Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Drug Report: Matthew Gavin Frank's Pot Farm and Some Other Pot Books

So: if you're part of the "true" Stoned Literati, you've probably read Terry Southern's Red Dirt Marijuana, you're somewhat likely a Pynchonite and are pretty sure you read Vineland, but...that was back when some really good stuff came down from Mendocino or Humboldt; it seems like you read it. Zoyd? Oh yea! You've read scads of non-fiction books on pot, and the number of good ones has flowered over the last 12-15 years, with the Kulch (if not the Feds) becoming evermore accepting. I liked Martin Lee's  Smoke Signals and Julie Holland's The Pot Book is something I want on my shelf; I read it via public library and dug her research and style.

                                        Poet-novelist Professor Matthew Gavin Frank

Getting back to "fiction" (I'll explain the quotes in a bit), T. Coraghessan Boyle's Budding Prospects illustrated how hard it can be to cash in on America's biggest cash crop if you don't know what you're doing, have bad luck, and are kinda lame. That's some mordant stuff. Harsh, even. But the sentences flit like the tiny starry flame of a roach behind a barn in a Sonoma County pitch black night. Even better - to my poetic ears and eyes and oh hell entire nervous system - was Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. Although it takes place on the East Coast, the novel, like Robert Anton Wilson's books, will always function as a reliable contact high if I don't have any of the sticky icky lying around. (Charitable friends give some to me every now and then - possibly for the entertainment value of the buzzed talking OG? - 'cuz I can't afford to buy it.) The allusions, the pop culture guru's bizarre contrarian yet learned opinions on everything, and his seeing of conspiracies everywhere...would be enough. But the influence of Philip K. Dick, coupled with Saul Bellow (!) and Hitchock's Vertigo...I'm feeling buzzed just writing about it.

                             photographer unknown, but looks like a pot farm to me

Alright: Pot Farm, by an assistant professor of creative writing at Northern Michigan University, had at first glance an enticing title, cool cover art...but it was thin (223 pages) (this seems a bit light, man!) and it was on U. of Nebraska Press, so I had my doubts. I was skeptical this stuff would be any good. I had never heard of Matthew Gavin Frank. I tried it anyway.

This one's a "creeper" as we said back in high school: it's filed under "fiction" in my library, but this was one book that could easily be given a Dewey Number and filed under non-fiction, say with Julie Holland's and Martin Lee's books; there's enough of the sociological/ethnographical this-is-what-it's-culturally-like-working-on-a-pot-farm-in Northern-California-ishness to it. In my eyes, the mixed approach in the novel makes it guerilla-ontological; the structure alternates subtly between poetry and ethnographic "facts" and I felt mentally disjointed, and I'm freak enough to admit I do enjoy that buzz.

And yet: it's filled with astonishingly great poetic writing, and Frank - an itinerate writer, who's worked in vineyards in Italy and restaurants in Key West and who knows what in New Mexico, married a Swedish girl who quit being a nun, is a Chicago boy, widely traveled and no stranger to living in tents - enchants with his poetic prose to the point where, despite the well-researched facts about the legal status of cannabis in California, how a large crop is cured, how any number of local/state/federal cops can do violent harm to you with impunity (including local "militias," something I didn't know), that farms employ spotters/snipers housed high up in redwoods to protect their interests, how pot farm owners gave many of the victims of Katrina good jobs, how the economy in Northern California changes overnight when the harvest is in (there's a surreal, carnivalesque chapter 10 about being on the scene in a small town in the cannabis-steeped economy of Mendocino County, waking up to the sudden smell of the pot harvest and money and the...uhhhhh..."free spirits" that attend this scene, mostly in the streets, and I found it contact-high-ish), this feels like poetry.

Just the ethnographic factual-ness of what it's like living on a large pot farm in Mendocino County...but I can see why librarians are filing it in fiction. Yea...(Why am I using ellipses there? Why the frag sentences? The commas above and not semicolons? Why?)

It's autobiographical, although Professor Frank is steeped in his postmodernism enough he uses the device of a baldly stated "I am an unreliable narrator" (because I was stoned/want to tell a good story/human memory is all-too fallible/my notes are illegible so I'll just say this/I can't remember if I dreamed this or if it really happened to tell you the truth, etc) throughout. That aspect alone may have turned librarians toward the fiction section. But - I think - it's all true! Hell: it may as well be. It harmonizes with my intuition well enough. (What does that even mean?)

(If it's not "true" - and I've read a few interviews with Frank - he's a better fake than Carlos Castaneda, no doubt!)

                   Fiercely secretive sphinx-like recluse Thomas Pynchon, on The Simpsons

And it's about loved ones dying and death, how your childhood bedroom mixes in with your adult life somehow, and how listening to your co-workers for their poetic minds' utterances can make life worth living, and the awkwardness of being an itinerate writer, wondering what "home" means, what it means to be with the chronically ailing and downtrodden. And yet, most delightful: the characters and then Frank's virtuoso phanopoeia! His melodious prose, his evocation of memories surrounding family and upbringing, his luminous details: read this book!

A few years ago, I read Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire, and there's some terrific non-fiction writing about cannabis in it. In one passage he discusses the findings of Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered the structure of THC and that the body makes its own THC analogues, called the anandamides, and how both neurochemicals help us to forget, which is very important. (Or, this is what I remember Pollan writing about; I don't have the book on hand and I might be mixing it up with someone else?) We take forgetting for granted, but if we didn't have anandamides flowing through our exquisite little neurochemistry sets, we'd remember far too much trivial stuff! Who cares, what can it possibly matter, if the 97th car you passed on your way to work was a parked 1994 Toyota, red with a slight dent on the driver's side? There are millions of things we encounter every day, just puttering around the house, that are more than worth forgetting. Think about it.

Then forget it.

Of course, smoking pot tinkers with this set a bit, but many of us know it's worth it. I mean, if it wasn't for cannabis alleviating pain and making suffering more tolerable, while making food, music, colorful speech, jokes and sex even better than those things already "are" (and don't get me wrong: those things are "good" enough as they "are"), then the drug would be utterly worthless.

With that in mind, Pot Farm is worth reading if only for the gorgeous poetic prose, and the little instances of almost Pynchonesque whackiness, like the origins of Fred Flintstone's joyous "Yabba Dabba Do!" as the horn sounds for him to get off work. Trickster etymology, stoned, involving a Thai meth-like drug, the phenomenology of working a rough job, a Hanna-Barbera conspiracy theory, etc. (see pp.53-54)

Where was I? Oh yea: Mechoulam's findings and I was reading Pollan. I...oh yea!: followed up Pollan with a reading of Paul Krassner's One Hand Jerking: Reports From An Investigative Satirist. I know I did this because I made notes of it. Anyway, in a piece seemingly flung far from Pollan, about how politicians have evaded tough questions by saying they "forgot," Krassner cited from a passage in the neuroscience journal Neuron, about findings in memory and the hippocampus. Then, he quoted his old friend Wes "Scoop" Nisker's The Big Bang, The Buddha, and the Baby Boom - a book I'd happened to have read a year or so before:

"Recent research in molecular biology has given us a clue to the connection between THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and the actual experience of getting high. It turns out that our own body produces its own version of THC and that the human brain and nervous system have a whole network of receptors for this cannabinoid-like substance. That means you've got a stash inside you right now, and nobody can even bust you for it. Our body's natural THC was discovered by Israeli neuro-scientists, who named it anandamide, from the Sanskrit word for 'inner bliss.' The scientists believe that our system produces this THC equivalent to aid in pain relief, for mild sedation, and also to help us forget, because if we remembered everything that registers in our senses from moment-to-moment, we would be flooded with memory and could not function. So anandamide helps us edit the input of the world by blocking or weakening our synaptic pathways, our memory lanes." (p.148 of Krassner's book. I don't recall the pagination from Nisker's book, largely because of anandamide or its analogues found in flowering plants. It does seem like Jorge Luis Borges foresaw or posited what a faulty anandamide system would look like when he wrote his immortal and literally unforgettable "Funes the Memorious.")

Sorry for the above being somewhat repetitious, but it's good for the memory. What goes around comes around?

I end with an apt passage from Pot Farm:

They both pronounce the word 'equivalent' as if they had invented it moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they're probably high. Of course, I am too. Who remembers? When a brain cell falls into the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece.

Fortunately one can still read The Four Quartets out loud for a mildly altered state of consciousness and even drive afterwards.

Tonight I head off to see the Dead's Sunshine Daydream, summoned for Jerry Duty.

michael said...


There seems not enough discussion out there now or historically that explicitly links mental states attained during reading with mental states attained on drugs. Leary at Harvard said yes, his LSD experiments could affect the minds of students, but BOOKS had had a far longer history of having profound affects on the minds of readers...so lock up the library! You need to have...some special CARD or something, with rules in place, know what you're getting into.

WSB talked about the Stendahl Effect: when the reader has PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS from something you wrote. I have had mild hangovers from reading Bukowski. I had a couple of weeks of free-floating weirdness and anxiety after I stumbled onto Fred Alan Wolfe's Taking The Quantum Leap, which was the first book I ever read on QM and it turns out he was one of the Hippie Physicists that David Kaiser wrote about. This was before I read RAW. I followed Wolfe up with The Tao of Physics, which made me connect Physics with all my reading Aldous Huxley, but I was really overloaded, and excited and my world turned upside down. I remember talking to my mom on the phone about all this, and she thought I was going insane.

Then, not too long after that, I stumbled onto RAW.

The Reader right now may be in that State of "I'm with one of the Weird Ones...maybe unhinged. I wonder if he takes his clothes off at the bus stop?"


Hope your foray into the Dead was religious! Was there a guitarist who was adept at mimicking Jerry's style?

Eric Wagner said...

Actually, I saw a film of a concert the Dead did on 8/27/1972 with a remarkable Dark Star. I found it a mildly religious experience. I saw a number of men in their 50's wearing tie-dies; at least two of them had seen at least 100 Dead shows. I left wanting to practice guitar more. I do love the way Jerry plays.

I'd never heard of the Stendhal Syndrome before, but I did experience it the first time I visited the Louvre in 1985. I walked through every open room of the museum over the course of about six hours and returned to my room and collapsed, hallucinating room after room of neoclassical sculpture.

michael said...

Oh...I'd made the unwarranted assumption you'd gone to see a Dead cover band. "Simulation" cover bands (where the musicians try to not only play note-for-note, but dress like the originals and mimic the bodily appearances and gestures of the originals) are the only way for live rock bands to make a living these days, with a few exceptions.

I liked your account of your own Stendhal moment.

Eric Wagner said...

I enjoyed the experience of going to the mall and spotting people in tie-died t-shirts converging on the theater.

Perhaps my Beatlemania cover band can make a living.

michael said...

When I was in Tokyo in November of 2000 I went to to a club and there was a Beatles cover band (1965-ish Beatles in hair and dress) that played the same instruments, dressed exactly like them, moved like them, had the same haircuts...it was freaky. The only thing that jumped out at me was when they sang the word "love" as in "She Loves Me":

She roves me
Yea yea yea
She roves me
Yea yea yea
With a rove rike dat
You can you should be glad.

I talked to an American friend who lived in Tokyo and he said there are hundreds of bands exactly like that. Oh wow: these guys were good.

In LA, Led Zepagain and Atomic Punks (Van Halen copy band) really impressed me when I saw them live. These guys make a decent living.

I think the aim is to allow Boomers to pretend they went back in time?

Eric Wagner said...

I also love cover bands like the New York Philharmonic.

michael said...

Those bands get paid the best. And to cover the Oldies? It doesn't add up.

But I admit it: some of these guys can play. I saw this young guy play violin (Joshua Something?) and he was absolutely shredding stuff from the 19th century.

The cover charge for those bands seems pretty high to me, but there's always a lot of guys (and some gals) in the band, so I guess it's warranted. What's with all that formal attire though?

Eric Wagner said...

It reminds me of the Elmyr dilemma. He could make a good living imitating others, and he couldn't make a dime with his own style.

F for Failure, alas.

michael said...

D for Dilemma, E for Effort, F for Failure.

But he was maybe ahead of his time: See how Susie Ray makes her dough:


A for Avant?