamer And Dissenter

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Enthralling Books: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

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The book that most enthralled me -- or at least first enthralled me on the level you're talking about -- was Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was in college, on my way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to direct my friend Walter Kirn's play "Soft White Kids in Leather," loosely based on Warhol's Factory. Although I had read up on a lot of the New York scene of that era, it wasn't until I found Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (in the mass-market paperback edition in one of those used book bins) that I realized I had finally found someone who could not only express the experience of the group trip, but could also articulate the dynamics and ideology of the psychedelic commune. (Yes, Kesey and the Dead were the West Coast, tie-dyed counterpart to the black turtleneck culture of Warhol and Leary. But the sense of commitment to higher ideals and convenient forgetting of more day-to-day ethics were common to both scenes.)

Anyway, once I started this one I couldn't stop. This was back when taking a trip to Europe was still a really really big thing, so I had planned to travel from Italy to England to Scotland over a slow week of touring before starting rehearsals in Edinburgh. But I spent most of my time in hotel rooms and cafes just reading this book. Twice.

I don't think anything Wolfe has written really comes close, except maybe some of the essays. The book was my model for Cyberia - a similar foray into a psychedelic culture, where some fictionalizing was required to convey deeper non-fiction truths. I hope there's another psychedelic renaissance of this magnitude in my lifetime, just so I have the chance to write or even just read about it one more time.