When it comes to reading a book, timing can sometimes be everything. And I clearly picked absolutely the wrong time to start reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas for the first time.
The drug-fuelled, semi-autobiographical novel is held up as one of the classics of post-World War II America, and the definitive example of what has become known as gonzo journalism – a style that eschews objectivity in favour of blending fact with highly subjective elements like opinion, first-person narrative and emotions.
None of these characteristics, however, make it appropriate reading for anyone going through a fairly major life change. Having just come to the end of a 10-month long fellowship in the United States, the past few weeks of my life have been filled with packing, moving out and, the most difficult thing, saying my goodbyes. At a time like this, the tale of two drug-addled men in Las Vegas serving as an allegory for the failure of the great American dream, no matter how masterfully written, isn’t exactly what one wants to read.
If anything, the novel’s loose plot and often surrealistic descriptions, not to mention a definite undercurrent of cynicism and even hopelessness, made me feel even more down and frustrated about leaving the Washington DC area.
I should have perhaps anticipated this reaction even before picking the book up; I’ve watched the 1998 Terry Gilliam-directed film adaptation which starred Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. And despite being a huge fan of both actors at the time, I found the movie intensely difficult to get through.
The first few pages of the book were enough to convince me that it was far superior to the film – where Gilliam’s interpretation often devolves into incoherence, Thompson pulls us into a hallucinatory haze that is nevertheless expertly crafted with his words.
Yet, sitting in a near-empty apartment surrounded by suitcases and boxes is not the best time to crack open a book that starts off with a journalist and his attorney on their way to Las Vegas with a car full of a stunning variety of drugs.
By the time I finished a three-hour flight away from the place I’d spent most of the last one year, I was also finished with the book; I had quit after the first few chapters, convinced that what I needed right then was not despair (even when it is laced with dark humour) but, rather, comfort.
Sharmilla Ganesan has just ended her Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.