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Mad Art and Reality Hunger

March 25, 2011 1 comment

The Mad Artist, Reality Hunger, A Million Little PiecesIt’s always heartening to discover another writer who, perhaps by taking a very different path, has nonetheless arrived at a very similar creative place to oneself. This happened when I saw David Shields being interviewed on a BBC arts programme about his book Reality Hunger and the broader implications of the concept. He talked about the impoverishment of traditional fictional techniques and how today’s writers are incorporating more and more ‘reality’—that is, what really happened as opposed to what they made up—into their work. There is, he reckoned, a larger ‘reality hunger’ out there, manifesting in other media, such as reality television and the less adorned, more immediate communication afforded by the internet. Listening to Shields, I thought: that could be me talking, and I was amused by the discussion session following the film insert, where several panel members disagreed with him. 

So I approached the book Reality Hunger with considerable excitement, while at the same time anticipating some mild disappointment due to my high expectations. But I wasn’t at all disappointed: the book proved to be everything I had hoped it would. It’s subtitled ‘a manifesto’, and it takes the form of numbered sections of varying lengths, which each have an aphoristic or epigrammatic quality. Many of the shorter ones are actual quotes from a wide range of writers and other artists, which Shields, acting like a DJ or MC, ‘samples’ and incorporates into the overall ‘mashup’. It is very effective and underscores the book’s textual points in a textural way, much like a plastic work of art. And as for the accusation of plagiarism, he answers that in the form of a quote from Picasso: art is theft. Who can argue? 

As a drug memoirist, I had a special interest because I knew from the interview that this is an area Shields touches upon, and to my mind drug writing is an important component in the spectrum of this push toward ‘reality’. Indeed he mentions the Vedas—citing them as the earliest examples of written storytelling—and also De Quincey, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson before getting stuck into James Frey and his infamous tome A Million Little Pieces. Here is one of the finest examples of an ideological clash between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ in a contemporary book. Telling the story of a hopeless, burnt-out, twenty-three-year-old drug addict, who mends himself in a rehab centre, Frey firstly wrote the book as a novel, and when he had no success at marketing it, he rebranded it as memoir, after which it was outstandingly successful, selling in the millions. 

Around three years after its first publication, details emerged of falsifications within the book, primarily that Frey had greatly exaggerated his criminal past, creating jail time that didn’t actually exist. This put his publisher in an embarrassing position, regarding the definition of ‘non-fiction’ and opened up a debate on the latitude of factual reportage within memoirs. It reached a climax when Frey and his publisher appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and the result was a public crucifixion for the heresy of daring to place lies into a so-called work of fact. Afterwards Frey was dropped by his agent, and his publishers made him insert an apology into future editions. Past readers were even offered a refund, such was the furore the incident created. 

As reported in Reality Hunger: ‘Oprah has created around herself a “cult of confession” that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleaning sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah herself on behalf of all humanity… I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.’ 

Oh, that rings so many bells. Having written about my twenty- to twenty-four-year-old self in The Mad Artist, I discovered that however much you try to stick to the truth or the facts, you cannot help but turn yourself and others into ‘characters’, and characters start to assume a destiny of their own on the page. For me the writing of a ‘novelistic memoir’ was both an act of serving up reality and one of full literary performance at the same time. Read more…

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The Man Who Wasn’t There

Further Mad Artist Sample Chapters

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

—The first stanza of ‘Antigonish’ by Hughes Mearns, which I came across in childhood and retained at the back of my mind. Walking home from a party one night in September 1976, after smoking a lot of dope including some extra zappy THC oil, I had cause to remember this rhyme, as I had a hallucinatory episode along the very lines it describes. 

Voices in the head, or voices beyond the head, encountering malevolent doppelgängers and experiencing the attendant existential slippage, are familiar symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, up to and including schizophrenia, the big one. Experiencing such things on psychedelic drugs, however, opens up a grey area—for how much of it can be put down to one’s inherent propensity to be barmy and how much is simply down to drug effect? There’s no way of accurately answering such a question, since the two things are too intimately synergistic to separate. However, if the disturbing effects dissipate and don’t regularly recur once you come down from the high, then that has to be a good sign. 

The term ‘cannabis psychosis’ has now become part of our drug zeitgeist, and what it actually means is open to debate. Certainly the phenomenon of younger people, under sixteen, consuming large amounts of the more potent skunk varieties of cannabis has led to a greater amount of visible manifestations of psychosis or psychosis-like symptoms than in previous generations of cannabis users. But psychosis-like, or psychotomimetic, episodes are of course nothing new, and remain a potential hazard to the tripper, much as losing your grip on the rock face is a potential hazard to the climber, or skidding off the road is a potential hazard to the motor racer. 

This is one of the issues that I explore in The Mad Artist, in particular in the long middle section entitled ‘Geometric Progression’, which begins and ends with encounters with the numinous being called ‘The Man’ (who wasn’t there). Naturally the account I give is as much ‘creative writing’ as faithful reportage of an actual event. And one could say that the incident itself was as much creative fantasy as any kind of ‘psychosis’. The Man’s nearest reference is Cesar Romero’s The Joker, from the original Batman TV series, which was one of my favourite shows of the mid-’60s; and he also has a flavour of Hugo, the sinister dummy from the ’40s psychological chiller Dead of Night, who takes control of his ventriloquist master Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave). 

Read ‘The Man’ chapter and the three following chapters, detailing more heavy dope sessions in Bournemouth and London, in an extract on Authonomy. Please do back, rate and leave a comment if you’re on the site!

Review: Addict by Stephen Smith

March 6, 2011 7 comments

Originally published independently in 1997, Stephen Smith’s Addict has gone through fourteen printings, and according to publisher Westworld International’s website it has sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. Seemingly it is the only book published by that outfit and the only book Stephen Smith has written. It does appear regularly in the Amazon.co.uk bestsellers list in the category ‘Alcohol & Drug Abuse’, which is what first brought it to my attention.

With its single-word title in large shaky capitals on a lurid cover, including a pair of crazed eyes staring out at the reader, Addict does, at first glance, rather fulfil the expectations of the stereotypical tale of drug misadventure. Written in a basic, non-literary style, replete with copy editing errors and typographical oddities, it also has a very ‘homemade’ quality. Yet as a book it works. As E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel, a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’ 

And many of the things that happen in Addict are just too weird and too farfetched not to be true: it’s full of stuff you just couldn’t make up. But again, conversely, it isn’t entirely believable either, having, in certain sections, something of the air of the drunkard’s tall tale told in the pub, piling on the exaggerations till breaking point is reached. When you consider that here you have a narrator who was so completely out of his tree for most of the story that he didn’t know what was happening even as it was happening, who was constantly in and out of mental hospitals, at one point undergoing electroshock therapy that wiped out his entire memory for several years, the term ‘unreliable’ takes on a whole new level of connotations! 

But whatever criticisms one may make of the broad strokes of Addict’s storytelling and the embellishments that feel like fabrication, ultimately the portrait of addiction that it paints is authentic. And it perfectly conveys one essential quality of the addict/alcoholic: that of being a compulsive fantasist, unable to resist the appeal of fantasy over reality. 

Simultaneously initiated at the age of fourteen into gay oral sex and dexedrine, Stephen proceeds to spend decades taking lethal quantities of the little yellow pills, together with drink and other drugs, whilst pursuing a life of petty crime and rent boy activities, as well as having several tumultuous relationships with women. He makes huge amounts of money and either squanders it or hides it and forgets where. He gets involved in London’s ’60s gangster underworld, which is fun at first but eventually lands him in serious trouble. Forever darting from one project to another, he leads a madcap fly-by-night existence, continually stuck in amphetamine overdrive. 

There are many manic and psychotic episodes as loss of control, paranoia and mounting dysfunctionality take their toll. Familiar events from history, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landings and various Beatles’ hits whiz by, signposting the passage of time, and we begin to wonder how Stephen can possibly still be alive and have a functioning heart, brain and liver in the face of such prolonged excess. There is much repetitiveness in the swinging from high to low, and as a true addict Stephen just cannot stay clean and get off the rollercoaster. Inevitably skid row beckons, and he descends further through the various strata of the underclasses, into his own Hieronymus Bosch-like hell. 

Such an account of unbridled craziness, misery and hopelessness does make for a breathless compulsive read, and despite its lack of literary charm Addict is never boring. It has much to tell us, not only about the surface of drug addiction but also about the mechanics of the addictive personality, where anything and everything is grist for the mill—be it money, relationships, risk taking or plain lunacy for its own sake. In its own very idiosyncratic way Addict is a serious work.

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