Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Review of Memphis Underground, by Stewart Home

Two parallel narratives open the book. In one, a man finds himself artist in residence in a former American military base converted into an upmarket real estate development off the north shore of Scotland, a position earned through dishonest though partly justified means. The artistic events and projects that ensue wreak gradual havock on the community. In the other narrative, a man struggles through a series of miserable clerical jobs, lost as soon as they are obtained, and through an increasingly impossible housing situation, that fuels and echoes a love/hate relationship with London. These two plots later cross, twist and explode. The rest is too intricate to summarize.

Reviewing a novel by Stewart Home is a daunting task, if only for the tight web of cultural, artistic and theoretic references that sew the narratives together. I use the plural for narratives because, as you would expect, this is no linear fiction but a self-asserting attempt at laying down an anti-novel using most of the tools available to a post-modernist, post-marxist, post-nearly everything author.
Stewart Home constantly hovers between a bona-fide, partly nostalgic anti-capitalist stance and a more straightforward satirical approach of the art and the publishing worlds, of London and its metamorphoses since the early 80s, of the alienating power of work, the need to find a pay for a home (no pun intended) and the increasing difficulty in obtaining welfare... the list is long and exciting.
Yet this is not an essay nor a manifesto thinly disguised as fiction, but quite something else, and Stewart Home's insistence on being entertaining is everything but ironic. Many of the inventions, premises and scenes are sparkling with wit and soul. Soul music is, incidentally, one of the obsessive themes of this book and explain in part the cover design.
Stewart Home's fictional double, John Johnson, spends a lot of time and hard-earned cash on finding rare groove records at bargain prices, and when Home himself, in the autobiographical chapters that take more and more space as the pages turn, talks of the genre, it is with the passion and erudition of the real worshipper, although he would probably reject the appellation. Beyond the idiosyncrasy that the author thus reveals, it is also an affirmation of the central, orienting role of art in his life, and perhaps a counterpoint to the general atmosphere of dubiousness surrounding art and its production in Stewart Home's universe.
This is one disturbing, exhilarating, bustling proof that an anti-novel can make a very real book.

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