Memphis Underground Reviewed
Memphis Underground, Stewart Home, Snowbooks, 2007
Memphis Underground, Stewart Home’s latest anti-novel, is a sublime composition of re-enactments and repetitions — and, as always, a lot more besides. As well as being part biography, part manifesto, it is a blistering attack on late modernity, commoditisation, and an adroitly executed literary deconstruction. It is also a Roman a Clef for all those curious enough to want to know just what it is may, or may not, concern Stewart Home from day to day; who he hangs out with, where he goes, what he eats, what music he listens to, what he reads. But, as ever, Stewart Home may just be hoodwinking the reader and playing with form to disorientate all who pick this wondrous book up. The reader, of course, should not take this personally, for the reader is not Stewart Home’s intended target. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out. Most importantly of all Memphis Underground, like all of Stewart Home’s work, is a book about writing: Memphis Underground is writing about writing:
“Perhaps I should explain that Memphis Underground isn’t really a novel . . . After Joyce, post Finnegan’s Wake, there really isn’t any point in writing novels – Literature is dead.” (Pg 172 – 173).
But Stewart Home does keep writing novels, and he churns them out with purpose, having a hell of a lot of fun along the way:
“The only Literature that interests me is more anti-writing than writing. Running from Beckett to Trocchi, there’s a direct line to what I’m doing.” (Pg 173).
Such bonhomie can be found in Home’s toying with duality: the first half of the book is split between two first-person narratives; the second half is a first-person narrative — hijacked by a talking blow-up doll and death himself — about the writing of Memphis Underground itself. Amongst this there is some plot to begin with: a man, John Johnson, poses as an artist-in-residence, Tony Cheam, on a remote Scottish island community. He may have a few secrets, a past. He may be trying to uncover something not quite right. He may just not exist at all. This being a Stewart Home anti-narrative this isn’t your average community nestled within the comfort of the Scottish idyll. Here we see Home’s narrator live side by side, in wife-swapping bliss, with Princess Diana, Fred West, Stephen Milligan, and Richie Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers. Cut into this somewhat surreal — some would say nightmarish — world is the first-person narrative of, maybe, the same narrator, ‘freelance librarian’ John Johnson living in a council estate in central East London with his flatmate Captain Swanky (‘the Citizen Kane of Old Street’), where he meanders along the old market of Whitecross Street looking for rare Northern Soul CDs in his lunch hour’s respite from a job he abhors.
If the labyrinth of London Streets serves as a platform for Pychogeographic analysis of late modernity and the perils of dire consumerism then the island of Hoy serves as a postmodern platform where Stewart Home can at first display his intentions through allegory and metaphor before repeating this process with surface movement in the biographical first-person later on. And one hundred pages in Stewart Home, as literary terrorist, pulls no punches: in an audacious bid to construct his ‘dialectic of vandalism’ (pg 100) through art practice and re-enactment, the narrator tenders his intention:
“I wanted to blow up the Old Man of Hoy – a one hundred and thirty seven metre stack of fissured and layered sandstone.” (Pg 100).
Just like his narrator would like to destroy The Old Man of Hoy Stewart Home wants to destroy the old man of Literature: the British/bourgeois novel that has been shaped and weathered over the years. It is clear, for Stewart Home, the British novel is a bourgeois construct to be terrorised. The narrator continues:
“I felt by attacking this icon, I could really move forward with my dialectic of vandalism, since it should go without saying that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” (Pg 100).
We are also witnessing a parody of the contemporary art scene through the narrator’s ludicrous re-enactments: one being a re-enactment of the mass suicide at Jonestown, acted out before the island’s inhabitants:
“The seventies revival was an ongoing phenomenon, and the idea went down well with the young.” (Pg 75).
While simultaneously attacking bourgeois notions of just what an artist should be doing:
“. . . I’m going to make you paint pictures, because that’s what artists are supposed to do. (Pg 111).
Stewart Home’s prose is tight and detailed, it’s not the flowery descriptive ramblings of the British novel, but more in keeping with the studied detail of the nouveau roman writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet — and like Robbe-Grillet Stewart Home strives to avoid the bourgeois literary trappings of commodity culture. Something he wants the reader to understand:
“The mysterious objects of desire in his [Alain Robbe-Grillet’s] books were rarely blemished by their entanglements with commodity culture.” (Pg 117).
Stewart Home’s ‘object of desire’ is repetition. A repetition of minute particulars: routes across the city, street names, place names, meals, dialogue, sexual encounters, scenery, noise, traffic, drunken voices in the night, teenage pranks in the street, literary readings, essays, interviews (Stewart Home is the subject of a mock interview in one of the book’s interludes). Every minute detail is repeated over and over again.
When the narrator proclaims:
“I wanted to embody the heaviness and immobility that Kierkegaard claimed was so characteristic of the English.” (Pg 124).
It is exactly this ‘heaviness and immobility’ in the British/bourgeois novel that Stewart Home so adroitly avoids in his prose. It is in this action that Stewart Home’s humour resides. There is an awful amount of pleasure to be had when we read Stewart Home in this way.
Yet for all of Stewart Home’s tomfoolery in the first half of Memphis Underground it is the second half of the book — narrated by Stewart Home himself, we are led to believe, as he is writing the book we are reading — where things start to become increasingly more serious, autobiographical and interesting — and darker — for those wanting to understand his literary, artistic and philosophical practice:
“My contribution to avant-garde fiction is to announce its exhaustion, which is merely another way of proclaiming it must live out its own death, since there is exhaustion and exhaustion – as well as lethargy, languor and lassitude.” (Pg 210).
Stewart Home hates lethargy and just as the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Alexander Trocchi knew before him he knows all too well that all great autobiography and biography is fiction. Pretty soon were are not sure if it is Stewart Home narrating, John Johnson, or the artist John Johnson is impersonating: Tony Cheam – although it doesn’t really matter because death himself has hijacked the narrative, using a Northern Soul play-list to die for, and is controlling each scenario: including the introduction of a talking blow-up doll that the narrator begins to use to help re-enact the relationship Tony Cheam once had with his girlfriend Claire Grogan. Death also forces the narrative to parody the writing of Bret Easton Ellis — especially Lunar Park — as narrative again begins to break down causing Stewart Home to question the narrator’s identity. Maybe it is John Johnson, or Tony Cheam, Death:
“ . . . or even some self-styled avant-garde pornographer who’d joined the ranks of the reforgotten.” (Pg 278).
It is here we begin to read Memphis Underground as Stewart Home’s own literary, and artistic, manifesto. So jam-packed is it with personal information it is hard to keep up and a mere review will never do this portmanteau of an anti-novel justice. It is always best to listen to Stewart Home:
“Since I am always and already writing about writing . . . This is what I do, what we do, it’s as simple and mysterious as breathing. It’s pure surface. Both reader and writer ARE ‘implicated’.” (Pg 307).
And with this Stewart Home ends the novel with the space that preceded it. There is no end, because there is no beginning.
Throughout Memphis Underground we are witnessing a psychogeographic sprawl in the tradition of Arthur Machen, and a metafictional zeal containing echoes that reach as far back as Lawrence Sterne and as recently as Alexander Trocchi. A dual landscape; not only of inner-city London and the Scottish island of Hoy, of linear and non-linear narrative, Literature and Art, but life and death itself. Like Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams this very well could be Home’s magnum opus, the book that reveals all. If writing for Arthur Machen was a form of “alchemy — an ancient and magical art that inspires visions and fantasies that lie somewhere between imagination and reality”1 then for Stewart Home it is a process of reinvention and repetition, a system of writing that also, through literary deconstruction and autobiography, lies between the imagination and reality.
When Stewart Home writes his anti-novels he is writing against Literature. Yet his novels ARE Literature. We are beginning to see a writer at the pith of his literary, philosophical, and artistic practice — and it is some feat. There is a telling omniscience to Memphis Underground as powerful as anything Lawrence Sterne ever produced. All unwritten, or proposed, literary rules are there to be broken, toyed with, poked at and ridiculed. There to be dismissed — for Stewart Home, like Lawrence Sterne, there is no, or never has been, any literary parameter: everything is permitted and can be repeated ad infinitum.
This is the core reconfiguring in Stewart home’s work; every page counts because there is so much to say. And like all repetition it just gets funnier. Stewart Home’s writing is as humorous as it is scathing — and it is, above all, all-encompassing. Through mocking the contemporary British/bourgeois novel Stewart Home is rewriting it, re-inventing it, piece by piece. Stewart Home is probably the truest literary voice we have. And it is a sheer honour to be invited along for the ride.
1 ‘Gates of Elysiun’, Jeff Gardiner, November 2003.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lee Rourke is a Mancunian. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Scarecrow and a Co-editor [fiction] at 3:AM Magazine. His collection of short stories Everyday will be published by Social Disease in 2007.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 11th, 2007.