You wait for years for a good corpse-sniffing description to come along and then two arrive at once. Just one would have startled me, frankly, and did.... when Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs has one of its characters, at the funeral service for a close relative, climb into the coffin in her grief. "I curled in against him", Moore writes, "...panting shallowly, as I hardly dared to breathe, dreading some stench or other. But one had to breathe. His smell at first seemed a chemical one, like the field fertilizer used by the agribiz farms. Field fertilizer! You could not make up stuff like that!" To be frank, Moore lost me when she had the character close the lid and travel with the body in the back of the hearse all the way to the cemetery. You have to make up stuff like that. But there was something piercingly true about that brief fear of the wrong odour, and its sense of the mixed feelings that the body of a loved person can generate. And then, just casually browsing through Kelly Link's collection of stories Pretty Monsters, I came across this – in a story about a young boy whose girlfriend Bethany has died suddenly. Somewhat self-consciously (he thinks of himself as a poet in the making) he makes his last farewells at the funeral parlour: "He bent over and kissed Bethany's forehead, breathing in. She smelled like a new car." So, field fertilizer or new car? I'd like to be able to adjudicate for you – but on the only occasion I've bent over a coffin myself I didn't breathe in, for exactly the same reasons that Moore's character tried not to.
One imagines that this experience – of kissing a dead body and fearing that it might induce disgust in you rather than the unmediated sorrow that you should be feeling – can't be that rare. Indeed, it must have been felt by thousands, perhaps even millions of people. And yet I can't recall ever having read it described before. There are no shortage of coffin scenes in literature and plenty of accounts of the pallor and frigidity of death. Quite a few accounts, too, of the stench of death and decomposition. But not this particular close-up of the human animal at a highly intimate moment. And with Lorrie Moore you get a nervous sense of triumph at having got the thing down in print. Who is it that really says, "You could not make up stuff like that?" Her character Tassie? Or Moore herself, insisting on the veracity of the thing? Kelly Link, writing in a more gothic tradition, is aiming for something slightly different, a kind of slacker morbidity, in which the dead are provocatively described as showroom fresh. But both writers, I guess, would have had the feeling that they were venturing into untrodden territory. I can't believe it hasn't been written about extensively before, in truth. Surely Roth or Updike or Bellow – all of them expert chroniclers of the embarrassing intersection between our mental and bodily lives – had a go at some point? But if so I can't remember reading it.
I found it oddly heartening, anyway – a reminder that the novel needn't only surprise you by redescribing what other novelists have described before but that there are still vast tracts of undisturbed privacies in the human experience to be explored. "You could not make up stuff like that?" also asserts the central thrill of the novel – the sparking connection between a feeling we might have assumed was unique and entirely inward and a description that reveals that we're not so special after all. There are others out there who've felt or thought the same thing too. It's a thrill that can still work if the feeling is a human commonplace (though it needs a very good writer to make it work), but which is even more piquant when the writer is going somewhere nobody's been before in print.
V&A's feat of clay
I went to see the new Ceramics gallery at the V&A (below) the other day, a space I hadn't visited since going there to listen to a sound installation, which consisted of a looped tape playing the sound of several thousand pounds' worth of porcelain breaking into smithereens. I suspect this was underappreciated by V&A visitors, since so few of them ever reached the upper-floor galleries. Apparently, V&A research revealed that one in four of the people who did make it were only there because they'd got lost. Those numbers could change because the new galleries make a wonderful contrast to the three-dimensional index file that the collection used to be. It's an excellent example of how to adapt a matchless scholarly collection so that it can seduce a general audience. And though we think of ceramics and porcelain as being vulnerable objects, it's their resilience that makes this space so attractive. Light isn't a problem at all, so can be allowed to flood in over colours that are as fresh as the day they came out of the kiln. It must also be the most democratic part of the V&A, finding a space for the best factory-made ceramics, so that quite a lot of people will be able to go away with the satisfying knowledge that they have a museum-quality piece tucked away in a kitchen cupboard.
An intriguing piece in The Art Newspaper looks ahead to a forthcoming Supreme Court hearing over Section 48 of the US Criminal Code, a section that criminalises "depictions of animal cruelty". The writer warns that unless this law is declared unconstitutional it will represent a threat to artistic freedom, since the existing exemption for works of "serious" religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historic or artistic value (enough loopholes for ya?) leaves the definition of "serious" in the hands of prosecutors and jury. And then, in a brief list of artists who might fall foul of the law if it remains on the books, he alerts me, for the first time, to the pig-tattooing art of Wim Delvoye. I'd seen Delvoye's baroque wooden cement-mixer mover before and been vaguely aware of his Cloaca machine, a large, technologically complex installation that converts food into ersatz excrement (which is then vacuum packed and sold to collectors). But I'd missed the pigs, which he tattoos on a farm in China, a country with less demanding animal welfare laws than Belgium. I can't help hoping the Supreme Court keeps the law on the books.
William Gaddis once wrote a brilliant satire, A Frolic of His Own, in which the values and rhetoric of contemporary art and American litigation were brought into conflict, but it surely wouldn't be a patch on United States vs Delvoye in the matter of pig tattoos.