Friday, 29 March 2019

Book review: The Exquisite Corpse, Alfred Chester (1967)

I came across this author while reading the memoir of a publisher’s editor named Diana Athill. Her book came out 19 years ago and I reviewed it on 24 February of this year. Athill’s book included a section containing her reminiscences about notable authors whose work she had helped shepherd into the world. The story of one of them, a man named Alfred Chester, struck me at the time as particularly tragic due to the existence of mental illness in it, so I promised myself I would one day read one of his books. This review is the result of that process.

I though about the unfinished book awaiting me at home on the day the review was eventually written when I went with a friend to a cafĂ© in Glebe in Sydney’s inner suburbs, for breakfast. The waiter was young and had long, dark, painted fingernails that looked artificial. He also wore a skirt. He took our orders and served the coffee and the food with the same aplomb as any other person, but he looked pretty outlandish it has to be admitted. At the time Chester’s book was published such a person as our waiter would have been inconceivably outre. In 1960s New York a male waiter in a dark cotton skirt could not have existed outside perhaps some private clubs designed for the use of rich patrons with unusual tastes. How far we have come! But, if you read Chester’s novel, you also realise that we are still bound in our daily lives by conventions that existed in those days. Which makes this novel seem sort of timeless.

The first thing to be mindful with it is that you need to be patient. Overall there is no conventional narrative and the different stories it contains are elaborated on in episodes that have a disjointed feel to them. The ways that the stories overlap and integrate with one another constitutes one of the unique characteristics of this curious novel, but without a bit of patience at the beginning you will fail to give them enough time to take root in your imagination, and will therefore miss out on the thrilling ride Chester takes you on if you persevere.

I was reminded reading this book of another mid-century Modernist work I read recently, Friedo Lampe’s ‘At the Edge of the Night’ (which is reviewed here in 14 February this year). Like Chester, Lampe was gay and both of these men’s books use a kind of collage method of arrangement to build the narrative arc that eventuates, and that gives structure to the texts. So both of these books are experimental in their methodology and both deal with people who are transgressing social conventions.

What they both provide is a kind of catalogue of a city, in Chester’s case New York, in Lampe’s case Bremen (a north German city). By delving into the lives of multiple people, the authors each in their own ways demonstrate an awareness of the existence of many people in the same geographical area. They are cognisant of the realities of different individuals and of how such people’s lives are connected by casual meetings and by liaisons. There is a strong sense of community, a sense also of a shared destiny.

In Chester’s case there is a good deal of scatological material that lends an earthy quality to his stories of men and women of the demimonde. Amid the stories of desire and hatred, of comfort and hardship, of crime and convention a number of characters emerge that invite the reader to understand ways of life that, while they may seem unconventional, borrow ideas and feelings from the everyday vocabulary of middle class life. How different are the majority of people from the odd personalities that Chester creates in his fabulous fiction? What do people in the mainstream want from life? What gives it meaning? What makes people happy? Do we not all want security and safety and companionship? Do we not all act out of desire from time to time?

The articulation of desire has one of its greatest practitioners in Alfred Chester. In the course of developing a fiction that can convey all the ideas that he sees to be real in his world, the author reaches back in art as far as Rimbaud and the men and women who inhabited the liminal zone between the Romantic and the Modern. In the strange tales Chester dreams up of people living on the fringes of polite society there are echoes of the ideal, of the just, and of the beautiful that characterised the works of some of Europe’s most celebrated poets and writers.

And even though the form of Chester’s novel is unusual you are able to follow a number of different stories to their conclusions. Certain names rise up to the surface of the narrative at different times, and some names even blur across the boundaries separating one story from another, notably the name Dickie, which stands in for some kind of masculine ideal in the author’s world of lovers and their beloveds, of dominant and submissive, of roles obeyed and of conventions transgressed, of masks put on and of identities given up in an endless search for love and for home.

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