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Opinion | Explain drug use? Maybe fiction has better answers than real life

We are sympathetic to drug addiction. We despise drug addiction. There but for the grace of god, we say. Not me, I would never become a junkie. I want to taste euphoria, too. Why do you think anyone is entitled to euphoria? Why can’t we help them? They don’t want help, they want drugs. So give them drugs. They’ll die. It’s their choice. No, life happened to them and they couldn’t take it. Life happened to me, too. But you could handle it.

The question of how to end street drug addiction has consumed cities in recent years. Everyone has an opinion, often set in stone, often angrily expressed. It’s a bandwagon issue. As with many contentious issues, everyone climbs on, little insight is had, novelty wears off, and everything is just as before, women and children at the bottom of the heap.

Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh refers to “a stalemate society. All the energy that would ordinarily go into the debating and doing of meaningful change now finds an outlet in proxy wars.” We’ll find another hot quarrel to distract us from the huge divides in the West that we fear confronting.

In the meantime, what is to be done about extreme drug use in its window of attention? Like you, I’ve read endless prose about addiction in the West, about cartels, policing, policy, the drugs of the cultural moment, rehab, imprisonment, deaths, ruination, the church of street social work, legalization, misery, the soul murder of sexually abused children, tormented childhoods one can’t recover from, immovable despair.

Perhaps fiction can best explain the eternal human need for drugged vacations from life.

One of Canada’s greatest writers, Vincent Lam, has written a novel, “On the Ravine,” his third and best, on the dopesick in Toronto in the new century. His narrator, Dr. Chen, runs an addiction clinic (as Lam does himself) but has grave doubts about efficacy. A doctor who exhausts himself pondering morality, his life feels like a defeat and a tangle. His heart is wrenched.

His friend Fitz, a character from Lam’s first novel, “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures,” runs an informal sinister cave-clinic above Rosedale ravine in which everyone gets any drug they want. He has Narcan if they overdo it. But it isn’t widely known how soul-sick one feels post-Narcan revival. “Depression wasn’t the word,” drugged-up Theo Decker says in Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch.” “A sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavour from the dawn of time.”

This is no answer. Fitz, a lifelong alcoholic, knows this but his failure will be a giant flare shooting into the ravine sky.

One of Chen’s patients, Claire, a violinist, won’t stop, can’t stop shooting up. The conditions of addiction are agonizing — withdrawal all snapping nerves, fever and filth, the contemptuous doctor/cop/pharmacist, suspicious eyes following her, a river of lies — and yet you understand the triggers that send her back to heroin, because heroin loves Claire.

We love Claire, too. But what would we do with a Claire in our life?

Dr. Chen warily profits by finding “volunteers” for a corporation that conducts anti-addiction drug trials, one involving Memorex, a version of “ayahuagaine” which makes you forget the high and the angst.

Finding a way for the West to cope with its endless hunger for unearned happiness would be immensely profitable. There’s always ketamine to make you forget or ayahuasca, which makes you vomit and hallucinate.

Chen is dubious. “If you throw up and seize, you think the world is different.” But people thought the same about the physical sensation of bloodletting, he says. It’s an event but it doesn’t change you.

Does anyone change? And why should you expect to be happy?

Lam’s characters have careful conversations, watching each other intently like table tennis players, taking in an infinitude of human feeling and thought. His prose is delicate, a sprite dancing above breath, thought, shock, gore.

I do not know how Lam learned to write like this, to do so much with rather spare writing, long silences where Chen does what most doctors won’t do, actually listen to the patient.

The best writers are born this way. It comes from the brain and the body; we’ll never understand this level of talent; it can’t be taught.

Lam takes the reader for a trip through layers of cloudy meaning until she feels drugged herself. At the end you do feel you understand drug use better, though it’s still not clear to what degree addiction is passive or active. It’s an engine. You have to want to kill the engine. You probably can’t.

These are vaporous debates. But Lam has done a wondrous thing in placing them inside this ambitious Toronto novel packed with people, endless talk, multi-atmospheres, and a great range of locales, the kind of novel most Canadians don’t dare write.

The novel begins: “Chen opened his eyes into a taut, buzzing awareness. It was early, still dark out. Below his window, the barrel-roll rumble of the King Street streetcar.”

And immediately I smelled this city full of Claires and Fitzes and Chens, Toronto sounds, a particular Toronto cast of light, a personal cataclysm, a call to moral duty, a shot of, yes, euphoria.


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