The drug novel – a new sub-genre in fiction

I’m wondering if the time has come for us to classify the drug novel as a distinct sub-genre in fiction. In the absence of global wars (wars have gone local or regional these days) and other universal grist mills of human conflict, it seems that drug dependency has become a prevalent theme in our times, a state of being that many can identify with. All the ingredients for a gripping novel are here: premise, weapon…err…drug, hero, villain, and setting.

 The Premise – The scientific-minded rationalize that we are made up of chemicals, and that sometimes we go out of balance, so we need to restore that balance, and a little pill is all that is required. The traditionalists wail that our romance with the pill is because the world has gone to pot (I suppose even a pot pill must be out there now that the legal walls around marijuana are crumbling) and we are consequently killing ourselves faster and faster, although life expectancy rates show otherwise. The elderly thank the stars that their personalized bag of pills is keeping them alive longer, but mourn that the pills have not shown them how to command purpose, respect and dignity in their sunset years. And the young are forever trying to find a higher level of buzz, because the stuff of a generation ago is so dumb. Lots premises for basing the drug novel…

 The Weapon – Drug consumption falls into several types: the ones taken for recreation due to boredom with the quotidian; the ones taken to escape the pain of that daily grind; the ones taken for illness, that need to be counterbalanced with others due to the side effects from the first, and with still others for the side effects from the counterbalancing drugs, and so on; the ones taken to insulate us from a hostile environment (aka allergens); the ones taken because our mood is considered either too chirpy or too low. Even the medical profession has taken its first line of offence against any out-of- pattern situation with the “Do I have just the pill for you!” line.

The Hero – We could classify drug users as damaged heroes, hapless victims, weak protagonists, or unreliable narrators. They evoke sympathy in whichever way you classify them, and sympathetic characters sell, these days.

The Villains – The good villain, aka Big Pharma, promises us that “this little pill is good for you,” but then gets you hooked on it for life (e.g. statins, blood-pressure medication, sleeping pills, etc.), ensuring a steady cash flow while being protected by patents; the bad villain, aka the Drug Dealer, feeds us recreational drugs to make us “feel good,” and also hooks us for life, until death or bankruptcy do us part; the insurance company decides which drugs are good for us and throws wrenches into the best laid medical plans. And let’s not forget the arch-villains: Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other fatal illnesses that drive us towards drugs.

The Setting – This world is bleak, where hope has been sucked out and the only exit leads downhill; a world of unrealized dreams, damaged lives, grieving families, scarred children, and death or suicide staring you in the face.

This is not an easy sub-genre to digest, and I have stayed away from reading such downers because, in many instances, there is a lack of hope associated with these stories. A writer who thinks he can shock or entertain us with this stuff is taking a risk, for many of us would rather not be reminded; somewhere in our circle, someone is wrestling with this very demon, and we are too scared to get near lest we too succumb or be reminded of our failed salvage efforts.

My guess however is that this sub-genre will thrive the more we get obsessed with viewing our lives as art (Proust Revisited, Knausgaard, Bolano et al), as fiction approaches the real, and as the Selfie gains ascendance. The ingredients of a modern day-in-the-life scenario now routinely include a joint of weed, a sniff of heroin, a cocktail of prescription meds, or a bag of anti-depressants, and these drugs seep into the novel as regular props and devices, just like cigarettes and alcohol did a generation ago.

As for me, I plan to steer clear of these books for now. I never say never though, for who knows, one day I may end up pharmaceutical-dependent (inevitable as we age, it seems) and may have to go seeking a little bit of company and sympathy from fictitious junkie friends.

Home – where is it?

Having lived at various times of my life in different places, I’ve often wondered where home really is. Is it where I live right now as a suburban transplant in a small town by a large lake? Is it back in Toronto or in some large city where everything is more or less the same: same stores, same entertainment, same shopping malls, same pace same anonymity? Or stretching back into the past, is it the Spartan home of an expatriate in an oil•drenched oasis, the home of a hired gun who could be sent back at any time when services are no longer required? Or even further back where it all began, in an island by the sea whose gentle waves and peaceful people later turned into killing machines? (And weren’t those gentle people fighting over whose home the island really was?)

As occupations become more temporary and transferable, as the world shrinks with globalization, as civil and climatic unrest displace populations, the concept of home is becoming a preoccupation for more people than just myself. I tried writing a novel about a man discovering home. The models I drew from were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the hero, Ulysses, leaves the island of Ithaca, has many adventures abroad, and returns to drive out the usurpers of his wife and throne, and builds his nest again. But this homecoming is contrary to my personal experiences. When I returned to my old island after a 21•year absence, I drove past the old family home without recognizing it – the place had become a jumble of over•construction. So too was my former transient expat building in the Middle East: I couldn’t see the oil flares in the open desert and the planes coming into land at the airport – instead I stared at the glaring neon sign of a night club in a tall skyscraper that had landed across the street obliterating the once panoramic view. I wasn’t inspired to tarry long in these old haunts for they did not remind me of home any more, and there were no usurpers to throw out or nests to re•build either.

Then I read the old novel, Captain from Castile, and it hit me that Shellabarger’s hero, after finding that his old home in Spain has changed, heads back to the New World, where he had earlier made a fortune and forged his adult identity, to establish his new home. He has no sense of what he will find when he gets there but he pursues the dream, nevertheless. His home is in the present. This premise made more sense to me.

So, where is home? Is it a geographical place, a place in time, or a state of mind? Whatever it is, it is a human dilemma which consumes large quantities of emotion and contemplation. Wars have been waged over homelands, security forces have arisen to protect The Home Land, real•estate and mortgage industries have been formed over our desire to own a home even if we cannot afford it, and families draw battle lines when it comes to divvying up the family home due to a death or a divorce. And transplants like me float around seeking this elusive refuge, leaving a trail of blogs, novels and stories in my wake.

Christians adhere to that Gospel saying “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Could I apply that statement to the concept of home as well and say that the “Home of Man is within himself?” Therefore, there is no need for battle in the name of defending or conquering a home because it cannot be physically damaged or taken away. Like our DNA, home is a unique and personal space. I’d like to say that and end this perennial quest.

Newer Archetypes

When I went to writing school, not too long ago, there were 16 hero archetypes, 8 for men and 8 for women. Let’s see if I can list them:
8 Hero Archetypes / 8 Heroine Archetypes
The Chief / The Boss
The Bad Boy / The Seductress
The Best Friend / The Spunky Kid
The Charmer / The Free Spirit
The Lost Soul / The Waif
The Professor / The Librarian
The Swashbuckler / The Crusader
The Warrior / The Nurturer

I think we have to add some more from our present world. How about the following who have achieved some heroic status or cult following: the serial killer, the serial shopper, the rabid consumer, the nerd, the corporate lackey, the drug addict, the serial married man (or woman), the single mom (or dad), the battered wife (or husband), the senior citizen sidelined by society after her purported contribution to society is deemed over, the welfare case (or is this similar to the drug addict, there is a dependency of sorts?), the immigrant that no one wants to hire or the 50+ guy who falls into the same bracket, the abandoned child who could turn out into any of the above, the mentally ill person, the obese one fed on too many hamburgers and pop, the cancer patient, the religious fundamentalist, and the mad poet? I am sure there are more, but I thought I would list those that are symptomatic of our times. I am also sure that if we try real hard we can fit them into one or more of the 16 master archetypes – maybe they are all in the “lost soul” category. However, there is so much written about these newer “types” that I think they warrant their own status within the pantheon of archetypes.

I think our problem is that we want to categorize everyone into an archetype. We feel safe that way. The world is predictable and everyone fits into a known box. And as the world gets more globalized and standardized, why not? But that seems to be the paradox. The more we standardize the larger society, the more diversity we seem to create within in its component parts.