Monday, October 13, 2008

Clay McLeod Chapman, "miss corpus"

Every author, by definition, uses artifice to shape a story. What determines their skill is the level of truth beneath that technique. Clay McLeod Chapman makes one mistake in miss corpus, relying on a too-literal (and literary) metaphor, one that makes the novel his child and his Southern setting the mother (I-95's both the backbone and the umbilical cord). In truth, that's just a purr in the engine as it warms up, and the moment Chapman launches into the first of his two collision-bound protagonists, William Colby, you might as well chuck Chuck Palahniuk to the side, crown a new king beyond Stephen King. This is not detached horror, or genre fiction: this is violence used to communicate the bruised, fleshy side of love, and it is shockingly sincere.

To achieve this effect, Chapman alternates between past and present, so that we begin to fall in love with Will's wife, Shelly, just as we learn that she is dead. He litters the page with delicate images, a culmination of the oxymoronic ugly beauty that he has perfected in his plays. As Will bends over the corpse--"Her neck looked like it had attempted to turtle her head down inside her rib cage, her shoulders swallowing up most of her throat"--he recognizes the manubrium, and suddenly we're seeing Shelly as she "wrapped her lips over the thin rim of bone, sealing those two hollows together." A moment later, as he "straightened out each of her limbs, kneading the rigor mortis free from her joints," we catch a lighter moment, mid-massage, as the two plan their road-trip honeymoon to Florida. Stricken with grief in the present, Will attempts to cling to the past in a way that, as narrated, is only slightly improbable, bundling his wife into coolers, and the coolers into the backseat, driving down I-95.

This journey gives Chapman the opportunity to play with the monologues of other characters, the sort of people who are largely ignored in fiction. There's Wallace Reese, who describes what it's like to work in a toll booth (he brings an empty jug to work), and also Audrey Dow, who sadly recalls what sex is like in a meatlocker--not to mention Will's strange encounters with a boy with a corncob for an arm, the "preggers special" of an abortion doctor, and through it all, his sweet memories of life with Shelly. Cumulatively, it distorts the normal material of fiction, hewing to a familiar narrative, but skinning off the cliched descriptive fat and boiling it alive. We could all live for lines as gothically descriptive as the lonely son of a motel owner's "Counting sheep didn't help. I simply scraped them off my skull, one by one," or his eerie descriptions of a fire (which could've come straight from his play, Volume of Smoke): "With those kids still in their evening attire, looked to me like they were all dancing--the boys with their molten tuxedos, the girls in their scorched gowns. They partied until they dropped, one by one. Bet it was the best prom they'd ever had."

Every time things get too dark, Chapman switches gears, which allows him to continue down I-95, and to fittlingly describe the unsettling and often unwritten flipsides to every happy story. In the largest of these shifts, the narration switches to follow Phil. As the cops at last dredge his son's corpse out of a Florida swamp, he bundles the corpse into his car to reunite with his wife, up in South Carolina, the opposite direction of Will, but along the same road, which allows us to continue reading more or less in tandem. This device (Northbound/Southbound) is unnecessary, but it does get across the unversiality of grief.

Miss Corpus is a tragically sweet story that catches Chapman as he transitions from short story to novel form. If there are a few bumps in the telling, better to simply appreciate the courage it takes to drive an off-road tale like this. Better still to simply roll down one's blinders and enjoy the bold breeze of the ride.

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