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.

Experience & Setting

When you live in different places, and later try to write about the experiences you had in them, how much do you paint from the external and how much do you bring from within? Which is the better way? Which conveys a better sense of place?

When I commenced writing my latest novel, Milltown, someone lectured me that I hadn’t lived in a small town in Ontario long enough to write about one. After all, I hadn’t gone to school in one, never worked in one, hadn’t played hockey and gone drinking with the guys on Friday nights, never had sex in the back seats of cars at drive•ins when I was a randy young adolescent – how dare I write about life in a small town? I pleaded “guilty” to all those experiences, guilty for having committed them all somewhere else (except perhaps the hockey – would cricket count?), and “not guilty” for having perpetrated them in a small town in Canada. That said, they were no less thrilling wherever I had experienced them – be it in a big city, on a tropical island or in a desert oasis.

When writing about settings from within, the danger is that you also bring back the experiences which occurred in those places. Therefore the experience and the setting become inter•twined, and inseparable, and the experience is non transferable to a new locale. The writing may be more authentic, but the writer is stuck in his time and place warp.

Therefore, for this novel, my settings are written from the outside in, just as “method” actors do, just like landscape painters turn out masterpieces by sitting in a location and absorbing the scene in all its permutations and in all weathers and at all times of day. I am writing setting by observation, while transposing experiences from within, wherever they occurred, because human experience is universal.
That is why I like writing setting from the outside in, because I can transplant the experience, whether it was drinking with the boys or having sex in the back seats of cars, and place it wherever I want it – either in a big city or in a small town. I just have to change the props, but the experience and the emotions behind them, are still the same.

Setting is important, for without it, characters have no context, history has no colour and the stage has no backdrop. But setting can be separated from experience because the latter is transportable, the former is not. I bet you an orphan boy under threat for his life feels the same fear (i.e. experience) today that Oliver Twist did in his day; the present•day orphan probably has more solutions (i.e. props) at his disposal to alleviate that fear than poor Oliver had, because his setting is different.