‘Tis the season of giving.

I cannot wait to give Z his Christmas presents because I want to play with them myself.

I have been a very lazy blogger lately. It upsets me, but not enough for me to actually get off my mental ass and write something worthwhile. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, but cannot muster the energy to write even a perfunctory review. I think this is end-of-the-semester-slash-middle-of-the-job-market exhaustion. It is no fun.

One thing I have managed to do recently is write my first book review for Get, a new LGBT-interest periodical based in Providence. As one NKB, Vice President of the Ladies, is the managing editor of the mag, I have been dubbed Book Review Editor, which in this case means Book Review Writer. For my debut, I had big plans for a comparative piece on Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse and Liquor, but managed to write double my word limit on Exquisite Corpse alone, and so had to save Part 2 for a future edition. Since it’s likely my piece is to be slashed and burned down to its proper length before appearing in print, I thought I’d post the full piece here to assuage my vanity.

Rainbow Brite: The Queer Tastes of Poppy Z. Brite (part 1)

Some fans of Poppy Z. Brite’s horror fiction have, to Brite’s chagrin, been outspoken in their frustration at her recent shift into “foodie” fiction. Those who complain, however, seem not to have been paying attention to her writing. To this reader, it seems clear that Brite’s novels have always been focused by the same principle; whether told through vampires, cannibals, or restauranteurs, her stories are consistently about men with unconventional carnal appetites.

If “queer” means simply “gay,” then it is hard to contain Brite’s fiction under that label. It’s true that she writes primarily about male characters who prefer to have sex with other men. In many cases, however, they also prefer to kill them, drain them, disembowel them, devour them. If “queer” means something more profound—transgressive, challenging, frightening to traditional sensibilities—then Brite’s characters perhaps epitomize the label, pushing our understanding of love and lust to the limit even in a world where certain kinds of “gay” identity have found representation in the mainstream.

Brite’s 1996 novel Exquisite Corpse, a gory adventure that inspired at least one reviewer to dub her “the reigning queen” of “splatterpunks,” is an exploration of the aesthetics and erotics of death. Set in the gay New Orleans community of the early 1990s, this novel plunges fearlessly into a wholly alternative erotic universe, where bodies mix and mingle in ways that breach the line between pain and pleasure, between living and dying. With AIDS looming above the lives of these characters, it’s as if a new way of loving has to be devised, and bodies have to be wholly redefined as objects of desire. The novel’s grisly solution is to turn to two necrophiliacs, one of whom is a practiced cannibal. Their delight and obsession with dead and dying bodies transforms what is disgusting into a sexual object—warm, lush, inviting, worthy of love.

Exquisite Corpse certainly contains horrific material, but it is not a horror novel. It’s an exercise in imagining how to love an object that is culturally defined as horrific—not just a corpse, but an AIDS-ridden body, or a body of the wrong race or gender. In other words, Brite successfully uses necrophilia and cannibalism as tropes for transgressive loving. This is a kind of love that, even in its less psychotic manifestations, doesn’t have much currency in mainstream culture—for example, the intimacy of anonymous sex in a public place or of a one night stand. When Andrew Compton, a necrophiliac serial killer from London, escapes from prison, the first thing he does is pick up a man in a pub and seduce him in a public loo—that iconographic site of forbidden love between male strangers (even before George Michael’s infamous debacle with an undercover cop and his subsequent brilliant music video parodying the event). The encounter is both intimate and bloody, and Compton tells us that at the fatal, climactic moment he felt real love for his victim, a sentiment confirmed by his lament, “I’d drunk too much. I had given Sam a bad death” (68). As a killer, Compton is analogous to the sexual predator who lives to give excellent blow-jobs. His own desires, while perversely self-centered, are not selfish. He thrives on giving others more than they know how to want.

While Brite’s novels are largely about dangerous sex, they are perhaps even more so about dangerous dining. Compton decides to head to New Orleans (Brite’s own beloved hometown), imagining that the challenge of eating a raw oyster will be “part of [his] rebirth” into society. There he meets Jay Byrne, a Dahlmer-esqe playboy who butchers the homeless boys he lures home and stores their meat “in various stages of marination” (107) in a gruesome culinary laboratory in the former slave quarters behind his house. Jay and Compton fall in a kind of love just beyond the imaginative capacity of the average reader. Brite’s descriptions of Jay’s encounters with bodies do not defile sex with gore; rather, they infuse gore with sex, as if teasing you to admit that your disgust is tinged with curiosity:

The heat of freshly exposed organs wafted up at him. Jay lowered his face into the visceral stink, the stew of blood and shit and secret gases, the innards’ rare perfume. His eyelids fluttered and his nostrils flared with pleasure. (105)

The cannibal is Brite’s way of embodying the erotics of eating. Many people will claim casually that eating a certain food or dish is “better than sex,” but Brite is the only writer who has ever made me believe that a true gourmand has an erotic relationship with food that puts not only the culinary life but the sex life of ordinary people to shame. For Jay, sex and dining are one. He dives into the steamy, juicy bodies of his victims with a relish that only the luckiest of us find in lovers. The deepest, darkest recesses of the body are gruesome in these scenes, but not disgusting—quite the opposite. As they come to light through Jay’s systematic and hungry violations, they arouse a desire so visceral it is indistinguishable from appetite.

Readers of Brite’s blog know that she is the kind of person with no respect for prudish consumers. Exquisite Corpse is, more than anything, a kind of love-letter to the dangerous appetites of New Orleans denizens—and, I believe, a way of weeding out readers looking for a simple and palatable representation of love and intimacy. A descriptive theory of truly “queer” passions, both sexual and culinary, the novel brazenly invites us to seek pleasure in all the wrong places.

Poppy Z. Brite, Exquisite Corpse. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Now I need to shower and have a day.

3 thoughts on “‘Tis the season of giving.

  1. The Editor whines

    Your review is provocative and well-constructed. However, as the subject line indicates, there is a cavil. In the following sentence, Brite is the only writer who has ever made me believe that a true gourmand has an erotic relationship with food that puts the not only the culinary life but the sex life of ordinary people to shame. an extra “the” occurs. I don’t know which shouldn’t be there, but either the “the” after “puts” or the “the” after “only” need to be excused for the afternoon.

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