A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

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