Jason Pine


On his book The Alchemy of Meth: A Decomposition

Cover Interview of March 18, 2020


What can a book do? This is the question The Alchemy of Meth poses in the very beginning. Book-writing was the task I was left with after some very distressing fieldwork in Missouri. People on the brink of coming undone pinned their hopes on my work. Maybe a book can influence policy, but what policy would the book target when the problems that underlie the scenes depicted are systemic? Maybe a book can serve as a self-help text, but that’s not my expertise and, at any rate, there’s a lot more that I want to convey.

The question is more pressing in the academy, where uncountable books are published and sold to small elite audiences year after year. The way that many academics write and the poor marketing resources of academic presses limit what a book can do.

The Alchemy of Meth is undoubtedly an academic text. It is grounded in some of the ideas that animate scholarly and artistic work of late. At the same time, it uses these ideas to test the limits of the containers that circulate them—that is, theoretical arguments, books, and intellectuals with composure. It is a decomposition that deforms everything. But all of this is likely more apparent to those readers who are looking for the book’s argument or know some of the literature that helped me write it.

The book is largely literary nonfiction. It is a storybook where readers are invited to identify with the protagonists. They are invited to go far into scenes worked up into strange material constellations, scenes they might not otherwise ever know, yet sense as somehow familiar. Storytelling can deeply affect readers and I hope that readers are moved enough to care about the people whose stories are in the book. And if they care about the people, then they probably will also pay attention to the bigger story of the toxic inheritances of late industrialism in places like northeastern Missouri, where making a decent living can feel forever out of reach. Or the even bigger story of late liberalism throughout the United States, where you can never expect enough from yourself, and where fatigue, malaise, and doubt are regarded as life aberrations that obstruct nonstop individual ‘growth.’ This is a story that we all live, in some measure, and if more of us pay attention to it, more of us might feel like we can actually refuse to live it.

Another limitation on what a book can do is the general decline in readers. I was very happy when Blackstone Publishing bought the rights to turn The Alchemy of Meth into an audiobook and chose me as the narrator. An audiobook might entice some readers back as listeners. It’s like I’ve been given one more chance to share these stories. And if I manage to share them with my most favored readers (or listeners), maybe they’ll feel that they matter a little more.