MASK. I can't forget the image of the burning face. It's from Alfred Chester's 1967 novel The Exquisite Corpse: "The mask came off with a long loud ripping sound, and underneath it: the raw, red, boiled, baked, twisted flesh. Tommy roared wordlessly at Ismael, and thrust the mask on his face. The smoke began to rise at once, and Ismael screamed. Tommy saw billows of smoke rising from Ismael's head. Ismael was still sitting at the wheel, his head wrapped in flames." Tommy and Ismael were lovers. Tommy was rich and white. Ismael was poor, with "cafe-au-lait" skin. Tommy was afraid that Ismael just liked him for his money and looks. Ismael was offended that Tommy didn't trust him. So they broke up. Now, Tommy is poor and homeless. He wears a mask, for his face is hideously deformed. But he tears it off, in a fit of rage and desperation. He forces it upon Ismael, as the proof of his desire. Who could refuse so urgent a demand? No wonder Ismael burns. By the end of the book, he is "even uglier than Tommy." His face looks like "a huge toasted marshmallow." Ismael and Tommy have plumbed the depths of abjection. Now they can finally love each other again. The Exquisite Corpse is full of such transformations. Men turn into women. Jews become Catholics. New Yorkers suddenly find themselves in the jungle. White people are drawn to those of darker hue. Each character in the novel burns with extravagant desires. And each wears some sort of mask. John Anthony, the drag queen, makes masks obsessively. The walls of his room are covered with them. Whenever he goes out, he chooses a mask to fit his mood. "Who can I be tonight?," he asks himself. "Who will I be tonight?" The novel as a whole asks much the same question. It adds and subtracts characters almost at will. One mask leads to another, and then another. Casual phrases take on lives of their own. "Poor baby," sighs John Anthony in drag, looking at himself in the mirror. "Poor poor baby." Before you know it, the book has a new character, Baby Poorpoor. Baby goes his own way, independent of John Anthony. A few chapters later, Baby spins off yet another character, James Madison. James is the love slave of a man he knows only as John Doe. At John's command, James plays a series of female roles. First he is Joan of Arc, then Mary Queen of Scots. The book goes off on one ridiculous tangent after another. The characters keep appearing and disappearing. James Madison even kills himself at one point. But he shows up again a few pages later, as if nothing had happened. The world of The Exquisite Corpse is deliriously fluid. No identity is stable. No event is final. Everything is transfigured by desire. James Madison becomes a woman because John Doe wants him to. No matter that his anatomy is wrong. To show that he is having his period, he just shoves a few Tampax up his ass. James has never been happier than he is now. A kept woman locked up in an apartment, he is free of the burden of being himself. He is content to lie on a cot all day, dressed in a bra and panties, eating chocolates. His only problem is that his degradation never goes far enough. His desire for John Doe is never satisfied. John teases him, for instance, by never letting him see or touch his cock. This is as exciting as it is frustrating. But the tension pushes James beyond all bounds. Finally he escapes from the apartment, and tracks down John Doe in the outside world. For doing this, his happiness is ruined. John Doe is deeply closeted. He lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids. To preserve his situation in the world, he dumps James once and for all. The last time we see James Madison, he is lost in the jungle. As he impales himself on a pine branch, he hears a strange music, "orchestrated with his screams." The world is filled with the music of his love, just as it is filled with "the sweet glorious smell of life bursting and rotting." At the far end of humiliation, James Madison discovers a new beauty. "Why didn't I think of dancing instead?," he asks himself. Most of the characters in the novel come to such a point. In order to stay true to their desires, they must give up everything they have. They must stop being white, male, and rich. They must cross lines of race, gender, and class. They must lose themselves, like criminals or saints. The Exquisite Corpse is filled with pain and erotic frustration. But it is also airy and insouciant, like a fairy tale. It's all a matter of how you wear your mask. In the first chapter, John Anthony is perturbed by the "stranger's face" he sees in the mirror. "Why?," he cries to his reflection. "Why must I suffer your destiny?" In the last chapter, however, Ismael rejoices in the same fate. "They think it's me," he laughs and laughs, when strangers stare at his burnt-out face. For he knows that he has slipped away, beyond identification.
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