THE EDEN EXPRESS by Mark Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press, 2002 – originally published 1975)
I seriously doubt that this ‘memoir of insanity’ would have found a publisher so easily if the author did not also happen to be the son of Kurt Vonnegut. Much of its interest derives from this blood connection rather than any obvious literary merits.
Since Vonnegut Sr wrote so well about a world precariously balanced on the brink of universal madness, his son’s schizophrenia might be expected to connect in some ways with the surrealism and cynicism of the Vonnegut mindset. If this is what you hope to find from the book, you will be sorely disappointed.
Kurt plays little more than a cameo role in the story and there are few indications that his substantial narrative skills have not been passed on to his son. In fairness, Mark does not present himself as a writer of any substance. This is, and probably will remain, his only book and since its completion he trained to become a successful pediatrician.
The autobiography in part documents Mark’s quest for a personal Eden with his girlfriend Virginia (‘Virge’) – “we both needed other things more than happiness. [….] We wanted to free some of our rational brain space to make room for other ways of being”.
They search for, and find, a plot of land in British Colombia upon which to build a self-sufficient community with like-minded dreamers. As a faithful devotee of 60s counter cultural values, Vonnegut Jr aspired to become a good hippie. Only now, looking back, can he see that these “times out of joint” messed with his head.
It’s worth noting however that he was too devoted to Virge to embrace the era’s advocacy of free love and too worried by his health to get into hard drugs. Therefore, the drift towards insanity was brought on by character flaws rather than chemical abuse or sexual liberation.
Paradoxically, Mark Vonnegut’s attraction to an alternative lifestyle is accompanied by a relatively conservative sense of morality. He graduated in religious studies and though he doesn’t talk about God or faith very much, you do get the sense that he is a man who values loyalty and has far more than a passing interest in serious questions about the nature of good vs evil.
His descent into madness is triggered in no small part by the discovery that Virge had cheated on him. In the grand scheme of things, this would usually bring on feelings of betrayal and anger but not necessarily cause someone to go so completely off the rails.
“The only one who was surprised about my going nuts was myself”, he writes. This admission implies that his fine-tuned consciousness of society as materialistic and dehumanizing did not extend to any deep self-awareness. It also helps explain why so much of this book lacks a clear focus.
The first part drifts along like a series of diary entries as he makes his escape from the ‘straight’ world. It is a rambling travelogue of hopes and aspirations combined with largely affectionate portraits of the men and women he met along the way.
Knowing from the outset that this is also a book about a journey into and then out of insanity, the mental breakdown seems a long time coming and is a bit of an anti-climax when it arrives.
I expected (wanted) some greater insight into what it feels like to go mad but instead, you get strange statements such as : “my memories of being crazy give me an almost sensual glee”. He reasons, with a perverse logic, that the drift to the dark side helped him to appreciate the “grace, symmetry and perfection” that his life needed but in the process he ends up negating the negativity of the experience. As a result, despite the traumatic nature of Vonnegut’s condition, I found myself caring less and less about his struggle to get his life back on track again.
Ultimately, this is a book that tells you more about why the ideals of the sixties’s social revolution floundered than it does about how to stay the right side of the loony bin.