"This bus only goes as far as Ajmer, it's a scam for the bus people to get money off the rickshaw drivers."
I rub the chemical sleep from my eyes and watch the rest of the bus come to life. Up front, a red-headed woman straddles the aisles and I'm thinking, Who died and made you our tour guide? Melanie lies slumped across my chest, one arm around my neck, one hand on my thigh. Her hair smells wonderful, like freshly mown hay and something sweet like honey besides. Aroused, I reluctantly slip from her grasp. Bertrand, in front of me, gives me the thumbs-up sign but the ballet dancer is so far gone on Valium that she would have curled up with a camel last night. I prop her against the seat. She falls back; nestles my arm with her pale, freckled face.
"Melanie, wake up," I say patting her cheek.
She flutters her eyelids and says to me, "Mama?"
The flame-headed maven of Ajmer comes toward us, gripping the seat-backs as if climbing a ladder. I dimly recall her as Melanie's companion, the snoring Aussie from last night, Euphoria. Her chest is pressed in a tight black T-shirt and, despite custom, she wears a miniskirt. Her figure is not quite up to this challenge-- cottoned thighs, largish breasts, and an ample belly fold-- but she carries herself like a supermodel on coke. The Belgians draw back. Who is this woman?
"What have you done to my Mel?" she demands, staring down with fierce emerald eyes.
"Drugged her so we could have sex?" I suggest.
"Overdid it, didn't you?"
"Depends what you like." (185)
Ian Winn penned this late 90s hipster novel that came too late (2000) and which I read even later. Winn spent much of his university career writing about the drugs he'd taken. After being dubbed the "Techno-Pagan Octopus Messiah" at Burning Man, he heads into the world to pursue his dreams. More specifically, he pursues a vision brought on by his use of dimethyltryptamine, and heads east. It's a kind of end-of-the-millennium trustafarian1 take on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Steppenwolf, with the inherent pretentiousness softened by humor and a semblance of self-awareness. Winn tries to write his own legend with this autobiographical book, but at least he knows that's what he's doing.2
So Ian leaves the U.S. after a break up with the woman he thought he'd love forever. He hits Egypt immediately following a tourist massacre, because it's cheaper that way. He then moves to India, where he interacts with locals, tourists, and the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He sees potential life partners in any woman who gives him significant attention; men he loses patience with very quickly.
For a part of the novel, he works with university friends who are traveling and taking photographs for a coffee table book. He writes copy. He finds their project exploitative. They think he's gone crazy. Their encounter invites us to assess the assumptions each makes about the places and people they mine for their art.
The prose style, breezy and readable, makes the book work better than it should. Unfortunately, Winn sporadically breaks into short chapters written in poetry. The poetic chapters, marked by awkward rhythm and forced rhymes, rarely work. I suspect they would improve with live performance; he had a successful post-Octopus career doing poetry slams.
This book obviously sports one of the great titles of our time. I cannot, alas, say for certain what it means. The octopus serves as a metaphor, though for what I'm not entirely certain. The techno-pagan connection almost entirely vanishes over the course of the story. Ian Winn makes a journey of discovery of the sort that assumes the universe gives a damn about us, and concludes we must each become our own Messiah.
The Techno-Pagan Octopus Messiah gives us a character and his experiences. Some will find its philosophical musings tiresome. But we get to know Ian, and most will relate to parts of his life. If you've ever met someone like this guy, you will recognize him. If you've ever been this guy, even a little, you might finally understand what makes him, simultaneously, appealing and annoying.
Winn has a website now, where he writes and podcasts about sundry matters. He acknowledges he's "long since been spared the indignity of royalties" on his novel, but hopes it will one day do well digitally.
1. In the sense of "white hipster with dreadlocks who does alt.culture-type stuff." He in fact funded his journey with money he made working.
2. I have to write about Winn as the character presented in the book. Winn sold his work as fiction; I cannot say how much he deviates from the truth in events or characterizations.