Beyond the Basin by Alexander Beiner

Originally published in 2009 ‘Beyond the Basin’ is a novel by Alexander Beiner. It tells the story of a journalist called Alex, asked to cover a story in South America shortly after being hired for a new job, and Anjuiga, a young girl living with an indigenous tribe that subtly titters on the edge of catastrophe. Set against an increasingly wild and natural setting, their stories entwine through a strange ethereal presence created through dreams and plant hallucinogens, leading finally to a savage and experimental end.

Having interspersed passages between Alex and Anjuiga’s stories has the effect of disorientating the reader and creating an intrigue. Not simply because one wonders what, if any, the connection is between them, but in that it allows the creation of a closed operable space within the text, one which Beiner expertly manipulates. The rate of narrative revelation steadily intensifies, by first layering in other character threads, like the shaman Kuuhra, then simultaneously meshing Alex’s dreamscape with Anjuiga’s setting and collapsing the geographical space between the two stories; the culmination of which is a wonderfully inventive magic mushroom trip.

For the central character Alex, and for the unfolding of the plot, drugs are a route to a new quality of self-awareness: “He [Alex] was not a leaf on a bough but the entire tree, her roots and limbs and sap; he was the ground beneath and the rain that soaked it” (22). Each element is plugged into a further component, an environmental web, wherein all the various facets foreshadow the whole narrative and constitute Alex’s coming to new awareness. For example, through discussion and argument about ancient and modern attitudes to plant hallucinogens in the dialogue, Beiner is able juxtapose the idea of self-awareness as socially emergent, in a tribal shamanic context, and individually pathological, which drives at the heart of Western establishment values. For Alex, therefore, drugs are a route or connection to not only a different quality of consciousness, but to a communal and integrative way of living.

The question of plant hallucinogens threads through the narrative and culminates in an outstanding introspection passage at the end. Perhaps, however, introspection is the wrong term. One might be better in describing it as an induced-stream of consciousness. The way the trip is constructed really precludes the idea of an exterior/interior dichotomy. It’s layered into three ‘voices’, the first of which appears in normal type, but reads nonsensically, familiar words malformed and disjoined. The second is in italic type, and appears to be the voice of reason, so far as its questioning, albeit confusedly; and the final one is in handwriting and is the clear voice, wise and thoughtful. The handwriting seemingly reflects an eternal subjectivity in the voice; to use Richard Burke’s term, perhaps a cosmic consciousness. All three take on distinct characters and are reinforced by their actual skewed representation on the page. Effectively, the book itself is tripping, but while Beiner may not be the first to try such a feat, he is certainly among the most successful.

Beyond the Basin opens with Anjuiga swimming in a shallow basin of water with Ruah, who she meets in secret because he has left the tribe and joined the Sky Teacher. Only the tribe’s shaman Kuuhra knows of their meeting, but he guides and offers advice to the questioning Anjuiga. The desertion from the shamanic way plays a role in how the shamanic  understandings are communicated in the text; Kuuhra to Anjuiga: “You stand alone on the beach and watch as a night spirit rises. See it Anjuiga. It leaves the water and flies to you. Smile. Know that you will become the spirit only when you fear it. It is part of you and you a part of it. Smile as you feel your essence” (136). It is as if the “spirit” stands for ideas, good and bad forces, with the power to change, or to cause people to desert their way of life. And also, just as the book attempts to portray multiple perspectives to elucidate the issues surrounding plant hallucinogens, it follows that it is necessary in our social to stand up and recognise the “night spirits” for what they are, in order not to be owned by them.

In conclusion, it is worth comparing Beyond the Basin to a drug novel from another period, in order to show how the shamanic model has come to mould the approach to psychedelics in literature. In Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) it was society that created a private space in which the individual could trip if they so wished. A dream-space reflection on one’s role within society and the universe. While for Beiner’s shamanism it is a open space, an orgiastic celebration of society. The ‘medicine’ is not a right ceded down to the individual, it is part of the role of individuals in creating a union of people, as Beiner examines in a very powerful passage about a full moon ritual. The approach chimes in time with today’s popular movement in psychedelics.

Beiner has written an engaging narrative, with interesting characters and a brilliantly spiralling plot. The novel skilfully explores some of the personal, religious, and social tensions that inhabit the plant hallucinogen plateau, but is not afraid to put forward an opinion. It could perhaps do with being slightly shorter but otherwise a full-bloodied story and a fine contribution to drug literature. For more details and to buy a copy of this book please visit the Beyond the Basin website: http://www.beyondthebasin.com

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