Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane by Stewart Home
06 Mar 2013 11:31:20
I had an odd moment early on in this book when I thought – hang on, the notorious avant-garde novelist cum situationist provocateur Stewart Home, author of Down & Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton and 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, has written A campus novel? Not that it would take long to work out who the author was if the book were handed to you with the cover torn off. His narrator and anti-hero, Charles Templeton, lectures in cultural studies at the City University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which is normally referred to by its acronym. Well, he would call it that, wouldn't he? And about five pages in, Templeton imagines a sex scene between a necrophiliac woman and a zombie for his unmade schlock-horror flick Zombie Sex Freaks. One suspects this has been placed there early on to filter out the faint-hearted. Notwithstanding the appearance of several of Home's trademark riffs, for a good long while it looks as though Home is going to disregard his own disregard for the conventions of polite fiction and actually write something that looks like a satirical novel – as if he really were turning his hand to being David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. Certainly, the field of cultural studies as practised in the modern university is a subject that offers itself up so readily for laughs that you might wonder if it's even a legitimate target. But Home sets about his prey with extraordinary glee. The dialogue between the lecturer and his students is extraordinarily funny – in fact, there are chunks of this book that count as the best contemporary comic writing I've come across since Howard Jacobson. We know pretty much from the start that Templeton is deranged, but he gets much more so as the book progresses (it nods knowingly to American Psycho). Sometimes you wonder whether his state of mind is a result of the idiocy and intransigence of his students, such as the one whose essays consist entirely of chunks from romantic authors cut and pasted from the internet. ("We live in a world of citations, fragments," she explains.) The student whom Templeton gets sent down, and then framed for arson, is the only cultural studies student in the history of the university ever to complete all his essays to order and on time; the Dean has never heard of Adorno; and so on. But about halfway through it is as though Home wearies of producing something that might actually get him genuine popular approval, and the book veers off into Templeton's increasing insanity, weird speculation about the 7/7 bombings, art shows at Tate Liverpool and gigs at the ICA. Home's own name makes an appearance (he was once suspected of being Belle de Jour); and the book ends in Hell. You have to make of that what you will. Sometimes the proof-reading is so spectacularly shoddy that you wonder whether it's deliberate. In one glorious paragraph we have repeated occurrences of "Phil Spectre" and "Don Lett's", and the word used to describe London's relation to the rest of the country always comes out as "capitol". Actually, I rather suspect it is deliberate: after all, one of the chief raisons d'être of Home's work is to give offence, and maybe he has hit on this as just another way to upset his readers. Which raises the issue of why you'd want to go around upsetting people in the first place – but then this is one of those questions which does the questioner little credit. I think one of the great virtues of Home's work is the way it forces us to address our own complacency. It is almost as if the book is an enactment of the very sloppiness of the society it seeks to indict, or describe. It is very cheeky of Home to have his cake and eat it like this: yet you have to admire cheek at this level. Somehow I don't imagine this book being discussed by well-mannered book groups around the country. But wouldn't it be lovely if it were? It would be like something from … well, from a Stewart Home novel.