Britain’s punk plagiarist Stewart Home’s early novels mixed the sex and violence of Richard Allen’s ’70s pulp fiction (Skinhead, Suedehead) with his own brand of Situationism. His best novel, Slow Death (1996), is a high-speed romp through the London art world with the upwardly mobile bootboy Johnny Aggro. The books can also be read as occult travelogues of the English landscape: Blow Job and Come Before Christ and Murder Love, both published in 1997 (Home aspires to the “genuine pulp writer’s trance”), oscillate between London and the South Coast, while Cunt‘s (1999) narrator crosses a desolate post-industrial England, seeking to reconnect with his first 1000 sexual partners.
Home’s latest fiction, 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess, moves “from semen to semantics,” as the author extends his reach to Aberdeen, Scotland (which he describes as “Los Angeles on the North Sea”), where literature student Anna meets bibliophile Alan. The depressive older man’s bilious opinions on the relative merits of various authors inform much of the book. Alan is pro-Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, and Scottish fictioneer Alexander Trocchi and anti-Harry Mathews, Raymond Queneau, and W.G. Sebald, to cite just a few names. The two embark upon an exchange of subjectivities that begins with Alan ridding himself of his books and Anna acquiring them.
Alan obsesses over a book entitled 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess by one K.L. Callan (a recurring figure in Home’s works), who carries Princess Diana’s corpse to various stone circle sites “as a means of luring tourists to the prehistoric delights of ancient Aberdeenshire.” Alan takes Anna and Dudley (his life-size ventriloquist’s dummy and stand-in for Callan’s princess) on a pilgrimage to test the feasibility of this bizarre strategy. Though their trip yields intellectual conversations, encounters with wanton tourists, and simultaneous orgasms, its telling is surprisingly tedious. Alan feels depressed under the weight of all his reading, and so do we. On the final page of Home’s story, “the body of a dead princess” becomes a “metaphor for literature,” and the weary reader may even start to believe it. More subtly humorous than Slow Death, 69 provides a crash course in the history of the alternative press, along with a spirited analysis of its most provocative authors.
“How different this ‘seaside’ town is to Ann Quin’s imaginary!” proclaims Home in 69, contrasting his Aberdeen with the Brighton of Berg (1964), the British writer Quin’s acclaimed first novel. (She won the Harkness Fellowship, which brought her to America for a year, and became the first female recipient of the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship.) Quin published three more novels before drowning herself in 1973 at the age of 37. She struggled with mental illness, and her suicide, like Virginia Woolf’s, was likely undertaken in the belief that another breakdown was coming. With the publication of Passages (1969), Quin’s third book, Dalkey Archive has brought all of her completed works back into print.
69 plunders the opening of Quin’s debut novel (“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . . . “), as well as its plot. Berg‘s Alistair arrives in a drizzly off-season seaside resort, planning to exact revenge on Nathaniel, his neglectful father. (The voices in his head mingle in a stream of consciousness: “I have to report my father’s missing. How long has he been missing sir? Twenty-eight years.”) The father lives with a younger mistress, Judith, and his most prized possession, a ventriloquist dummy (the inspiration for 69‘s doll). An absurdist comedy ensues: The son mistakes the dummy for his murdered father, and the father confuses the son—dressed in Judith’s clothes—with his mistress.
The author’s fascination with triangular relationships resurfaces throughout her oeuvre: Her second novel, Three (1966), is a domestic drama in which a middle-aged married couple puzzle over the suicide of a young woman who boarded at their summer house, and the narrator of Tripticks (1972), Quin’s final book, travels across the U.S., hotly pursued by his “No. 1 X-wife and her schoolboy gigolo.” She supplemented this last novel with lurid illustrations, questionnaires, newspaper headlines, and the transcript of a Shirley Temple interview.
This experimental technique had its roots in Passages, in which a nameless English couple search for the woman’s brother under the Mediterranean’s sheltering sky. Her narrative resembles that of Quin’s earlier books, while the man’s cryptic diary annotations and “cut-up” dreams anticipate her last. His entries often take the form of aphorisms, and he expresses the continual wish to be in another place (“What are we doing in this city”), mulling over a codependence in which each threatens to take on the other’s insanity. His response to all this is to “begin another journey,” but escape proves elusive. Though Passages lacks the depth and mania found in Quin’s other works, it exposes the difficulty of negotiating a relationship in which the barriers are always dissolving. Unable to face reality, both members of the couple perpetuate the fantasy of finding the third point of their triangle. As Quin writes, “It’s as if madness is just another trip.”