Literature never shies away from the horrors of fantasy worlds or those that life throws at us. There is little that authors are afraid to tackle as a subject; in fact, the grittier and nastier, the better. Murder dominates mainstream literature, whether as a mystery or a violent crisis. Drugs, too, make a fascinating subject for literature, but could they actually enhance the author’s creativity? Addicts have created some of the world’s best literature.
One of the most famous poems in Western Literature is Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, appropriately subtitled, “A Vision in a Dream”, that he wrote upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. Sadly for literature, an unidentified “man from Porlock” (a town in south-west England), came to the door and interrupted his work. Upon returning to his writing, Coleridge had forgotten the rest of the poem, and did not bother to publish it until nearly twenty years later.
The true “Confessions of an Opium Eater” by Thomas De Quincey was written in 1821 and describes De Quincey’s life leading up to his drug use and his subsequent experiences. A friend and colleague of Coleridge’s, his career as a promising young writer was curtailed by his addiction to laudanum, an opium derivative, so it is ironic that the work for which he is most famous was the one that described his nemesis.
It is a difficult read, in that De Quincy was an intellectual nineteenth century gentleman, and he presumes that his audience is equally well read, leading to many classical allusions that the modern reader may not understand. It is notable that he survived over fifty years of fluctuating opium use. However, he shows both the seduction and the horrors of the drug, at a time when drug addiction and treatment were in their infancy. In these more enlightened times it is hoped that De Quincey would have received better medical intervention.
It was not just writers from the nineteenth century that wrote about drug use. Curiously, the hippie decade of the 1960s, so long associated with the explosion of drug use and “expansion of the mind” attitudes, does not figure highly in drug literature. Although there are frequent references to drug use in iconic 60s books like “On the Road”, by Jack Kerouac, most describe the alternative hippie lifestyle.
Drugs are a feature, rather than a subject, with the notable exception of Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. In part, this may be due to the drug culture adopting music, with its catchy “acid rock”, as its medium of choice, rather than literature. It may also be because drugs were still quite rare in the general populace and so had little in common with the lives of readers. Today, drugs are more mainstream. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), 20 million Americans (aged twelve and over) have used some form of illegal drug in the past month alone.
“Narcopolis” by Jeet Thayil was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2012, an impressive achievement for a first novel. Like Welsh, for twenty years Thayil was a drug user himself, and it is this raw, no-holds-barred unveiling of the physical and mental degeneration of users that makes this book such a fascinating read. It is set in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 70s and follows several characters, including opium-house owner Rashid and a eunuch called Dimple, as they chase their own personal dragons into ever-increasing self-destruction.
There seems to be a macabre fascination for stories about drugs, and it seems that the best ones are written by those who have teetered over the brink of addiction themselves and somehow managed to grab onto a fingerhold, stopping themselves from falling over the edge. It makes for mesmerising reading precisely because of the vicarious thrill the reader gets; playing with narcotics and needles, death and disease without actually doing anything dangerous or illegal. Let’s keep it that way.