Stewart Home is a brilliant literary provocateur, and his latest novel, 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, does not disappoint (even if it is not the best thing he has done)….
Home writes what could be called postmodern experimental novels–filled with parody and pastiche, with repetitions and Oulipo-like formal devices, with appropriations from texts both high culture and low–were it not clear that he is really launching an assault on such novels and their conventions–which he sees as totally commodified, and hence fully continuous with the several-centuries-old tradition of “bourgeois literature.” Like his characters, Home is “predisposed to seek out the unoriginal in any work” (105); and he is uninterested in “outmoded literary motifs such as characterization” (47) and plot.
69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess is divided, like the novels of the Marquis de Sade, between passages of sexual description and passages of discursive argumentation. The sex, unlike in Sade, is consensual and for the most part pretty vanilla (there’s a little whipping, but not much; a ventriloquist’s dummy is an important figure throughout the book, but this is less kinky than you might think). These sex passages are narrated in all kinds of different styles, borrowed from sources running the length of the English-language literary (pornographic?) tradition. There’s no novelty or originality in sex; it’s all been done before, and described before for that matter.
As with Sade, therefore, the sex parts of 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess are the boring parts. One reads them quickly in order to get to the good stuff, which is philosophical reasoning in Sade, and literary discussion in Home. In between orgasms, we get two things: minute descriptions of stone circles in northeastern Scotland, and rants and diatribes on a number of literary subjects. These are sometimes hilarious, and sometimes just annoying. Home (or his characters) despises Martin Amis, is intrigued by Alexander Trocchi (praising him as much, or more, for his porno novels and his early Situationist associations as for his two works of official fiction), and hates, but seems to be obsessed by, Jean Baudrillard, whose formulations show up frequently in the text, but who is dismissed because “no one could take seriously a man who accepted Sylvere Lotringer [of Semiotext(e) fame] as his translator…all these hippie hipsters could think about was getting other men to shag their wives” (38).
All the text’s (can I say Home’s?) literary judgments and prejudices are delivered with a superior tone of utter certainty, as if to suggest that even the minutest disagreement from them is enough to convict you of being an utter cretin, and a fascist lackey to boot. There’s something here of the bad tradition of leftist sectarianism–the habit of writing lengthy, vicious critiques–filled with both numbingly detailed theoretical arguments and nasty ad hominem asides–of the most minor deviations from one or another political “line” (the Situationists were probably the worst offenders in this respect; since they drew on both the traditon of Leninist critique, and that of the Surrealist diatribe).
Nevertheless, there is something manically exhilarating about how 69 Things pursues its repetitious course, alternating pornographic description (sex), stone circles (religion), and literary chitchat (art)until they all blend into one another, in a delirium of variation/repetition that is the rhythm of the commodity form itself (and that perhaps works as a magical incantation to undo it). It’s amazing to read such an urgent, violently passionate, and singular argument that singularity, passion, urgency, violence, and originality are nothing but bourgeois superstitions that enslave us.