Mark Richardson on the gender wars
in modern Gothic fiction
In recent times it has become commonplace for writers and critics alike to link contemporary gothic narratives with modern day anxieties. Two recent Gothic novels have successfully exposed our cynical attitude towards love relations and our fear of getting too close to the Other: Dorian by Will Self and Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. Whilst both books should be celebrated and praised as artistic successes, it is Brite’s novel which is truly the more shocking work, by turning the author herself into the Other. Exquisite Corpse was, I believe, a transgressive act of literary provocation engineered by Brite herself.
In Dorian, Will Self transplants Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to Thatcher’s Britain, following a group of rich, drug-addicted and promiscuous Londoners as their decadent lifestyle leads them into ruin. Self revives Wilde’s classic creation, the pseudo-tragic figure of Henry Wotton. As Wotton dies of AIDS, Self tells us: “Wotton had always understood [t]hat for each minute or hour or day or week of abandonment purchased now, you would have to pay later. Pay with physical dissolution and mental disintegration. On this actuarial basis alone it did not surprise him in the least to wind up dead at forty.” For the cynical Wotton, the body therefore becomes an instrument or a machine with a fixed value, to be squeezed out however fast or slow one wishes.
The main character in Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse gay serial killer, Andrew Compton also contracts HIV, and deals with the news in a similar way: “Well, Andrew, I told myself, anyone who violates the sanctity of a dead boy’s ass cannot expect to get away scot-free.” Unlike Wotton, Compton has no regrets and proceeds to tell himself: “Remember 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.” Is it possible that here Brite is making a comment on today’s victim culture? I will return to this idea in a moment.
So what happens to our notions of identity in a victim-obsessed culture, where the body has been reduced to an instrument of pleasure? Dorian opens with an epigraph courtesy of Schopenhauer: “[I]t is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.” In our postmodern age of the ‘decentred subject’ it seems that we can never get to know who anyone really ‘is’. In the novel, Self develops this theme by making frequent references to the marriage of Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales. In Self’s vision of modern Britain, Wotton and his cohorts’ loveless and cynical use of each other’s bodies to pursue solipsistic sexual pleasure is echoed in the equally cynical, loveless charade of the ‘Royal Marriage’.
On the politics of romance, the psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, has recently said in an interview for Spike: “[Y]ou cannot do the game of erotic seduction in politically correct terms. There is a moment of violence, when you say: ‘I love you, I want you.’ In no way can you bypass this violent aspect. So I even think that the fear of sexual harassment in a way includes this aspect, a fear of a too violent, too open encounter with another human being.” Of course, this moment of ‘violence’ is not something that Wotton and his cohorts avoid. They positively revel in promiscuity and group-sex. Yet by doing so, by reducing their bodies to sexual objects, they commit an act of Sartrean mauvaise foi and continue to avoid a truly open encounter with the Other.
The fear of getting too close to the Other is echoed in Brite’s book, too. After being sentenced to life for the sex murders of twenty-three “young men and boys”, the thirty-three year old Compton accidentally encounters and befriends Jay, another serial killer. Unlike Compton, who is ‘merely’ a necrophiliac, Jay is a cannibal. As the two men begin killing young men together, Compton explains why during the original killing spree for which he was imprisoned cannibalism held no appeal: “I was afraid. Unnerved by the thought of walking alone in the dark and still feeling them with me, in my very cells.”
The characters in Dorian remain cynical to the point where the book’s epilogue suggests that the events of the novel are really nothing more than a manuscript. Of course, they really are nothing more than a manuscript, and Self fills the book with various self-referential little twists, many of which are autobiographical (like Wotton, Self is also a graduate of Oxford University who makes no secret of his personal battles with heroin addiction thus raising the question of whether or not the author, through the very act of creating and identifying with his characters, is the ultimate fractured postmodern self).
By contrast, in Exquisite Corpse, Compton is awakened from his cynicism via the act of falling in love with Jay. We realise that this love is genuine when Jay dies and Compton is left aghast, heartbroken. In an entirely sincere act of respect for his Other’s desire, Compton eats a unique packed-lunch: a sandwich filled with Jay’s cooked flesh. As he falls asleep, Compton describes his emotions: “I wanted only to keep Jay’s meat in me as long as I could, to process and assimilate as much of him as possible. When I awoke, he would be with me always.”
Many readers have been repulsed by the explicitly romantic ending of Exquisite Corpse. An executive working for Penguin (up until then, Brite’s UK publisher) wrote to her: “I was very sorry not to feel able to publish it I admired the book’s ambition and [felt it] was a considerable development in your writing. But I did have very considerable reservations about the subject I felt very uncomfortable with the mixture of a [journalistic] approach to the characters and a tendency to see them as admirable, almost vampire-like figures.” (Brite, “The Poetry of Violence”, in Screen Violence edited by Karl French, 1996)
What should be avoided here is the simplistic conclusion that this means Gothic fiction is not the perfect vehicle for dealing with important social issues. Certainly, we are horrified by the idea of a serial killer who, in overcoming his cynicism and falling in love, is more human than us, but this is hardly original; the filmmaker Jean Rollin has made an entire career of presenting us with melancholic tales of lonely, romantic vampires. No, my suspicion is that the problem lies with Poppy Z. Brite’s gender. For many, Brite’s artistic motives are far from transparent: like Self, she often writes hyper-erotic, sometimes gratuitous, descriptions of gay male sex.
Unlike Brite, however, Self’s artistic motives can be easily understood: as a heterosexual man, he is ‘legitimately’ curious about the homosexual Other. This gender discrepancy might lead some readers to unconsciously wonder if Brite is just like Self, but in a different way autobiographically close (if only in terms of fantasy) to her characters. If Lacan is correct to say that we fear the Other because we (wrongly) believe that the Other has a strange, privileged access to jouissance, we might wish to consider the possibility that many readers are suspicious of the jouissance of the female Gothic writer. Recall, for instance, the constant stream of rumours regarding Emily Brontë’s private life (which even includes the suggestion that she buried a dead infant on the Yorkshire moors). I am quite sure that no one is more aware of this than Brite herself and it seems entirely possible that she knew, ahead of submission, the problems Exquisite Corpse would encounter.
Ever since Dickens, we have witnessed the rise of the literary celebrity; and ever since Bridget Jones’ Diary we have watched the rise (dreaded or otherwise) of chick lit. It appears that Brite herself has now abandoned horror writing, whilst her mainstream Other – Anne Rice – continues to pander to her horde of nu-metal-listening fans by churning out one formulaic blockbuster after another. Given the argument I have put forward here, would right now not be the time for another great female horror writer to appear; one who will play to the suspicions of readers regarding the jouissance of the female Gothic writer? Publishing companies take note: this really could be a fantastic opportunity for one of you to make lots and lots of money.
Or am I just being cynical?