Book Report: Homunculus

Homunculus by local author Jerry Stubblefield  is a bad dream in book form. It’s an acid trip gone horridly wrong, an art house horror flick disguised as dark comedy—a cruel joke. But for all of the book’s cringe-making and queasy confession, it is a well-written novel—one sure to win a small contingency of fans.

A homunculus is, according to Dictionary.com, “A fully formed, miniature human body believed, according to some medical theories of the 16th and 17th centuries, to be contained in the spermatozoon.” It’s also an awkward word to pronounce, the jumble of consonants sticking to the tongue. But the very difficulty of the word is appropriate for the character it describes: a tiny, angry man born from the bellybutton of Hector Owen, the book’s slumpishly middle aged anti-hero.

Owen is a failed writer. He rarely leaves his house, is letting his relationship with his wife—a seemingly charming and attractive women—slip away. All signs point to clinical depression, which is not in the running for “most fun topics about which to read.” Kudos to Stubblefield for not penning the typical depression narrative. However, to avoid cliche he constructed the literary tool of the homunculus, a living version of Hector’s psyche.

“I fell asleep humiliated, amidst lingering feelings of hope and pangs of fear—it was frightening to know the homunculus was somewhere in the house, and he knew me very well, and he was mine and only mine, and outside me,” Stubblefield writes. It’s a creepy passage, but this book, at under 300 pages, tips the balance with all manner of creepiness.

Not to ruin the plot for any potential readers, but those of delicate sensibilities and sensitive gag reflexes should know Homunculus examines, in detail, all manner of bodily functions. It also delves into themes of narcissism in sexuality as well as alluding to incest. Tread carefully, readers. Stubblefield has a knack for the gross:

“It is in fact a hank of hair, and it extends not just into my stomach, but on down to my intestines where it’s hopelessly enmeshed with the fetid, smegma-like matter that sticks to my hands as I pull,” he writes in one hallucination sequence. “The pain and revulsion begin to bring on nausea, but I have no choice but to continue; I’ve already pulled out yards and yards of the stuff.”

But there is an innocuous side to the book. It’s set in Asheville and references many local landmarks. Even former Asheville mayor Leni Setnick makes a cameo in the character of would-be public servant (and object of Hector’s desire) Lainie Wishnick:

“I began to meld pieces of Lainie Wishnick’s dialogue with some lyrics off the Tapestry album, and Lainie Wishnick herself with Carole King—they did resemble each other.”

It’s a strange passage, but funny in its aptness.

Jerry Stubblefield reads and discusses Homunculus at Malaprop’s on Friday, April 17. He’ll also talk about his experience with publisher Black Heron Press. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Book Report: Homunculus

  1. Tom Scheve

    I bought this book after reading this review, and I’m really glad I did. I’m about halfway through, can’t wait to finish and I’ll read whatever Jerry Stubblefield puts out next. Thanks for the helpful review, Alli.

    The homunculus seems to me to be much more than just a literary tool employed by an author, though that it certainly is; the narrator himself (as well as the reader) grapples with what the homunculus is, even with the knowledge it is his own hallucination — is it just madness, or (as it grows) representative of his resentment toward his wife’s abortion of their child, or some blend representing that fetus itself, though coming not from her body, but from his own, and containing all of his own darkness and pure, unfiltered desires?

    Or, is the homunculus both the author’s and the narrator’s creative process itself, as the narrator (a playwright) refers to the creature when speaking to others in the same way he refers to creative projects that are in the gestational stage … from p. 88 [his mother speaking]:

    [begin passage]
    “…You’re young, you’re in a fallow period. You’re going to write a play and it’s going to have a great part for me.”
    … “Actually,” I said, “I am working on a little something. Nothing on paper yet, but I’m in the creative mode right now.” I was secretly referring to the creation I’d born through my navel; thus in a sense I wasn’t lying.
    “I’m not surprised,” she said. “And you’ll take control of it and begin to shape it when the time is right.”
    [end passage]

    This seems to open the door to the possibility that the homunculus is the idea for this book itself, growing into itself: this book. He is now beginning to shape it; the time is right, the proper point in the book has been reached for further development of the story.

    There are other such meta-qualities to this book, such as the narrator’s mental forays into spontaneous play-writing, which include standard elements of that form, i.e. heavy-handed social messages (with a knowing wink) and stage direction, and are formatted on the page as if from a play.

    Stubblefield includes these great human moments, for instance Hector’s habit of picking some random section of wall to pretend to be examining closely when another character turns their attention to him.

    This book was printed (I’m pretty sure) by a small press, and I hope it gets the chance to gain wider exposure. As far as I’ve read at least, it deserves it.

    The book is based in Asheville, but you will not find rosy-Appalachia-hardscrabble-woodstove-ancestry bla bla that so many other regional writers are cranking out. The location could be anywhere, and the book banks on just being a bad-ass book, and not on evoking Carolina cornpipe stone biscuit.

    Enough of this, I have to finish this book! I’m not shilling for the guy, but he became my new man within about a dozen pages.

    Thanks for the great recommendation, Alli, and keep up the good work–I really enjoy your reviews.

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