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Sex and Drugs and the Major Arcana

By Steve Finbow.

 

Stewart Home, She’s My Witch (London Books, 2020).

The Fool — And the journey begins of ex-red skinhead, Martin Cooper, and his rock-bitch witch, Maria RemediosVaro Uranga, as they move through the cafés, pubs, clubs and nightspots of Old Street, Stoke Newington, Hackney and other central, east and north London loci. Martin is a sort of Everyman, a personal trainer, a now sensible man faced with the folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium and frenzy of a new woman in his life.

The Magician — Told mostly in dialogue — at times reminiscent of those of Denis Diderot, another iconoclast — with linking passages of location building and detours into the music of the 20th and 21st century, Home sets out his maximalist narrative — the tarot, London history, the Templars, sixties pop, seventies punk, Wicca, astrology, horror movies — in a minimalist prose that eschews adjectives in favour of pace, foregoes adverbs to tell it like it is. The novel explores Martin’s skill, diplomacy, subtlety, self-confidence and will and also the pain, loss and disaster of Martin and Maria’s previous relationships.

The High Priestess — The dialogue is mostly drawn from texts or Facebook messages and the constant need to check one’s phone or computer becomes a very contemporary farce in which people are late, constantly apologetic — foregrounding the fact that although communication is magically instant and of the present, physical proximity replaces meta-data with meat. Sexting becomes sex. Here, the realities of the 2011 Hackney riots become all too real for the relative morals of Maria’s hypothetical total rebellion. Maria is hoping to be a secret, a mystery, teasing Martin with a future yet unrevealed.

The Empress — Maria vacillates between all-out partying and drug taking and bouts of debilitating illness and indecision. Martin is almost Stoic in his dealings with her; patient, entranced by her story. Home’s novels are sometimes likened to the New English Library novels of James Mofatt (Richard Allen) but Home’s books are funny, whereas the Skinhead/Suedehead novels are not. In this chapter, Martin has to deal with the appearance of Billy Rath, once of The Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders), as the 60-something, one-legged, HIV-positive, and hepatitis-C-carrying bassist tries to steal Maria.

The Emperor – Martin is all the things that Maria isn’t, or doesn’t appear to be. Like a good ‘emperor,’ he is stable, protective, a great person, ‘Martin Cooper = seriously nice,’ and he is reasonable and compassionate. Maria is an addict of all things, a victim, someone Martin could probably do without and yet Maria convinces him that they are cosmic or psychic twins. Already in this love story, the reader is thinking, ‘No, step away. Don’t go there.’ But like a scooter crash or like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one is compelled to keep watching, keep reading, keep flinching.

The Hierophant — Home indulges his love and knowledge of martial arts movies and vegetarian eating places. The prose here reads like Brett Easton Ellis if Ellis had been brought up in South-West London not LA. And in typical Home fashion, the BDSM is deflated by farce and a clandestine blowjob in probably the worst Wetherspoons pub in London, Hackney’s Baxter’s Court. Martin and Maria discuss the Upstarts, cross-dressing, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in a constant caffeinated frenzy of information and erotics, a virus of marriage, alliance, captivity, servitude, inspiration, concord and weakness.

The Lovers — ‘The shape of each human being was completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands, and two faces, exactly alike, on a rounded neck. Between the two faces, which were on opposite sides, was one head with four ears. There were two sets of sexual organs, and everything else was the way you’d imagine it from what I’ve told you. They walked upright, as we do now, whatever direction they wanted. And whenever they set out to run fast, they thrust out all their eight limbs, the ones they had then, and spun rapidly, the way gymnasts do cartwheels, by bringing their legs around straight.’ Symposium — a drinking party or convivial discussion.

The Chariot — The Lurkers, frottage, time-travelling sodomy, Quinqui films, Tokyo Decadence, the Dead Boys in a trip through London pubs and the differing interpretations of the tarot deck.

Justice — More tarot-inspired sex, Spanish Hells Angels, jealousy and complications. Sensible Martin is slowly becoming obsessed, trapped in the web of Maria’s stories, ensnared by the tarot readings, the blowjobs and the tantrums.

The Hermit — Like Romeo and Juliet in an exploitation movie, Martin and Maria act out their teenage obsessions with horror movies and surreptitious sex. Home is correct that Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is movie masturbation and where DeLillo’s targets are obvious, Home goes for the difficult shot, the events and actors we think he would admire but doesn’t. Home sides with the forgotten, the obscure, his favourite events are the sideshows not the big wheel. And we’re in Aleister Crowley territory, ‘The Hermit asked for love; worst bargain of all.’ And ‘What! Shall the Adept give up his hermit life, and go eating and drinking and making merry?’ Maria tempts Martin with tales of the Ruta Destroy clubbing scene in Valencia in the eighties and even more tarot readings, while Home spins an adaptation of his onstage shredding of his own novels in the ‘image of a strongman tearing a book in half.’

The Wheel of Fortune — Conflict of interest. I appear in this chapter. Home fuses autobiographical events with fictionalised elements, theories about the tarot and produces a postmodern narrative full of the occult and materialism — films, books, clothes, records are all suffused with the metaphysical, his real sex with time-travelling desire and actual people with ghosts. And all of it shot with humour. After Maria gives Martin another surreptitious wank at the Horse Hospital while they watch Julian Richards’ Shiver, they go for drinks at the Friend at Hand, a real pub opposite. Candaulism — look it up.

Strength — Home moves from gentle sadomasochism and exercise dispositions to Pedro Temboury’s They Saved Hitler’s Cock and Francisco Lara Polop’s Murder Mansion, equating personal freedom with the liberation of the people from General Franco. And we find ourselves in some strange instant encyclopaedia of the 20th and 21st century, in which porn, Marc Bolan, Sons of Anarchy and the Oswald Wirth occult tarot deck elide and ellipse, collide and collapse into and away from one another, creating absurd and new correspondences. Cartomantic retifism.

The Hanged Man — Stories about Josh Collins’ nineties Frat Shack, anal training, Carter Stevens’ Punk Rock sexploitation movie, Durex Play Tingle Lube and Jess Franco. Wisdom circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination, prophecy. Reversed: Selfishness, the crowd, body politic in the Hamilton Hall pub.

Death — Home has written a very contemporary novel in which the characters (autobiographically) discuss muscle building, exercises, opioids and protein powders while experimenting in sexual role-play in fifty shades of irony. We live in a hypochondriacal society — Maria’s incessant moaning about her many illnesses — in which teetotal, vegetarian, fitness-fanatic Martin is a sort of antidote, an anti-hero. As Hakim Bey writes about death and the end of the world, ‘I see only a mental image & its emotional ramifications; as such I identify it as a kind of ghostly virus, a spook-sickness in myself which ought to be expunged rather than hypochondriacally coddled & indulged. I have come to despise the “End of the World” as an ideological icon held over my head by religion, state, & cultural milieu alike, as a reason for doing nothing.’

Temperance — In Magick in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley states, ‘“Concerning human affection.” — During this practice thou shalt in no wise withdraw thyself from human relations, only figuring to thyself that thy father or thy brother or thy wife is as it were an image of thy particular Deity. Thus shall they gain, and not lose, by thy working. Only in the case of thy wife this is difficult, since she is more to thee than all others, and in this case thou mayst act with temperance, lest her personality overcome and destroy that of thy Deity.’ Maria’s Psyche to Martin’s Eros, the narrative revolving around pre, present and post-coitum sex, ritual magick and horror movies.

The Devil — The whole novel is about being seduced. These seductions are manifold — desire and addiction, power and pleasure, the material world and the occult, the obsessions with sex, the tarot and the body. In the background, the threat of fascism, Nazis, General Franco and de-individualisation by the state. Maria and Martin rebel against ‘power’ by enacting their own events of bondage and domination, the fear instilled by fascism elaborated in the horror movies they watch obsessively and the Dark Grimoire Tarot — based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon — they use to divine their own ‘reality.’

The Tower — A disquisition on BDSM, master-slave relationships, tops and bottoms, ‘You always look gorgeous to me, even when injured.’ Or as Judith Butler writes in Bodies That Matter, ‘Hence, the phallus symbolizes the clitoris as not having the penis, whereas the phallus symbolizes the penis through the threat of castration, understood as a kind of dispossession. To have a penis is to have that which the phallus is not, but which, precisely by virtue of this not-being, constitutes the occasion for the phallus to signify (in this sense, the phallus requires and reproduces the diminution of the penis in order to signify — almost a kind of master-slave dialectic between them).’ The subtitle for Butler’s book is ‘On the discursive limits of “sex”,’ which could also be a subtitle for She’s My Witch.

The Star — With knowing comments on headstands — something Home does during his live performances — and references to Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change — a novel that Home wrote the introduction for on its republication in 2001, which has, like this one, a ‘wild jumble of influences,’ Maria and Martin leave their haunts in London to visit Manchester where they go to a Wetherspoons pub, discuss the tarot, alternative communities and have sex whenever possible. This is Home’s domesticated and ironic take on Finnegans Wake as the train brings them and the narrative ‘by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Stoke Newington and Environs.’

Stewart Home headstand, London 2019, by Andrew Gallix

The Moon — Crowley. ‘The moon and the earth are the non-ego and the ego’ — Maria and Martin, ‘DESTINY – PHYSICAL LIFE – FATALITY’ — the tarot as a means to understand the past, live in the present and disregard the reality of the future — and there is only one.

The Sun — But then the thanatophobia we all suffer from is countered by The Sun card — according to Wikipedia, ‘the best card in Tarot, it represents good things and positive outcomes to current struggles.’ Yet, Maria and Martin have a dreadful Christmas together — despite the blowjobs.

Judgement — Maria is becoming more obsessed with drugs, illegal and prescription, while Martin worries about kettlebell technique and calories. The lovers’ discourse is all about sex, BDSM, garage rock, vegan food, plastic surgery, porn films; whereas Irvine Welsh might have taken these subjects and created a Grand Guignol novel, Home makes them banal — as they are — quotidian quirks. Martin allows Maria her narcotic indulgences, while he steadfastly remains drug free, as Crowley writes in Duty, ‘All interference is in any case dangerous, and demands the exercise of extreme skill and good judgement, fortified by experience. To influence another is to leave one’s citadel unguarded; and the attempt commonly ends in losing one’s own self supremacy.’

The World — Life seen through cinema, a reflection of reality, a mirror on the real — but the films are Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2, Paul Naschy’s Walpurgis Night and Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead. So here we have life, the obsession with sex and its connection with banality, ultraviolence, horror, the immanence of the occult and the imminence of happiness as the two plan their future together.

The Fool — it would be foolish to give away the ending. Home has stated that ‘Witch has a thematic relationship to Come Before Christ and Murder Love, 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess but in terms of construction relates more to Tainted Love and The 9 Lives of Ray the Cat Jones but moves on from them too’ and it is his most accomplished novel to date, in turns funny, sad, ironic, knowing, autobiographical and not. It is a love story for the 21st century, a tale of sex, drugs and the Major Arcana. As Michel Foucault writes about Raymond Roussel’s La Poussière de soleils, ‘even if there is little chance that the twenty-two changes of scenes dictated by the staging of the play (novel) correspond to the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana in a tarot deck. It is possible that certain outward signs of the esoteric process might have been used as models for the double play on words, coincidence, and encounters at the opportune moment, the linking of the twists and turns of the plot, and the didactic voyages through banal objects having marvellous stories that define their true value by describing their origins, revealing in each of them mythical avatars that lead them to the promise of actual freedom.’

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Steve Finbow’s non-fiction includes Pond Scum (PulpBits, 2005), Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (Reaktion, 2011), Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017) and Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead (Infinity Land Press, 2018). The Mindshaft will be published by Amphetamine Sulphate in 2020. He lives in Langres, France.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 2nd, 2020.