Alfred Chester (September 7, 1928 – August 1, 1971) was an American writer of experimental work, including the novels Jamie Is My Heart’s Desire and The Exquisite Corpse and the short story collection Behold Goliath. He also wrote a pornographic novel, Chariot of Flesh, for Olympia Press under the pseudonym Malcolm Nesbit. He was a friend of Paul and Jane Bowles, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Diana Athill.
"The Exquisite Corpse is a game of "let’s pretend" with God and sex, birth and death, parents and lovers as its stakes, a game that broadens and burgeons till it opens out in every direction, an imaginary toad with an infinity of real gardens in it."
—The Village Voice
Lyric and tender one moment, cruel and dizzying the next, The Exquisite Corpse neither celebrates perversity nor laments it; rather it projects it as part of man’s never-ending search for a true self and for transcendent communion with others.
In forty-nine brief, highly cinematic chapters, we meet a series of twisted but sincere searches—Tomtom Jim and his naked, hungry family; Mary Poorpoor and her utterly “otherly” baby; angry John Doe and his sex slave, James Madison—each in flight from despair. As one surreal episode morphs into the next, these searcherschange shape and their journeys change direction; names and identities come and go, storylines collide, and desires intertwine, all with the lightning-quick illogic of a dream. The result is a tragicomic tour de force, an upside-down roadmap to everyone’s inner Sodom, a perversely moral (and morally perverse) masterpiece by a modern-day Marquis de Sade.
"Chester is out to shock, to dazzle, to shake up, to offend, but at the same time he is seriously striving to record the implications of obsession, to document the tyranny and anguish of compulsive fantasy . . . Like Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs, he is a born writer with a zestful imagination and a poet’s gift for provocative images."
—The New York Times Book Review
The Exquisite Corpse
a novel by Alfred Chester
On his way across the attic, John Anthony passed the bassinet and in a bit of looking glass that showed among the rags he saw the stranger’s face. It was so unexpected that the hair on his head stood up and the breath went out of him. He threw a hopeless look over his shoulder, but of course no one was there. His eyes felt bruised.
Gathering his courage, John Anthony bent over the bassinet and cleared away the pretty rags until the whole of the hand-mirror with its heavy gilt frame lay exposed. He stared into the born eyes, studied the unhappy face, and began whimpering.
"You will make me crazy," he said, putting his fists to his temples.
Then, as the tears streamed down his cheeks he hugged himself and moaned, "Poor baby, poor. Poor poor baby. Baby poor poor."
And then, with a burst of ferocious anger, he grabbed the mirror out of the bassinet and flung his fierce chin against it. He bellowed through the empty house: "Why? Why must I suffer your destiny?"
Alone except for the sharp-toothed changeling, hungry and homeless, desperate, Mary Poorpoor wandered for many months through the cold indifferent city. One bright morning she found herself outside a small park and, not knowing it was forbidden to the general public, she pushed open the iron gate and walked in.
Could this at last be fairyland, she wondered, feeling faint from the beauty of the place. It was the prettiest garden she had ever seen all laid out with narrow secret paths that wound between high buses and beds of flowers and tall gracefully trimmed trees. And the people too were pretty, though they seemed perhaps fatter than other fairies she had known.
A woman went by wheeling a baby carriage the size of a small car. Strange, thought Mary. And then it happened again. And still again.
They must have enormous babies here, Mary told herself and decide that if she passed another such carriage she would peer inside. She walked on. A few minutes later, when she had stopped to smell some roses, a middle-aged woman dressed like a nurse came down the path pushing a carriage. Mary stood on her toes as the nurse went by, and to her astonishment she saw no baby.
"Cute, isn’t he?" said the woman noticing Mary’s interest.
"Adorable," said Mary.
Nurse and carriage disappeared round a bend in the path.
While Mary stood puzzling this over, a man in uniform touched her should and asked if she had a key. Of course, Mary had no key to anywhere.
"I’m afraid, madam," the man said, "that you will have to leave the park as it is forbidden to the general public. It is only for persons who have the key."
Mary hated the man. "This is a free country," she told him. "Don’t you know that? I can go anywhere I please."
"I beg your pardon?" the man asked vaguely. He was distracted because Baby’s blanket had fallen open and his genitals were hanging down below his shirt. They were remarkably large for his age.
"I said, this is a free country," Mary repeated.
"Yes, it is," the man agreed and without further ado took Mary Poorpoor by the arm and started pulling her out of the garden. Mary burst into tears.
"Just one minute, Johnson," a lady called. "What’s going on here." She wasn’t wheeling a baby carriage.
"Nothing to worry about, Miss Emily," said the man in uniform.
"That’s for me to decide, Johnson, isn’t it?" the lady said kindly but firmly, and then turned to Mary Poorpoor. "Hello, my lovely girl, are you having trouble?"
"I don’t have the key," Marytold her.
Miss Emily smiled. "That’s a very pretty baby. I’ll bet it’s a boy, isn’t it?" she said, tickling Baby’s balls. "What’s his name?"
Mary liked the kind lady very much indeed, although she was odd. For example, her hair had been cut so short that she was practically bald, and her mustache hairs were darkened with eyebrow pencil. And she wore a severely tailored tweed suit. But Mary liked the lady, so in order to make her happy, and since the baby had no name anyhow, she said, "His name is Emilio."
Miss Emily put her hands on her hips, threw back her head and roared with laughter. "Well, that’s a coincidence! Because my name is Emily."
"Pleased to meet you. My name is Mary," said the little mother with a respectful curtsy.
"Where do you live, pretty Mary?"
"Nowhere. Just nowhere!" The tears began rolling down her cheeks again, and as they dropped off her jaw, Emilio caught them in his mouth and grinned. "I’m all alone in the world and homeless."
"You poor darling. Dry your tears. Now, now child, you’re not alone or homeless any more."