A memoir of insanity
The author maintains that all people, places, and events in this book are real and that he has depicted them accurately to the best of his ability. Before drawing conclusions, however, the reader is cautioned to bear in mind the fact that the author has spent considerable time mentally unbalanced.
My mother gave me this book when I was 18, in some ways this was the best time to read it, in others it was perhaps not the best idea. It draws on that self-destructive instinct everyone seems to posses – often those things we know we should not give in to are the things we crave the most. And in this case, giving a confused and impressionable young girl a tale of insanity and anarchy could have gone either way.
When my mother herself was 17, and alone in Cape Town, she had brought The Eden Express in a tiny book store, using all the change in pocket, the R2.70 price is still written on the inside cover along with the stores sticker. It was 1975 – the year the book had first been published and a period in which much seemed to be at stake, especially when one was a teenager and far from home. Many years on, when I found myself in those shoes, and I began to read the book, it felt as though I had written it – in one of the periods when I felt separated from myself I had been writing it all down and now here it was in front of me, or else someone else had written the book just for me, to tell me I was not alone.
It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive – R.L Stevenson
The front jacket tells us that the book is “A soul searching odyssey of a young man who came back from madness” and I suppose that in its summary form that is indeed the story of the book. And in fact, a more detailed summary would be quite pointless, the beauty and power of the work lies not in the plot or the details of the story-line, but rather in the feeling it evokes, the thoughts it stirs deep within our own minds as we take the journey for ourselves.
Never the less, in an attempt to introduce the book, I shall try to describe some of what it contains inside its bound paper pages. It is made of three main parts, along with a small preface and a fourth note at the tail end, each part being driven by some defining moment within the author’s life at that time.
The timeline begins in 1969 – a turbulent time in America no doubt – but one young man by the name of Mark Vonnegut was feeling it more than most. He had within him the seeds of dissention and a feeling that all was not well with the world, a suspicion toward the sudden fame of his father and an uneasy mind. Doing what any upstanding young hippie would have at the time, he packed himself, his girlfriend and his dog into his Beetle and headed for the wilderness – the Eden he knew was out there.
As the tale begins it is easy to feel a sense of nostalgia for those times – even if you were never there – as he looks around and thinks to himself
“What a swell bunch of moral people. With us on the loose, corruption and evil don’t stand a chance.”
there is a distinct feeling of what might have been, how it could have been. And as he travels further and further into the wilds of British Columbia. a sense of both excitement of things to come and impending doom begin to take over proceedings.
By the time Mark feels like they have arrived at the Farm, that it has become a home and that all is well, it is already 1971 and they have been living there as a commune for nearly two years. It is here that the madness really begins. The fact that, since its publication, this book has been regarded as one of the best ever first hand insights into mental illness speaks for itself. As the drugs and the loneliness and delusions begin to take hold you begin to become a part of the descent into madness.
The tales of life in the commune take terrible and surprising turns, the state of Mark’s mind and body becomes progressively worse, the hallucinations become more intense and the results more destructive. As much as the book tries to keep you up late at night turning the pages and wanting to find out more and be closer, it also begins to have a perceptible affect on your own state of mind. When you look up from the pages at the world around you it doesn’t seem quite the same and the questions start to form at the top of your spine. I found myself having to get up and go do something else for a couple of hours during some sections of the book, as I felt myself being drawn into the madness along with him and needed to sort it all out in my head before the next episode began.
Rounds Two, Three, and Going Home
As the final part of the tale looms you have been with Mark through so much, both that which is real, that which is not, and that which blurs the line to nothing more than a fuzzy smudge. Although you see and experience everything that happens to him and those around him, the reasons are never certain. Is it his madness, is it the drugs, is it the craziness in the outside world? All that is certain is that the journey to even a personal Eden is fraught and filled with hidden pit-falls, placed by others and by your own psyche.
As one travels through the mental hospitals, the suicide attempts, the death - both literal and figurative - of his companions and the harsh realities of making it alone when living outside the box the story takes many dives and covers many highs, all the while unsettling ones inside view of every topic that it touches upon.
But in the end, it is one of those stories that is really about the hope that everyone carries within them, the things people thought they never had in them at all until the time comes when they are called upon. The s word is only spoken right for the end of the book, thus giving you a glimpse of the thoughts and behaviour contained within a person, but never giving you a label to pin on it, which was exactly what they were all on the Farm to escape from.
For a while I was convinced that the whole thing I was going through was my father's way to help me give up cigarettes. Here I was, thinking the end of the world or worse was happening and what was really going on was all about cigarettes. It was like the Trafalmadorians getting the earthlings to build the Great Wall of China to send a little message to a second-string messenger carrying a message that just said hello.
Some lesson. "Cigarettes, Dad?" "Cigarettes, Mark." "Shit, Pa, who would have guessed?" "Well, it took you quite a while, Mark." But then, when I said I wouldn't smoke any more and they still wouldn't let me out of my little room, I got suspicious that cigarettes weren't the whole story. Little by little it sank in. It was all on the level. This was a real mental hospital with real doctors and nurses. It wasn't some weird put-up job designed by my father or anyone else.
For anyone who has ever gone through the trails of mental illness or even been close to one who has, the book will hold many true and shinning examples of things that no one else can ever seem to quite get a hold of. The small and secret thoughts that make the world seem so crazy and unbearable at times. And hidden among all the mess and disasters are the funny times, the genuine love and the unshakable ideals that will be experienced by young and old alike in each persons search for their very own Eden.
The above tells almost nothing of the story that takes place within the pages of this book, and even to describe the ideas and beliefs is something almost unfit for any words except those contained within the book, written in the hand of the man who saw it all. Given the chance, once should take the journey too.
All words in italics are © Mark Vonnegut 1975 unless otherwise stated.
The book was out of print for a long time, but there was a reprint done in 2002
and so it is possible to buy new copies, otherwise it is usually
one of those second hand book store type things.