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Electric Zen for Neon Koans
Electric Zen for Neon Koans is an experimental tour de force told in eighty-one koans (Zen riddles) rather than traditional chapters. The story involves a married intersex couple (Phil and Ruth) and their attempt to find peace with themselves through the ingestion of a mind-altering substance in the jungles of Mexico, except this is no ordinary hallucinogen. The drug in this novel causes metafictional hallucinations. The story explores the trials of traveling, the complexities of long-term relationships, the bizarreness and wonder of language, how it is that we come to acquire knowledge and understand ourselves, and the experience of sublimity, including a unique account of the moment of enlightenment. It’s also about a warrior trying to return to a home that no longer exists. Phil and Ruth become intensely real and alive throughout their journey, while you (the reader) turn into a piece of fiction, finding yourself in the same predicament as the protagonists by the end of the novel.
This bold epic from poet, painter, and “psychic fiction” author Strangeweather (author of Gorb in the Schizocratic Linguiverse, among others) stands as typically atypical Strangeweather examination of life, love, and psychotropic experiences, written with vivid detail, great empathy, and a devilish sense of play. Opening with a prankish “terms of use”—“Remember to use adequate safety precautions (i.e., gloves, goggles, condoms, common sense, etc.) when handling the information contained herein”—that’s worth the price of admission all on its own, and structured around cycles of birth and rebirth, Electric Zen for Neon Koans centers on an intersex married couple, Phil and Ruth, as they seek refuge from blinkered, category-enforcing society with a trip to Mexico on the trail of mind-altering hallucinogens, a frequent Strangeweather subject.

Strangeweather blends approaches drawing upon from 20th century beat, psychedelic, and meta fiction, with a welcome contemporary embrace of nonbinary living, plus a reporter’s eye for revealing detail (“Splintered boards and broken cinderblocks, his house is made from the castoff parts of other houses”) and a conjurer’s ability to make accounts of altered states resonant rather than tedious. Restless yet precise, the prose seizes hold, powered by memorable thoughts: “Being a zombie wouldn’t be so bad, she thought. It was probably the most comfortable, molasses feeling you could ever imagine, drunker than you’ve ever been, stoned out of your gourd.

Often, the book is chameleonic and kaleidoscopic, with passages written in the voice of online postings, tourist brochures, job applications, and even a lengthy Nabakovian rejection note for this very book, calling the leads “thinly veiled metaphors for the current state of affairs in pre-post-neo-late- capitalist America.” Satiric, provocative, humane, challenging, and far too long, Strangewather’s koans both test and reward patience, especially in evoking what is “arguably the creepiest jungle in the world.” It’s a novel that’s determinedly not for everyone, but admirable in its convictions, ambitions, execution, and commitment to insight and dazzle.

Takeaway: Charles Hayes’s Tripping, Terence McKenna, John C. Lily.

Great for fans of: A bold, sprawling novel of an intersex couple’s search for peace through hallucinogens in Mexico.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A