the pathetic caverns - books - Stewart Home
eclectic reviews and opinions
69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess
Home's "novel" dispenses almost entirely with the conventions of the form. In lieu of narrative, Home opts instead for a cyclic repetitive structure, mostly comprising three elements: descriptions of stone circles in the Aberdeen region, superficial critiques of the works of (primarily) Scottish authors, and baldly pornographic (often extremely kinky) interludes. There is nothing remotely resembling a conventional "character"; Alan (or perhaps Callum), primary narrator Anna Noon, Dudley the ventriloquist's dummy, and virtually everyone they encounter serve alternately as puppets for improbable sexual acrobatics and sounding boards for political/literary debates.
The plot (to the extent that there is one) invokes the standard trope of a depressed man drinking himself to death, as well as Alan/Callum lugging his dummy from one Aberdeenshire stone circle to another in order to verify the plausibility of a book entitled 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess by K.L. Callan. (Not only is this an obvious conflation of Alan/Callum, but also a name found in other Home works such as Slow Death and Come Before Christ and Murder Love.) In Callan's putative novel, the decomposing corpse of Princess Diana is dragged from one ancient Scottish archeological site to another -- to 69 of them, in fact, or perhaps 169; it's a little unclear.
Home's "style" is so fluid that it doesn't exist. He employs staccato bursts of stream-of-consciousness sentences and fragments:
"There were piles of books lying all over the floor. Old newspapers too. Alan led me into the living room. It was filled with books. I was surprised by the furniture, carpets and curtains. Brown leather and chrome. Brown shag pile. Blue velvet."
But other passages are as cloyingly overwritten as the very purplest of pornography:
"On reaching orgasm, we both groaned with excess of pleasure and my cunt tingled round his palpitating tool as the life flood darted from the opposite sources of delight in reciprocating streams of unctuous spunk."
Still others have the studied lifelessness of a poor guide- or textbook:
"The recumbent [stone] was not so massive as that at Aikey Brae but there was a strong similarity in the general outline of the two circles, as well as in their positions. Only two uprights and a flanker were still standing, the one to the west -- the largest -- being seven feet and two inches above ground. The circle appeared to have consisted of two concentric rings, the inner being about 50 feet in diameter but the whole was in such dilapidated condition that it is not possible to affirm this with certainty."
The reader also will stumble across paragraphs so drastically different from anything around them that they might almost be the result of a bizarre printing error transposing passages from an unrelated book:
"Their feet left no mark on the snow. The women were white as milk, with eyes like sloes, and lips like red rowans. They fought with shadows and were glad; but the shadows were not shadows to them."
The literary critiques are also singular. Home's characters repeatedly use authors' publishers and blurb-providers to track the progress of their careers. Alan says for instance of Barry Graham, "By the time of his third novel, Book of Man he was being published by Serpent's tail ... [and] carried endorsements from Irvine Welsh, Dennis Cooper and Lynne Tillman on the back cover." There is a strange egalitarianism, with equal respect and disrespect for literary pretenders such as Michael Bracewell ("If Bracewell's work as a novelist is compared to the musical achievements of Duran Duran or Culture Club, his fellow travellers in a decade that style forgot don't even rank alongside the likes of Sigue Sigue Sputnik"), Stanley Barker ("Bee Jay") Johnson, an amateur Scottish novelist of the 1960s whose works are not even prized by first-edition collectors ("Dudley therefore insisted that regardless of whether Bee Jay was conscious of the fact or not, he was a proletarian post-modernist"), and William McGonagall, a man frequently described as the "world's worst poet."
Perhaps predictably, porn is treated with the same even-handedness, as when Anna remarks, "While we were in the shop I bought a copy of Stasi Slut by Anthony Bobarzynski and ... gave it to Alan as a token of my affection." Finally, in some instances, Home seems to prefigure criticisms that might be made of his book itself: "[Paul Johnson's] Intellectuals was simply a series of poorly drawn prose sketches that could be detached from each other without any alteration to their meaning," and even more blatantly, "I was sick to death of hearing about 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. The book wasn't even coherent."
Sometimes when Alan/Callum is discussing a work, he will quote a paragraph or more from it, suggesting the conceit that the book's variegated styles could literally be the result of cut-and-paste assembly from actual travel brochures, smutty novels, and works of literary criticism -- perhaps even some of those discussed by his characters -- with alterations only of subjects and verb tenses, or from third to first person. I think Home would be amused at the prospect of scholars digging through stacks of Penthouse Forum or Beeline paperbacks looking for occurrences of the phrase, "He slowly drew out his prick until the tip of the glans only rested between my lips" (p.98). Even if by some miracle this exact construction appears nowhere in literature, as the book wears on, the combinatorial aspect of its repetitions becomes impossible to ignore. I was increasingly aware that nothing in the book was new. Every phrase in it shares a common structure with phrases in other books, and every sentence in it could be constructed by a series of substitutions: the adjective "recumbent" for "verdant," perhaps, or the verb "dripped" for "tangled."
It's tempting to assert that the "point" of 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess is to claim the modern novel is as worthwhile an endeavor as carting a decaying corpse from one ruin to another, or as regurgitating endless combinations of the same set of banal obscenities, or, perhaps, as precisely cataloging the orientation of chunks of stone whose meaning must remain forever obscure (because the builders left no written record).
It would also be facile and, I think, dead wrong. If there's one thing I'm fairly certain of, it's that Home would bristle at such an easy interpretation. If Home's characters agree on any literary point, it's praise for works that defy the 19th-century conventions of literature: late-period J.G. Ballard is lambasted for making "every concession to outmoded literary motifs such as charaterisation," whereas Bill Drummond and Mark Manning's Bad Wisdom is lauded for presenting "contradictory account[s] of the same event." And Home himself obviously thought on some level that his book was worth both writing and publishing. Finally, while the sex scenes and the stone circle descriptions alike grew increasingly deadening, the literary descriptions and disses retained more spark; I found myself making notes on books and authors to investigate further. It's probably identically useful and useless to consider the novel an indictment of literature, a critical overview of Scottish literature or postmodern literature in general, a travelogue of Aberdeen standing stones, or a work of pornography. It's none of these things as much as it's any of them.
Whether it's successful is, of course, another matter entirely. I'm more-or-less happy to have read Virginia Woolf's The Waves, for example, but I'm uninterested in reading works that take that book as their touchstone. Similarly, a little bit of Home's whatever-it-is (post-Situationism?) goes a long way. It makes a solid enough case for its own cleverness, but it has neither grace nor beauty, and it seems ultimately hollow: a joke with serious intent, perhaps, but still a piss-poor joke. I suppose I'm glad I slogged through it, but since my cursory research suggests that the rest of Home's work is largely in the same vein, it'll be a cold day in hell before I pay full price for another one.
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