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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…

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’

‘A Session at Ebury Lodge’: Mad Artist Sample Chapter

Still by prenza420 on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

In 1977 I moved into Ebury Lodge student hall of residence in Bournemouth and lived there for more than two years, till I left the art college. That period encompasses the majority of the ‘psychonautic adventures’ described in The Mad Artist; and Ebury itself, as a community of wayward, madcap art student dopers, came to exist for me as almost a separate reality, hermetically sealed from regular life, complete with its own dream logic.

This sample chapter depicts the events of an afternoon and evening at Ebury—a marathon start-of-term dope session that set the tone for the remainder of the autumn! It introduces many of the colourful characters who appear throughout The Mad Artist, and also gives a good flavour of the approach and style of the book, concentrating on detail, atmosphere and in-depth subjective psychodrama regarding drug effect.

At the prescribed hour, I knocked on Sam’s door, and it was opened very cautiously by Big Jim, who gave a big chuckle when he saw it was me. Inside the whole gang were assembled, bright and eager like animals about to be fed. Sam was sat on the sofa, unwrapping the gear on a black lacquered coffee table. Next to him was Eric, a smoking mate from outside the house, who was busy assembling a set of collapsible brass scales that came in an indigo velvet-lined box. Race, Fiona and Sonya were languishing on a pile of cushions and beanbags over by the bay window, looking very decadent and bohemian. Gordon was sat cross-legged on the floor on the other side of the coffee table, a meditative expression on his face. Jim returned to his armchair on the right-hand side of the room, and I picked up a spare big cushion and sat next to him.

Jim and I chatted about our new rooms, with him especially pleased by the coup he’d pulled off in securing the big one next door. Meanwhile Sam was halving the slim oblong ounce of Leb with a serrated knife. He put a half in each pan of the scales, found one slightly heavier, so he broke off a corner, transferred it and found they matched. Then he split one of the halves into two quarters, which matched exactly at the first attempt. Sam was obviously a real expert at this trade. The two quarters became four eighths, two of which were passed to Race and Gordon respectively, and the other two further divided into sixteenths for Fiona, Sonya and Jim. The other half ounce was split into a quarter for Eric, an eighth for me, and the rest went into Sam’s tin.

Read the full chapter as a PDF on Slideshare.

To read another extract of The Mad Artist see previous post.

Read ‘The Alphabet Wood’: Roger and Henry’s First Acid Trip

August 16, 2010 2 comments

 

devotes its five opening chapters, 16,400 words, to that life-changing event that triggered the ‘psychonautic adventures’—the quest for metaphysical answers and spiritual truth which makes up the book. Underwent on a winter’s night, in the rural setting of the Plym Woods and neighbouring villages, the trip was poorly planned, chaotic, crazy—an object lesson in how to get it completely wrong regarding set and setting. But precisely because of the ensuing chaos, the adrenalin rush powered the trip into extreme realms, giving rise to the geometric progression effect that became a motif for the future…

Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity, and the visual effects burst through a quantum barrier into something totally unprecedented. The whole wood around me was reborn in another form: it was no longer a wood composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of…letters. Letters of the alphabet. They were wrought in diamond-encrusted platinum and silver, and interconnected with their own vascular system of luminous, throbbing primary coloured energy. All the various geometric permutations of leaf cluster, twig and branch were resolved into letters in a crystalline fractal method — letters within letters down to the limits of vision, perfectly mirroring the scale and detail of what was being transformed according to the terms of some higher surreal logic. I watched as the wood pulsed, light and dark, light and dark — later, I would realise, in sync with my own heartbeat — each time breaking out into new symbolic foliage of impossible intricacy. It was utterly transcendentally fabulous, but I was too scared to derive any enjoyment.

Now the full five chapters can be read as a Book Preview on Lulu. Click on ‘Preview’ below the book cover image.

The same section can also be read as a free sample Kindle download from the Amazon Kindle Stores.

The Mad Artist on Kindle for $2.99! (£2.21 on Amazon.co.uk Kindle)

The Mad Artist is now available from the Amazon Kindle store, for $2.99, or £2.21 including VAT from Amazon.co.uk Kindle. The first five chapters—covering the epic first acid trip—can be sampled for free, and the Kindle app is now available free for many devices, including PC, iPhone, iPad and BlackBerry. 

E-book sales are soaring and the ease with which they can be obtained is increasing; like it or not, the paper-free revolution is gaining momentum. Just by downloading the PC app and going to the Kindle store, you can now read many literary classics absolutely free. Some contemporary titles are also offered free, as part of promotional campaigns, and others are priced very competitively.

The facility to price competitively is a great boon to authors of print-on-demand books, such as The Mad Artist. One of the great drawbacks of POD is the high cost of production, leading to the handicap of a higher retail price than regular books. For a relatively long book such as The Mad Artist (170,000 words), the handicap is greater still, as more paper adds up to more cost. But in the e-book world this disadvantage vanishes at a stroke, and the e-version is actually considerably cheaper than most. For struggling independent authors, this has to be the way to go! 

The Mad Artist on Kindle

Amazon.co.uk Kindle

Still: Roger Keen playing the drums ‘…imitating the style and technique of Mogadon Sammy.’ (as described in Chapter 12 of The Mad Artist)

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