Review: Exquisite Corpse – Poppy Z. Brite

I’m not a huge fan of writing reviews, partly because I’m not very good at taking a firm stance on things which means I have a hard time quantifying how enjoyable something is. But since it seems 2018 is the year of trying new things, I figured I’d write up a few thoughts about the books I’ve been reading anyway.

I picked up Poppy Z. Brite’s book Exquisite Corpse partially because I was intrigued with the title. It made me think of the activity in which everyone draws part of an image or contributes words to form a sentence, often resulting in strange and surreal illustrations and ideas.

Exquisite Corpse came to me while I was browsing erratically through Vroman’s (a bookstore that deserves infinitely more time than I gave to it) through one of the little staff recommendation cards. I skimmed over the hand written note, found the term “graphic descriptions” and decided that it might just be the thing to help me jumpstart my way out of my creative rut.

Fair warning now that Brite’s novel was categorized in the horror section. If graphic discussions of murder, dismemberment, and explicit necrophilia make you uncomfortable, I suggest you ignore this review and this book. And as always, I’m prone to spoiling plots in my discussions.

exquisite corpse

As I thought about writing this review, I couldn’t think of a good way to summarize the plot, which I thought was a little jumbled together and oddly paced. If you’re looking for a simple summary, I suggest checking out Wikipedia for a rather simplistic description.

Instead, I figured I’d talk about the characters that set the stage and a few of the more pointed thoughts I had.

Andrew Compton is a serial killer that finds great joy in having his way with the dead bodies of his victims. For him, killing is a work of art. He is also the only character whose sections are narrated in the first person (a quirk of the writing that I’m still not sure I understand). He escapes early on in the novel from prison by faking his death and manages to make his way to the United States, where he brushes against the rest of the cast.

Jay Byrne is the novel’s other serial killer located in New Orleans. He finds his own kind of pleasure in killing and perverse sexual acts. Jay finds great joy not only in killing, but in taking men apart and butchering them, preparing them for his own consumption. His motivation lies in the notion that by eating their flesh, they somehow become a part of him, rendering them incapable of leaving him behind (a quirk of his character that comes up occasionally, but only on a superficial level).

Tran is the Vietnamese American kid whose full name is conveniently forgotten for most of the novel by nearly every character. He’s one of the French Quarter locals, kicked out of his parents’ home for his homosexuality and oddly attracted to Jay, whom he’s run into and interacted with for various drug deals. Once he’s kicked out, he seeks Jay out to test the waters in starting a relationship with him. (It ends about as well as you’d imagine a relationship with a serial killer would, although we’ll get into the details later.)

Lucas Ransom is Tran’s ex boyfriend, a writer turned tortured soul turned angry radio host, Lush Rimbaud. We don’t get a whole lot of Lucas’ character, aside from his burning love for Tran (which acts as the main motivator for the climax of the novel), and the fact that he’s dying of AIDS, the knowledge of which has essentially torn his life apart.

By the end of it all, Andrew and Lucas end up as the only surviving characters. Andrew and Jay conspire to kill and ultimately eat Tran, which goes wrong when Tran briefly escapes and catches Lucas’ attention just as he was prowling around trying to find him and rectify their relationship. Lucas ultimately thwarts the killers’ plan by stabbing Jay, but not before they’ve inflicted fatal woulds on Tran. Andrew manages to get away.

There’s a lot going on in the story, which may be why it isn’t quite as compelling as it could be. The novel’s only 240 pages long — there’s a lot of material to work with, and not enough space and time spent on it.

As I read, I gathered the themes that the book touched on but didn’t expand on as much as it could have:

  • The 90s gay scenes in both London and New Orleans — an incredibly important aspect of the setting, especially given that all of the main characters were gay men that dealt with the social climate differently.
  • Tran and Lucas’ relationship — there was an entire section in the middle of the novel where I nearly forgot that Andrew was part of the book. Their story, along with those of the auxiliary characters that made up their social circles could have made for their own narrative entirely.
  • One/either of the killers? Both Andrew and Jay had a great many opportunities to expand on their motivations, but we stop just short of exploring either of them in any meaningful way. Two killers for 240 pages may not have been enough space to give them any real depth.
  • The apparent love between Tran and Jay that the end of the novel hinted at?

If I’m going to be entirely honest, it was actually just the last paragraph of the novel that prompted me to stop, hold it at arm’s length, and really examine the characters and the story that I’d just read.

(Another graphic warning, if you’ve made it this far.)

Tran fell out of his binding straps and melted slowly into Jay’s ribcage. A large, viscous, faintly iridescent stain ate up the concrete floor around them. Their eyes were black caverns. They gave birth to worms, generation after generation, until their bodies were covered as if in a living blanket. Soon they were picked clean, their bones an ivory sculpture-puzzle shining in the dark, waiting to tell their mute love story.

Love story?

At what point in the novel did Tran and Jay have a love story? The greatest extent of their interaction had been when Tran sought Jay out for sex and Jay was lost in his thoughts for half of that encounter, trying to resist the temptation and avoid having sex with Tran for the sake of avoiding ripping him open and dissecting him in the process.

There was a brief moment in those thoughts that Jay marveled at the fact that Tran had sought him out and seemed to want to stay with him of his own volition. I remember a line to the effect of marveling at the fact that Tran was his only living friend. But this moment seemed forgotten and thrown out as soon as Andrew had come into his life.

I thought that maybe the last line had been somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it also seems as if it wasn’t, as if we were supposed to hold on to the brief bits of “affection” through to the end of the novel. Although I suppose it doesn’t really matter at that point, either.

The verdict? Give it a shot if you’re looking for something a little out of the normal pace and don’t mind some graphic descriptions, both of murder and explicit sex. Otherwise, carry on as you usually do. You’ll be alright.