The Eden Express (1975)
by Mark Vonnegut

When people ask me what my favorite Vonnegut novel is (and admittedly, I don't think the subject has come up even once since like my first year of college, as well it shouldn't), my answer is The Eden Express, the sole book by Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt. This opinion is partly just to be contrary and hip, but it's also entirely true. While Kurt Vonnegut's unfettered imagination has produced at least ten great books (as well as a bunch of redundant, pandering crapola), his son seems to know that he's one of those authors with one good book in him.

And Lord, what a book. Eden is a frank, witty, imaginitive, and relentlessly insightful account of Vonnegut's dutiful Hippiedom at the dawn of the 70s, when he shucked it all in and went off to live on a communal farm in the boondocks of British Columbia. All seems idyllic until the consciousness-raising starts morphing into outright madness, all the less identifiable since Mark and company are ill-equipped to distinguish the aftereffects of a bad trip from out-and-out schizophrenia.

Though these days the author looks back on his illness as having been manic-depressive disorder, the diagnosis at the time was severe schizophrenia; either way, it's not something you want to go through, although The Eden Express is so poetic in its depiction that you almost wish you could. Vonnefut shares his father's friendly tone and cleverness with wordplay, but what makes his book so wonderful is his absolute honesty. He's able to stare forthright into some of his darkest corners and grapple with the demons on equal footing, almost like a Cheshire cat trying to out-riddle the voices in his head. Amazingly, even as the book charts Mark's most incomprehensible crackups, the author is so perfectly lucid about it that you still relate to every word. I do, anyway. Perhaps that's a bad statement on my own mental health, but I'll go with the view that this is just excellent writing.

Vonnegut's dissection of insanity is realized with as thorough a self-awareness as I have ever seen in print; he's a guy who is obviously no slouch in thinking about himself and his life from every conceivable angle, so even when he's spinning Hippie intellectual bullshit, he can call himself on it. It's a far cry from the memoirs of his father's generation (which tend to be almost entirely achievement-based) and those of mine (which tend to be entirely whine-based). I hate it when Baby Boomers and ex-Hippies yammer on about how cool the 60s were, but in Vonnegut's hands, this material is spun into something so intensely personal that it becomes wisdom … a dialogue with Buddha in the guise of John Sebastian.

The book is totally charming even when it's entirely terrifying, and Vonnegut's loose ramble obscures the tight focus of the book, drawing you in ever further with the command of an unbeatable campfire storyteller. His journey takes some awful turns before leading him to a sense of humility and wholeness, and in the end a more serious tone enters the picture, reinforcing the difficulty in maintaining life after madness.

Another cool aspect of the book is that while it is undeniably of its time, the events and lifestyles described will be easily recognizable to countercultural-types of any generation. Vonnegut's sly eye for detail paints his Hippie cohorts in such a way that you can immediately imagine these folks in the ol' rave scene, or in ol' grungy Seattle, or in ol' post-rock Chicago.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that, though you'd expect a lot of subtle attempts to differentiate himself from his famous father, in the book Mark Vonnegut simply is Mark Vonnegut, the Hippie kid struggling with a bad illness; and Kurt Vonnegut is Kurt Vonnegut, the concerned father. You get no lasting impression of this being a book by "the son of Kurt Vonnegut," but rather, an important and incredible work by a very intelligent and talented guy. One who had the benefit of great genes, perhaps, but also one who is tasteful enough to avoid making his father's mistake of telling the same tale over and over. Word for word, Mark says as much in his one book than Kurt has in dozens. Perhaps where Julian Lennon went wrong was not going nuts at some point.

Review by La Fée