One of the book's main themes is the style in which it is written. The book was one of the first popular pieces of New Journalism, in which the writer describes real-life people and events in a manner that is closer to fiction writing. Wolfe's style is often eclectic, using dense, complicated prose that makes little sense out of context, and creative uses of punctuation to give the reader a sense of the inner experiences of the book's characters.
Wolfe recounted that one of the reasons Kesey and the Pranksters interested him was because he could see the beginnings of a new religion. Wolfe compares Kesey to such religious figures as St. Paul and Zoroaster, who, some speculate, were under the influence of chemicals during their first religious experiences and who had the intelligence and charisma to lead people towards their way of experiencing the world.
The Pranksters themselves are compared to disciples given the task of taking the psychedelic message to the masses. This is most clearly articulated when the Pranksters take over a Unitarian Church gathering at a camp in California. Kesey quickly divides the camp into two groups: those who are for him, and those who are against him. Many of the Unitarian youths place Kesey at the center of their pseudo-religious experiences at the camp and begin to call him their prophet.
The Acid Tests themselves are comparable to a religious worship experience. They are a sacred space that is used to transport the worshiper to another state of consciousness. The Acid Tests hold many of the same characteristics of a religious gathering and are used as evangelistic events to proclaim the message of the Pranksters.
The Pranksters describe intersubjectivity as the goal of their experiences on LSD. Intersubjectivity is the state that a user of the drug can enter into in which he or she takes on the mind of another person or another object, and that person or object takes on the mind of the user. The state is described as a "transcendental state," and the ultimate state of experience in an acid trip. The Pranksters practice subverting their individuality in order to gain a "group mind" in which they can all know and feel what the others are feeling.
Intersubjectivity works on another level in the book, as well. This is also the state that Wolfe himself is trying to create in the reader through his journalistic prose. Wolfe is attempting to place the reader in the minds and thoughts of the Pranksters, so that they can experience what the Pranksters are experiencing.
The catalyst for the psychedelic and hippie movements of the 1960s was LSD. Like marijuana, LSD is a drug that alters the user's state of mind, but LSD, or "acid," is far more intense and potent, capable of sending the user into an altered state for up to ten or twelve hours. It creates hallucinations and alters the senses so that sights, smells, and tastes are completely different.
Aldous Huxley, author of A Brave New World was one of the first to write about these states and the drugs that can be used to achieve them. According to Huxley, a newborn baby experiences the world in a complete sense that soon gets overwhelmed by the pressures of culturation. He argues that drugs such as LSD can be used to return the individual to that first state of experiencing the world.
Wolfe holds that the drug was responsible for the hippie movement, but also sparked the demise of other social movements such as the student movement and anti-war movements of the 1960s. When the drug became widely available, he says, many of the leaders of those movements began taking it and soon abandoned their social activities to focus on its mind-expanding capabilities.
Wolfe sees the Pranksters as directly related to other American counter-cultural movements such as the Beat Generation. Neal Cassady, who was the inspiration for one of the main characters in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, was a member of the Pranksters and a symbolic bridge between the two generations. The leaders of both movements even meet during the Pranksters' trip to New York when Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac attend a party at the Pranksters' apartment, but according to Wolfe neither party was very friendly to the other.
Wolfe also highlights some of the differences between the two movements. The Beat Generation stayed largely underground, only coming into the American consciousness when several books were written about them. The Pranksters, on the other hand, desired from the start to take their message into the world and to confront people with it. The Beat Generation revered maligned cultures such as African-American culture and the "real" culture of Mexico, while the Pranksters are ambivalent at best in regards to such cultures. Their goal was not to find a more "real" American experience, like the Beats, but rather to transcend all experience in intersubjectivity.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.