. . . [R]emember only that this virus in your blood makes people afraid of you. Any time someone is afraid of you, you can use it to your own advantage."
Whew! This is a tough ride, but I'm so glad I finally got to it.
I first encountered the term "exquisite corpse" in a writing class, where everyone would start writing part of a story for a few minutes and when the timer rang, you'd fold to conceal all but the last line of your writing, pass your paper to the left, and pick up someone else's story where they left off. This continued until there were complete stories. Apparently it's a technique adapted from surrealist artists, who'd do basically the same thing, but with drawing people—severing the body into four or so sections that all looked entirely different, but connected, when the image was done.
In the book, we are shown all the layers to the characters, from what they present to society, potential lovers, their parents, their friends, peeled away to reveal who they really are not only in their deepest, innermost thoughts, but in their private actions too.
There is a perfection that we're all searching for, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we ourselves are flawed.
I actually loved that the chapters from serial killer Compton's perspective were all in first person, while all the other characters were from third person. It gave him this nasty immediacy, thrusting the reader directly into his mind and actions even though that's the last thing anyone wants to be associated with.
In the end, I am still trying to contemplate what the book was about, what it was trying to say, and I'm not quite sure what that is. I don't mind violence and gore, but when there isn't a point, some ultimate goal to explain the sacrifice, I generally am left feeling empty. But I didn't leave the pages of Exquisite Corpse feeling as though there wasn't a point.
There is definitely a commentary about the dehumanization of people, specifically of gay men with HIV/AIDS, which at the time this book was set in the late 80s to mid-90s was a crisis. All of the characters who have a voice in the book are gay men, and each of them have a different relationship to the virus. Compton uses it virus to his advantage (see opening quote), while Luke can't come to terms with the disease and has torn his life down around him, pushing away those he loved and becoming an angry furnace spouting hatred for the mainstream American way of life. Tran, on the other hand, is HIV-free and young, feeling more than a little invincible until he realizes how real death can be. His explicitly graphic and horrible death at the end is a final release from all ideas that we are safe from death, that goodness will prevail, that youth can be preserved.
Our bodies are supposed to protect us, encase us, provide for us. But what if they only provide an incubator for our own destruction? Ultimately, this is a dark and gritty story, offering not much in the way of hope for its characters, but it's one that will keep you thinking.
I am reminded of the lines from a Thom Yorke song:
This is a waltz thinking about our bodies
What they mean for our salvation
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.