Selected By Cyril Wong
This one comes from Time, much earlier this year. In the May 13, 2002, issue, Jeffrey Ressner starts his review of Decca Aitkenhead's The Promised Land with an almost gentle opening blurb, “Ever wanted to take a trip in search of a perfect trip? The Promised Land tries and almost succeeds.”
The review about this book touted as a non-fiction travel guide “in search of the perfect E(cstasy)” begins by emphasising how impossible it is to write about drugs, and the actual success of Aitkenhead’s efforts:
How could any author, no matter how gifted, hope to capture in mere words the genuine rapture of mind-expanding substances... True, a few sharpies – William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh... But most drug memoirs are pretty much alike – either they’re heated Hunter S’ Thompson rip-offs packed with hackneyed hackneyed hallucinations (bats, lizards) and heavily-punctuated (!!!!) rants, or languid diaries from naïve dopers whose dreamy visions seem as dangerous as an overdose of marshmallows...The Promised Land falls neatly into the second group.
The book follows the author and her husband as they tour America, Southeast Asia, South Africa and the Netherlands “looking for a way to recapture their early transcendent experiences on Ecstasy.” Ressner writes:
If the words “drugs” and “travel guide” trigger sudden flashbacks of Alex Garland’s backpack bible The Beach, don’t get excited – this adventure pales in comparison... (Aitkenhead) even names one of her chapters after Garland’s novel and sets a large chunk of her story in the same Gulf of Thailand locale.
One of Aitkenhead’s London mates hopes that the book will provide a kind of “cultural prism,” but, as Ressner points out, “The Promised Land doesn’t quite live up to that billing.” But he soon moves on to throw light on the better parts of the book with regards to its “light, breezy narrative” and “astute snapshots of international dope meccas.” He also points out that the book lacks a decent editor or fact-checker, as Decca writes in her book that it is Oliver Stone who directed Malcolm X, when the actual director is Spike Lee. Other good things about the book include the Cape Town section and Aitkenhead’s insightful “observations about sex tourism and the psychology of the farangs who consort with Thai hookers.”
But Ressner’s goes on to say that “readers looking for enlightenment about E may be best served elsewhere,” and as a travel journal, The Promised Land does not have “the rich depths of Charles Nicholl’s Borderlines, the hapless humour of William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced, or the sublime poetry of Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in their Yage Letters.” And if a reader “totally spent on a beach this summer yearning to feel that ritual spirit yet again,” this book is “not a bad trip at all,” but it “won’t take you all the way there” either.
Should Aitkenhead do more drugs and less writing? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002