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Literary Stalker: Model Villages, Metacrime & Möbius Strips

Roger ponders the infinite tunnel of models within models – a black hole in village life

In this fourteen-minute film, I visit the model village at Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds and use it to talk about the metafictional elements in Literary Stalker and other books and films. This model village is a particularly fine example of the art, completed in 1937 after five years of work. It is most interesting because – as the model stands within the actual village – it has a model of itself, which in turn has a model, and so on, creating an infinite regression. This has been a source of awe to me, ever since I first visited the model at the age of twelve or thirteen in the 1960s.

I refer to the model to illustrate the infinite regression of novels-within-novels in Literary Stalker, comparing it to the movie Synecdoche, New York, which does a similar thing. I also look at the Möbius strip narrative devices in Literary Stalker together with my previous book The Mad Artist, again making comparisons to books and films, such Finnegans Wake, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway – and the rabbit-hole reality bending of The Matrix. The third element of the talk touches on the genre of ‘metacrime’ and Literary Stalker, and I mention other simpatico works by writers including Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Auster, Martin Amis, Flann O’Brien, Cameron McCabe, Joe Hill and Dennis Potter.

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The Gospel According to Andy, Leaf, Roger and Bill

Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks Banner

When I had the mushroom-inspired vision of The Cult of the Novel way back in 1979 – written about at the finale of The Mad Artist – I knew that although it was highly organised it was also fanciful and solipsistic and I could only hope that somehow it would filter into the outside world and connect with like-minded individuals. It didn’t much at the time and history was against me, with hippydom and psychedelia on the wane and Thatcherite values about to engulf most everything. Cut to thirty-plus years later and people are talking about a psychedelic renaissance, with the old and new coming together and the golden era of 1960s-’70s psychedelia being re-evaluated.

I’ve often asked myself why it took so long for me to finally formulate and write The Mad Artist, and perhaps it was because I wasn’t ready before or perhaps the world wasn’t ready. When I did publish it in 2010, I looked around for similar contemporary books and couldn’t find any; though Albion Dreaming by Andy Roberts, a history of LSD use in Britain, was on a most similar wavelength. Then shortly afterwards along came Bill Booker, whose Trippers, a personal memoir of LSD and the ’70s scene, is very like The Mad Artist and also had a long gestation period. And then Leaf Fielding leaped into the frame with his To Live Outside the Law, a much more wide-reaching and influential memoir about the same zeitgeist, with the added spice of the inside story of the Operation Julie bust.

The four of us liaised and chatted extensively about our shared literary involvement, and it was Bill’s idea to form the Facebook page The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks, named after the original fellowship in Trippers. We were joined by Rob Dickins, a Freak of a newer generation, not even born in 1979, but very much tuned to the same vibes, as demonstrated by his site PsypressUK and subsequently his recently published novella Erin. The page provided one of several focuses for interaction, discussion and more speculation about this psychedelic renaissance we are undergoing. Something of a ‘novel cult’ was getting together. Read more…

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Twist Ending: It’s Been Done Before

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Spoiler warning: This piece necessarily discusses some aspects of Sweet Tooth’s twist ending, but without giving away the complete picture.

When I heard a while back that Ian McEwan was writing a novel set in the ’70s, I wondered if he would touch on similar ground to The Mad Artist, the psychedelic and mystical hippy scenes, perhaps drawing on his own experience as a one-time hippy. Born in 1948, the same year as Leaf Fielding, McEwan is just the right age to have hit the Summer of Love running, and indeed he did take acid and do the hippy trail to Afghanistan. In the cover photo of my 1980 edition of First Love, Last Rites he sports long hair, a thick dark beard and with his large round glasses, he has an Allen Ginsberg owlish look. But I was to be proved both wrong and right in my supposition, for whilst Sweet Tooth isn’t about drugs or psychedelia, it does uncannily resemble The Mad Artist in being about writing and our respective early dabblings in the art.

McEwan tells the story of Sweet Tooth by means of a female narrator, the ditsy blonde Serena Frome, who succeeds in being both dumb and intellectual at one and the same time – a splendid creation. After having an affair with an older man who is an MI5 agent, Serena gets recruited into the service, and because of her wide knowledge of contemporary literature, she is given the job of inducting up-and-coming writers into Operation Sweet Tooth, where a dummy literary foundation gives out grants to writers in the expectation that they will take an anti-communist stance and so help the West in the war-on-ideas part of the Cold War. But the caveat is the writers must remain ignorant of where the money is really coming from, so when Serena hooks up with emergent novelist T. H. Haley, persuades him to take the shilling and then commences a love affair with him, she must maintain secrecy and therefore live a lie.

For a ‘spy novel’ Sweet Tooth is low on the kind of action we associate with espionage, at times verging on the catatonic in the area of pace. Instead we get finely detailed observation of the nuances of human interaction, how one personality affects another, and the amorous and literary implications of such chemistry when sex and writing figure so strongly in the brew. Really the spy angle is mainly window dressing and the real subject of Sweet Tooth is how writing comes to be written. In this respect it’s a subtle piece of metafiction, and in the fashion of that genre McEwan enjoys himself playing endless nudge-wink games with the reader. For example Serena expresses dislike for Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis ‘who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or on the contrary to insist that life was fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two’ – a delicious irony considering she herself is the filling in a metafictional club sandwich.

The bulk of McEwan’s nudge-winkery is carried by his ’70s author Tom Haley, who, like McEwan attended Sussex University and started his career penning audacious short stories. As we learn their plots, filtered through Serena’s psyche, many of Haley’s stories have a familiar ring. One is called ‘Pawnography’; another concerns an affair between an isolated man and a showroom dummy; still another involves a ‘kept ape’. These are all features of the pieces in McEwan’s second collection In Between the Sheets, and not only the stories themselves but also the milieu of their creation, the ’70s London literary scene, is accurately recreated. Real figures appear, such as the poet and editor Ian Hamilton who published several of  McEwan’s stories in New Review, and also McEwan’s publisher at Cape, Tom Maschler, and they intermingle easily with the fictional protagonists. The newly emerged Martin Amis is also discussed, though he remains offstage from Serena’s gaze.

Personally I enjoyed these parts of the novel far more than the earlier ones, with their carefully researched burgeoning detail on the history of literary espionage and the obligatory info dumping of early ’70s politics – the three-day week, the miners’ strikes and the IRA. I identified with that artful blending of fact and fiction, and the controlled swerves into semi-autobiography that resonate strongly with memoir writers, even though we’re supposed to be writing ‘non-fiction’. Ultimately at the end of the day all writing is a construction. But as I neared the novel’s climax, that sense of familiarity with the territory became déjà vu and then got stronger and stronger till it turned into an almighty rush.

For if Tom Haley starts out as the young Ian McEwan – rewriting the stories from In Between the Sheets – he then transmogrifies into a figure who uncannily evokes the young me – using ongoing real-life events as the basis for a novel, which will simply track them without fictional embellishment: a ‘reality novel’ so to speak, which I write about in my memoir. Read more…

New In-Depth Review of The Mad Artist from William J Booker

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Last year Bill Booker and I encountered one another on the basis that we’d both written very similar books about our respective psychedelic experiences in the 1970s. As we compared notes, we found that the incidences of crossover between our two tales were numerous and uncannny in their synchronicity. I reviewed Bill’s book Trippers here, and now he’s returned the gesture, producing an incisive analysis that really gets beneath the surface and elucidates many of the typically ’70s storylines. Thankyou Bill, and long live the Semi Secret Fellowship of Freaks—both inside and outside the pages of literature.

If, like me, you like to make reading a book a journey of discovery, you won’t want a detailed map of the terrain so I’ll just give you an idea of the pharmacy to come and a few appetising vignettes and indications.

Rather than painting the sweep of its four and a bit years in broad strokes, Roger Keen paints this never-leave-a-turn-unstoned saga in intricate detail. He describes what is going on in his life alongside his trains of thought as he attempts to understand his LSD, cannabis, opium, cocaine and psilocybin experiences, often comparing them with other psychonauts’ travellers’ tales. If you’re interested in ‘man + psychedelics (entheogens) = ?’ then you should read this.

Right at the beginning Roger tells us his first acid trip was a much anticipated milestone in his life. The Mad Artist opens on ‘a dull Sunday afternoon in December 1975’ when, after a phone call from his best friend, Henry, arranging to meet up for their first acid trip, Roger already begins to feel he ‘was now a stranger in [his] own front room.’

This trip was a mixture of wonder, awe and paranoia – and interestingly, his acid visions often inspired his art college projects: ‘Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity… […] The whole wood around me was no longer composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of …letters. Letters of the alphabet.’ (p26) Later, Roger creates art out of these images. Like an explosion in a type foundry, alphabetti spaghetti recurs in other psychedelic episodes throughout the book.

At times The Mad Artist reads like a novel, at others it is very much a memoir and at yet other times it is a thoroughly absorbing blend of the two. At its best it brings Roger’s experiences vividly to life. Roger constantly attempts to understand his experiences and the psychological, philosophical and emotional concepts arising therefrom. At times he is terrified, either by the sheer power of the psychoactive substances he’s taken or from the resulting visions and concepts that are evoked. He always takes pains to provide a truthful, accurate and detailed account… Read the full review

Tripped in the Woods

This seven-minute film is the first in a projected series of ‘trippy’ films, which in various ways will celebrate aspects of the psychedelic experience. Actually it came about as a happy accident, an afterthought. The footage was shot as part of a more extensive project—an illustration of a reading of the first trip sequence in The Mad Artist—which would also involve some night shooting in other locations. I was unable to complete the night shooting in my available window, and now the trees have come into leaf, so it might all have to wait till next winter, as the trip takes place in December. 

However, in playing about with the shot footage, I experimented with various visual effects and an idea sparked: to make a trippy film in its own right, independent of the text of the book, though guided by the experiences it describes. So ‘Tripped in the Woods’ evolved as a notional, subjective point-of-view trip film, involving no people and no words, only the wood itself, progressively metamorphosing by means of trippy visual effects and complementary sound design. 

Trippy videos abound on YouTube, and in the main they feature randomly generated wormhole and fractal patterning, fast cutting of anything and everything weird, strobe and flash effects, and tend to be light on original content. The better ones are impressive, but this type of video can get boring and when compared to the fabulous, polymorphous sophistication of the actual trippy inscape, they come nowhere near. With ‘Tripped in the Woods’ I eschewed the oversubscribed inner world of tripping and concentrated instead on the outer dimension—how acid transforms the look, feel and sound of one’s environment, which is especially relevant if that setting is already ‘pretty’, as the Plymbridge Woods undoubtedly is. And that area has a special significance in being the real setting for my first acid trip, described at length in the opening chapters of The Mad Artist

Solarized Nude 1976 by Roger KeenAs a big fan of the surrealist photographer Man Ray, master of the solarization, I’ve been dabbling in creating such effects since college days. Back then it all had to be done in the darkroom, with the results hard to predict in advance, and little did we dream that one day computers would take over the task. With Final Cut Pro, I used many different solarization effects, including double and sandwiched solarizations, alongside other image manipulations and stylisations, such as saturation, motion blurring and posterization, to gradually rack up the impression of consolidating trippiness. In Final Cut Pro one can apply posterization to the red, green and blue channels independently, so the range of combination effects is almost endless. Soundtrack Pro also has an extensive library of effects and atmosphere/musical beds, and again used in combination the sometimes melodic, sometimes eerie and sometimes frenetic moods of a trip can be evoked. 

More info about my first acid trip as described in The Mad Artist: ‘The Alphabet Wood’

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…

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!

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