25 September 2023

Outside Looking In

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By TC Boyle, Bloomsbury.

TC Boyle is one of the great chroniclers of America and Americans through fiction. While many of his novels have revolved around purely fictional players, a number have taken as their focus key figures of modern American history: influencers and outsiders, people who looked at the world differently and brought others along with them, such as John Kellogg in The Road to Wellville, Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle and Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women. His long literary career has also shown an interest in cults and counterculture. Outside Looking In is the perfect combination of all these interests. Boyle’s focus in this novel is 1960s LSD and counterculture guru Timothy Leary, as seen through the eyes of a fictional acolyte. Through this lens, Boyle explores the US as it transitioned from the straight-laced post-war fifties to the drug-fuelled swinging sixties.

Outside Looking In opens in 1943 with the discovery of LSD and its effects in a laboratory in Basel. Fast forward to Harvard in 1963 and graduate student in psychology Fitz Loney and his wife Joanie are invited to his supervisor Tim’s house on a Saturday night. Fitz has been invited to become part of Tim’s ‘inner circle’, a group of researchers exploring the effects of LSD, which Leary is touting as a new ‘miracle drug’. On Saturday nights, as part of Tim’s research, the inner circle gather at his house and take LSD. Fitz and Joanie participate and from that first night, they are hooked:

Except that this wasn’t sleep but its opposite, a kind of hyper-alertness that set all his senses on fire till the MJQ replaced Bach and became his heartbeat color shining through it and Joanie’s face was something she’d borrowed from Miró, from Picasso, and he wanted to tell her about that but he was pre-verbal now or maybe post-verbal. If he was speaking, if he could have spoken – or even wanted to – he would have said ineffable, would have said discontinuous, would have said wow.

Not every trip is a good one but the inner circle put those negative experiences aside. Leary dresses his research up in science but in reality it appears to be an excuse to get high and test the boundaries of sexuality and society. And as such, Leary cannot justify his work and his methods to Harvard. As Fitz observes:

… in truth the research was a work in progress since there’d never been anything like it before. There were no precedents to draw from, no previous studies, and Tim, like any pioneer, was creating a new methodology as he went along … And really, what else were you supposed to do – dose people in sanitized white rooms while psychologists in lab coats hovered over them with clipboards? That would defeat the whole purpose.

But Fitz and the other research students buy into the hype, designing their own loose experiments around the use of the drug. For example this one, where they dose a group of religious students and take them to church:

What I’m interested in is the religious aspect of the psychedelic experience – that is, whether or not these drugs, psilocybin in particular, can facilitate the kind of transcendence of agape that mystics experience … Tim goes as far as to claim all religion derives from pharmaceutically assisted visions …

During the summer, Leary takes his cohort to a hotel at a remote beach in Mexico where they continue their experiments of drug-taking and freedom. As insiders, Tim and Joanie are able to ‘take the sacrament’ as Leary starts to call it, but in Mexico the experiment begins to look very different. Nevertheless, they continue to believe that observing their use of the drug will reveal a way of addressing psychological problems, thereby rationalising their own growing dependence.

After being kicked out of Mexico and drummed out of Harvard, Leary finds a massive house in the small upstate New York town of Millbrook and moves in all of his inner circle and their families:

The point was to get away from everything and everybody and indulge in what Tim called the Fifth Freedom, the freedom to explore your own mind without harassment or disapproval or even knowledge of the outside world. Without the squares. The unenlightened. The mass of people who lived lives of quiet desperation and never suspected there was anything beyond work and sleep and what their blinkered senses brought them in a continuous loop from birth till death.

But as none of the inner circle have a job, the whole enterprise needs money, so besides leaning on wealthy girlfriends, Leary funds this lifestyle by opening up the house to ‘seminars’. The perfect closed community that he was supposedly creating became a money-making venture as people from New York and further afield came to open the doors of perception. As Joanie observes at one point:

The problem was publicity – too much publicity … [B]ut that wasn’t the way Tim saw things … He was a promoter, an impresario, a showboat, giving lectures around the country on the benefits of mind expansion, writing articles, sitting for interviews, always talking, talking, talking … [W]hich would have been fine, just fine, but for the explosion of negative press … None of the articles mentioned science, therapy, the quest for knowledge, breaking set or lifting imprints, but only drug use, topless women and promiscuous sex. All of which was true of course, but in a way the sensationalists could never have imagined …

Outside Looking In is a microcosm of the change occurring in the United States in the early sixties told from one of the epicentres of that change. Boyle takes the reader on a cultural journey as the younger generation struggles to express themselves through clothes and drugs and music. The Kennedy assassination, the rise of the Beatles, the growth of a nascent drug-fuelled hippy movement all play a part in the narrative.

As in his other books involving historical characters, the view of Leary is from the side. Sections of the novel are told either from Fitz’s or Joanie’s point of view. Fitz, as a research student, has well and truly drunk the kool aid and finds himself going further and further down a drug-fuelled rabbit hole. Joanie also buys into the group-mind, one-big-family experiment, but is able to remain more clear-eyed than her husband about Leary and what he is trying to achieve. Both are typical Boyle-type characters – complex, flawed and with rich inner lives.

With his focus on Leary, Boyle once again explores the power of an individual, an entrepreneur of sorts, to change lives and fuel social movements. Like others Boyle has looked at, Leary’s motives were never particularly pure, his methods were completely out of the box and the results only possible to judge in retrospect. But the influence Leary and his ideas had on American culture and counterculture in the mid to late sixties is undeniable. And not necessarily in a positive way. While the insiders continually try to justify their lifestyle, Boyle casts a much more critical eye on the way they were living and the effects that this had on their personal lives, their relationships with each other and their children.

Outside Looking In is Boyle’s 17th novel in a literary career spanning 40 years. It shows a writer with plenty still to say.

This and 300 more reviews can be found at Pile By the Bed.

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