The Books That Made Us – Fear and Loathing and Valid Realities
I was on a page somewhere just after Barstow when my love for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS took hold. That love was deep and immediate and while I may have seen the film umpteen times before I read the book, it was the reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s incredible work of gonzo journalism that truly bonded it to my writing DNA. The nature of reality can be a tricky business. We use various fleshy bits to sense and send evidence of an external reality to our brain, only for it to choose what all that input might mean and paint its best guess on our consciousness. That’s sketchy on a good day, but add a few chemicals to the mix and…
While I may not have been able to relate to the kaleidoscope reality within the book personally, as I read, I was living those experiences alongside the character and I bought it hook line and sinker. I never felt the need to question the reality Duke was living, even though I knew there was a “real” world outside the one his drug-bound mind was creating for him. All of his experiences, chemical or not, counted as Duke’s reality because it just was the reality he was living. His reality was valid even if what he was experiencing was far-fetched and unsound. This was the key lesson for me from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. All reality is constructed… from whatever our gray matter is given to work with. All reality is valid, even if it’s not always sound, and that, I think, can apply to the characters and worlds within our own books. When a conclusion follows logically from its premises, it’s valid. Even if the premises we start with are totally false. For instance in the book, There is a hotel front desk agent talking to Raoul Duke She is a moray eel.
Therefore, front desk agents can be moray eels. That’s ridiculous but hey, that’s what Duke’s brain was making him see. For an argument to be valid and sound, it has to start with premises that are actually true. A magazine needs a journalist to cover the Mint 400. Duke was hired to cover the mint 400. Therefore he’s working as a journalist. Everything checks out. While all reality is subjective, our day-to-day, unaltered perceptions are functionally accepted as true. It’s the best we can do. But, add some mescaline pulled from the trunk of a car, and any soundness in thinking gets carried off by bats. However, even though Duke’s perceptions are growing false as the drugs kick in, his lived reality is still valid. His brain is taking what it can get as premises for reality(This is bat country!) and making conclusions based on those false premises. That bats are real to Duke, even when they’re not. His fear of those bats is real even though there’s nothing to fear. The bats aren’t sound because they don’t exist, but they’re valid because he’s experiencing them and making decisions based on them.
While the soundness may come and go, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is written as one solid, valid reality that incorporates being both sober and blasted. Focusing on validity makes questioning the smaller, individual details of the story a bit pointless. We, as readers, either buy this reality or we don’t and if we buy it, we can just settle in for the ride. Our story vetting is over. That’s a comfortable spot. As writers, when we treat validity as what counts in feelings of realness, both for our writing and for readers, our fantasy worlds, heinous hells, and sci-fi future scapes become more alive and easier for readers to accept. In FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, both the sound and unsound world exist within the story but I think this focus on validity works just as well using our own reality, outside the book, as the sound world.
Remember, these are the worlds our characters live in. These are their realities, even if they aren’t “sound” compared to our own. That’s okay. There’s still a logic involved. Their brains are still sorting info and making decisions based on their experiences of their world. In RADIO, I used this lesson as gospel. The main character, Marduk, lives and operates in a world in which gods are semi-immortal mind control artists. He’s one of them so that goes without question. That reality is valid and within the workings of the story, also sound.
He’s proof. He, too, spends a lot of time inside other people’s minds. That internal reality is also valid and sound. He’s actively doing it. It’s coming from true premises within the story. However, he also spends a lot of time being very, very high on opium. But, again, it’s his experiences and his “real” reality, despite the outer world of the story being his “sound” reality. The euphoria he feels is valid. And while all of the above is unsound compared to our real world, treating it as a valid reality, writing it as a valid reality, helps the reader experience it as a valid reality. My personal goal as a writer isn’t to simply immerse my readers in a pretend world with pretend characters. That can be fun but it’s just not my jam.
My goal is to immerse them into real-feeling moments in a real-feeling character’s life. Into the life they’re living in the world in which they exist. Even if that moment or world is totally fantastical. Even if that character is a many thousands of years old fake god with mind control powers. The hope is that if I can maintain validity for my world and characters, then the reader doesn’t have to do the work of “buying” what’s going on as the story progresses. They can just relax and live in the world along with the characters. It’s how a kid from the sticks could sidle up to a Las Vegas bar between Raoul Duke and a lizard woman and just go with the flow.
I was asked to accept that this was really what this character was experiencing and because every bizarro moment in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS was presented as valid, I did.
Check out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
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