Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s note: In recent weeks Points contributing editor and media liaison Amy Long has secured interviews with a host of leading contemporary fiction writers about the role of alcohol, drugs, and addiction in their work. The resulting interview series, which we’ve christened “Fiction Points,” will run weekly, beginning tomorrow with Eleanor Henderson. Today Long and Points editor Eoin Cannon introduce the series by discussing the relevance of fiction to drug history and the importance of drugs to the current state of fiction.
View the entire series here or use the links at the end of this post to navigate to a specific interview.
“In the Court,” Luke Fildes’ frontispiece to Charles Dickens’s unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), depicting a scene thought to be based on Dickens’s police-accompanied visits to real East End opium dens.
EC: Fiction plays a unique set of roles for those seeking to understand the nature and meaning of drugs in history. Some survey it for depictions of the social realities of drugs’ procurement and use in a given time and place—data to join that of letters, newspaper reports, and medical treatises. Fictional representations are invented, of course, but they can be traced to real-life models, and in proper context can make vivid the phenomena under research.
Others look to literature for a rarer kind of access to the subjective experience of a drug’s effects and social meanings—a narrower view, because particular to the writer’s identity, style, and ability, but a deeper one. This depth comes not just in the sense of submerged mental experience, but in the possibility of foundational insight, the kind that can shape the very questions we ask about drugs in history.
Hallucinations: non-realities that really happened. A 1920 Leon Masson illustration for a French translation of Thomas de Quincey’s nonfictional Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821).
Drugs are threads in the social fabric, but they are threads that tend to tell us something significant about the pattern of that fabric beyond their own limited place in it. Drug use facilitates a wide variety of social behaviors (both mundane and unusual) and it defines the nature of ordinary versus altered consciousness. When authors depict drug use they limn simultaneously the structures of outer social order and inner mental life. Far from being the “escape” they provide for some characters, drugs tend to drive stories themselves toward the heart of things.
Consider how Edith Wharton uses drugs to render the plight of her character Lily Bart, in a brief scene toward the end of The House of Mirth (1905).
Lacking any form of patriarchal protection, Lily has fallen out of “society” and is forced to work with her hands for a living, adding physical stress to the psychological crisis of a collapsed social identity and the perpetual anxiety of an empty purse. In this state she responds to a chance meeting with a former suitor by steering carefully among the social ramifications and physical effects of alcohol, caffeine, and the sedative chloral hydrate:
“We can’t stay here; but let me take you somewhere for a cup of tea. The Longworth is only a few yards off, and there’ll be no one there at this hour.” A cup of tea in quiet, somewhere out of the noise and ugliness, seemed for the moment the one solace she could bear. A few steps brought them to the ladies’ door of the hotel he had named, and a moment later he was seated opposite to her, and the waiter had placed the tea-tray between them. “Not a drop of brandy or whiskey first? You look regularly done up, Miss Lily. Well, take your tea strong, then; and, waiter, get a cushion for the lady’s back.” Lily smiled faintly at the injunction to take her tea strong. It was the temptation she was always struggling to resist. Her craving for the keen stimulant was forever conflicting with that other craving for sleep—the midnight craving which only the little phial in her hand could still. But today, at any rate, the tea could hardly be too strong: she counted on it to pour warmth and resolution into her empty veins.
Confronted suddenly by the chance of a respite that might yet harbor further humiliation, Wharton’s character weighs her drug options as a means of negotiating some of the most salient power dynamics of her time: gender norms stretched across a shifting skein of class status; acceptable uses of public and private space; the status-dependent experience of time, in working hours vs. leisure time vs. restorative sleep; ultimately, the struggle to sustain the body in an industrial economy. In the subjective intensity of her heroine’s labor to survive what could appear as a mundane social interaction, Wharton illuminates major questions we can ask about what these drugs meant in her society. In that era, as well as in many others, drug use appears pervasively in fiction as not only a social reality but as a narrative means of revealing deep structures of power and change.
The problem of “subordinate fingers, blunt, grey, needle-pricked fingers” gives way to “a queer-acting drug. A drop or two more, and off you go—the doctors don’t know why.”
AL: If fiction utilizes drugs, alcohol, and their effects as stand-ins for or entry points into “big issues,” it is exactly that capacity that makes fiction such a powerful vehicle for exploring the meanings attached to addiction, intoxication, and the chemicals that produce those states. By looking at the work that drugs perform in fiction, we can identify and interpret the myriad cultural meanings attached to mind-altering substances and their users. In an attempt to better understand how and why contemporary fiction writers deal with drugs, Points has asked nearly a dozen working authors whose novels and stories often center on drinking and drug-taking to discuss their approaches to their work. We hope the resulting interviews will enhance our understanding of what drugs and alcohol signify in the present moment.
We contend at the outset that drugs remain essential to fiction’s relationship to its time and place. Magazine articles and blog posts annually bemoan the death of serious fiction – and, in particular, declare a dearth of contemporary works that examine the kinds of “big questions” plumbed by predecessors like Wharton. At The Millions, Alexander Nazaryan compares contemporary fiction to the city of Detroit and (referencing Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 Harper’s lament “Perchance to Dream”) diagnoses the current literary landscape as “a tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art.” Cultural critic Lee Siegel has accused fiction of “cultural irrelevan[ce],” saying in a 2010 editorial for the New York Observer that “no one goes to a current novel or story for the ineffable private and public clarity fiction once provided.” Writing for Mother Jones in the same year, Ted Genoways similarly posited that “American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues – as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.” Stale opinions, it’s true, but ones that still trade widely.
A different kind of order than expected.
In a recent post at Fractious Fiction, Ted Gioia offers a different take, actually crediting literature’s postmodern turn with the creation of new modes of writing that allow authors to tackle exactly those “big issues” without abandoning formal innovations that reflect the increasingly disjointed worlds we inhabit. Gioia places such works in the “third and perhaps final stage” in the evolution of what he calls “the fragmented novel.” He asserts that while third-stage writing may “appear loose,” it actually “seeks an exemplary wholeness, a fitting together of the fragments into brilliant patterns […] like pieces of a glorious jigsaw puzzle.”
Of course, more traditional narratives also proliferate, including those from writers whose work is rife with illicit substances. For example, Lauren Groff wrote her psychedelically enhanced Arcadia (2011) in straightforward third-person and presents readers with a basically linear story. But the novel is no less accomplished for lacking experimental bells and whistles; with Arcadia, Groff achieves the political and personal resonance that critics accuse her contemporaries of ignoring.
Rock ‘n’ roll fiction.
Still, Gioia’s observations hold a special salience for writing in which drugs and alcohol play major roles; it’s telling that he most frequently cites Jennifer Egan’s drug-infused A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) as emblematic of the postmodern novel’s third wave. Gioia credits Don DeLillo’s 1997 Underworld with ushering in the new era, but the books he uses to elucidate dissonant fiction’s third incarnation owe at least as heavy a debt to drug-related works such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – published in 1996 – and Denis Johnson’s linked story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Goon Squad is both a collection of stand-alone short stories and a giant narrative that explores such “big issues” as time, technology, identity, and consumerism; its surreal “alternate-reality” and use of the mystery conventions that make Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009) more than just a stoner epic evidence DeLillo’s influence, but the book’s depiction of an arguably dystopic future also echoes both Foster Wallace’s opus and Philip K. Dick’s drug-related work.
Cycles of narrative, cycles of compulsion.
Drug novels may simply have shifted strategies in tandem with their sober counterparts, but the genre might also have anticipated such stylistic innovations. Narratives about users and addicts in some ways necessitate forms of storytelling that flaunt stylistic innovation. Authors may find themselves attracted to drugs and alcohol because inebriated characters and intoxicating settings offer an opportunity to experiment formally without sacrificing grand themes; certain substances not only grant writers access to altered states of consciousness, but also allow them to draw upon the cultural connections that we make between drugs and concepts such as freedom, transgression, decline, and redemption.
Indeed, whether they utilize postmodern techniques or stick to more naturalistic modes of storytelling, each of our interviewees noted that he or she writes about drugs primarily to answer questions, explore themes, and address issues that might properly be classified as “universal” – those “big issues” that are purportedly brushed aside in today’s fiction. As historians of alcohol and drugs, we’re most interested in how contemporary writers use substances to frame larger questions and, perhaps more important, in how those frames reflect societal attitudes about drugs and drink.
Fiction Points Interviews
We offer our thanks to these writers for their insights and willingness to open up about their work, their writing processes, and their personal histories and beliefs. And we hope you enjoy the series as much as we enjoyed hosting it.