Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane and more
Stewart Home is a writer, artist and filmmaker living in London, England. His latest novel, Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane, comes out February 26. Here's an email interview I did with Stewart about this book. Unfortunately, we did not discuss Three-sided Football, King Mob, bread dolls, Lucio Fulci or Punk rock from Finland this time around. There's always next time.
What is Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane about?
Stewart Home: Among other things the book addresses delusional thinking and in this particular novel it is manifested through the narrator Charlie, who is a hack academic with a drug problem. Charlie also has an obsession with porn and likes to have sex with unconscious women. The book is very funny if you've got a black sense of humour, and hopefully it is unreadable and distressing to those who are uptight, po-faced, repressed and even more deluded than the narrator!
You wrote the novel over the spring and summer of 2005. What was the inspiration for the work and the characters? It’s more than a parody of the university system, as it touches on the events of 7/7 as well. Can you go into this a bit more?
SH: I began the book when I had a writer-in-residence gig at York University. So it starts by describing the office I was given there. I'm very proud not to have a BA or any post-graduate qualifications, and obviously universities are basically there to turn people into zombies - so that they can become trusted functionaries of the capitalist system. That said, we all reproduce our own alienation under capitalism, so I'm not saying that people shouldn't attend or work in universities, just that we should be aware that they are about conformism and anyone who claims that higher education has very much to do with intellectual growth and development is either an idiot or an apologist for capitalism.
Moving on, I happened to be back home in London when the 7/7 tube bombs went off and that was a strange experience because the authorities closed down the mobile phone networks and the initial radio reports talked about fires rather than bombs, and at more places than where the explosions took place. Some people were panicking and it reminded me of 9/11 - where the repeated broadcast of film of that atrocity on TV turned viewers into zombies.
When 9/11 happened I was writing a keynote speech for a conference on punk rock and someone phoned me to tell me it was the end of the world and that I should put on the TV. I just ignored this stupid exhortation coz I had better things to do. Anyway I went to this punk conference and the academics there were even more zombified than usual coz they'd been through this psychic driving process of watching the 9/11 atrocity over and over again on TV. I watched the footage once about 10 days after it happened just to get an idea of how these academics had self-labotomised themselves sitting up all night watching the replays on the news.
So my experience of 9/11 resulted in me knowing immediately I wanted to incorporate 7/7 into the novel, and very soon after that I also wanted to attack the stupid conspiracy theories that had started swirling around about the tube bombers. But the book is also very much about 2005. It describes a bunch of exhibitions and concerts I went to, but from the perspective of a very fictional narrator. Charlie is stitched together from some of the most obnoxious academics I've come across over about 25 years, so he's a complete cunt.
Why did it take so long to find a publisher? In light of your previous novels, Red London and Blow Job, which deal with mass mayhem in London, it seems odd that publishers were uncomfortable with the depiction of 7/7 in this novel?
SH: If you imagine treating 9/11 in the same way as I treated 7/7, satirically - although obviously also from the perspective of someone who opposes all terrorism as vanguardist and reactionary - then you can probably see why the bigger UK publishers didn't go for the book immediately afterwards. I had some Print On Demand offers from small operations but I figured that if I was to go down the POD route I might as well do it myself. So I waited till I got an offer of a proper print run of the book. Actually Blow Job also hung around for a few years because the bigger publishers found that distasteful, but it didn't take nearly as long to get published as this new book. Blow Job was written before Slow Death and Come Before Christ and Murder Love, although it was published after both of them. Publishing really is incredibly conservative and if, like me, you understand that literature is about the creation of reactionary bourgeois subjectivities and then write with the intention of destroying the novel as we know it, what you do tends to go down badly with most editors.
To my knowledge, there is no novel that deals with the events of 7/7. Do the events of 7/7 still cast a long shadow across Britain?
SH: I think we've got over the worst of 7/7 and the impact was not as great as 9/11 in the US, but it still casts a shadow. I'm kinda surprised there isn't more 7/7 fiction but I guess you could call the conspiracy tracts about it fiction.
If you were unable to find a publisher, did you consider self-publishing the book?
SH: I was busy and figured I'd find someone to publish the book eventually, so I just hung on. Not that I'm against self-publishing since it demonstrates a conviction about what you do. I might have self-published eventually if nothing had come through but obviously I was prepared to wait 7 years to see this book in print; it was written before my last published novel Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie. In fact I finished it nearly 5 years before I finished Blood Rites.
I’m a fan of conspiracy theories. Not that I actually believe them, but they make good material for fiction. There were some conspiracy theories around 7/7. Did you incorporate any of those into the narrative?
SH: I ignored the glove puppet conspiracy theories that finger the British state as being behind 7/7 and instead had Charlie convince himself that the bombings were the work of pagans. He then decides to become a suicide bomber and to attack a major Christian target, Holy Island just off the north-east coast of mainland England.
Charlie’s sexual preferences seem to highlight his need to be in control. Do you explore the relationship of sex and power any further in the novel?
SH: I think Charlie's fetish for sex with unconscious women is indicative of capitalist alienation, subject become objects and vice versa. Sex should, of course, be about human interaction but Charlie wants to do away with that - just as capitalist power tries to abolish all human relationships too. I think the intention is pretty explicit and I don't flesh it out with too much theory, but obviously Marx is one place to pursue that.
Charlie has a wild syllabus that focuses on obscure horror films and music. I would definitely sign up for his class. Of course, it’s not something you would expect to find in an academic setting, which is part of the joke. Can you talk a bit on why you used these references and how they fit into the story? Also, what would your own course syllabus look like?
SH: Writers looking for mainstream success reward their contemporary readers with things most will instantly recognise - which means references to cultural icons like The Beatles or James Bond - because rather than writing for individuals they're writing for an undifferentiated mass. I wanted to subvert that and deliberately use material that wouldn't appeal to editors and publishers looking for a bestseller. And I guess I also used what I used because it interests me. I certainly enjoy a good Eurosleaze movie!
When I'm teaching my syllabus tends to be dictated by the fact that on the whole kids wanting to do so-called creative writing haven't been taught the history of modernism. So you have to run them through dada, surrealism, fluxus, psychogeography, sound poetry, visual poetry, even the beats. If at the end of it they still want to write conventional realist prose, this will at least be a conscious decision (even if I'd view it as a bad one), rather than because they don't know anything else. Obviously the cultural references fit easily into the novel because the narrator teaches cultural studies so he's talking about films and music day in and day out.
You have a running joke where the students seem unaware of any music outside of Coldplay or of horror movies beyond mainstream works. They seem to lack any historical context of what they are studying. Do you think this is true? That many studying/working in cultural studies (including artists and academics) do not realize the history of works of art, writing or film, mainstream or otherwise? Do you think that the history of underground art is slowly being forgotten in academic circles in favor of mainstream and less challenging works?
SH: Unfortunately my experience of having writer and artist-in-residence gigs at a number of universities has led me to the conclusion that students - and especially those in English departments, the art schools are a little better - really know very little outside of canonical and absolutely mainstream contemporary culture. So the majority really do tell me their favorite music is like Dylan, The Beatles, Coldplay and U2. They also get taught in modules so they have huge chunks of history missing from what has been drummed into them. All in all this is completely depressing and most academics aren't much better.
Obviously since I don't have academic qualifications I can't get academic posts, I can only go into universities as a practicing writer or artist. But the way most university education narrows horizons really is appalling. University students are fed the delusion that they belong to some kind of elite, so they often think they know it all and don't realise that there are huge gaps in their very limited knowledge. Universities also encourage absolutely ridiculous specialisation, particularly at post-graduate level. The ultimate effect of higher education is to retard social development and the growth of knowledge in a way that is analogous to the church in the middle ages. So that's something I'm trying to put across in the novel, although obviously both the capitalist media and the universities themselves tend to view this rather banal and obvious fact as completely counter-intuitive.
Does the behavior of the characters reflect the drugs associated with their names – Charlie = cocaine, Mary-Jane = marijuana, Mandy = Mandrax?
SH: Charlie is definitely in a cocaine and crack la la land. I was talking to a recovering crackhead about the book recently and he could totally see Charlie in his own behavior on drugs. He started telling me about how he'd fast forward through porn videos looking for certain acts when he'd been on the pipe. It was kind of unnerving to hear how close his behavior had been to Charlie's - since I've never been into crack or coke myself, although I've been around plenty of people who were. So Charlie is me drawing on my observations of people using crack and coke, I'm not drawing on my own personal experiences. I've also noticed that coke tends to be popular with academics - or at least the ones I meet. Personally I view psychedelics as a lot more fun. Because Charlie is the drug-addled narrator and he's talking out of his arse most of the time, Mandy and Mary-Jane are a little more mixed-up drug wise and can be swapped around in terms of substance effects.
Through the novel, we can see Charlie is becoming slowly unhinged. Is Charlie a reliable narrator?
SH: He's a complete fantasist. I wouldn't believe a word he says. In the last two chapters he claims to be in hell, but it sounds more like Kensington in west London. So by the end of the book he's coming on like a cross between mystic charlatan T. Lobsang Rampa and the end of Jim Thompson's The Getaway. Cyril Henry Hoskin, more popularly known as Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, was a writer who claimed to have been a lama in Tibet before spending the second part of his life in the body of a British man. This is of course complete bollocks. And having said I wouldn't believe a word Charlie says, I wouldn't believe much of what most real life academics say either.
If Charlie is the main character, why is his name second in the title?
SH: Among other things the title was meant to reference the Russ Meyer movie Cherry, Harry & Raquel! So in that movie title the male name is placed in the middle, which is why I did the same thing. Also the name placement reflects the narrator being completely drug-fucked and not knowing who he is, as well as constantly mixing up his wife and his mistress!
What else are you working on?
SH: My delusions of grandeur mostly - since you can't let those slip if you promote yourself as 'an ego-maniac on a world historical scale', as I do. I've also a couple of novels in the pipeline, one The Nine Lives Of Ray The Cat Jones is finished and ready to go to print when some lucky publisher scoops it up. I completed that book last year - so it hasn't hung around as long as Mandy yet!
Is there anything (music, films, books, etc) that you are really grooving to right now?
SH: As far as printed books go what I read is mostly non-fiction. However I have read the most recent (in English) novels by Peter Plate and Wu Ming recently and they both grooved me. Musically I've been blasting out a lot of breakbeat by DJ Balli but that may also have something to do with the fact that he gave me a bunch of his stuff when I was in Bologna a couple of weeks ago! I listen to a lot of old soul records too - right now My Love is Getting Stronger by Cliff Nobles and Treat Me Like A Lady by P.P. Arnold are really doing it for me. I also like Eddie Bo, Eddie Harris and Willie Mitchell a lot!
And for those process nerds, what is your writing process? What tools, programs, etc. do you use in your writing? Do you write longhand first or do you dump it straight onto the computer?
SH: I learnt to touch type when I was 16 and I just bang my fiction straight out on my computer keyboard. I can type a lot quicker than I can write by hand. I believe in writing fast and then sorting out the edits when you've completed the book. After all you won't know exactly how the first sentence should read until you've completed the last. That said I have got slower recently. My unpublished novel The Nine Lives Of Ray The Cat Jones took two years to write because it entailed a lot of research which can slow things down. My earlier books I mostly wrote in a couple of months - a month for the first draft and a month for a couple of revisions. However, my earlier books were also shorter, around sixty thousand words, whereas Mandy and Ray are both about eighty thousand words long.
|Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane
by Stewart Home