Returning to something once loved after a long absence...often not the most positive of experiences. Be it a film, a book, a work of art; a lover, there's a tendency for change to alter perception but also what one demands and desires from those experiences, rendering any attempt to recreate old states of mind and emotion redundant; self-corrosive by nature.
Exquisite Corpse was one of many, many works through which I survived my late teens and early -to-mid twenties. Without its like, I wouldn't be here now; social anxiety, insomnia, depression...one or all would have claimed me, existing inside my own skull becoming too tortuous to bear. In their darkness, their frequent nihilism, misanthropy; their passion and poetry and characters as lost and confused and unhappy as I was, I found some avenue of expression, a way of articulating to myself what was wrong, but also what I might take joy in, if I only had the urgency of appetite to step outside of myself and find it.
Exquisite Corpse was one of many read and re-read again obsessively, on buses to and from university, at night in bed, in cafes and bars whilst lectures I probably should have attended passed me by.
I fell in love with its characters in ways I found impossible with most in my waking life; characters my affection for I still find strange and disturbing; universally broken, ambiguous, powerfully amoral people, from casual drug dealers to murderously jealous lovers, from caring but unconsciously bigoted parents to cannibal, necrophile serial killers...all presented as equal parts of the stew of humanity, the book notably amoral in terms of its framing and lack of judgement; it neither loves nor hates its characters, demonstrating profound affection for them all, in its own peculiar way, revelling in memories of lost love and sexual pleasure as much as it does the visceral, sadistic joy of a serial killer's eviscerations, a necrophage's repastes.
That factor was a revelation for me; that fiction does not need to heap judgement on its characters; to sermonise its readers, but can take unambiguous joy in their company, no matter how ostensibly loathsome, how morally absent their behaviours might be.
The joyous wantoness of it, the abandon it revels in, combined with a sweet sincerity, mercifully bereft of sentiment...characters who are beautiful and loathsome and attractive and repulsive by intervals and all at the same time. It's a shuddering and orgasmic sensation, to realise that you are attracted to characters who, in waking life, would perhaps inspire intrigue through their extremity, but also repulsion in terms of their appetites and behaviour. Serial killers, cannibals, necrophiles; drug-addicts and adulterers, all dimensions of human experience are explored here, in terms of not only the most explicit acts but also emotion; the book cultivates a sincere obsession with extreme states and conditions, placing its reader both in the position of sadist and victim; of murderer and murdered, treating no one with more or less affection than the other.
As a timid, withdrawn, socially anxious gay boy in a barely-man's skin, Exquisite Corpse gave vent and expression to drives and inclinations I did not know existed; allowing me to walk in the skins of entities who are reptilian in their confidence, who are shimmering and beautiful in their strangeness, but also things of grotesque appetite and morbid obsession; who express their adoration of other human beings (and make no mistake; these characters are profoundly and explicitly human, no matter what metaphors you might draw to describe their states of mind) via mutilations; with knives and scalpels, with saws and hooks and chains and teeth.
The kindred-souled killers of this book -Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne, both of whom act as composites of various “real life” serial killers, including Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer, respectively- are explored in the most intimate detail from the first instance; as human beings first and foremost, as “serial killers” not even second or third; whilst those appetites dominate and define to certain degrees, they are also complete and coherent characters in their own rights, from Compton's faintly prissy British sensibilities; his refinement and artistry, to Byrne's explosive penchant for grotesque theatrics, the far more overt sculptures and works of art he carves from his victims. Both exhibit a common characteristic of intense and unambiguous love for those they butcher; a desire to consume and control that they can express in no other fashion. As such, the scenes of murder and butchery are intermingled with the agonisingly erotic, the two co-mingling until they are difficult to discern. The reader is invited into their worlds, to feel as they feel, to hunger as they hunger, to love as they love; an invitation at least as seductive as any vampire or incubus might offer, albeit shorn of those entity's mythological trappings. The urge to be with such characters, even knowing with a reader's divine eye who and what they are, what they would do if they got their hands on you, is a strangely enticing and shuddering realisation; arousing parts of the reader's self that they may not have acknowledged before.
Nor are the less extreme characters any less charming; from lost and lissome Tran, a Vietnamese teen only just feeling his way through his own appetites and inclinations, to embittered and broken Lucas Ransom, the man responsible for Tran's awakening, his former lover, now abandoned, shattered by the loss, slowly succumbing to recently diagonsed HIV...all are genuinely wonderful to be around, in all of their ambiguity, amorality; their contradictions and esctasies and despairs...barring Tran, who is as close to innocent as anyone or anything in this book gets, all are men who destroy what they love; who cannot help but be corrosive; Lucas with his barely concealed anger at the world, his general misanthropy, that, as Tran himself asserts, was in full swing long before their break up and the diagonosis that spurred it, Byrne and Compton through the expressions that love drives them to. Whilst Lucas could be said to be somewhat more stable than these two, there is some genuine overlap in terms of the way they perceive the world and humanity, that allows him to realise them for what they are, whereas Tran remains blithely and wilfully ignorant.
Their interactions; the coincidences and circumstances that string them together, drawing them into one another's lives...the bloody theatrics that result...all heart-achingly compelling, all described from a deeply sensual, fleshy perspective that renders every setting and experience as a sensory painting; lurid, lingering strokes of scent and taste and texture scar every page, allowing the reader to smell and taste as the characters do; to share in their love making, sickness and atrocity in a manner that is beguiling, emotionally exhausting, but addictive; the book is a poorly healed wound, picked at and picked at, coaxed to bleed again and again, until any hope of healing becomes absurd.
Returning to it in recent weeks, after so long an absence; after transformations and changes, the anxious, affrighted youth who first discovered it long since slaughtered, cooled, picked clean by whatever scavengers had a mind on his meat...a little like meeting an old lover, old betrayals stirring, as well as old pleasures.
A delirious reunion, finding far more to appreciate in it, now that it is no longer necessary; that anxiety and depression and divorcement from my fellow queers no longer makes their company in fiction essential to sanity: something to revel in, in every bleak, nihilistic, sensual particular, where even the most hideous and discomfitting of sensations become toothsome, where the most monstrous in humanity is celebrated.
As intense and passionate an affair as I remember, but one that operates on new and deeper dimensions, now that we're both older, and have learned a little of the world and one another.
Make no mistake, Exquisite Corpse knows its audience; it speaks to a very specific sub-set of readers whilst deliberately alienating -and outright insulting- others; many will find its universal sensualism, its celebration of the most intimate morbidity, alienating, if not entirely atrocious; others will find the close focus on LGBTQ characters far outside their realms of experience, and therefore somewhat foreign or frictionless.
For those the book casts its “come-to-bed” eyes at from the shadows, very little will sing as bitter-sweetly, or prove quite so generous in its affections.
Exquisite Corpse can be purchased here.