In a Mirror Maze: A Review of Derek McCormack’s The Well-Dressed Wound
The Well-Dressed Wound
The MIT Press
72 pp. / $12.95
In a year that saw sprawling epics like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Larry Kramer’s The American People, Volume 1, Search for My Heart, Derek McCormack’s latest, The Well-Dressed Wound, is contrastively petite; as anorexic as a runway model, or the runaway ghost of a runway model (who died from anorexia). It can be read and digested in one sitting, no problem. It feels even slenderer than his previous, and comparable, book The Show that Smells. And like The Show that Smells, it can be wrapped up to pass as fiction but is really something else. In the strange case of The Well-Dressed Wound, it could be typified as a closet drama. It is a play being presented by P.T. Barnum at his American Museum on Broadway. The play concerns a séance performed by Nettie Colburn Maynard for the benefit of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, who desire to be reunited with the spirit of their “faggot” son Willie (here played by Derek McCormack).
Okay, so a few things. First of all, apparently such White House séances with Nettie the clairvoyant are a matter of historical record. They probably weren’t dramatized by P.T. Barnum, however, and they couldn’t have unfolded quite as McCormack envisions them. For, while poor departed Willie does step out of the spirit cabinet, he is followed by none other than the Devil, here embodied by the fashion designer Martin Margiela. There is no plot beyond that. Plot is irrelevant. It’s not fashionable. The text is divided into five acts, comprised of many scenes of various lengths, but they serve more as punctuation than anything that structures a narrative. The acts and the scenes, the acts and the scenes, “Act Two // Scene One // I step out of the spirit cabinet. // Scene Two,” recall Gertrude Stein’s dramatic writing more than anything else. Also, the text continues after the “play” is over. There is quite the curtain call. More on that later.
McCormack’s creation is also like Gertrude Stein’s plays in that it has no concern for the traditional conceits of drama and does not represent something that could be dramatized without considerable interpretation. There’s a lot of what could be called stage direction, narrated by Derek—who, remember, is also playing Willie, the dead faggot son of the 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln and his wife, for their parts, speak mostly in exclamation marks because their words are white (thus invisible to the reader, since they’re the same color as the page). When asked whether he agreed that his book is a closet drama, the author replied: “I’d love to typify it that way, though I have only a glancing knowledge of closet dramas. I mean, I’ve never read a real closet drama—though maybe I wrote one? I never thought for a second that my book would be performed, though I held out hope that someone could figure out how it could be performed—how to make the exclamation marks come to life, how to make ghosts appear, how to get all the original Margiela garments that the ghosts are wearing. It’s a closet play in one sense but it could be a theatrical spook show of some sort, with illusions.” At this point, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion was suggested to Mr. McCormack. That’s how all the ghouls float around in the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland. It’s called the Pepper’s Ghost illusion. “Pepper’s Ghost, perfection. And maybe Phantasmagoric tricks: images projected on smoke or translucent scrims. Something to punctuate the stage the way that my punctuation decorates the pages. It’s a closet play that could become a stage magic show.”
The Well-Dressed Wound is at once minimal and decadent, which is an interesting feat, and which aligns it with the fashion design that McCormack loves. While he might reject that idea (“There’s no way a big rhinestone brooch can be minimalist”), his work has a creepy duality to it, where it’s both weightless and full at once, empty spaces riven with blood and guts, semen and shit, then adorned by costume jewelry. It’s required reading for those who could not be called the usual suspects. A neoconservative perfume-obsessed chunky Texan fag with a penchant for the pornographic novels of Samuel R. Delany. A redheaded ex-twink stoner who wears haute couture t-shirts and makes his friends sit on his hideously uncomfortable Eames sofa while lecturing on Comme des Garçons, Jean Harlow, or the 1964 film Lady in a Cage. Semiotext(e) published it as a trade paperback, but a version was also released as a limited edition art object—very fitting. It’s wrapped in gauze, bandaged, bleeding out a ruby. Inside the dressing, things are cataloged, listed, repeated. It is a book of fixation, desire, longing, and death. This has yet to be mentioned, but here it is: it’s a text of disease and dying. It’s a text of disease and dying wrung through the stylized lenses of camp, of adoration, of queer satire. As the Devil (aka King Faggot) says, “Faggots love to die!” but “If there’s anything faggots love more that death… it’s fashion.”
The blood-drenched parade of faggot ghosts that is this book is was totally informed by McCormack’s own brush with death (the bristles of the brush were made out of broken glass, plastic tubing, and hanks of wire)—a few years ago: he was very sick, it was cancer, it was surgery, it was pain, it was his insides oozing out of new holes in his body, getting all over his computer as he typed, which he once said he thought was “beyond Genet.” In an interview that touched on writing the book through this near-death ordeal, he said that he found himself realizing, “I’m really angry, and nothing interests me that doesn’t sound offensive to me, that isn’t screaming at myself or screaming at someone else.” When the spirit cabinet opens and the ghosts and demons emerge, he mashes up the AIDS plague with the body horror of Civil War casualties. Everybody has AIDS; everything has AIDS. “The walls have AIDS! The chandeliers have AIDS! The mirrors have AIDS, so all the reflections are the same: AIDS!” All the dead soldiers, Union and Confederate, are faggots killed by AIDS. They might be all wearing Margiela, but they’re “blasted so full of bullets that they’re wearing their suits on the inside.” Holy shit. Of course, humor suffuses this gruesomeness, as with the joke, “What’s it called when clothes commit suicide? Deconstruction.”
When the Devil appears to the Lincolns, he doesn’t terrorize but wow. Even the spirit of young Willie is astonished. Even Stephen Foster, the old songwriter who pops onstage from his seat in the audience, is transfixed and aroused by the brash depravity that Margiela pulls with him out of Hell. “I want AIDS! I want more AIDS! I want my AIDS to die of AIDS!” bellows Stephen Foster (author of ditties like “O, Susanna!” and “Camptown Races”), begging for the Devil to fuck him into white death. Everything is colored white, from cum, to the virus within it, to the clothes and accessories modeled by spirits, to the president’s words, to the house he lives in, to the inside of a hangman’s hood. There is much white space on the page, which is otherwise littered with the words faggot, AIDS, and fashion. During the curtain call (the curtain is white), all the Union dead, all the Confederate dead, all the “unknown” dead rush the stage for their standing ovation. All they have to say is “faggot”—over and over and over and over and over. McCormack writes, “I cheer. It’s patriotic.”
What does it all mean? That is, maybe, an unanswered question—which is okay. Like how the text pauses near the end to bluntly ask, “What did they die for?” before moving on as if the inquiry was either never made or is so important that it is imprinted in the DNA of every inky sentence and every white field. When asked, “What is your relationship to white? Why is everything white?” the author replied: “White was Margiela’s signature—white shopping bags, white boxes, white labels. Clothes painted white. White is mostly medical for me—bandages, gauze, surgical gowns, nurses’ shoes. Whiteness and its supposed sterility. And then: pus.” McCormack realizes a white Warholian slipperiness tinged with terminal honesty, uncomfortable humanity at its most gross. Warhol as painted by Neel, post Solanas assassination attempt: his whitewashed body lumpy and covered in painful scars (which once, to be sure, were sutures that oozed white pus).
What a coincidence it is that this is not the only book this year that portrays Abraham Lincoln as a faggot with AIDS. Larry Kramer technically got there first, in his scathing, queer, revisionist opus The American People. Similarly to McCormack, with Kramer all the men are faggots, all have AIDS. (Kramer sees the syndrome as so anachronistically ubiquitous that he calls it “the Underlying Condition” of American legend.) George Washington is a “big queen” because, “He decorated everything. He designed all the uniforms, the buttons.” Kramer has a unique and convoluted theory about the Lincoln assassination, having to do with murderous obsession, sexual jealousy, and the deformed penis of John Wilkes Booth. As McCormack tells it, Abe declaims some bland platitudes about the meaning of the Civil War before getting shot in the head by Margiela, after which he has very different things to say: “I’m dead! … I’m a dead faggot! … I’m a dead faggot from AIDS!” and “I finally see the Civil War for what it is … a war fought by faggots for the glory of fashion … It’s a ghost war.” It seems as if both McCormack and Kramer are taking the trauma of having death inside and around them and exploding it into the fabric of history. The results are very different, but true to form for each author.
McCormack is an odd duck who produces gorgeous mirror mazes through which his fancy and brutal themes romp and multiply. Something a la Grand Guignol spectacle but with a lot of down home North American heart thrown in. He has been lauded by the likes of Dennis Cooper, Guy Maddin, Kevin Killian, Edmund White, John Waters, and Bruce Hainley. Withstanding stiff competition, The Well-Dressed Wound might be the best queer book of the year. McCormack once mentioned that when it looked like he might not survive cancer, his greatest wish was to finish writing a last book before he died. One wonders if he also hoped it would be an amazing book. Here is proof that sometimes, not always but sometimes, dreams do come true.
Lonely Christopher is a poet and filmmaker. He is the author of the poetry collection Death & Disaster Series (Monk Books, 2014) and the short story collection The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, which was a 2011 selection of Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint of Akashic Books. His first novel, THERE, is forthcoming in 2017. His plays have been produced in New York City and China. His film credits include the feature MOM (which he wrote and directed), the shorts We Are Not Here and Petit Lait (which were adapted from his stories), and Crazy House (for which he wrote the screenplay). He lives in Brooklyn.