When I happened to mention to a friend that I was reading this book, he told me that he had experimented with nitrous oxide himself. He then proceeded to try to explain to me what this experience was like. The ensuing ten minutes were pretty much a condensed version of my experience of reading Oh Excellent Air Bag: my friend ‘hummed and hawed a lot whilst gesturing frantically with his hands; gave fairly lengthy yet disappointingly mundane descriptions; occasionally came up with some truly startlingly and beautiful similes for how his body felt whilst under the gas’s influence; before eventually conceding that the subjective effect of nitrous oxide is, essentially, unrelatable in the language that we currently possess. In short, I was frequently frustrated and bored, occasionally amazed, and, at the end, not sure I was any clearer than when I was in the beginning.
That slightly harsh summary is in direct contrast to the heartfelt endorsement and admiration I have for what The Public Domain Review Press (the book’s publishers, a branch of Public Domain Review) does both online and in print. PDR is an online journal which goes out into the field of the public domain, gathers oddities and wonders from across the arts and humanities, and then arranges them into cabinets of curiosities which it displays to the world. Thus Oh Excellent Air Bag is a collection of various primary sources which in some way relate to nitrous oxide gas. These range from the testimony of Humphry Davy, future president of the Royal Society of Physicians, who first discovered the strange effects of the gas and verified them by repeatedly experimenting on himself and his colleagues, to a one-act play by Theodore Dreiser in which nitrous oxide appears as a character.
It’s the testimony of Davy and his circle that takes up a significant part of the book. His intrepidness is either brave or foolish, depending on your perspective; one of the unnerving aspects of his reports is the way the reader sees something approaching a drug addiction developing, with Davy appearing uncharacteristically oblivious to the danger. On the lighter side, it is amusing to see a psychedelic experience rendered in fairly stiff and old-fashioned language. Consider the testimony of Mr J. W. Tobin, one of Davy’s circle:
‘(I) suddenly started from the chair, and vociferating with pleasure, I made towards those present, as I wished that they should participate in my feelings. I struck gently at Mr. Davy and a stranger entering the room at the moment, I made towards him, and I gave him several blows, but more in the spirit of good humour than of anger.’
The book lends itself well to picking amusing and astonishing quotes (indeed there’s an Index of Exclamations and Similes at the end of the primary sources) but for every epigram there are several pages of tedium. I lost count of the number of times that 19th-century gas-huffers reported ‘increased muscular power’, and whilst such reportage may have helped to build up a more objective picture of nitrous oxide’s effects, it didn’t make for particularly interesting reading. And for every psychonaut who claimed they became ‘an inhabitant of the Elysium of Rousseau, or the islands of Calypso,’ there were those (such as Davy) left with a slightly more prosaic sensation ‘as while hearing cheerful music, or after good news, or a moderate quantity of wine.’
There is an excellent introductory essay by the science writer Mike Jay, which provides a history of laughing gas from Davy’s first investigation into its effects (1799) to its place inside the Grateful Dead’s tour-bus (the 1960s). The essay proceeds through the chronology of the primary texts, contextualising them, summarising them, and pulling out some choice quotes. In fact, Jay’s essay does each of these things so well that I after reading it I wasn’t really sure that I needed the primary texts at all. And certainly, once I’d finished the various reports/satirical magazine articles/one-act plays, I was left with that feeling you sometimes get upon leaving the cinema: that the trailer for the film you’d gone to see had basically cherry-picked the exciting bits of a film in which not very much happens.
I know it isn’t what PDR are going for, but I would have enjoyed Air Bag more had it been a traditional non-fiction book in which I’m taken through the subject by an author who has read the primary sources and then selected and presented the passages which are relevant to his or her theme. For me (and I’m perfectly happy to accept that this is a preference/failing on my part) the collated texts were simply not interesting enough to stand alone.
All that said, I’d like to end this review by saying that I’m fairly sure I missed out on some of the pleasures of Air Bag as a result of the format in which I read it. A quick trip to The PDR Press’ online store informs any potential buyer that the volume contains ‘an extensive selection of images, including instructional material from early anaesthetic handbooks, and satirical prints from the likes of James Gilray and George Cruikshank. All printed on a lovely-to-handle 70lb/105gsm paper.’ My review copy was only available as an e-book, which I’m only able to access through a very ancient Kindle, but I assume that a printed version of this book would be a very beautiful thing indeed.
 A notable exception to this would be the extract from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences in which James reports that a bagful of the magic gas confirmed for him a Hegelian worldview where truth is arrived at by accepting both a proposition and its antithesis. This, as you can imagine, made for some seriously interesting reading. Again, however, the primary source is well summarised and judiciously quoted in the introduction, and it’s only James’s engaging and consistently beautiful prose that makes reading the entire thing more rewarding than making do with Mike Jay’s précis.
 This Kindle has a real touch button keypad similar to a Blackberry mobile phone. If you use this keypad to access the menu screen, you can select the intriguing option: ‘Experimental Features.’ Selecting this will take you to a sub-menu where you’ll be presented with three further options: “Web Browser”, “Play MP3”, and “Text-to-Speech.” This should give you an idea of how unsuitable such a device is for a reader hoping to appreciate the detail of James Gilray and George Cruickshank’s satirical prints.
Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide, 1799-1920 / Adam Green (ed.) / The PDR Press / 11 July 2016
About the reviewer
Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently working on his first collection.