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FICTION: Screamworthy

The Show that Smells
Derek McCormack
Akashic Books, 2009

A swimming sea of sputum, sex, sordid, and silly, Derek McCormack’s novella from Akashic reinvents a classic: freak show.

Meet the cast of Tod Browning’s lost screenplay. Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and two of fashions’ arch-nemeses: Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. The twist? Jimmie’s a carnival crooner, Elsa’s a vampire, and the whole thing takes place in a mirror maze. A strophic masterpiece of experimental fiction and phantasmagoria, The Show that Smells is your invitation into the eclectic mind of Derek McCormack, a place where parentheses sparkle, numerals fly, and freaks take over the world.

Whose perfume will save Jimmy from the clutches of tuberculosis? Coco’s status quo Chanel No. 5 or Elsa Schiaparelli’s counter antidote, Shocking! (naturally containing an essence of blood).

We’re all familiar with Coco, tweed mainstay of fashion iconography, but I had honestly never heard of Elsa Schiaparelli before reading this book. Turns out, Schiap and Coco, the It-girls of 20s/30s fashion, were famed competitors and Elsa really did have a perfume called Shocking! (original did not contain blood). Both had couture houses and signature perfumes, but Schiaparelli did everything a little weirder. One of her famous trompe l’oeil pieces, created in collaboration with Salvador Dali, depicts a lobster grabbing the crotch of the wearer.

Society never quite understood Schiaparelli, hence her lesser known status. I wonder if she felt misunderstood? McCormack runs with the theory and employs her underdog status to carry out his theme: “Freaks are sick, sick of you normals.”

This all sounds a little heavy, and it is, but in addition to social commentary and historical satire, the king of glittery one liners knows how to make smart people laugh. Statuary companies make kewpie dolls as a passion, tombstones pay the bills. Notes on how to bake edible movie mirrors or make movie thunder by shaking X-rays.

The prose is tight and biting, and somehow the alliterations don’t get old. The whole thing reads sort of like a song or a poem with call and response dialogue and the repetition of certain passages. “‘Le bon mot,’ I say. ‘Le bon mort,’ Schiaparelli says.”

Now let’s talk about those dead baby scenes. I know, I can barely write it, but it’s all part of the shock and amazement, which is phantasmagoria. So, if you’re checking out this book, I don’t want to hear anyone complaining about dead babies. It would be akin to seeing a horror movie and declaring the heart staking scene distasteful.

Bold in her time, Schiaparelli was the first to unveil the wrap dress (not DVF, ladies) and the first to make couture with a visible zipper. Fashion historians and literati alike, bow down for another first as McCormack and Akashic redesign the novella.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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