Updated: Aug 13
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and is currently a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.
“Meet girls. Take drugs. Listen to music.” These three short sentences function as the plot summary and the marketing blurb for Rainald Goetz’s 1998 novel Rave, newly translated into English by Adrian Nathan West. The “girls” are young, the “drugs” are strong, and the “music” is pounding. That much we know, but little else is clear. “Autofiction” before Karl Ove Knausgård or Rachel Cusk, Goetz’s protagonist “Rainald” drifts from club to industry shin-dig to Balearic island and back again, chugging beers, popping pills and chatting nonsense along the way.
Rave’s disjointed and sometimes distended prose, not to mention its casual misogyny, limits its appeal. Nonetheless, since its publication this summer by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a small London-based imprint home to Nobel Prize winners Olga Tokarczuk and Svetlana Alexievich, as well as more experimental fare by artist Moyra Davey and theorist Paul B. Preciado, Rave has enjoyed its fair share of critical attention from the trendier ends of the literary and style press.
Such prominence, in Britain at least, speaks to the re-evaluation of the legacies of the rave era over the past couple of years, and, inevitably, the socially distanced times we’ve all lived in since March 2020. This former tendency is typified by artist Jeremy Deller’s film Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, whilst a sizeable minority of young people have resisted the strictures of Coronavirus policy and the curtailment of communal pleasures by organizing illegal parties, inevitably prompting newspaper headlines heralding “the shocking return of the rave.”
As it happens, Rave really has very little to say to any of these themes beyond its title. Rather, it is a warts-and-all snapshot of a culture that never went away in Goetz’s native Germany. Since reunification, electronic music has sound-tracked thriving subcultures, and in normal times, Berlin clubs play host to thousands of global techno tourists every weekend. The drug-assisted, sleep-deprived hedonism of this party culture is perhaps best expressed in the English subtitle of the 2006 documentary Feiern: “don’t forget to go home.”
Indeed, this is the sort of advice that some people may feel the cast of Rave would do well to heed. If the relentless four-four thump of techno and house are the motor of these parties, then the lubricants are Ecstasy, amphetamines and a rainbowed pharmacopeia of other stimulants. Goetz captures the total confusion and exhilaration of a long night into dawn, in which chance meetings, funny incidents and strange conversations are mere punctuation to the rush of the drugs and the draw of the dancefloor.
On the one hand, Rave’s digressive collection of clubbing vignettes is possibly of narrow interest only to the type of person who recognises its characters as the real-life DJs, journalists, liggers, and hangers-on of ‘90s German techno: Sven Väth, DJ Hell, Dr Motte, DJ Woody, Moritz von Oswald and Tobias Thomas all make cameo appearances. Indeed, the novel concludes with an eulogy to the dub-techno duo of Basic Channel, whose music Goetz hails as a “kind of biological surplus of intake normally to be found in the nightlife through dancing, the grandiose violence of clamour, and drugs.”
On the other hand, Goetz has ambitions for far wider contemporary relevance. His German publishers Suhrkamp describe Rave as the first book of Heute Morgen (“This Morning”), “a five-volume work of contemporary history.” Such seemingly grandiose claims are worth examining closely. Goetz is a historian by training, and despite Rave’s plotless experiments, it nonetheless pays attention to continuity and change, not least in its treatment of drugs.
Rave’s temporal reach is indeterminate, but it appears to fill in the gaps between the immediate post-Wall context provided by the oral histories of legendary Berlin club Tresor, and the arrival in the 2000s of what journalist Tobias Rapp termed “the Easyjet set” and the international notoriety of the Berghain. It therefore captures the point at which club culture reached maturity in Germany after its first bloom. The electronic music industry is on its way to being as bloated as its rock counterpart, and the allure of the drugs appears as much habitual as it is a pursuit of transcendence. Indeed, Rave marks a shift from Ecstasy to “do[ing] as much cocaine as possible.” Alongside this excessive consumption forms an unlikely temperance movement: “drugs in the scene have been getting worse and worse press all over. The cooler a person feels, the more he gets riled up against drugs … Addiction has turned into a regular swear word, can you believe it, in the nightlife the addict is just a sorry outcast.”
But Goetz never settles long enough to make a coherent point, and Rave eschews anything like the moral fables of superficially comparable novels such as Irvine Welsh’s 1993 bestseller Trainspotting. Indeed, Rave pointedly references the Scottish novelist: “I thus quote this quote from Irvine Welsh, about making mistakes.” A provocateur by nature, Goetz has been both contemporary German literature’s enfant terrible and most celebrated exponent; slicing his head open with a razorblade whilst reading his 1983 debut Irre (“Insane”), and being awarded the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 2015.
If read between the lines, Rave offers an insight into an otherwise little explored period of recent German history and its moral subjectivities on drugs. Rave operates as both a celebration of a youth culture’s collective freedoms and a questioning of the essential purpose of its amorality and hedonism. The correct attitude towards drugs, according to “Rainald,” is therefore an ambiguous and ambivalent one. “The most pleasant, and sadly they are quite a rare breed, are those who take as many drugs as possible and criticize it as little as possible, whether it is their own use or drug use in general … With drugs, as with everything else good, generally speaking, nothing is good unless you’re doing it. And that’s practically all there is to say. Except for things like: know anyone here who’s got pills? … Every fear people have about drugs is a correct fear.”