Online Edition: Summer 2004

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The Exquisite Corpse

Alfred Chester

Black Sparrow Book ($16.95)

by Mark Terrill

Originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1967, and reissued by Carroll and Graf in 1986, Alfred Chester's The Exquisite Corpse has twice gone out of print and lapsed into literary limbo, its very unavailability helping elevate it to the cult status by which it is known today. Previously championed by Allen Hibbard under the "Widely Unavailable" rubric in Rain Taxi Review of Books (Volume 4, Number 3), Hibbard closed his piece by saying "We should all stomp on bleachers, go on hunger strikes, or lay down on railway tracks until it is brought back into print." These extreme measures are happily no longer needed, for The Exquisite Corpse has at last been resurrected, in a new edition which contains an illuminating afterword by Diana Athill, adapted from her book, Stet: A Memoir.

Prior to writing The Exquisite Corpse, Chester was an accomplished writer with a reputation as a sharp-tongued critic in New York; he wrote fearlessly and pointedly about Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Edward Albee, Mary McCarthy, John Rechy, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Vladimir Nabokov, in such renowned publications as Commentary, The New York Review of Books, and Partisan Review. A collection of short stories, Here Be Dragons, was followed by a novel, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire, and then by another collection of stories, Behold Goliath; these books, along with work by Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote, can be said to have pioneered the way for modern gay fiction. Chester's early stories earned him comparisons with Faulkner, Steinbeck, Jean Stafford, and Saul Bellow. Among his cohorts and colleagues in New York were Susan Sontag, Irene Fornes, Simon Perchik and Dennis Selby. Several of the stories in Behold Goliath were reworked or recycled as material for the surreal patchwork quilt that eventually became The Exquisite Corpse.

In 1963, Chester met Paul Bowles, who was in New York to write the music for a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway, and at Bowles's suggestion, Chester decided to leave New York and move to Tangier, Morocco. Fed up with life in New York and the confines of critical writing, Chester was determined to break away and write another novel. The three years Chester spent in Morocco were perhaps the best and most fulfilling of his life. He smoked kif, experimented with other drugs, took full advantage of Tangier's open attitude towards sexuality, and fell in love with a Moroccan fisherman named Driss, to whom The Exquisite Corpse was dedicated and who was also the main character in one of Chester's last substantial works, "The Foot." Yet Chester's increasing paranoia and struggles with his own sexual identity culminated in a vortex of madness, in which Susan Sontag and Paul Bowles figured as imaginary antagonists; eventually Chester's erratic and antisocial behavior led to his being asked to leave the country by the Moroccan authorities.

It was in Tangier that Chester wrote The Exquisite Corpse, gathering together his various talents to produce what many consider to be a masterpiece of modern writing. Chester's influences ranged widely, from Truman Capote to Pirandello, from Paul Bowles to Gurdjieff, from E.M. Forster to Jean Genet. Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Gurdjieff's theory of multiple "I's" were both in accordance with Chester's own personal dilemma of identity. But stylistically, Chester was all on his own. Imagine a combination of the canny camp and tongue-in-cheek absurdity of Jane Bowles, the lewd surrealism and cheeky perversions of William Burroughs, the forward-toppling condensed chapters and poetic imagery of Richard Brautigan, a touch of Marquis de Sade and Ed Dorn's epic poem, Gunslinger, and you're just beginning to get close to what's in store in this remarkable tale.

Chester's characters continuously change names, gender and identity, and the plots and subplots morph back in forth in time and space with all the diamond-cutting authority of a dream. Ira Cohen, a friend of Chester's in Tangier, described the novel as "a homo masterpiece born in the Bronx, made hairless by X-ray treatments, lovers with burnt marshmallow faces, a changeling born of lesbian frankfurter love taken away by angels with frosted toilet glass wings, broken telephone booths in the middle of the forest." At the hands of a lesser artist, The Exquisite Corpse probably would have wound up on the cutting room floor. But by way of Chester's masterful prose style and incredible wit—along with his keen sense of pacing and trans-cinematic imagination—this is a compelling roller-coaster of a book, resembling at times a long poem more than anything else. As John Ashbery affirmed in his blurb, "Chester has used the materials of a novel to make something like a poem—a hybrid thing, but a thing still very much worth doing, as the poisoned eloquence of his writing proves on almost every page."

At the bottom of this palimpsest of shifting identity and gender is Chester's own ongoing dialectic between the self and the other, between identity and desire. For Chester, desire is the self, manifesting itself in one continuous irresolvable quest, identity being something you don or discard like a mask. The personal identity crisis as a point of departure for creating art was not Chester's own invention, nor was it something he employed as part of the fashionable existential self-doubt of the time, as evidenced by his eventual psychological breakdown in Morocco. Chester's crisis was legitimate, and he used it to explore the parameters of his own psyche, creating an enduring work of art in the process. As Michael Feingold wrote in The Village Voice, "Chester carried in himself two of the great polar elements on which most 20th century art is based: He was an intelligent homosexual—that is, a man perpetually conscious of life as a series of roles or poses to be taken on; and he was a madman—a visionary." Speaking of his own position in the nexus of expatriate writers in Tangier at the time, Chester liked to claim that Bowles was of the past, Burroughs of the present, and he himself of the future. The Exquisite Corpse goes a long way to substantiate this claim, having opened the doors (along with Burroughs) for postmodernism, long before postmodernism became the cultural catchword that it is today.

Unfortunately, the future didn't last long for Chester. After being thrown out of Morocco, he briefly returned to New York, then began a peripatetic odyssey across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, finally settling in Jerusalem—where he died of a drug overdose in 1971, just short of his 43rd birthday, a tragic victim of his own demons and desires. Out of print and nearly forgotten at the time of his death, Chester would probably have been doomed to total obscurity if not for the scope and strength of The Exquisite Corpse. Black Sparrow has also published Head of a Sad Angel: Stories 1953-1966 as well as Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews, both edited by his long-time friend and literary executor Edward Field. With the reappearance of The Exquisite Corpse, Chester's place in contemporary letters should be as stalwart and enduring as a granite tombstone, marking the grave of one very exquisite corpse indeed.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents