Just Say No Essay, Research Paper
Just say no The Promised Land: Travels in Search of the Perfect E Decca Aitkenhead 206pp, Fourth Estate Where is Decca Aitkenhead’s The Promised Land coming from? Is it a drugs book? Traveller’s confessional? Political reportage? All, or none, of the above? There ought to be a German word for it: gimmickschwerk, say. In an ingeniously disingenuous introduction to a determinedly tentative book, Aitkenhead claims that even she doesn’t really know for sure any more. Once upon an E, she had this simply perfect notion (whizz round the world in search of the “perfect” E), but woke to find a banal and unworkable lark (go round the world in search of the “perfect” E). Rough précis: sharp columnist with a photogenic byline; down with the garage kids but with a uni education; broadsheet babe who is chilled about her drug-taking… and the agents gathered. At such times you don’t say, “Well, I’ve got this Heideggerean thesis on post-war alienation I’ve been working on…” You make a Hollywood pitch: “I’ve got this boyfriend,” you say, “who never did E. I want to show him the Holy Wow. And recapture, in the process, my own inner E. We’ll fly round the globe, and voilà: ‘In search of the perfect E’.” The Promised Land is life imitating The Beach; Irvine Welsh booked into Judith Chalmers’s suite. Never mind the text, here’s the pitch. Which is a shame, because lurking in this semi-fleshed-out concept of a book-type thingummy are two or three potentially excellent actual books. To cut to the chase, Decca wakes up, like Dorothy, far from the sweet little sweatbox of a club in Manchester where it all began (that’s book/section one: me-columnist memoir of early clubbing days). She and her husband-to-be then plane-hop – San Francisco, South Africa, Thailand, Amsterdam – alternating between the peasy business of buying E and (with a resentful pout) sampling some of that non-E real life on their stops. When Decca is on (about) E, you can’t wait for her to sober up so you can get some good clear sense out of her. You know she is capable of it, because when E is off the decks, there follow extended episodes of pure and exemplary reportage, primarily in the two sections (”On a Promise” and “Broken Promise”) that comprise the solid middle of the book. The first paints a purgatorial picture of Thailand as a 24/7 pleasure park for jaded adults where shopping and fucking cease to be discrete activities; the second is a truly frightening sketch of the criminally anarchic “new” South Africa. Either could have been extended into a prize-winning book in itself, you feel – the Thailand section in particular, with its inspired riff on the fraudulent nature of youth travel. Or if not books, then star entries in a book of essays in the mode of P J O’Rourke. Better than that: at her cool, beady-eyed best, Aitkenhead has none of the flippancy or foreigner phobia of O’Rourke, and eschews the quest-for-excess of Hunter S Thompson. In a tea-table conversation with a perfectly decent and perfectly demented South African farmer/vigilante, for example, she has the quasi-fictional vividness of another, better travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. The trouble is, because she can’t or won’t ditch the “perfect E” scam, Aitkenhead disallows herself the option of developing one recognisable, enduring tone. The holy pitch wins out, despite being a transparent gauze of contradictions. She opens all brassy and chilled: E isn’t that big a deal, there’s nothing to say – why, it’s barely a drug. Then how (or why) spin a whole book around it? There is, indeed, very little to say about taking drugs per se – and what there is tends to the ineffable, or banal, when set down in text. (I feel so… HAPPY! Discuss. At length.) Consequently, most first-person drug narratives follow a pre-set template of rise and fall, (chemical) high and (social) low. You can read three wildly different wild boys – Thomas De Quincey, Donald Goines, William Burroughs – and find that the only real textual differences are ones of temporal scenery. It is the pertinent flickers of milieu that make the read worthwhile to the non-junkie reader. And milieu tends to follow the imposed structure of illegality, and all that results from the addict’s marginal status: assumed pariahdom, difficult choices, no-shows, ODs, incarceration. Cost. In this line, E promises little. As Aitkenhead says, E is not addictive, not difficult to buy, statistically undangerous and scarcely even regarded as a “drug” by its loyal brand-name consumers. It might as well not be illegal. And then there’s the Happiness thing – this being a very difficult subject to get right, or make interesting. Ecstasy’s core testimony of idiot joy hardly promises a pertinent postwar allegory à la Naked Lunch. Take away all the difficulty, diurnal drudgery and sublimated death drive of drugs, and there’s really not that much left to detail. But if the experience of E is of a sublime stasis (a perfect Drug Lite, readily available everywhere: McCulture’s narco-latte), then the idea of constructing a book about it around a real-time itinerary of real places seems almost a definition of pointlessness. Aitkenhead has jammed the ass shake of one book on to the hawk’s head of another, hoping we won’t see the surgery. Sometimes a sort of panic shows through – as if, having realised that the E pitch is going to make for a very dull book, she covertly waves all those lost incitements (violence, sex, politics) in through the back door of the club. Is this a clever play with dichotomy, a post-ironic mapping of our terminally split society? Or is roping in other people’s abject Real Lives as dramatic relief just a tiny bit appalling, even obscene, in its conceptual laziness? It wouldn’t be half so annoying, were we not made intermittently aware of how much higher Decca Aitkenhead can go.
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