The Eden

A Memoir of

Mark Vonnegut
(Seven Stories)
When Mark Vonnegut graduated from Swarthmore College in 1969, he was at his wit's end. What to do? He certainly didn't want to be a part of the American Way --- either on the murdering fields of Viet Nam or in the board rooms of corporate America.

So what he did was to pack up his despair in his old kit bag and took it and his girlfriend Virginia off to the Canadian woods to a farm located just up from Vancouver, British Columbia. Their VW was named "Car Car" because in those days, we gave dopey nicknames to everything --- people and dogs and cars alike.

He and his hairy friends with their peace love and harmony (and tie-dye clothes and long hair and dope) settled in there to become at one with nature and leave all this Nixon-war-capitalism-repression business behind.

Only Vonnegut --- yes, son of you-know-who --- forgot one thing. He forgot the mot inscribed in one of the great travel books of those years: namely, "Where ever you go, there you are." For he had in his brain the seeds of self-destruct, schizophrenia --- which came into full bloom on the farm, for farm (which they called "Farm") was off in the boonies, with little more than shacks, trees, dope, total isolation, and lots and lots (and lots) of rain and gloom (nine months of the year, they don't tell you about the dark skies of Vancouver Island in the travel brochures).

His first bout of lunacy was a mild one, brought on by the departure of a soul mate named Luke and the entrance of some heavy mescaline. All of us from those footloose years who had a visit from the Boogieman during some awful trip may remember The Face, which was either your own face, melting off your skull into the bathroom sink like a vanilla pop-pie, or, as often, another face beamed in at you from outer space. In his case, it was

    an incredibly wrinkled, iridescent face. Starting as a small point infinitely distant, it rushed forward, becoming infinitely huge. I could see nothing else ... When I first saw the face coming toward me I had thought, "Oh, goody." What I had in mind was a nice reasonable conversation. I had lots of things I wanted to talk about, lots of questions it must have answers to. God, Jesus, the Bible, the Ching, mescaline, art, music, history, evolution, physics, mathematics.

The ecstasy did not last very long --- and in Mescalineville, time is all:

    He, she, or whatever didn't seem much interested in the sort of conversation I had in mind. It also seemed not to like me much. But the worst of it was it didn't stop coming.

This first attack got him admitted to the looney bin back in Vancouver, just long enough for him to learn how to angle his way out again (act normal; agree with everything; be polite and helpful).

Shortly afterwards, puffing some extremely powerful pot got him back into orbit, for another three hundred years or so:

    We went to the Marine Inn coffee shop to get a little breakfast. I'll never forget Simon's groan and horrified look when I ordered. "A cup of Mu tea, please." It was exactly the right thing to do.

[For the non-initiated, Mu is famous in Buddhism; it means either "everything" or, alternatively, "nothing." Mu tea probably exists, but only for those suffering from extreme ecstasy.]

    "Mu tea? I'm not sure we have any of that," the waitress replied. Another customer helped out. "Ain't that some sort of Chinese tea?" And she brought me a cup of Mu tea. It was probably just some magically transformed Tetley or Lipton.

Then to prove to those around him that he was in touch with the great paradoxes of the universe, Vonnegut asks, "Is the tea in the leaves or in the tongue?"

    I was trying out the new world and my new self. If I could get a cup of Mu tea in the Marine Inn, that was quite something. I mean, what do you have to have before you say "Miracle?"

Later, he confirms that he has touched The Infinite:

    There were signs that it was all right. It even seemed at times that people were dying gladly to be able to make some contribution to our progress. Knowing winks. Light rays through the clouds. An old guy in a gas station cashed an old crumpled-up traveler's check I found in my wallet without asking for any identification or even checking my feeble attempt to remember my signature.

§     §     §

Vonnegut has put together a remarkable portrait of a person going hippy and batty. So as not to give away his hand, the word schizophrenia doesn't appear until the very end of the book; thus we know it's a bit strange there on Farm, but we have no label to pin on it.

In addition, he has given a wonderfully acute account of the general befuddlement we went through in those days. We were bitter and at the same time awash in helplessness at the chosen path of our nation-state, both with regards to other countries, and its own young. We were definitely confused about our place in the world --- so much so that the only way we could register our confusion was through the confusion of drugs, which, we believed, might lead us into the Great Mu Tea Pie.

We also dressed in funny clothes and sprouted funny hairdos to distance ourselves from that other world out there peopled with soldiers, politicians, policemen --- and angry workers marching down Broadway in their hard hats singing "God Bless America" and "I'm Just an Okie from Muskogee (Where They Don't Smoke No Marijuana)."

More than anything, we felt helpless against this war being put on by those dummies in Washington --- a war that took on a life of its own: helicopters spewing Agent Orange down on poor Vietnamese farmers, peasant (men, women, children) being murdered in the fields, a viciousness sprouting out from a country that had always pretended to honor life and love and liberty. Many of us internalized the bitter strife that the war represented, and for some of us, the mere internalization drove us crackers.

§     §     §

The Eden Express is a honey. Vonnegut has captured entire that strange exhilarating awful heady time --- its many confusions, the god-let-me-out-of-here madness that drove people to the very furthermost reaches like deserted farms at the end of the line. There was no further place to go, and some of us thus found ourselves up against the wall, the wall we had tried to avoid in the cities. We were left with nothing to battle against except the cold, the wet, the mosquitoes and --- most of all, our own minds, melting into library paste.

This Vonnegut is an artful story-teller, maybe even better than his father, and his journey is so madcap --- if I may use that word --- that it never lets us down.

--- L. L. Wynans

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