14 February 2013

Stewart Home: Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton (2004)

Stewart Home believes it's a waste of time reading such well known writers as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes because, following Joyce and Beckett, they write as if 'modernism never really happened'. Obviously I'm in complete agreement, and merely reading the first few pages, for instance, of Amis's last novel Lionel Asbo (2012) is indication enough of the author's cliché-ridden style, his spite against his English enemies – in a word his apparent imaginative bankruptcy. Clearly, Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton offers something more than an attempted rehash of worn-out words.

That this novel promises something very different from the ordinary is indicated by the cover alone. It boasts a 'quotation' by Kathy Acker, who calls the novel a 'repellent, sick psychodrama', adding that is 'sadistic, morally reprehensible and has no redeeming features whatsoever', but concludes 'I loved it!'. The reader might expect Acker, noted for the sex and violence of her novels, to enthuse about a book that contains lashings of sex and violence, but the quotation is unreliable: Kathy Acker died seven years before it was published. The back cover gives a (reliable, presumably) quotation from the NME favorably comparing Stewart Home's writing to Will Self's, and a definitely reliable quotation from the London Review of Books firmly stating that anyone interested in serious literature should be aware of Stewart Home. The last quotation, coming from an august publication, would appear to contradict Acker's ostensible puff, and indeed this novel has many contradictions.

The story (and that's a very bad description of a work that fights shy of traditional narrative) is told by an intellectual, female, college-educated artist-turned-prostitute operating in the East End who discusses her theories – mainly about the identity of Jack the Ripper – with a 'john', with such authors as Henry James and George Gissing rather convincingly being put forward as the Whitechapel murderers, but in the end leaning toward a time-traveling William Burroughs.
And Burroughs (or rather one of his writing techniques) quietly makes a number of appearances in the central section, where a john (Alan Abel) stars in a snuff movie in which he is supposed to be 'fucked to death' by numerous women in five-minute sessions,  most of them high on something, and one being a 72-year-old who 'gives a demon blow job when she takes her false teeth out': the hookers are given a paragraph each, and like all of the book's paragraphs this consists of exactly 100 words (an Oulipian constraint), but in this section the regularity of the procedure is emphasized by the cut-up technique in which different hookers' names are given to often identical/interchangeable descriptions of their physical features and actions.

The narrator bemoans the fact that a 400-year tradition of prostitution in the East End is being forced by gentrification out to the margins – in fact to Bow, aka Tower Hamlets Cemetery, where (following two incidents in which the narrator exercises her own rather gorier cut-up technique on two johns) a long (and very movingly written) apocalyptic dream-like sequence takes place.

Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton is in part (as its Orwellian title might suggest) social study, but also prose poem, literary criticism, philosphical digression, literary experiment, anti-capitalist tract, horror story, porn, Ripperology essay, and much more. Who cares about the well known writers: this novel is as addictively engrossing as it is infuriatingly ungraspable.

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