Exquisite Corpse - Poppy Z Brite
This book must have
the most apt title of any I've read.
I was going to wait until I'd recovered from reading this novel to review it, but that seems almost cowardly; so, I'll consider it now, while it's still fresh in my mind.
Jeffery Dahmer (Jay) meets Denis Nilson (Andrew) in a bloody clash of homosexual passion. This novel takes fascination with boys' bodies to a whole new depth; they are eviscerated, impaled, dissected under these hands that seek the ultimate communion: consummation of the flesh. Tran and Luke, lovers who have parted painfully over Luke's HIV status, are drawn inexorably into the maw that is Jay and Andrew's murderous obsession with boys' flesh. In some ways, Jay and Andrew are metaphors for HIV- the disease that eats its way through the whole book. They are indiscriminating, totally compassionless and offer their victims a slow and painful death.
To say this book is not for the faint-hearted is an under-statement. Poppy Brite's two more well known books, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, rejoice in breaking every taboo. This one wallows in those very taboos- necrophilia, drug addiction, AIDS, murder, torture. It plumbs the depths of the human condition. So, why tackle it? The most chilling thing about this novel is that, ultimately, it's all true. Dahmer and Nilson were real. In a terrifying scene, a victim runs from Jay's house, bleeding, drugged, and about to be tortured and murdered. Calmly, the police hand him back to Jay. This is an almost word-for-word re-enactment of the crime that finally brought Jeffrey Dahmer down. Just as Jay and Andrew in the book, Dahmer and Nilson murdered boys, stored or ate their remains, and often performed sex acts on the bodies in some terrible attempt to end loneliness. In one part of this book, Andrew turns to us and asks us if we aren't enjoying his tale.
Are we complicit in the evil described in this book then? I don't think we are. Unlike, for example, Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, or the pornographic sequel, Hannibal, this novel does not titillate, and it doesn't encourage you to be voyeuristic. It's superbly written, stunningly insightful, and almost chillingly dispassionate, just like its characters.
Final verdict? Compulsive, repelling, fascinating, utterly terrifying.
Severe warning on this one- adults only. But if you're feeling brave, read it. I don't think you'll regret it.
Gross…fascinating…disturbing…lush…terrifying…compulsive. All these words, and more, apply to this extraordinary book. I hesitate to say I loved and would highly recommend it (though I did and I do) because many readers will be so disgusted by its subject matter they will probably find it unreadable, or at least wonder what kind of sick mind could possibly find enjoyment in such a tale. So this review is hedged with ifs ands and buts. If you know the works of Poppy Z Brite (see our reviews for previous novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood) you will recognise her trademark style. However, if you are new to this author, unless you have a very strong stomach and aren't easily offended, I suggest you begin with one of the other titles. I am definitely a big fan of hers, so bear that in mind too when reading this review.
Reduced to its basics, this is a compelling, yet frequently unbearable, love story between two gay serial killers and their assorted victims, hangers-on and sundry characters, all lovingly drawn with precision and attention to detail that you would expect from PZB. Do not attempt to read it if you're not sufficiently open minded to accept necrophilia, cannibalism, graphic sex, and exceedingly gory descriptions of the killing, dismemberment, and disposing of young boys. I'm not joking. The novel contains the most detailed and shocking descriptions of the ways and means of serial killers I've ever come across, in film or book. Jay in particular is a startling creation, a man who uses the flesh of his victims in an act uncomfortably akin to the act of communion.
In the hands of a less competent writer, the book would easily fall into my personal categorisation of pornography, i.e. sex and violence deprived of feeling and emotion, like for e.g. The Initiation (see review), a similarly shocking and graphic yet poorly written book that left me feeling soiled and used. Poppy Z Brite is no ordinary author, so Exquisite Corpse, therefore, is something else altogether. I'm just not sure exactly what. I think the writer lets us into the minds of serial killers. I don't know how much research she did, but the characters Jay and Andrew aren't stereotypes. They will haunt your dreams and give you nightmares, with their unique take on loving boys. The author actually makes you care for them and struggle to understand why they do the ghastly things they do. It's a beautifully twisted story of tainted love set in the dark decadence of New Orleans, miasma of corruption and decay, of flesh and spirit. Gothic horror I guess is its category.
The cover leads you to expect blood and kinky sex, so it doesn't disappoint. The writing is descriptive and evocative, filled with colour and depth. There's a subsidiary love story between Tran, a beautiful Vietnamese boy, and his tormented lover, Luke, that will make you weep for both. The story encompasses disease (AIDS), drug addiction and class as well as sex and murder. Its weaknesses? I'd have to say the opening bits set in Britain didn't entirely convince me of its time and place. I'd have to say too that the ending was both appalling and more than a little contrived. There's a horrible beauty to it. I can say only that if you're strong enough go see for yourself.
Buy from Lambda Rising in the States here
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