Liking Likeable Killers

Exquisite Corpse - Poppy Z BriteBack in 2013, I read a book called Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite.

Here’s the blurb:

“A serial killer leaves his prison cell a dead man and rises again to build a new life. His journey takes him to New Orleans’ French Quater – to the decadent bars and frivolous boys that haunt the luscious dark corners of a town brought up on Voodoo and the dark arts. Anticipating a willing victim he finds an equal, something he never expected…”

Here’s what I wrote about it on Goodreads just after abandoning it on page 38:

I picked up this book for my wife, who loves the serial killer genre. This is not my cup of tea at all, but still, I plucked Exquisite Corpse from the shelf to read, because I understand it to be set in New Orleans, and I have an ongoing love affair with the culture, music and the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the southern states of the US.

Considering that I abandoned the book at page 38, you may wonder why I gave it a five-star review. The reason for this is that the book is beautifully written. The descriptions of New Orleans are lush, evocative and beautiful, and are obviously written by someone who loves the city very much. Equally, the characters are richly detailed and, despite being serial killers, come over as warm, sensitive and potentially likeable on a human level. Similarly, I also loved the inventiveness of the story, for example, in the first chapter, one of the characters emulates the feat of an Indian fakir, in his.. no, I won’t tell you what he does; that might spoil the story for you.

All these things combine to make the read very enjoyable and rewarding, and that’s part of the problem for me. Consider this: a beautiful scene, lushly described; your senses open up to the tableau, your neural pathways are open and laying down a pleasant experience for you to remember and cherish, and.. BAM!! someone’s greased fingers are in someone’s anus.. BAM!! someone winds up with a scalpel in his eye BAM!! someone is seductively sucking an appendage BAM!! someone is sitting down to human flesh gumbo with a refreshing side salad (I might have made that last one up).

Well, it’s not that I particularly object to fingers or anuses – I mean, we all have them! It’s just the fact that these things appear at a point where the author has skilfully and lovingly prised the mind open, made it excruciatingly impressionable, and, to be frank, these ain’t the kind of impressions I want my mind to take.

It strikes me that with great storytelling skill, comes great responsibility, and Mr Brite has talent to spare in this field, which (IMHO) should be exercised with great care. There is a TV series called Dexter, which I refuse to watch because, to my mind, it glorifies and justifies killing, because the protagonist only kills serial killers who (as I understand it) would otherwise escape from ‘justice’. This, to me, suffers from the same problem – it takes something otherwise unpalatable, wraps it in a sugar coating, and presents it in a beautiful box.

I won’t be drinking any more from this particular teapot, but that said if this is what you like: drink your fill! It’s all part of the multi-varied, ‘all sorts to make a world’, merry-go-round thang called ‘life’!”

That character felt alive because of the author’s skill in evoking in me, as a reader, the kinds of feelings one gets when falling in love with a person. I sympathised, empathised with a serial killer and I paid the price. It’s not that I was betrayed exactly; I knew what I was getting myself into, it’s that I thought I could remain detached from the character by force of will. Mistake. The intimacy was too much.

The character lives in my memory because I sympathised with his plight. He was locked away and I know how that feels. His ability to escape, and the ingenuity he showed in doing so, was inspirational. He showed skills and a kind of super-human ability that few possess and many people want. The writer created all this but also gave him more than his share of reprehensible traits. It feels strange to be torn like this.

On the flip side, I can’t really think of any characters that have deterred me (to the extent that I have stopped reading) because they are too ‘good’. There are some that irritate me because they have acted in ways that I have thought are too good for the situation, like Felix in NZ by Zadie Smith (his final scene of the book where he is attacked by youths) and Lev in The Road Home by Rose Tremain (a scene in which is acts ineffectually when being attacked by children). But I guess that this irritation came about because of the difference between our characters and outlooks on life, not because of the characters being too ‘good’.

Can you think of characters in fiction that have deterred you precisely because they are too ‘good’?

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2 thoughts on “Liking Likeable Killers

  1. Pingback: Liking Likeable Killer (Slight Return) | robertcday

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