Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

“We blew it!” Kesey said, and he was right. Although the Merry Pranksters were dead, however, Pranksterism had a profound effect on American—indeed on all Western—culture, spawning happenings, acid rock music, performance art, light shows, and a host of other countercultural trademarks. Perhaps the greatest testament to the Pranksters’ influence...

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“We blew it!” Kesey said, and he was right. Although the Merry Pranksters were dead, however, Pranksterism had a profound effect on American—indeed on all Western—culture, spawning happenings, acid rock music, performance art, light shows, and a host of other countercultural trademarks. Perhaps the greatest testament to the Pranksters’ influence is the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour (1967), a commercially successful variant of the forty-five-hour film the Pranksters made of their cross-country bus trip (a film which the Pranksters never quite got around to editing).

The film serves as dubious proof of just how far Kesey was willing to go beyond all semblance of structure in his efforts to enter the now, the flow. Writers, too, Kesey believed “are trapped by artificial rules. We are trapped in syntax.” He seemed to agree with 1960’s media guru Marshall McLuhan that “writing was an old-fashioned and artificial form” and so intended The Movie to be “a total breakthrough in terms of expression.” It was to be, as were the acid tests, the means for expressing the inexpressible, more by doing or facilitating than by actually saying. “If you label it this, then it can’t be that.” “To define it, was to limit it,” for “it” was “the Unspoken Thing.” Far from permitting understanding, according to the Pranksters, structure impedes it. Like the American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, the Pranksters’ preferred art form was the conversation. Conversation, Cassady’s nonstop monologues in particular, simply flows, and to go with the flow is to escape the confines of convention and to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary (another comic-book superhero motif). It is the experience, not the expression, which matters, the entry into that higher reality, out of space, out of time, where everything exists synchronically, “in sync.” For some, the question was how far to go with the flow. Of one woman, Wolfe writes, “She had gone with the flow. She had gone stark raving mad,” a line which appropriately echoes that archskeptic, Henry Adams, who had nearly a century earlier claimed that the flow (of energy) led inevitably to madness and entropy, in other words to death. For Wolfe, the question is a bit different: “How to tell it?” (“it” again being the inexpressible experience).

Wolfe tells it in a style which goes with the flow of his subject, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Whether in homage to or in parody of their transcendental aspirations (or pretensions), he seeks to achieve oneness with them by adopting a style that is very nearly all flow and, like their bus trip, all “furthur” in terms of both its content (the then largely uncharted psychedelic world) and its style. Like Kesey, Wolfe seeks to go beyond convention, beyond formal constraints, and to enter the terra incognita of the New America and the New Journalism. It is a new form for a new content, one which is fraught with possibilities for the writer and problems as well as pleasures for the reader, as the writer begins to lose, or rather abandon, his sense of objective existence and the reader his hold on the text. “Despite the skepticism I brought here, I am suddenly experiencing their feeling. I am sure of it. I feel like I am in on something the outside world, the world I came from, could not possibly comprehend, and it is a metaphor, the whole scene, ancient and vast, vaster than . . .” Wolfe’s ellipsis provides a key to his method, but whether that key unlocks the secret of Wolfe’s acceptance of Pranksterism or of his mocking parody of it is difficult to determine. This passage and indeed the entire book raise serious questions about themselves as well as their subject, particularly questions concerning the journalistic narrator’s objectivity and participation, his delusions of grandeur and persecution, and his acceptance of such Prankster articles of faith as ineffableness and allegory. Or is the passage itself an elaborate prank, Wolfe’s tootling at the reading multitudes?

The passage is also characteristic of the style of the entire book—not, however, in terms of its syntax or use of specific literary (including journalistic) devices and techniques, for in this sense the book has no single style. Rather, it is a carnival of styles, a mixed-media happening as long, as (seemingly) improvisational, and as occasionally spaced out—and therefore out of focus—as The Movie. The carnival of styles includes more or less straight reportage, biography, autobiography, an opulent Day-Glo realism that goes well beyond the merely baroque, lists, Hindu catchwords, speeded-up prose to match the Pranksters’ amphetamine pace, stylizations both short (Kesey’s “!Paranoia!” in Mexico) and long (legal briefs, free verse, comic-book prose). In fact, much of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test reads like an unedited film in which people, objects, and events are not so much seen as nearly seen (presque vu being one of the Pranksters’ favorite terms). The ever-changing mode of presentation and tonal fluctuations contribute to the text’s aura of immediacy, helping to keep the reader in the flow of the now. The flow may be all there is. By manipulating point of view, by adopting various characters’ tones, and by utilizing the interior monologue device so extensively, Wolfe makes it difficult for the reader to ascertain exactly where the author stands in relation to his subjects. He is in the action (“I”) yet detached from it. He is scrupulous about his research, yet he presents his material in entirely subjective fashion. The result is not quite the Pranksters’ longed-for goal of intersubjectivity, but neither is it merely noise or disorder. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test may be a tour de force but it is not only that. Its precise nature eludes simple definition.

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Critical Context