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Customer Review

11 May 2010
I should mention upfront that Roger Keen is a friend - at least in the Facebook sense if not of the "inner circle" type that he refers to in his book - and I have met him a couple of times. This is not as an excuse for giving his book a favourable review, which it richly deserves on its own merits (I purchased it myself and did not receive it as a gift or with the expectation of a review), but to point out that Roger, as anyone who knows him or has perhaps even read one of his film reviews on the internet will testify, is every inch the perfect gentleman. Quiet, polite, soft-spoken, gracious and congenial with an intelligent and positive outlook, reluctant to criticise when there are favourable points that can be made - Roger is nothing, in other words, like the paranoid, LSD-tripping, dope-smoking, alcohol-fuelled aggressive, surrealist, hippy dopehead artist of the 1970s that he writes about in The Mad Artist, a fictionalised memoir of a past that I suspect few people outside of his inner circle would ever imagine as being a formative part of his background.

On the other hand, the clear lucidity of the writing, taking an open objective stance even when describing the most subjective of experiences, is certainly a characteristic of Roger's personality and writing. Even when elaborating descriptions of his first LSD trip as a young twenty year-old student, the experience opening the doors to a new way of viewing the world, putting surrealist art, music and literature into context, while at the same time revealing horrors and insecurities arising from within, Roger's prose is clear and expressive, inviting and yet warning, alert to the wonder of the stoned-out-of-your-mind experience and its potential for opening up the mind, yet at the same time cautious about the negative impact it can also have.

If dualism proves to be the enemy of the perfect exploration of the trip, as the young Roger discovers with his partner-in-acid Henry, it's the quest through writing that makes the novel work so well in the underlying quest to explore and understand the experience of life. This does not, as might perhaps be expected, temper the purity of the experience with a retrospective moralising outlook from a more mature perspective, but rather Roger manages to successfully re-enter the mindset and attitudes of another person in another time and another place - even if that other person is himself. This is clearly the author's intention - it's stated there in the Foreword of the book - and, in as far as that's possible (journals and some creative reimagining were clearly involved), he succeeds marvellously. There's every indication that this is the experience of the Roger Keen of the 1970s, not a revisionist view of it from the very different Roger Keen I know now, detached from that time, but undoubtedly, it would seem, still deeply influenced by this period, still continually seeking new ways to view and understand the world through art, literature, philosophy, music and cinema, and ultimately, writing.

Vigorously and actively trying to get to grips with what we understand by reality and the world around us, as well as documenting a particular period of 70s England, there's every reason then to expect that The Mad Artist has more to offer a wider readership and there is much more to it than just being a memoir by someone you might not have heard of. The descriptions of dropping out and experimenting with mind-altering substances certainly evoke the acknowledged Kerouac and Castaneda, but fans of latter-day Philip K. Dick (A Scanner Darkly) will recognise many of the situations recounted here, and The Mad Artist has similar qualities with regards to perception and reality that you'll also find in Robert Irwin's work, particularly in this period and in relation to the surrealists in Satan Wants Me and Exquisite Corpse. Roger's aims are incredibly even more ambitious than those influences, attempting no less to write the Novel, achieve enlightenment and basically understand the meaning of life. Incredibly, in the Mad Artist he succeeds.

Opening up and jumping straight into a remarkable description of that first LSD trip, there's a sense of the novel having peaked too soon (to use some of the drug terminology used in the book), but it is indeed only the beginning, the narrator moving away from Plymouth to study photography and multimedia in Bournemouth, hitchhiking in Europe, becoming a part of a whole other subculture exploring an alternative lifestyle. The world has been changed, or at least a way of looking at it has been changed and Roger presents wonderful reminiscences of a period of experimentation that marks a significant break from his parent's generation and sets a background that provides valuable insights into the motivations of a whole youth culture today that is much more open to the use of recreational drugs without perhaps being fully aware of what they are getting into. If the excessive use of mind-altering substances towards achieving any meaningful new insights proves counterproductive and even futile, it's the restless underlying quest itself to explore and cut through conventional ways of looking at the world that ultimately yields impressive and potentially life-changing results.
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4.8 out of 5 stars
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