Our Drugs, Our Stories, Ourselves

Public Books recently ran an article called “Our Drugs, Ourselves” by Susan Zieger, that touches on several of the issues that John, Elizabeth, and Gina discussed in our second episode about addiction. Zieger analyzes “the slimy lie at the bottom of ‘drugs’…the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.” Zieger looks at this premise in High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Zieger argues that community, and the practice of sharing experiences, are what need to undergird the use of drugs in order to prevent them from being demonized or fetishized. While the Pollan’s and Hart’s take up real-world concerns about addiction and experience of the sort that John, Elizabeth and Gina discussed, I am particularly interested in a phenomenon that Zieger traces in Moshfegh’s novel: the use, in recent(ish) fiction, of fictional drug brands alongside real ones.


Jonathan Lethem has written recently in the New York Times a set of fictional drugs used in fiction. Drawing a kind of history of these drugs, from the otherworldly psychedelics of Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert to Moshfegh’s medicine cabinet, Lethem notes an epochal change: “the current generation of fictional drugs, rather than bubbling up from nature’s underworld, parachute into stories and novels from the corporate-technological top down. The recent nightmare drugs–for they are, exclusively, nightmares–are pharmaceuticals.” Which is to say: they have branded names. More than the variegated but simple names that the natural drugs, even when fictional, had (nicknamey abstractions like “spice”), the branded pharmacopeia promises at some level a narrative: a top-down story, with bits of at least feeling if not sense put together to help the drug tell its story. This is true of drugs here in the real world (OxyContin’s continuous release) and the fictional world (George Saunders’s Verbaluce, which makes you verbose and lucid).

There is a distinction to be drawn between the plausibility of these drug names, and the frequent uncanny attribute of ersatz fictions. I think of the run of titles produced by Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight–The Prismatic Bezel, Success, The Funny Mountain, Albinos in Black, The Back of the Moon, Lost Property, The Doubtful Asphodel–all of which share a an ineffable quality of seeming, to me, to be at most 85% real. (Except Success, which turned out, later, to be a book by Martin Amis). I don’t know what, besides familiarity, makes Look at the Harlequins! and King Queen Knave seem more like objects we could find here on this earth than The Doubtful Asphodel, but it nevertheless seems like a keener family resemblance than the one that separates Klonopin from Don DeLillo’s Dylar.

Like fake books, though, the function of these imaginary brands within narratives can serve to direct our own desire for the story–told by a fake drug or a fake book–to make some sense. Aslan, the drug in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, “optimizes”: it “optimizes in sixteen chemical directions,” says Enid’s doctor; “but guess what. Optimal for a person enjoying a luxury cruise isn’t optimal for a person functioning in the workplace. The chemical differences are pretty subtle, but if you’re capable of fine control, why not offer it? Besides Aslan ‘Basic,’ Farmacopea sells eight custom blends. Aslan ‘Ski,’ Aslan ‘Hacker,’ Aslan ‘Performance Ultra,’ Aslan ‘Teen,’ Aslan ‘Club Med,’ Aslan ‘Golden Years,’ and I’m forgetting what? Aslan ‘California.’ Very popular in Europe.” What this list demonstrates, besides Franzen’s being funnier than his reputation as a dour defender of birds would suggest, is that the drug can be sorted into different narrative contexts, and affect the user accordingly.

But it also has a particular effect on readers of The Corrections–the way that the drug appears in the book seems to unite the novel’s relatively disparate threads in a way that nevertheless does not quite cohere. Aslan shows up in multiple other guises in The Corrections–it is also called Mexican A, when Enid’s son Chip encounters it, and her other son and daughter realize that some of the work their father has done in his work as a chemist might give them access to the profit it generates. The more famous literary Aslan–the Christ-like lion–also shows up, in one of Enid’s grandkid’s favorite book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. This operates similarly to DMZ in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: the drug occurs seemingly more often than it should, and one hopes that this new, unexplained drug–a brand suggesting the demilitarized zone, a place lacking definition–might have as much eventual power to sort things out as the godlike Aslan in The Corrections. The same too could be said of other fictional drugs that blur out the experience of their users, but whose effects we readers hope to eventually understand and sort out their narratives, such as Deborah Eisenberg’s Vexnix, in “Your Duck is My Duck,” and Moshfegh’s Infermiterol.

Ultimately, these fake brands of drugs–slowly revealing what they can and cannot do, structuring the narratives in which they appear–serve to put together meaning for their stories, just as Zieger describes Pollan attempting to do in How to Change Your Mind. The drugs of fiction seem more aware, though, of the potential for abuse: according to his biographer, Wallace considered not marijuana or pills, but television, to be the “real” addiction that he faced in his life. The way that these fake drugs dole out meaning by slowly revealing their effects, their terms, even holding out in Franzen or Wallace the promise of explaining much more–this itself can generate a compulsive, even an addictive readerly experience. As with their chemical analogues, these narratives can prove sites of either overinvestment or neglect, and are therefore best approached–as Zieger notes of drugs–communally. (Approached as, if one were to use a phrase, public books).


Upcoming Episodes…and More

Eagle-eyed fans of Recall This Book will have noticed  an implicit pattern: episodes dropped each Wednesday (err, now Thursday), with upcoming episodes announced with the closing credits.

However, that is a pattern that will hold true only during the academic semester, when the whole team is around to get to work. This upcoming week, for example, Brandeis shares in the Boston February break week. So we will defer episode 6, with Martin Puchner, until our return. It will come out on Thursday February 28th.

However, you will also notice content other than podcasts beginning to appear. This week, for example, Matthew Schratz has a piece forthcoming that picks up on the Episode 2  discussion about opiates and addiction.  We aim to please! So if there are other sorts of content that would enhance your RTB  experience, drop us a line.


Schedule of Upcoming Episodes, representing (most of) the Second Half of Season One

2/21: Matthew Schratz piece on opiates, addiction and brand-named drugs

2/28: Episode 6: Martin Puchner and The Written World

3/7: Episode 7: A Conversation with the SF/fantasy novelist Samuel Delany

3/14: Episode 8:  A Distraction Roundtable  (Public event with Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center)


Stay tuned for these episodes and more updates! You can listen to the podcast here on our website or by searching Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or Apple Podcasts.


Episode 5: The Comic Novel with Stephen McCauley

On this episode of Recall This Book, John talks to Stephen McCauley, a novelist and Professor of the Practice of English and Co-director of Creative Writing at Brandeis. Nobody knows more about the comic novel than Steve, and there is no comic novelist he loves better than Barbara Pym, a mid-century British comic genius who found herself forgotten and unpublishable in middle age, only to roar back into print in her sixties. Steve and John’s friendship over the years has been sealed by the favorite Pym lines they text back and forth to one another, so they are particularly keen to investigate why her career went in this way.

stephen-mccauley-2017 photo
Steve McCauley

In the episode, they talk about some of these favorite sentences from Pym, and then turn to the comic novel as a genre. They talk about the difference between humorous and comic writing, the earthiness of comedy, whether comic novels should have happy or sad endings, and whether the comic novel is a precursor to, or an amoral relief from, the sitcom. They also discuss some of Steve’s fiction, including his yoga series, and in Recallable Books John recommends Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell and Steve recommends After Claude by Iris Owens. You can find out more about the upcoming (March 22) meeting of the Barbara Pym society at the Harvard Law School here.

Barbara Pym at work

Discussed in this episode:

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James

The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber

The Group, Mary McCarthy

After Claude, Iris Owens

Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell

An Unsuitable Attachment, Barbara Pym

Less than Angels, Barbara Pym

The Sweet Dove Died, Barbara Pym

Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

The Object of My Affection, Stephen McCauley

The SelloutPaul Beatty

My Ex-Life, Stephen McCauley


You can listen to this episode here:


Episode 4: An Interview with Madeline Miller about Circe

In this episode, John and Gina Turrigiano speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe. They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Then, in Recallable Books, Madeline recommends I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde and The Two Noble Kinsmen by Shakespeare.

Ulysse et Mercure devant Circé

[Annibale Caracci, “Ulysses and Circe” c. 1605]

Discussed in this episode:

Circe, Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

The Odyssey, Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius (trans. R.C. Seaton)

Telegony, unknown (trans. H.G. Evelyn-White)

MetamorphosesOvid (trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.)

The Once and Future King, T.H. White

I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Conde

The Two Noble Kinsmen, William Shakespeare

A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor


Listen to the podcast:

Episode 3: Old and New Media with Lisa Gitelman

In this episode, John and Elizabeth speak with Lisa Gitelman, a professor in the departments of English and Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. They discuss Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) and Rudyard Kipling’s “Wireless” (1902). Both works examine shifts in media technologies that people had only just gotten used to: what can Benjamin’s essay and Kipling’s uneasy story teach us about contemporary economic shifts to blockchain, or from artistic transmission to social media interactions? We investigate brain metaphors and their aesthetic implications, whether and how Benjamin is optimistic, (and another thing). Then in our segment Recallable Books, Lisa recommends “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through its Facsimiles” by Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, Elizabeth recommends “Mobile Phones and Mipoho’s Prophecy,” by Janet McIntosh and John thinks about recommending Henry James’s “In the Cage” but instead recommends “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster.


Discussed in the podcast:

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops”

Henry James, “In the Cage”

Rudyard Kipling, “Wireless”

Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explain The Original Through Its Facsimiles”

Janet McIntosh, “Mobile Phones and Mipoho’s Prophecy” 

Listen to the podcast here:

Episode 2: Addiction with Gina Turrigiano

In this episode, John and Elizabeth speak with Gina Turrigiano, a neuroscientist at Brandeis, about a number of different facets of addiction. What makes an addiction to a morning constitutional different from–or similar to–an addiction to Fentanyl? What are the biological and social factors to consider? Should the addict be thought of in binary terms, or addiction as a state that people move into and out of? They contemplate these questions through biological, anthropological, and literary lenses, drawing on Marc Lewis, Angela Garcia, and Thomas de Quincey. Late in the episode, there’s also a Sprockets joke. Then, in Recallable Books, Gina recommends David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure, Elizabeth recommends When I Wear My Alligator Boots by Shaylih Muehlmann, and John recommends Sam Quinones’s Dreamland.



Discussed in this episode:

Marc Lewis, The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease

Angela Garcia, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande

Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar

David Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good

Shaylih Muehlmann, When I Wear My Alligator Boots: Narco-Culture in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands

Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic