No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, December 01, 1996

Exquisite Corpse -- Poppy Z Brite

There is something particularly nauseating about the idea of eating something that's still alive. Isn't there? If the thought doesn't bother you, then you may find this book unexceptionable.

'Imagine meeting Nilsen & Dahmer in a bar, being invited home for coffee ...' No, thanks. Brite's previous novels, Lost Souls (1992) and Drawing Blood (1993) were investigations of human horror redeemed by their exploration of the supernatural: Exquisite Corpse, however, remains firmly rooted in the mundane – if ‘mundane’ is the right word for the Grand Guignol concoction of serial murder, necrophilia, cannibalism & sadistic sex that Brite presents this time round.

Within the first few pages of the novel, we are presented with Andrew, the imprisoned serial killer, musing on the aesthetics of slaughter:
"I killed most of the twenty-three by cutting ... because I appreciated the beautiful objects that their bodies were, the bright ribbons of blood coursing over the velvet of their skin, the feel of their muscles parting like soft butter."

After a dramatic escape – which, featuring a more sympathetic and likable protagonist, might be heroic – Andrew makes his way from the bars of Soho to sultry New Orleans, a favourite setting of Brite’s. There he encounters Jay, who hunts the bars and streets of the city rather like the vampires of Lost Souls. It is a meeting of souls: as Brite, rather slyly, puts it, “Jay had never had a live friend before, and he wasn’t sure what to do with one.” The two talk for hours, exploring the shared horrors of their natures: what is important, however, is that neither of them feel that they are monsters. As Andrew puts it, “I emerged from the womb with no morals, and no one has been able to instil any in me since. ... I had done nothing wrong. I had spent my life feeling like a species of one. Monster, mutation, Nietzschean superman – I could perceive no difference."

The ‘extraordinary love’ of Jay and Andrew is balanced by the relationship between Luke and Tran. Tran is a young Vietnamese boy whose family have just discovered that he’s gay and thrown him out. Luke, his former lover, is HIV-positive and divides his time between vitriolic radio broadcasts on WHIV (a pirate radio station run by and for HIV-positive men) and frantically trying to finish the novel that he realises will be his last. Luke’s tirades are directed at the rampantly homophobic right wing politicians of the Deep South, and the ‘breeders’ who bring more and more children into the world, and regard homosexuals as an aberration and a threat. Tran still loves Luke; "I'd like him to have a good life ... but all I can wish him now is a decent death". Lost in New Orleans, without obvious roots, he is easy prey for Andrew and Jay, whose mutual regard can only be consummated with the sharing of a victim.

It’s not as straightforward as that, of course. Brite weaves together the two parallel love stories (Luke and Tran’s mainly in the form of flashbacks) into a helix, which spirals towards a denouement which is not as pointless as one might expect. Brite continues the theme, found in both her previous novels, of love as redemption; it is clear from early in the novel, however, that there can be no happy endings.

This is a shocking novel, and also a flawed one. Brite could do more to contrast the helpless rage felt by Luke at his disease, with the feelings of Jay and David’s equally helpless victims; both are consequences of a casual approach to pleasure. And, while at least one character grows and changes during the novel, a great deal of blood is spilt before he can prove himself. No one has a decent death. The nastiness is not pointless: but one might ask whether it’s desirable to be able empathise with someone who can lovingly describe the taste and texture of human flesh, “lightly fried in butter”. And the butchery – although far from casual – pervades the novel; the overall effect is deadening, like watching a Tarantino film.

Brite’s style is humourless (for which, in this context, one should be thankful), and her characters tend towards a poetic profundity which is faintly nauseating: Andrew describes AIDS, for example, as “this malady borne on the fluids of love”, and waxes lyrical about the sensations which he experiences on seeing the first drop of blood on a victim’s skin. The French playwright Antonin Artaud defined the notion of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ – theatre that disturbs the spectator, frees unconscious repressions and allows the spectator to see himself as he really is. Artaud stressed that, on the level of performance, ‘it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies ... but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us.’ Brite’s ‘novel of cruelty’ focusses on the cruelty which people exercise upon one another – and upon the ‘monsters’ who derive pleasure from such cruelty.

It is unpleasantly easy to understand the killers’ motivation; Jay and David are shown as human beings, not just ciphers of cruelty. It is when their victim’s point of view is shown that the reader is jolted into revulsion. If Brite is trying to shock, she succeeds; if she is attempting an exploration of the dark side of human nature, she treats it too superficially to be taken seriously.

There’s a passage when Luke is recalling the reviews of his first novel, Faith in Poison, which might describe the way Poppy Brite expects Exquisite Corpse to be received: "The praise was lavish but slightly shell-shocked, as if Lucas Ransom had begun by massaging the reader's brain stem, then delivered a quick sharp blow to the back of the neck. The disparagement was similar, but with an aggrieved tone, as if the novel had deeply and personally offended the revilers. Lucas was pleased by both reactions. He had no use for middle ground." There is no middle ground for this novel. It is, in places, profoundly unpleasant: I am not a particularly squeamish reader, but there were parts of Exquisite Corpse that I regret ever having read. Reading objectively, it might be an intriguing novel – but I am not sure that I would want to be able to be objective about such a book.

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