- 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess by Stewart Home
Canongate, 182 pp, £9.99, March 2002, ISBN 1 84195 182 X
I hadn’t read a Stewart Home book for years when I started the new one, 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. Let me be more precise. I hadn’t read a Home book properly since 1996, when I spent six months in a room in Brixton, so damp it had plants from outside growing up the insides of the walls, trying to write about him but unable to build a journalistic structure into which Home’s work might fit. I have never counted the thousands of words I drafted. I just laboured, and laboured, then gave it up. I have the print-out somewhere in one of several archive boxes, packed away with the books, leaflets, articles, pamphlets, flyers, punk CDs and ‘Will Self Is Stupid’ badges Home gave me to help with my researches. So many different authors, formats, purports; except that all of it was really done by him.
Stewart Home was born in South London in 1962, and, until recently, has lived and worked in Bethnal Green. Since 1988, he has published 19 books: nine fiction, six non-fiction and four anthologies – that’s an average of 1.5 books a year. Most of the following will be present in each of these volumes, in differing proportions: political theory, borrowed from an out of copyright source and spliced into the middle of something completely different; pornography, of varying degrees of unpleasantness, also appropriated and pasted in; references to underground post-surrealist art movements; quotations from undistinguished punk-rock artistes; citations from texts that appear to be real, but aren’t; occult conspiracies; pseudonymity; unprovoked attacks on writers Home happens to have taken a dislike to, such as Will Self. There are also dozens of shorter texts published under aliases – Karen Eliot, Luther Blissett, the Neoist Alliance, and so on. He has also been known to do art things, although he hasn’t shown since 1996: the Necrocard, a joke organ-donor card for supporters of ‘sexual liberation’, is reproduced on page 23 of Matthew Collings’s Art Crazy Nation (2001). The volume of work is enormous, and always growing; the volume a central aspect of the challenge the work presents. It’s difficult to describe Home’s oeuvre with any real precision. It’s much easier to be hyperbolic, or dismissive, or to give up trying to make judgments and just stick to writing lists.
I am biased I know, but I really don’t think anyone who is at all interested in the study of literature has any business not knowing the work of Stewart Home. No one and nothing, least of all the work itself, is saying you have to like it: if Home wanted his work to be likeable, he could just set about copying Nick Hornby, same as everybody else. But Home is using writing for a different purpose. Writing is power, ideology, an instrument of domination; it’s a huge, filthy, stinking machine. Yes, it’s possible – and can be rewarding in all sorts of ways – to use this machine for writing amiable, authentic, sincere-seeming prose. But that is only a tiny part of what writing is about, whether or not one chooses to acknowledge the power relation head on.
In his work, Home avoids all the nice bits of writing to focus in tightly on what is difficult, ugly, ambivalent about the process. So pulp gets in, and pornography, and violence; philosophy is allowed, so long as it is not being consoling; and political theory is fundamentally what the whole thing is about – Home sometimes calls his method ‘proletarian Postmodernism’, and he doesn’t mean that entirely as a joke. Much of Home’s work is extremely funny, if you are comfortable enough with the tradition it comes out of to be able to see the humour. But it isn’t warm, it isn’t compassionate, it doesn’t make you feel good as you read it. The irony is almost total. It’s satire, unsweetened and unadorned.
It has to be said that the quality of the work can be patchy. Home writes fast, to rigorous self-imposed quotas, and rather than worrying away at what is finished, is always getting on with the next thing. He seems to see his writings less as individual pieces and more as aspects of one massive dialectical life’s work: so unevenness and ambivalence are inscribed, as they say, in the very nature of the project. And at its worst, especially in the non-fiction, Home’s writing can be slapdash, full of dreary Hegelian philosophising and an unaccountable fascination with the minutiae of his pet micropolitical obsessions: punk and post-punk, Situationism and post-Situationism, ecological anarchism (which he despises), conspiracy theories and the mystical occult (which he also despises, though that doesn’t stop him going on and on about them, at enormous length). But at its best, especially in the fiction, there is a fantastic sense of energy, intellectual fearlessness, contingency, reckless dash. In 69 Things Home has a phrase he uses to describe writing that gives you that wonderful gleeful feeling, ‘the genuine pulp-writer’s trance’ as opposed to the painstaking anxieties of literary fiction. As he says in the present book about the work of Alexander Trocchi, the Scottish Beat writer of the 1950s and a figure he admires, ‘it rocks.’
Home’s novels look like fast-moving pulp, which in some ways is what they are, except that they are pulp with a mission. ‘Art’ per se being an empty bourgeois construct, phrases, sentences, paragraphs are sampled from other texts, either as they are or détourné – i.e. subversively altered in some way. In his early London stories, Home borrowed a lot from skinhead books, which he blended with pornography and political theory. At their worst, they could be unpleasantly filthy and violent, which is one reason I stopped reading them – we have to defend, I suppose, an author’s right to publish books called Cunt and Blow Job, but that doesn’t mean I want them on my shelf.
So, anyway, 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. There’s an epigraph from Coleridge, an epigraph from Marx, a sketch-map of ancient stone circles in Aberdeenshire. And then it starts. A man no longer called Callum has come to Aberdeen to end his life. He has inherited from a dead magus a flat full of books, and he has set himself the task of reading them all first. The narrator, a girl student at the university, has met ‘Alan’ – as she calls him – in a pub on Union Street, and the two of them discuss the books he has been reading as they go. Writers under discussion include Michael Bracewell, Dick Hebdige, Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Johnson, W.G. Sebald. The eateries and supermarkets of Aberdeen are visited, and rendered, as far as I can see, entirely accurately. (I come from Aberdeen, which is how I’d know.) Ditto the hills walked and the stone circles visited. Ditto the dream-tour, in the second chapter, of the malt-whisky distilleries of Islay. And ditto the literary works being sampled, which in this novel pay homage to the half-submerged tradition of post-1950 British experimental fiction.
As in all Home novels, there’s a lot of sex of a routinely pornographic nature, depicted in that familiar, rhythmically thrusting, on-off syntactic form: ‘He touched the back of my knees. Put my toes in his mouth and sucked them. He crawled all over me. Moved my limbs around and licked under my armpits,’ and so on. A good third of the novel is swathed in pornography, abstract and repetitive, like linocut pink bodies on a 1960s tablecloth. It’s tedious and ugly, though less so in this book than in some of the others. It’s meant to be tedious and ugly. It’s an insurance policy taken out against the possibility that a reader might somehow get past all the other blocks and barbs put in to repel her and find the text beautiful, or identify with the narrator, or otherwise recuperate the work in the conventional way. Some of the critiques follow the rhythms of porno, which makes them even funnier than they were already: ‘Alan ridiculed the treatment of the Futurist movement in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Jibed that Fromm falls behind his own premises. If one is going to use historical methods, then the influence of Bergson’s vitalism must be traced through Sorel to the Futurists.’ And so the plot goes on.
Callum/Alan is obsessed with a book called 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, by a cult writer called K.L. Callan. (A cult writer called K.L. Callan often turns up in Home’s novels, in one way or another. It is his version of the old Necromicon fetish-text thing.) Callan’s book tells of how the secret services faked Diana’s Paris car crash to cover up her murder, by persons unknown, at Balmoral. The body was then given to Callan to dispose of, which he did by lugging it round the prehistoric stone circles of Grampian region as it decomposed. As well as reading books and generating pornography, Callum/Alan has set himself the task of testing the credibility of Callan’s opus by visiting each listed monument in succession, carrying over his shoulder a life-size ventriloquist’s dummy called Dudley, weighted with bricks. As the tale progresses, Dudley joins in the sex and takes over the narration, which gradually disintegrates in an elegant medley of old-style Modernism: ‘A man no longer called Alan came to Aberdeen. He told me his name was Callum. Somewhere along the line he slipped out of my life. The life slipped out of Callum. If I could reach out and touch him. Reach out. Touch him. Slipped. Slipped out’ and so on.
Unlike most of Home’s earlier novels, 69 Things has no skinheads in it, no urban guerrillas, no anarchist street-fights. What it does have, though, as better-read readers will have noticed, is Berg, Ann Quin’s strange, half-forgotten Brighton novel of 1964, as one of its main sources, providing the Callum/Alan thing, the ventriloquist’s dummy, and the troilist structure. (‘Disliking Stein, I detour instead towards Ann Quin,’ raps a cheeky footnote. ‘Feeling Beckett is too obvious a point of reference, I detour instead towards Ann Quin. Despite ongoing rumours of a B.S. Johnson revival, I feel our attention could be more usefully directed towards Ann Quin.’) Quin’s bleak sea-swept Modernism blends beautifully with Home’s inherently excellent sense of prose and narrative rhythm. The overall mood is droll and melancholy and intellectually nimble. If only Home had cut the sex and not given the book such a horrid title, it could have been published by Cape with a rainy-looking picture on the jacket. He could have called it ‘Stone Circles’ or ‘Grey Granite’. Or maybe ‘Aberdeen Rocks’.
Most people who have heard of Home think he is an anarchist, but he isn’t. He abominates anarchism; he thinks it’s chaotic, sloppy-minded, infantile, inadvertently authoritarian; his writings on the topic are archived on a useful website at www.stewarthomesociety.org. In all his work, Home is fascinated by the way that official, admired, respectable forms of knowledge are structurally identical to their occult, reviled shades, and in his best work shakes hard at the barriers between them. In philosophical terms, he’s a radical epistemological sceptic. Politically, he’s a life-long ultra-leftist, who will gladly, if asked, explain his position, in great detail, with reference to the left-Communist split from the Third International. In practice, this means he is a non-aligned socialist who wishes to distance himself from social democracy, and liberalism, and Trotskyism, and all forms of actually existing socialism as was. Of course, it is also a position chosen for its obscurantist snob value, the politics of a connoisseur. At the same time as it is genuine, it is also a deeply ironic, satirical pose.
The same is true, in a smaller way, about the way Home positions himself as a cult writer, not that he would, I’d imagine, use such a callow phrase. In the current novel, there’s a sharp, unkind analysis of the contemporary English novelist Christopher Burns (‘shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 1989’):
We discussed the way in which the labour of unsuccessful writers, artists and musicians valorises the bestselling efforts of those who succeed. Burns had negotiated his way through to publication and respectful literary reviews. But having opted for the literary genre, there was no way his books could really rock. He wasn’t going to pick up a hard-core following or sell over the long term like Guy Debord or William Burroughs. He had no devoted readership and little chance of remaining in print for long, let alone being republished in thirty or forty years’ time. In short, a typical midlist author.
Is this sour grapes talking? Who knows? It is certainly true that Home does not get much mainstream acclaim for his services to literature. But he does have quite a backlist and reputation, and an international network of committed fans. Strange youths in Minnesota and Finland devotedly archive his work and spread his message in the way he did for the writers important to him in his first book, The Assault on Culture (1988), and has gone on doing in every publication since. As someone said, the avant-garde never changes. There are ways that fatal weakness is also a secret strength.
I first met Home in 1989, when I had a job editing Pure Mania, his first novel, for Edinburgh’s Polygon Press. I moved to London shortly afterwards, and my memories of those first months of racketing around the East End will always be bound up with Home’s writing, the lonely beauty around the Teviot in Poplar, the blasted building site that the whole of Docklands then was. London, Home has often said, is the only real character in his fiction. It would not fit with his persona to admit it, but he must know secretly that he is one of the city’s great swains.
In those early months, I assumed that Home would shortly be bought up by Picador or someone and promoted like the late Kathy Acker was in the 1980s, as an urchin-cropped token avant-gardist, with life-size cardboard cut-outs and appearances on the Late Show as then was. I am still surprised it didn’t happen, and I would imagine that Home, who always makes a point of stressing how much he enjoys media attention, expensive restaurants and so on, was surprised as well. (The press release accompanying 69 Things assiduously lists the currently celebrated names with which his work has been associated: Wolfgang Tillmans; Tracey Emin; Janet Street-Porter; Tate Modern; the V&A; the KLF.)
Instead of that, Home has moved house, and now spends a lot of time in north-east Scotland. He tells me he already has three new books finished and ready for publication. One, a novel, may be called ‘Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton’ (Home is not a fan of George Orwell), and samples passages from classic London literature, reworked to make each paragraph exactly 100 words long. Another is called ‘Memphis Underground’, and is set in London, Orkney and North Africa. And the third is a short volume called ‘Neither Masks nor Mirrors: Stewart Home, Double-Consciousness and Fictions of the Self’. It is a literary-critical introduction in which the author writes as a well-meaning liberal critic, not a million miles, perhaps, from the writer of the piece you are reading now.
Except that being a well-meaning liberal critic, the author of ‘Neither Masks nor Mirrors’, I am told, gets everything about Home’s work completely wrong.