A Savage Journey to the Root of the American Mind

By
Arvind Dilawar
Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by believers to a site significant in their mythology. But what if there is no awesome landmark? No coherent folklore? No believer?

The result could be Paul Kwiatkowski’s Eat Prey Drug [NSFW], a eight-part multimedia series currently being unfurled by Black Balloon Publishing. Ostensibly, the project follows Kwiatkowski, a writer/photographer, as he investigates “alternate perceptions of consciousness” on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York.

Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

To say there are detours is putting it mildly. Kwiatkowski strikes out for Portland to visit a pair of strippers; bored at a motel, he follows a path cut by animals through the neighboring woods to find a cave in which he can hear the Earth churn; he calls an old friend to discuss the impetus behind travel.

But Kwiatkowski’s journey isn’t restricted to space. While driving through Idaho, a nightmarish daydream transports him back to 2010 in Haiti, where he volunteered just after the earthquake had struck. And the chapter on Wisconsin drifts away from the first-person narrative completely, telling instead the story of a doomed relationship like a dented modern fairytale.

Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

The trip is hallucinatory, revelatory, sarcastically funny and, at times, deeply tragic. Eat Prey Drug paints a landscape of contemporary American culture as splintered as the Union’s states. It follows in the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only the American Dream today isn’t pinned in by desert races, 24-hour casinos and police conventions — that monolithic idea was bludgeoned to death by history. Kwiatkowski shows us that if the American Dream is alive today, it survives only through a myriad of mutant children, each one of which lives independently in the mind of an American.

Canvas spoke with Kwiatkowski about Eat Prey Drug, which was the worst state he visited, whether he believes any of the myths he heard and more.

CANVAS: In composing Eat Prey Drug you did in fact roadtrip across the United States, from California up to Washington and over to New York, so let me ask you: Which is the worst state? I lean pretty heavily on Delaware.
Paul Kwiatkowski: Fuck South Dakota. I was pulled over outside the Badlands for going two miles over the speed limit. The idiot cop made me sit in his car while he searched everything inside my car and busted me for something I bought legally in California.

While he grilled me about my car rental, I asked him why he pulled me over when I had just been lapped by two cars and was barely going over the speed limit. He said that police there pull over anyone with Colorado, Washington or California plates.

It's pathetic to see red states nip at the heels of progressive states that are bankrolling from the legalization of marijuana while shitholes like South Dakota jostle for scraps to get a few extra bucks that will do nothing to improve their communities or paychecks. It was embarrassing to watch two policemen waste over an hour on citing me.

Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

Reviewers have referred to Eat Prey Drug as an “essay” and “diary.” Accurate? Is the voice behind Eat Prey Drug a reporter or a narrator? Is there a difference?

I wanted Eat Prey Drug to evolve chapter by chapter into its own container. There are diaristic elements to it, but it’s much broader than my day-to-day musing. I’m not the kind of person who sits down to write every night. I generally like to hold back and let ideas and experiences gestate until they’re ready to be articulated.

I think “essay” implies there's an argument or hypothesis the text aims to solve or prove. Every narrator is a reporter; the only difference is that a reporter is held to an agreed frame of truth and objectivity — both of which I think are impossible ideals to maintain through text.

What about through photography? Viewers often take photographs as objective evidence, which is an idea you refute throughout your first book, And Every Day Was Overcast.
I like to think of photography as a trap door to a subjective reality. Photos are never objective; their meaning changes with time, technology and context. Where there used to be an imbued sense of nostalgia in analog images, for example, that has now been supplanted with in-camera filters.

Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

Eat Prey Drug’s tone is neither believing nor skeptical, rather a come-what-may openness. Did you believe in anything supernatural before starting the series? Do you believe more in anything now?

The supernatural is just a sexy way of saying we can’t comprehend something. There’s nothing outside of nature, just our understanding of it.

Good point, but doesn’t belief play into our understanding of the world? The necessity of faith in religion is probably the biggest example of this, but you chronicle lesser-known (though much more interesting) examples throughout Eat Prey Drug: Ancient beings capable of telepathy living under a volcano in California, a “psycho-spiritual disease” that’s the source of all malevolence, mediums who are able to connect the living with the dead. Did you believe in any of this stuff before you set out? Do you now?
Our ego is the prism through which we perceive the world. I believe that interacting is the only way to understand ourselves.

Image courtesy of Paul Kwiatkowski

It’s obvious that the written word, photography, video and audio are all parts of Eat Prey Drug, but in an interview with HotShoe, your interviewer suggests that performance also has a role and you seem to agree. How’s that?
Any time you bust out a camera and aren’t crouching in the corner with a telephoto lens there’s an element of performance to how a subject reacts to photographic dialogue. Some people like to perform; others feel objectified but pretend they don’t, which is also a performance.

Like the observer effect: Even by watching something you’ve already inserted yourself into the situation, and that can’t be discounted. So do you like to perform? I notice that a lot of the text in Eat Prey Drug hinges on you but almost none of the photos include you.
I don’t take selfies.

The next installment of Eat Prey Drug debuts on Friday, November 7. Catch it on Black Balloon Publishing’s website.

Arvind Dilawar is a writer/editor from Jackson Heights, Queens, who now lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. His work has appeared on The Atlantic, The Daily Mail, Gothamist and more. Follow him on Twitter — @ArvSux — or email him at arvind.dilawar@gmail.com.

 

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