A suicidal writer takes the psychedelic cure in a first time novel
In his provocative 1991 book “Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light,” Leonard Shlain notes that although his subjects constitute “an odd coupling”, fundamentally they “are both investigations into the nature of reality”. William Brewer’s first novel, “The red arrowadds another pairing to his matrix: depression and psychedelics.
The premise of “The Red Arrow” resembles the high-concept picaresque tales of Thomas Pynchon or neal stephenson: A debt-ridden painter-turned-writer accepts a ghost-writing job for a world-famous physicist who disappears before the writer can finish the book. Desperate to escape his debts and in the grip of a suicidal depression which he calls “the mist”, the anonymous writer undergoes a treatment of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Most of this information is provided to the reader in the opening pages. We meet the narrator on his way to find the physicist (name redacted by their contract) aboard the Italy Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”) train. Along the way, the writer describes his financial failures, his strained relationship with his wife, Annie, and his life-changing new treatment.
What follows is much more grounded and character-driven than the Pynchonian setup suggests. While there are still some imaginative conceits (the narrator’s father builds a replica of the Blockbuster video store in his basement), many plot points are more pedestrian. His relationship with Annie is presented in realistic terms; much of his storytelling focuses on his battles with self-loathing and suicidal ideation.
The narrator’s influences are also real – and explicitly stated. He decides to venture into psychedelic therapy after reading Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, “How to Change Your Mind.” He even cites at length Pollan’s enthusiastic support of “the new science of psychedelics.” He also reads and comments on other works, Michael HerrThe classic of new journalism “Dispatches” at Geoff DyerThe non-biography of DH Lawrence “Out of Sheer Rage”. Like the latter, “The Red Arrow” turns against its narrator who failed to produce a book he agreed to write.
Brewer’s evocation of the haze is one of the most accurate and insightful descriptions of depression I have ever read. The fog metaphor is useful, but not particularly original, and the way the narrator characterizes his mental struggles is illuminating:
“[I]It was like a tremor from within, or not a tremor but a whole chord resonating deep within my cores in a way that felt so fundamental that it was as if gloom was the original force that made up whoever I was. I was, which means everything else, from joy to hunger to boredom, were just static, unhelpful cues that had come together and distracted me from the truth.
People who suffer from lifelong depression may relate to the idea that it seems “fundamental” to their identity. Moreover, the narrator’s relationship with his depression (don’t get me wrong: it’s is a relationship) is also rendered convincingly. For much of his history with Annie, he hid the severity of his illness, fearing the truth would chase him away, but this act of “protecting” a loved one only further isolates him, sending him deeper. in the fog.
Brewer is also a poet, a fact reflected in some of the novel’s exquisite language, but he is often at his best when he is most romantic, as in his sly long sentences, some of which stretch over more than a page. . It’s a testament to his skill and piercing language, that readers may not even register their length.
In a note at the end of the book, Brewer acknowledges that the Physicist is based on Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist and author of “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” and “The Order of Time”. (The latter’s quotes are attributed to the physicist in the novel.) Rovelli made a name for himself as the founder of looping quantum gravity theory, but it is his ideas about time that are relevant to “The Red Arrow”, where they interact with theories on psychedelics.
Time, argues Rovelli, does not exist externally but internally: “It is entirely in the present, in our minds, as memory and anticipation.” Pollan, in “How to Change Your Mind,” also invokes time when discussing how people know each other: “Without the ability to remember our past and imagine our future,” Pollan writes, “ the notion of a coherent self could hardly be said to exist.” Depression and other disorders, he suggests, “are not the result of a lack of order in the brain, but rather of a excess of order. When someone is mentally stuck in their habitual perceptions and those perceptions cause suffering, it informs what they consider to be “the nature of reality.” Psychedelics help us see things from outside of these constructs, freeing us from their grip on our lives.
At least that’s how the novel presents the experimental psilocybin treatment – as a one-size-fits-all solution. In Pollan’s book, however, this idea is discredited, as “more than half” of the subjects in one study “saw the clouds of their depression finally return”. The narrator’s depression is deep and leads him almost to suicide on several occasions. His transformation into a fully healed and functioning adult extends credulity. But as an examination of sanity, of how physics, art and consciousness all have their part to play in it – indeed are intertwined with it – and as a novel of ideas that also creates a fully meaty narrator with a compelling inner life, “The Red Arrow” pulls it off. It’s a seductive, meditative synthesis of strange couplings: art and physics, psychology and psychedelics, characters and ideas.
Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the upcoming “Skateboard”.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.