The premise of Derek McCormack's new novel, The Well-Dressed Wound, is pretty simple on its face. A play presented by P.T. Barnum at his American Museum on Broadway in New York City (a location that burned to the ground in 1865), in which Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln take part in a séance in a parlor of the White House. The medium is played by Nettie Colburn, a woman who actually performed such events for Mrs. Lincoln in the 1800s. Colburn channels Willie Lincoln, the third son of Mary Todd and Abe who died at age 12. When he appears Colburn is wearing a suit by the notorious fashion designer Martin Margiela. Margiela is then also channeled into the room, in the form of Satan, "the king of fashion in Hell." After that, things start to get weird.
What transpires over the 71 pages of The Well-Dressed Wound evoke a wide range of effects and not-quite-nameable emotions. Margiela's ghost unveils his latest line, which features mostly repurposed clothing all painted white, with a runway show. As the models strut the designer stands spouting furious monologues about death, sickness, gay sex, war, pronouncing everything he's made and everything around him both haunted and plagued with AIDS. The ongoing spectacle feels intense, bending the lines between the historical and the fantastical, the reverent with the spiteful, the high-end aesthetic with blood and cum. It's like you're laughing and then the laughing hurts and then you aren't laughing anymore, which as an experience delivered on paper couldn't feel more immediate.
But for as wild and spastic as this book seems, it exudes the feeling of intense desire, one that surpasses hate and terror by throwing confetti in death's face. It doesn't try to explain the anatomy of terror, but to embody it, dress it up in costumes. For the reader who feels like nine-tenths of everything is already underwater, this book brings the heat.
Derek McCormack took the time to answer some of my questions about his book in the context of his battle with cancer while writing it, the effect of fashion in the face of death, and his fury both for and against writing.
VICE: It's clear from the first page of The Well-Dressed Wound that it takes on a tone and scope unlike almost anything else that has been put on paper. Where did the conception of this book begin?
Derek McCormack: I don't know how novel what I wrote is. At times I think of it as a fashion book—like the promotional literature designers send out as publicity, or like the statements that designers distribute at fashion shows or leave on the seats for editors to read. When I was writing it I was thinking of it as a publicity project for Maison Martin Margiela. I don't understand why the Maison hasn't bought boxes of it!
The conception, well, I wanted to write about Margiela, whom I adore. I had written about Nudie and Hank Williams in The Haunted Hillbilly, and about Schiaparelli and Jimmie Rodgers in The Show That Smells, and this was supposed to be the third book in a trilogy about country music and fashion. I never publicized that it was a trilogy; I never told my publishers that it was a trilogy. The third book would be Margiela and Stephen Foster.
Then I got cancer, and the cancer almost killed me, and then the cancer treatment almost killed me, and then I spent a year lying in a bed waiting for an infection or complication to kill me. And I was writing but I needed the book to be more than the other books had been. The book had to save me, or show me a way that I could be saved. I do have that feeling with fashion sometimes—that a brooch can make my life better, or that a bracelet might turn my world around. So I wanted to write a Margiela book that was a Margiela brooch—stunning and useless and in on its own uselessness. I feel that I succeeded in that way. The book could be pinned to a coat and worn as a brooch, or be strung with a chain and worn as a necklace or bracelet. It could be a purse—a terrible purse, but a purse.
Anyway my book brooch has saved me so far.
I'm glad you found a way for the brooch of the book to be a place of focus during such a hard time. And I'm not surprised this book emerged at least partly from such a complex emotional condition, because for as beautifully bizarre as its conceit is, there's a great deal of energy lurking here, a kind of fury and ecstasy at the same time. Did this come out during the shift between your beginning the book and then getting sick? And how did your approach to writing it (or writing at all) at the edge of death change?
I think that fury and ecstasy is an incredible description of what I was going through. The cancer changed the way I wrote in obvious ways—I had all these new holes and I kept leaking pus and blood onto my laptop.
I thought: I might have only a little time left. Should I spend it writing? I decided that the answer was yes, mainly because I was too broke and weak to do anything more exciting. It was hard to live life to the fullest when I was shitting constantly.
I decided that my book had to be brief, briefer than my other books. My other books suddenly seemed wordy to me. I decided that I didn't have the time to write something wordy, and I didn't have the wherewithal. I was not going to write about a struggle with cancer because it was no struggle. I capitulated completely to it. It fucked me completely. Writing the book was totally ignoble. My book wasn't going to be a triumph of my spirit; it was going to be a trifle of my spirit.
Which was fine because I love trifles!
I have always loved fashion for its capriciousness and its cruelty. I mean, I love that fashion destroys individuality or identity. I always dreamed of disappearing in designer clothes. What a way to go! I was aware that cancer had the same effect—it had so much power, a Satanic-seeming power, to make me disappear. Somebody suggested that the cancer was a fashion, that I was wearing it, but the truth is it was wearing me. I was a fad that death fell for for a while. Which is why I say in the book that death is a form of fashion and AIDS is a form of death—fashion is at the top, it's all-powerful, and there was a thrill when I was swept up in it. It was magisterial. Also, it was ghastly.
Writing in the face of death seems like a rebellion somehow, which I like, because the book itself feels like a rebellion—not only against the idea of death (there are zombies and ghosts everywhere), but against books themselves, and against patriotism, or war. Margiela says, "Faggots love to die!" and Mary Todd Lincoln's response is just: " !" Certain passages of the book feel like a machine gun shooting exclamation points and the words "faggot" and "AIDS" into the face of the reader over and over. I wonder if you would talk about the choices of those words and what they inflict?
A rebellion against books sounds right in a way, though I don't have a reason to rebel against them, or I don't have a good reason—only a general anger or disgust or something. When I was writing The Show That Smells , I dreamed it would somehow have the power to destroy all books. Why would I want that? Because I want it.
The things you said about the word faggot are as close as I can come to a clue. I'm a faggot, I always preferred faggot to queer or gay. I've been called a faggot my whole life so I don't feel bad about using that word—it's mine. When I was a kid, and kids called me faggot, and adults called me faggot, I always said: "Yes, I am. I'm as vile and perverted as you think I am. I'm even more vile." I mean, I've always thought of myself as disgusting physically and mentally. I still do. It seemed stupid to deny it, and it seemed smart to push the faggotry as far as it would go, to make myself worse than worse. I make my violence against myself worse than any violence against me, and maybe by doing so I do some violence to the world.
I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if I'm staging rebellions so much as I'm siding with death and encouraging a catastrophe against books. I sort of picture fashion replacing books, and that's another catastrophe, but it sure would be stylish!
I like the idea of "a catastrophe against books," which for me always came out of a feeling of wanting more from them. Do you ever imagine the reactions of readers as you are writing? Are you directly addressing an audience, dead or alive?
I wanted to impress Martin Margiela, wherever he is and whatever he's doing. The guy's a ghost, so I'm trying to impress a ghost. The book's a sort of seance that way. He's living and dead.
I do like to picture reactions to the book. I want readers to be repulsed by it, and by me, but I want them to be impressed, too. The book is a fuck you to literature and to life and I want readers to get that, and then to admire the gall of it. I want to piss people off and to have them praise me for it. It's been like that with all my books—I always want to write stupid and shiny things that have to be admired for the artfulness of their stupidity and shininess.
I'm performing, really. I like to think of my books as performances—like magic shows, or fashion shows. I like them to be short and shocking and maybe sickening. Thanks to the disease, this book is an especially effective fuck you, I think. When I was writing it, I thought it could only be published posthumously, so I went all out. I always try to write all out but I have to tell you, it's easier to do when you're at death's door and a little demented.
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