By Edward S. Robinson
Stewart Home has enjoyed a lengthy career based on appropriation, postmodern parody, politics and pranksterism. It would be fair to say that Home’s novels exist to expound postmodern theory within a fictional framework – although, increasingly, the fiction has featured less within the framework as he collapses and reinvents the theory.
While his earlier works included lengthy citations of Marx and countless references to Home’s fictional alter-ego, K.L. Callan, author of the notorious Christ, Marx and Satan United in Struggle, his works from 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess onwards began to contain not (only) political critique but literary critique in the form of reviews and discussion. Around the same time, Home began to increasingly blur the distinction between author and narrator. This is, of course, postmodernism in practice: the literature that drives the theory by incorporating its own theoretical dimensions and holds a mirror up to both the literature and its criticism and a means of reflecting the society that begat it, the boundaries becoming so indistinct between disciplines and functions, reality and fiction, as to become meaningless.
Reality TV is not reality, because it’s staged, yet the audience is manipulated into believing not only that it’s real, but that they are themselves participants through interactive engagement. Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane is not reality TV, but does, even more than any of Home’s previous works, including Tainted Love (ostensibly a biography of his late mother) and Memphis Underground – which intercuts large sections of journal-type writing that recounted the author’s travails around London, hooking up with contacts for lunch and discussing art exhibitions and books over swanky salads and espressos – challenge the notions of a fixed reality. Moreover, in combing fictional narrative and straight reportage, the text goes even further than its predecessors in laying bare the construct of character.
Having always been willfully contentious and antagonistic toward the literary establishment – not to mention the academy and all it represents – Home’s statement in reference to his earlier works, in which he claimed ‘I’m not interested in traditional notions of literary depth, and characterisation bores me’ still holds strong. Only here we see Home’s disinterest in characterisation having become something more active, through a calculated and complete dismantlement of character. As the book progresses, Templeton proves himself to be a most unreliable narrator, and there are huge gaps in his first-person narrative, which are of course attributed to his drug addiction and heavy drinking, as well as occasionally falling victim to his own trick with ‘knock-out drops.’ Having demonstrated that character is merely as much a construct as plot, Home then contrives for the narrator to fall apart in a mess of delusion and confusion before the reader’s eyes.
Returning to Home’s antagonistic stance toward all things ‘establishment’ and in particular ‘academia,’ there’s no small irony in the circumstances of the book’s creation, which in turn informs the book’s setting. Work began on the novel in the Spring and Summer of 2005, when Home was writer in residence at none other than the prestigious University of York, and while the novel itself is set on the campus of the City University of Newcastle upon Tyne (which facilitates the use of its acronym repeatedly throughout the text), the descriptions of the university’s lake, replete with ducks and geese, does bear a strong similarity to the campus at Heslington. The irony would not have been lost on the author of course, and in many respects, his descriptions of various seminars and lectures, not to mention mistreatment of students (real and fantasised in Templeton’s universe) could easy be interpreted as an act of self-sabotage as much as a comment on the interactions – both spoken and unspoken – that take place between academics and their students. This isn’t to suggest we should question Home’s pedagogic methods – or his thought processes – while working in academic environments, nor if Templeton is in any way drawn from observations made of academics he met or knows: specifically, Home challenges the reader to question the nature of these things.
Home is all about the contradictions, and one thing that runs throughout his output is a commentary and critique on the eternal, irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. In Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane, he turns at least some of his attention to the contradictions of capitalism within the context of the corporatisation of education.
The uproar over tuition fees has tended to focus on the long-lasting impact on students, and the way in which university education is returning to the domain of the privileged and the wealthy. But through his drug-fucked fog (a device which conveniently facilitates gaps and inconsistencies in abundance in the ‘plot,’ such as it is – although one doesn’t really read a Stewart Home novel for the plot and the conclusion to Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane is truly absurd and spectacularly audacious), Charlie Templeton also explores the other side of the coin, namely the impact on the newfound need for academic institutions to focus on profit above the expansion of knowledge on those who provide what has become a service.
Many academics are sure to be horrified. Or, they would be, if they would deign to digest Home’s ‘trashy’ writing. But many would benefit from doing so, because horrified as they may be, many would find themselves nodding in agreement with the comments over the conditions and commercialisation of academic institutions. You also have to wonder how many would secretly find themselves identifying with some of the other scenarios that play out in Templeton’s narrative, in which the students express their dissatisfaction with the standard of teaching they’re receiving, and equally, the tutors are frustrated by the quality of students attending their lectures and seminars. Needless to say, Home crams these set-pieces with some outrageous dialogue that’s so incredible it’s probably not fiction.
Some events in Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane are incontrovertibly non-fiction, and ultimately proved to be an obstacle in bringing the title to print.As Home recently explained on one of his blogs:
‘The 7/7 bombings were incorporated into the narrative of Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane and sensitivity about the subject in its immediate aftermath was such that when I’d completed the book my treatment of the subject didn’t go down well with UK publishers. They didn’t seem to understand that the narrator is deluded when he wrongly concludes the 7/7 bombings were carried out by pagans and decides to emulate them. Among my many intentions was a desire to parody the ridiculous 7/7 conspiracy theories that emerged very quickly after the bombings, and to try to get people to see that all terrorists are reactionary scumbags regardless of the ideology they spout (and this applies to Leninist or anarchist terrorists as much as pagans or those who claim they are ‘making the world safe for democracy’).’
Herein lies another irony, namely that publishers were either unable to see the satirical intentions of this aspect of the plot, or were otherwise too scared to circulate a text that could be considered inflammatory. Whichever is the case, it’s a depressing indictment on the state of publishing, because for all of his bravado and his habitual poking of controversial subject matter, Home is mindful of how he expresses his views, and, moreover, his satire is not so subtle as to conceivably be mistaken for genuine sympathy with a suicide bomber, be they a fundamentalist or a good old-fashioned crackpot.
The real irony, however, is that it’s this relatively minor aspect of the novel that proved to be so problematic in bringing it to publication. Somnophilia, group sex and murder all feature prominently in Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, while academic malpractice and inappropriate sexual relations between Templeton and more or less every female character in the book are woven into the fabric of the narrative on almost every other page, without representing any form of obstacle. To describe the endless sex and drugs, not to mention film and exhibition reviews (Templeton’s position as a lecturer in Cultural Studies is, naturally, little more than an excuse for Home to shoehorn in variations on his own commentaries, while simultaneously parodying American Psycho as a response to critics who have compared Home’s writing to Brett Easton Ellis’) as gratuitous would be to miss the point entirely. It would therefore be wrong to criticise the book’s tendency toward obsessive detail – specifically lists of films and the cost of postage on DVD box sets from various websites – which is a prominent feature in Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, because it’s not merely a reflection and a literary parody but also a critique of both postmodern literature and the all-consuming nature of contemporary capitalism. As is always the case with Home, nothing is ever as simple or as straightforward or as superficial as it first appears.
It’s widely accepted that postmodernism is all about intertextuality, referencing and recycling, and many subscribe to the idea that originality is dead and that postmodernism self-servingly celebrates its own lack of originality and absence of depth. Home takes this principle and amplifies it to a staggering level. Where his earlier works took the pulp template as its starting point, and endlessly repeated clichés to a point that went beyond merely exhausting them, his later work has evolved to incorporate an evermore broad range of frameworks and reference points. However, the underlying methodology is fundamentally unchanged: some of the same phrases that recurred in novels like Slow Death and Blow Job resurface here, and the fact that the first terror cell Templeton encounters is a group of hard-line Buddhists revisits one of the themes of Red London. Indeed, in Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, Home appears to be reinventing clichés in order to collapse them all over again. It should all point to a creative dead-end, an unsatisfying artistic bankruptcy. But in Home’s hands, it’s an exhilarating experience. On the one hand, he does overtly celebrate and play with the elements which represent best and worst of postmodernism: the vacuity, the depthlessness, the futility and the cultural delineation, the parody and pastiche elements the result of holding a mirror to those things he parodies. But on the other, Home’s endless and in-depth critiquing brings something different to the infinite regression of postmodern culture rarely seen in the literature it creates. Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane is not an exercise in blank mimicry, but a highly-charged deconstruction of everything it represents.
A master of infinite reflexivity, Home even turns the mirror on himself, again blurring the distinctions between author and narrator, as he appears as a speaker at a conference and returns to the discussion around the identity of the author of Belle de Jour (a feature of the appendix to Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, written five years later but published in 2010). The author’s cameo simply serves as another tangent in a book that contains more angles and facets than it’s possible to readily digest at the first reading, or to summarise in a short review.
The simplicity of the prose in Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane belies the book’s theoretical complexity and the multi-layered functions. It was, of course, ever thus in Home’s work. While he has often taken an idea and run it into the ground over the course of a novel, Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane proves that Home is, if anything, growing more ambitious and more sharp in his dismantlement of contemporary culture, and stands as a veritable explosion of ideas. As contemporary fiction continues to slide evermore into formulaic banality, Home’s writing seems more essential than ever.
Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane is published by Penny-Ante Editions