Fear and Loathing
“In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence and loathing seizes him”
“But what I do know is that, for me, this book left me feeling flat and empty, and not in a good way. The lack of this book evoking any emotion in me except confusion, disgust, and dislike was disappointing.”
Hillary Arieux at A Horse and a Carrot
There are many that see Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a glorification of drugs and counter-cultural liberation. However, I think the confusion, disgust, dislike and disappointment that Hillary mentions are more to the point of what Thompson was trying to get at. You are not supposed to like or identify with the characters, as least not too much. Like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (or pick your favorite Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Camus, Celine, DeLillo, Nabokov novel) we are simultaneously repulsed and amused. The repulsion makes a commentary on something nasty, wretched or evil; the amusement makes it possible to continue reading. The difference here is that Thompson, the supposed author, becomes the thing he despises and lives it to show its empty hypocrisy. That’s the “gonzo” part and it can be a bit confusing if you think you are supposed to empathize with the author or agree with him.
It is a lot like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Thompson typed out the entire novel on his typewriter to better understand it’s style. Like Gatsby, and most of Thompson’s writing, this is about the “death of the American Dream” a constant theme in his work. In this particular case it is about how the aspirations of the 1960’s give way to the disillusionment of the 70’s. It is a parody of 1960’s counterculture, particularly Kerouac’s On the Road which it resembles in many ways. Instead of watching and commenting from the outside (as in Gatsby) the author embeds himself in the culture he critiques. He shows that “turn on, tune in, drop out” is not the road to enlightenment but a self-serving justification for “a generation of permanent cripples who never understood the essential fallacy of the Acid Culture.”
So, the disgust is well placed. The hope is that while you were disgusted you also found some parts funny, amusing or at least comically absurd. At least enough to keep you reading and thinking about the disgust, where it came from, and why. The parts that are so wicked funny are all mocking the 1960′s Kerouac/Cassidy/Kesey/Leary counterculture with parodies of scenes and situations from On the Road, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Further Inquiry–taking them to exaggerated extremes.
And they are exaggerated extremes. I would be very surprised if anyone could live through of even a fragment of the amount of drugs Duke and his lawyer consume over a few days in their Las Vegas trip. Thompson points out the difference between himself and his his supposed alter ego Duke by noting that there is no way he would have done some of the things described in the book as he was simultaneously under review for a security clearance for a White House press pass. He later pointed out in an interview:
“I’m never sure which one people want me to be, and sometimes they conflict… I am living a normal life, but beside me is this myth, growing larger and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to Universities to speak, I’m not sure who they’re inviting, Duke or Thompson.”
What I find most disturbing is that this book, written forty years ago does not seem dated. It is true that there are many musical (Dylan, Beatles, Rolling Stone) political (SDS, Nixon, Agnew) literary (Ginsberg, Leary, Kesey) and cultural (La Honda, Altamont, Woodstock) references from the era in which it was written but many of them are still part of our current culture and stylistically this book could have been written yesterday. The style and tone are not that different from any recent Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace novel. In fact it no longer even seems extreme. Thompson’s hyperbolic experiment in Gonzo journalism has, in the forty years since he wrote it, become entirely mainstream. This kind of participatory excess has become daily staple of Reality TV.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (ahorseandacarrot.wordpress.com)
- Ken Kesey Talks about the Meaning of the Acid Tests in a Classic Interview (openculture.com)
- Hunter S. Thompson Wrote The Great Gatsby? (101books.net)
- The Merry Pranksters (markosun.wordpress.com)