AGAINST SILENCE: A REVIEW OF STEWART HOME'S 69 THINGS TO DO WITH A DEAD PRINCESS
"It's a cover story. A double bluff. 'Make mine a double.' There's always the cover story, followed by others, layers of them, until the idea of originality and the cult of the author, the named genius directing the traffic of ideas, gets dismantled as an outmoded white liberal bourgeois conceit. K.L. Callum, the author of 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess is the alternative author of an alternative novel called 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess. Stewart Home, the well-known black avant-bardist piss taker, nicked the title in order to turn out a money-spinning best-seller using a combination of lurid sex scenes and plagiarised knowledge of Aberdeenshire's stone circles. Raking in a hundred thousand quid on the basis of this literary scam, Home no doubt sits in his large Aberdeenshire mansion house, purchased on the back of the notoriously huge advance paid by his publisher, justifying the unfairness of Callum's obscurity and his own success, with the thought that 'Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you King.' Something like that anyway. And there are already rumours of Callum unsuccessfully attempting to sue Home.."
By Richard Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
'One dull afternoon in Aberdeen, Anna Noon meets an older man in a pub. A man a little different from the ordinary. They instantly strike up a highly sexual relationship. They tour the Grampian region to admire the ancient stone circles that are dotted around the area, and they discuss literature in much detail. They only interrupt their I-depth criticism to engage in imaginative sex, with each other and others - most notably a ventriloquist's dummy (who also becomes a narrator in the story). This mysterious man criticises and celebrates a great many authors, some highly influential., some lesser known geniuses, and encourages Anna to read and reconsider what she has read.' Canongate Books, publishers of Home's new novel, put this out and its a game try, a kind of summary, but you just know there's more to it than plot.
Meanwhile, this spring, Dalkey Archive Press will begin a rediscovery project for the works of British author Ann Quin, a central but under-recognized figure in the British experimental writing scene of the 1960s and '70s. Quin's work has been compared to that of Virginia Woolf, Robert Creeley, Nathalie Sarraute, William Burroughs and Kathy Acker. Though her novels received much attention in Britain when they were originally published, and the first two were issued simultaneously in the U. S., Quin has remained on both sides of the Atlantic one of the best kept secrets of British experimental writing--which is itself a well-kept secret.
Ann Quin emerged on the British literary scene with the publication of Berg in 1964, for which she became the first woman to receive the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship from the University of New Mexico. That same year, she was awarded the Harkness Fellowship, an award given to the most promising Commonwealth artist under the age of thirty. By the time Quin's second novel Three was published in both Britain and the U. S. in 1966, she was known as a writer of substantial merit among such members of the British avant-garde as B. S. Johnson, Robert Nye and Alan Burns, all of whom admired and praised her work.
But the traditional distrust of unconventional fiction in Britain, and the difficulties faced by British experimental writers--particularly women--in cultivating an audience in the U. S. proved insurmountable and Quin, like several of her avant-garde contemporaries, fell into obscurity. Her more experimental works--Passages and Tripticks--went unpublished in the U. S. and both Three and Berg have fallen out of print since Quin's death in 1973. British editions of all Quin's work are currently out of print as well.
Ann Quin is not always Kathy Acker. Ann Quin is never Kathy Acker. Did Acker ever believe she was Quin? Have you now or at any time ever…? But there's a fanatical belief in their own bullshit that defines a whole load of writers - Home cites Joseph Farquharson '… a dead Aberdeenshire painter famous for his rustic scenes featuring sheep and snow…' (p171) as a warning against this tendency. And he's doing a job on us all in this novel that snatches a psycho-drama out of a sick joke about schizophrenia we just have to guess.
And another one about Princess Diane which in the post- Queen Mum moment takes on added power and goes something like :- 'The Queen Mother dies and is warmly greeted at the Gates Of Hell by the Devil, who congratulates her on all the good work she's done on his behalf. After the Queen Mum has kissed the Devil's arse, he informs her that: "Indeed, not only you, but your whole family has done so much for so long to retard human progress and cause misery by concentrating the world' s wealth in its own hands, that whenever another one of you arrives here, I organise a garden party so that you can all see each other." At first the Queen Mum is very excited as she walks hand in hand with the Devil into a marquee thronging with her undead relatives. However, after scanning the assembled crowd who are stuffing their faces with baby entrails, she turns to the Devil and snaps crossly: "So why is Princess Di the only one here who gets to wear a halo?" To which the Devil replies calmly: "That's not a halo my dear, it's a steering wheel."
We're in the country of the misseen. The misheard. The mistaken. Like the dead Queen Mother, what in one glance seems sublime soon turns out to be ridiculous. Stewart Home's new novel begins with a description of a seaside town which he describes in a footnote as a series of detours; twice away from Ernest Hemmingway, twice away from Gertrude Stein . He detours these two modernists first time round as a matter of avoidance, and the second time round as a matter of dislike. He avoids Beckett as too obvious a point of reference, dismisses BS Johnson and ends with Ann Quinn. So Ann Quin becomes Anna Noon.
It's a cover story. A double bluff. 'Make mine a double.' There's always the cover story, followed by others, layers of them, until the idea of originality and the cult of the author, the named genius directing the traffic of ideas, gets dismantled as an outmoded white liberal bourgeois conceit. K.L. Callum, the author of 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess is the alternative author of an alternative novel called 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess. Stewart Home, the well-known black avant-bardist piss taker, nicked the title in order to turn out a money-spinning best-seller using a combination of lurid sex scenes and plagiarised knowledge of Aberdeenshire's stone circles. Raking in a hundred thousand quid on the basis of this literary scam, Home no doubt sits in his large Aberdeenshire mansion house, purchased on the back of the notoriously huge advance paid by his publisher, justifying the unfairness of Callum's obscurity and his own success, with the thought that 'Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you King.' Something like that anyway. And there are already rumours of Callum unsuccessfully attempting to sue Home.
But there are also other rumours that Callum himself never actually wrote the original novel. On page 175 of Home's book, the false narrator offers '… a bibliography that … comes close to replicating Alan's missing work…' - 'Alan' being the man who may or may not be the author of 69 Things or else the author of KL Callum, who may or may not be the author of 69 Things. A careful reader of the Home novel will be able to use this bibliography, coupled to the document referred to on the previous page, in order to piece together the truth of the matter. But it's all a bit of a paper chase. And Home, avoiding the usual niceties of academic research in order to cover up his own indebtedness to Callum, doesn't make this quest at all easy.
Well, that's one way to introduce this prize winning novelist's work. But there's never enough time to get all the best angles sorted out with a Home novel. It's no use grumbling about the way he has written out Callum. This is the only version of 69 Things we have access to. We can only imagine what the other version was like, and note the structure of the process that begat Home's.
Callum is the whistle blower, and Home the figure from the establishment who confronts the tale-teller and puts up a smokescreen of atrocious, theatrically written scenes of murder, blackmail, suicides, orgies, trash books, high falutin lit crit in the European mode, avant garde accusations and counter accusations on the scale of Harold Bloom's Anxiety Of Influence, literary scandals that everyone had already forgotten about before the ink was dry, scandals set to divert us from the true meaning of Home's task. To silence the creep who was going to spill the beans about everything. 'Something is wrong in this state of …'
This one is the richest of the mother load so far. This one begs to be called literature. This one is a belly-speak of writing - mouthing its noise as if from somewhere way away from the mouth and from the ear - its a conjuring trick, a novel working to produce the illusion of distance, a deception, a dummy or pantomime to direct the attention of the readers elsewhere, anywhere, so long as you're not looking towards its source.
Home is working a writing that gets its kick from way back when - Egypt and Hebrew archaeology, Eurycles of Athens the first Eurycleides, the first Engastrimanteis - the belly-prophets. Priests in ancient times had this trick - throwing their voices so that statues seemed to be speaking, God voices heard coming out of burning bushes, bulls, birds, monkeys, mountains. The talking ass-hole of Bill Burroughs' The Naked Lunch makes clear the avant-garde lineage of this underworld, underground stuff. From the stones in the river Pactolus whose noises put thieves to flight, through to modern practitioners - Zulus, Maoris, Chinese, Hindustanis and Inuits - it's known best in the west as a form of popular stage entertainment, a variety act slightly old-fashioned, or else cultish, weird, and sometimes disguised, bluffed-up for children - think of Basil Brush or Sooty and Sweep.
Who can forget the minor classic moment of British TV when the twinkly no-nonsense establishment icon Michael Parkinson, chat show host supreme, was mugged on camera by the emu puppet of Rod Hull. And the sinister coda to this moment; Hull falling off a roof in Rye and dying. A stupid death. Did he fall, the hushed conspiracy theorists whisper, or was he pushed? Rumours fly out about the brutal realpolitik of the state. And then the autonomy of the dummy: Basil Brush ,Sooty and Sweep all live on after their master's demise. What's it all about then, and what the fuck is the truth?
Home's acid self sets out the matter to be penetrated in an anti- delinquent reference right at the start, quoting Coleridge's Biographia Literaria - 'I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist. I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible.' The enemy is repressed silence. As Sinclair puts it somewhere, it's a wound that won't heal.
Lynne Tillman knows that Home is consistently '… hilarious, brilliant, annoying … and in this novel… coming up with a new and original map for inventive readers.' She says it's Modernism he's mapping. And sure, yeah! But once you get a new map then how much of the old landmarks are still there? And even if they're still there, if they're not in the same place, with the same relationships with each other, then it's a little more complicated than just saying it's all the same, just shifted around a bit. Is a red room still a red room if you repaint it green?
This is, after all, a writer who has appeared in drag in Ut Pitura Poesis, a 35 mm short film made with the Arts Council, walked from the Black Atlantic to Jean Gimpel's Chelsea Embankment salons to mix with ambassadors and various murky figures from the worlds of business and high finance, a writer translated into Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, invented the necrocard so that people could leave their bodies for complete strangers to experiment with sexually after their death and for whom plagiarism is an art form. The connections between plagiarism and ventriloquism, drag and ventriloquism, translation and ventriloquism are so obvious I just mention them here so that the familiar and dangerous trajectories of his oeuvre are seen as extended brilliantly here in this new work.
And , of course, it's all about books, about reading and writing. There are lists here that give you a lineage and a decoding device. It is a machine producing other books, other voices, a machine that condemns the reader into an endless rind of paper words, a chase of obscure reference and obscure history - pre-history even - and the metaphors are clear and fertile - reading and writing as fucking and as fetishising, set against the primitivist magic of Stone Circles. This is the book that wants to go at the source, have it up against a wall, so to speak, and wants it from the source as well, like a hard cock made of wood even. Or a pen.
Iain Sinclair's Landor's Tower, his Welsh novel, insinuates itself into Home's work as the buggering I Love Dick to the utopian community obsessions evoked out of the Ewyas Valley and the writings of Edward Merton Dorn, Eric Gill, Joseph Leycester Lyne, David Jones, Francis Kilvert, Jamie Lalage, Walter Savage Landor, Arthur Machen, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Vaughan and Alfred Watkins. What does that mean?
In 69 Things the narrator explains - 'I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. This book incoherently documents the author's sexual obsession with Dick Hebdige, an English academic who was an intellectual celebrity during the 80's on the strength of Subculture: The Meaning Of Style…. Alan was amused that 20 years down the line Hebdige was being consumed as an object of desire rather than an expert on consumer fetishism… I also appreciated it as a parody of post-modern theorising.' ( pp21) So we read Sinclair and read a last, brittle coda which instructs us - 'Further reading - anything by Stewart Home'.
It's a final appendices entitled ' West Country Suicides (An account of 25 deaths in the Defence Industry) by Tony Collins, Sphere, 1990 where the grotesque humour of a pathologist reading of a woman's death is revealed through Sinclair's damaging, deadly prose - ''A pathologist employed by the Home Office declared that Shani had tried to strangle herself, gagged herself, bound her ankles, tied her hands behind her back and hopped in stiletto heels into the shallow water where she drowned…' prose which was, of course, not Sinclair's at first but was originally that of his source, Tony Collins. But Sinclair has it, has it there in his book, his novel, and so, like the Borges story of Pierre Maynard, it is rewritten, and reread in an utterly different way even though the words are exactly the same as Collins's. This all then worms back to decode, even dismantle the novel we've just read.
And then the instruction comes, which is like something out of Mission Impossible, ' if you agree to take the assignment…' - 'Further reading - anything by Stewart Home.' and then the Sinclair instruction self destructs. Reading these two in tandem becomes an auto-erotic suicide pact of crank research and serious wind-up. You're forever thinking 'You're taking the piss' - but in that kind of boggled, scared voice you use when you can't ever be sure which bit isn't the joke.
Home is the master of the spare plotting device, the revved-up forward momentum of narrative scud - there are no frills to his pants. Sinclair is all frill, but done in a hard-boiled mannerism that keeps it edgy, dark and endless, like some horrible skid mark that never tires of repeating itself wherever a reader might park her or his sweaty arse.
So when we read in the Home novel - 'Suzy was trying to hold a conversation, so she wouldn't have noticed the change of rhythm when the two men switched places… After Suzy came Alan explained the trick he'd played on her and with Michael still humping away this provided sufficient stimulation to give my friend a second orgasm.' (p20) we get down to it - reading, writing, thinking, fucking, keep yourself running, keep yourself in the act, in flight, in the saddle, always sniffing, always on the lookout- changing horses in mid-coit - that's what the symbiosis is between these two acts of writing, these two class acts of writing.
The quoted passage is but one of many shags Home documents in this extraordinary novel to suggest, again and again, that the act of reading, the quest for a good book, always comes down to a sort of in-your-head gang bang. This is one reason to think about the reconfiguration of fiction writing and critical reading/writing Home is engaged with - we're used to the familiar image of critic as detective - all those crazy po-mo masters and mistresses banging on about Sherlock Homes and their Penny Dreadfuls etc etc - think of blessed little Wittgenstein and his love of crime fiction - but Home is going to take this further on down - the critic becomes a gang-bang practitioner, a pimp, a wanker, not just banging about but banging, shagging, fucking the detectives - and he exposes the jokes within the coined language of the regular reader, the dynamic critic who must, after all, keep it up.
Here's a great passage - early on too (p23) ' A French theorist like Baudrillard would be translated into English by some two-bit publisher like Semiotext(e) with minimal proofing and distributions, then before you knew it translations were spewing out from Verso, Polity, Pluto, Standford and Routledge. Similar things had happened with Deleuze and Derrida, while Barthes and Foucault had become Penguin classics. You didn't need to keep up with it, you wouldn't want to keep up with it, you couldn't keep up with it.'
More decoding to be done, more dismantling, but this time firstly of Sinclair - who already knows where he falls down flat - no plot, the same starts each time, too many mute references to stop the reader being even aware that there was even supposed to be a story, sentences that drown readers with their portentous undertow - currents and eddies that are over knowing, blurred, snaps from places both strange and unsavoury - Home's novel goes at Sinclair's Welsh location with his own Scottish one - an exchange of subjectivities, an exchange of quest, both going away from the centre, away from England, away from their beloved London in order to deepen, strengthen their dissenting, avant garde vigour - and in Home the references wriggle about searching for the energies that the fictional novel - K.L. Callan's 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess - with its routes to the magic stone circles - might offer in the Home novel of the same title - in which, of course, the fictional novel 69 Things appears. It's an object within an object - a mirror facing a mirror - but both of them a bit warped.
And each story is a story pretending to be that object. The objects, the books, are thus fetishised versions of themselves. Which is the Home starting point - and where Sinclair ends. And vice versa, obviously. As Borges writes somewhere - he's writing about the effect of Kafka on the reading of Browning - 'The fact is that each writer creates his precursors.' Home's book does to Sinclair's what Anna, the narrator of 69 Things, does to Alan many times throughout the book. Which is to ' place … cunt fully on his mouth.' (78)
You get in the novel extensive sex riffs, acts of shagging that combine Home's merry approach to writing porny bits against the middle-brow refined politeness of many contemporary novels with a serious infernal experimentation - Home is daring us to imagine a different kind of subjectivity, a different kind of writing, a different pedigree. Hence the great list of books, complementing the reading list Sinclair offers in his stuff.
There is a crazed utopianism to what he is up to, what they're both up to - there's a wonderful moment at the beginning of Chapter Seven on page 85 where Anna, the narrator, imagines a dream in which 'I felt myself flung half-way down the precipice. I stood, in my dream, tottering on a crag midway down the precipice - I looked upwards, but the upper air showed only blackness unshadowed and impenetrable - but blacker than blackness, I could distinguish the giant outstretched arm of Dudley that held me as in sport on the ridge of that infernal precipice, while another, that seemed in its motions to hold fearful and invisible conjunction with the arm that grasped me, as if both belonged not to Dudley but some being too vast and horrible for the imagery of a dream to shape, pointed upwards to a dial-plate fixed on the top of that precipice, and which the flashes of the ocean made fearfully conspicuous.'
This is a new style for Home - ever inventive, ever trying out new things in his writing - those who identify him as a yob novelist are just missing the point of his craft - his craftiness outwits them - and in this passage the long, sinuous sentences wind out an extremity of subjective, emotive force that belongs to the work of someone like nineteenth century horror writer Edgar Allen Poe, one of the first practitioners of the detective story. The quality of nightmare, of cumulative effect through a slow, gradual unravelling within the length of the sentence is typical of that particular writer's style. As the power of the situation grows - which is a mental, inward situation - the weird and bizarre surrealist momentum gradually insinuates upon the reader its own logic - the logic of dreams that substantiates the unabsolved, frightening banality of the moment. It's the sort of thing Sinclair can't do/wont do.
Interestingly, there are shadowings of Poe in Dickens, especially his Bleak House and so we find Home using a style to make crafty crafted insinuations about the bibliographies he invents - he reaches back to this one as just a thread, a useful strand he can wind up and walk with for a while through the vacancies of a crazy canonical memory. The psychodramas of his inventive female narrator are artful communications from the belly of the beast which are not confined to genre readings of his work - he appropriates new ground by misplacing conventions, misreading everything he wants to misread and speaking out of place and out of synch and out of turn - which is why critics who like propriety find much of Home offensive - nothing remains as it seems, everything is being overthrown and as Dudley, the dummy, begins to have a voice of his own, we are taken into a fantasy world that is richly suggestive, intellectually corrosive and au contraire!
Dudley is what a writer has to be, someone else, a Whitmanesque wanker - 'my own hands carried me there…'- and then we go to the wild central sign he conjures up - 'the body of a dead princess as a metaphor for literature' (p 168) and the desecration becomes secure and complete. This is the job, making things happen - 'Living out the death of these fantasies in blasted and blistered night, we are consumed by the turning of a page…' (p168) - and we must read his stuff, anything we can get hold of, just to keep out the suppressed silence and heal its wound, even if it's only 'temporary, like Achilles.'