Wednesday Book: All in the worse possible taste

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The Independent Culture
AFTER THE deluge of post-Irvine Welsh, cash-in anthologies themed around the youthful pursuit of drug-taking while dancing to repetitive beats, it is refreshing to find a collection of "new writing" as original and exciting as Suspect Device. That's not to say sex and narcotics are absent: if that mix is what you fancy, then this book is full of it.

Stewart Home, the editor, has avoided nearly all the usual literary names; he has rounded up a disparate bunch of contributors including a few stray music journalists, a philosopher from Brighton, and John King - the author of those highly successful football novels. Their contributions fall roughly into two categories: prose experiments that explore language at the point of its collapse, and fast-moving, semi-comic narratives that deal more conventionally with highly charged subject matter - radical activism, art vandalism, crime, sex and the unbearable pain of daily existence.

Simon Strong's "Boredom" begins by describing in neurotic detail the position of models on a set of pornographic playing cards. Frozen in time, isolated from the banality of the "nudie" deck, they begin to assume a greater importance. Then Strong allows his words to trip up, randomly creating new physiognomies for these motionless figures.

This emphasis on technique and stylised writing is reminiscent of the French nouveau roman, and it works in stark contrast to a piece such as Ian Trowell's hilarious "Time's Up" - a precisely crafted short story about inner-city alienation. The central character is a loathsome intellectual yob who produces a Situationist magazine and has a fondness for rock-climbing (he names the cliffs after essays by Jean Baudrillard). Suffice it to say that the loser whose life he makes a misery ends up in a factory stitching climbing harnesses while reading a book entitled "Sabotage In the Workplace".

Other highlights include John Barker's "Criminal Justice Act", a cocaine- wracked London crime odyssey, Berthold Bluel's report on derelict buildings, and Stewart Home's own contribution, which takes the form of two "anti- forewords" printed alongside each other.

This piece provides a definitive transgression of the anthologist's role. Home lifts the lid on all those compilers whose books are populated only by their friends and potential lovers. He describes his struggle against "the average editor" and reveals some of the secrets behind his 20-minute compiling process: "I was able to eliminate two authors for their posh double-barrelled names, and a third for being called Martin." This rant is supposedly penned by two artists who have created a fictional anthologist called "Stewart Home".

However, I can report with some degree of certainty that the mysterious figure responsible for Suspect Device is a living, breathing human being, although the volume of projects, pamphlets and personae he takes on are so bewildering, you wonder whether Stewart Home isn't disappearing completely into his own speculations.

As a terrifyingly prolific novelist, his own fiction is inspired by the British "youthsploitation" pulp of the Seventies. These sensational tales of teenage high jinks were churned out for the mass market, most famously by Richard Allen with his notorious Skinhead sequence.

Years later, after reading six of these slim volumes in one day, Home sensed that their numbing repetitions, cardboard characters and blunt prose (as well as lashings of misogyny and racism) could be the perfect format for satirising political, religious and artistic subcultures. In Home's later novels (including the last three for Serpent's Tail: Slow Death, Come Before Christ and Murder Love, and Blow Job), he successfully challenges literary orthodoxy by taking this "bad" prose style and overhauling the content for his own ends, often exaggerating the sex and violence until they reach breaking-point.

The results are compelling, revolting and frequently very funny. This method has generated followers and imitators, and several of the stories in Suspect Device closely follow the model. Bizarrely, Home is very popular in Finland.

If Stewart Home sounds like a prankster, he takes his humour very seriously. Having spent a large chunk of his early career on the dole (that now-defunct research grant for artists and writers), he devoured the libraries, checking out great and obscure works of philosophy and political thought, then branching out into literature, pulp and all manner of esoteric stuff. In the forewords to Suspect Device, this indisputable scholarship rubs up against a tendency to rabble-rousing. So after a swift and efficient critique of the literary mainstream, he rejects the "throughput of idiots who predicate their precious identities on being novelists".

Suspect Device is not a showcase for a new, ambitious generation of young turks, hungry for a book deal. Rather, Home and the assembled authors are revealing a set of different possibilities for writing. They use idiosyncrasy and experiment as a resistance against the banal and the acceptable. As the title suggests, Home is reconfiguring books as explosive elements - pages so stuffed with ideas that they might go off in your hands.