By Jenna Jauregui
America in the late 1950’s was a slick-combed and buttoned-up culture, each white picket fence identical to the one next door. Rules, expectations, and traditions confined Americans to a mind-numbing existence—to be different was a dangerous practice. Out of this restrictive society came a revolutionary counterculture, one that sought to drag America out of its conformist doldrums and into a new frame of mind.
Tom Wolfe’s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicles the result of this counterculture—the early psychedelic movement in 1960s America. As a journalist, he joins author Ken Kesey and an eclectic group of people known as the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country road trip in a crazily decked-out school bus, breaking away from traditional society and spreading the good news of the Acid Revolution. Throughout their journey, the Merry Pranksters experiment with drugs, art, and technology in order to expand their perceptions of reality and transcend the human sensory lags into the actual moment of “NOW”.
The Merry Pranksters believe their Acid Trips are a vehicle towards an alternate frame of consciousness—one that allows them to “open the doors to perception”. Tom Wolfe describes the effects of LSD as an experience: “The whole other world that LSD opened your mind to consisted only in the moment itself—Now—and any attempt to plan, compose, orchestrate, write a script, only locked you out of the moment, back into the world of conditioning and training where the brain was a reducing valve…” (52). Through these Acid Trips, the Merry Pranksters can break away from the closed-minded 1950s American mentality, separating them from the rest of society. Wolfe writes, “The Youth had always had only three options: go to school, get a job, or live at home. And—how boring each was!—compared to the experience of… the infinite… and a life in which the subject is not scholastic or bureaucratic but… Me and Us, the attuned ones amid the non-musical shiny-black-shoe multitudes…” (58). The Acid Trips become a defining characteristic of the Pranksters, who spend much of the Bus Trip high on hallucinogenic drugs. Their alternate form of consciousness separates them from the many civilians they encounter during their journey: “The befuddled citizens could only see the outward manifestations of the incredible stuff going on inside their skulls” (69). This separation sprouts the idea of being “on the bus”—in synch with the Merry Pranksters and their expanded perceptions, their NOW moment and self-actualization—or “off the bus”—a bystander on the outside, becomes an allegory for the purpose of the Magic Bus trip.
The Pranksters also experiment with different art mediums in order to enhance their perception of the time and space around them. The Pranksters wear outrageous, colorful costumes and Day-Glo masks, “right out front” with their personalities and being “what they are” (65). The bus itself is wildly painted in a “Hieronymus Bosch” style, the destination sign reading “Furthur” in order to broadcast their intent to travel beyond the traditional American mindset of the time. Wolfe describes the bus’ exterior as “a frenzy of primary colors, yellows, oranges, blues, reds… sloppy as hell… but one thing you had to say for it; it was freaking lurid” (61). The bus’ head-turning design lets the Pranksters be even more “right out front” with their personalities, shaking the public from their conformist stupor and bringing them into the present moment—curiosity—wonderment—inspiration—when they see the “rolling yahooing circus” (93). Wolfe writes, “right away this wild-looking thing with the wild-looking people was great for stirring up consternation and vague befuddling resentment among the citizens… The bus also had great possibilities for altering the usual order of things” (61). When Kesey is asked to speak at an anti-war convention, they paint the bus “a dull red color, the color of dried blood, in fact” (193). Wolfe says, “right over the greatest design of Day-Glo design in history went this bloody muck. But who gave a damn. Art is not eternal” (193). The fact that nothing lasts—that nothing stays the same forever—emphasizes the need to always be in the present, the moment of NOW where everything exists only for an instant. Music is another art medium the Pranksters use to pull society into the present; Kesey and Babbs ride on top of the bus and do something Wolfe calls “tootling the multitudes,” using instruments to “[play] people like they were music, the poor comatose world outside” (89). “If a guy looked to you fat and pissed off,” Wolfe says, “you played on the flute in dying elephant tones. If a woman looked up nervous and twittering, you played nervous and twittering. It was saying it right to their faces, out front, and they never knew what to do” (90).
Technology plays a large role in the Pranksters’ quest to convert the masses. The idea of life as a “movie” is a motif that pervades the entire novel. Kesey informs the Pranksters that “a person has all sorts of sensory lags built into him…We are all of us doomed to spend our lives watching a movie of our lives—we are always reacting on what has just finished happening…The present we know is only a movie of the past, and we will really never be able to control the present through ordinary means” (129). In an attempt to capture the absolute present moment, the Pranksters film a movie throughout their journey. Wolfe says, “Kesey takes the microphone and Hagen starts shooting the film—whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—but all very casual as if, well, don’t you record it all…” (73). The Pranksters are literally drawing people into their “movie” in the literal and figurative sense—recording the people they encounter and capturing them on film but also capturing their minds and converting them to the Acid Revolution… bringing them “on the bus.” Technology is also used to enhance the Acid Trips, making the experience a complete sensory stimulation in order to fling wide the “doors of perception.” Kesey plans to build a giant dome in which “people could take LSD or speed or smoke grass and lie back and experience what they would, enclosed and submerged in a planet of lights and sounds such as the universe never knew” (206). Wolfe describes it as having “lights, movies, video tapes… flashing and swirling over the dome from the beams of searchlights rising from the floor from between their bodies. The sounds roiling around in the globe like a typhoon. Movies and tapes of the past, tapes and video tapes, broadcasts and pictures of the present, tapes and humanoid sounds of the future—but all brought together now—here and now…into the dilated cerebral cortex…” (206). This culmination of sensory stimulation through technology and drugs is the ultimate experiment with the idea of “synch”—trying to get everything, everyone; past, present, and future, into one wavelength of “synchronicity,” fully present in exactly the NOW moment. They wish to revert the uptight society back to the pure, childlike mentality in which a person’s “doors of perception have not yet been closed” and “he still experiences the moment he lives in” (47).
Wolfe witnessed firsthand the start of a revolution—the Prankster’s bus trip inspired a movement that spanned across America and Europe for the duration of the decade. Their experimentation with multimedia technology, hallucinogenic drugs, and free-form art challenged the public to escape its confining mindset and “transcend the bullshit” into the present moment, synch everyone and everything together into a harmonious world where free love and peace are the prime objectives.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam, 1969. Print.