Memphis Underground by Stewart Home

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Memphis Underground by Stewart Home

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 1.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Two stories, of an artist-in-residence with a secret, and a man stuck in boredom and violence on an inner London estate, both converge then suffer at the vagaries of a narrator with his own intentions. This book is a very challenging read, and if considered an experiment then can only be called a failed one - but an interesting failure.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: N/A Date: 26 April 2007
Publisher: Snowbooks
ISBN: 978-1905005420

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In a first-person narrative, a man becomes an artist-in-residence to one of the world's most unusual communities. He and a handful of willing wife-swappers live in converted US forces housing, at an abandoned spy post in the Orkneys. He designs conceptual art forms, and the vandalising of same, with his new-found friends, Princess Diana, Fred West, Stephen Milligan, and the missing one from the Manic Street Preachers. If this is odd, he also has a secret that might cause our opinion of his identity to change.

Cut between this in alternating chapters, is a first-person narrative of a man living in council housing with a friend, Captain Swanky, and the Captain's girlfriend who loathes him. He drifts between odd and unwelcome jobs, between friends, nights out, sexual encounters, but always needs a home for his huge collection of rare groove, soul, jazz and other 60s records he adores.

While you might think this is a little on the odd side, there is much more nonconformity to happen. And I don't mean the unrealistic sexual relationships the second man encounters at work.

While reading this pair of first-person narratives you encounter the unusual style. Many of the chapters read like a very first draft, with a sense of being rapidly written - rushed, artlessly produced. The welcome we get to the Orkneys is unusual too - a ridiculous descriptive list of the streets and their directions, linking junctions and housing, followed by a very technical appraisal of the construction of our narrator's dwelling.

If this is deliberately being written as obtuse or difficult, then it does work with one chapter detailing a silly, drunken dialogue on one London evening, but otherwise, it seems without form, without reason, and all to no good effect.

Of course, this being a review one can't detail all that happens in these two plots, but we can't avoid what happens after then. For half-way through they are dropped, and replaced by - you guessed it - a first person narrative by someone who might or might not be Stewart Home, describing how all the above had been anti-writing. (He uses the idea that the description of aforesaid streets is too much and worthless in a world with maps, as an example, so that's alright then.) Home then uses the second half of the book to feature - well, what exactly? He describes his movements around London, writing this very book, and touring Europe plugging others. All in a style that might be called anti-writing.

And by the time blow-up sex dolls that answer back, and Death's verdict on that record collection come along, you're in no-man's land.

Call this experimental fiction; call it avant-garde, it certainly comes across as not what Richard and Judy will be featuring next. The volume contains an interview with the author, like a book-club extra, but in the middle, and full of non-sequiturs. However the conclusion I was left to face is that anti-writing just leads to anti-reading.

I didn't enjoy either of the first two narratives much - the plodding round London or the whimsical modern art parodies from Orkney. I think Home knows modern art and experimental film are beyond parody, but the problem is he writes like he doesn't. I felt more favourable to the book when the conceit arrived, just after my overnight break in reading - it was almost like picking up a different volume. But once you encounter the authorial trick, and the question how many narrators are at work here - two, one, none or more? - the book descends into over-written, narrative-splitting reading all over again.

My ideas of Home are non-existent. He might well be the narrator of the second half, or even more of the book. It might be memoir, and the record collection indeed his. It might all be fiction. But the problem is, I don't really care. I'm left not bothering how many narrators I have read. If the point of the book is that fiction is biographical, and biography fiction, and all is unreliable, then it points to a future where books are untrustworthy texts, and their appeal just fades for me. This is of course featured in any university literature textbook, under Baudrillard and all the rest - but while this book welcomes a break-down in narrative reliability and creation, this reader doesn't.

I can't recommend this book, and heaven forefend, the reason is because I'd actually prefer Richard and Judy to have simple entertaining stories to discuss, and not some post-modern deconstructed un-text (or whatever they're called these days). Nor can I think of anything to compare it with, outside the film of American Splendor - which made a documentary of a graphic novelist helping make the film of when he was writing graphic novels about his life - novels which included making graphic novels. The life in that was hidden under layers of authorship, and so is all of this. I wanted something more clear.

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