Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows, by Sophie White, Tramp Press, 310 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1916291461
The cover of Sophie White’s latest work shows an image of Bates Motel from Hitchcock’s horror movie Psycho. Protruding from the hotel are the legs of a woman’s body – I think they must belong to Sophie. It’s a good device to encapsulate the premise of this book – the author’s body as the setting for a series of horrific events. This is her fourth book and it’s clear from the flowing, chatty style of her writing that she is an experienced journalist, a model millennial and a woman at the top of her social media game. The text is presented in a series of literary non-fiction essays, all vividly autobiographical and mind-bendingly honest. None of the subject matter is light, but it is presented with injections of razor-sharp wit and opinions one can relate to (even if non-millennial). There are five parts, each containing a selection of essays. Parts have names like “Swallow”, whose essays deal broadly with addiction issues, or as she pithily puts it, “putting things in my mouth to fix me”.
From the get-go I was hooked – White did well on her opening sentence, you couldn’t not want to find out what happened the first time her father died. We meet her on the cusp of a ridiculously traumatic situation: while she struggles through the labour of her second baby, her father lies on his deathbed on the other side of town, cruelly afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
So what is “corpsing”? The easy definition is of an actor breaking character on stage by laughing or otherwise, but Sophie’s brand is exemplified when she lets her guard drop on her “true hungry nature” at a mummy-friend’s house on a playdate for the children. Not only does she neck most of the bottle of wine she’s brought, although trying her best to drink the glasses s l o w l y. On departing, she cures any residual embarrassment by buying another bottle on the way home.
Another section, “Gore and More!”, broadly deals with body issues and Sophie’s attempts to starve herself “into submission”, neatly segueing into a sudden need to imbibe blood during one of her pregnancies. Unable to satisfy cravings with mere homemade blood pudding, the episode ends with her pouring two litres of pigs’ blood over herself in the bath. In her words, the chapter titled “Craving” should have been called, “What the actual fuck, Sophie?”
The addiction theme prevails in other parts of the book too, including a “bad trip” at the age of twenty-two which propelled White into a long-lasting breakdown. Trying to reassure herself with “It’s a bad hangover”, she replies to herself “No it’s fucking not, look how fucked up everything looks. Everyone looks like little dolls in a dollhouse.” It’s these kinds of images that make the book relatable – I can smell the blind terror of being in a narcotic-altered universe where such a vision is possible.
In fact, although the book is in sections, the big themes of grief, addiction, abuse, self-harm, motherhood, mental illness and breakdown bleed into each other throughout Sophie’s narrative, sometimes confusingly, as we’re trying to figure out which baby (of three) she’s talking about, which stage of dementia her father is at, where she is living, how she is managing to actually work through all of this trauma and madness. But in her own words, the outpouring of stories, feelings and truths come out in a “scattershot fashion”, so, knowing that, we come to roll with it as we read on.
White’s strength lies in her pally, banter-like approach, her whip-sharp wit and her willing exposure of truths much stronger people wouldn’t be able to acknowledge to a close friend, never mind thousands of readers. I’m talking about things like being drunk as a lord after three bottles of wine while her two tiny boys sleep upstairs, thinking she is possessed by a demon, banging her head off the wall, several admissions to psychiatric wards, stockpiling pills just in case it all gets too much and she needs an “escape hatch”. Then all of a sudden there’ll be a reference that makes you LOL, like when she compares cutting the umbilical cord of one of her babies to slicing through a pork loin –such a vivid simile!
Because I liked the banter so much, I found myself wanting to gloss over the occasional tracts that sounded more like an article – where the journalist won out over the author. Subjects like the history of fat obsession over the centuries, the horrific 2004 TV programme The Swan and the casualties before Ireland’s repeal of the eighth amendment. I wanted to go back to Sophie’s insights on herself and her no-frills descriptions of life, working constantly through all the rollercoaster days, making podcasts, writing articles, knitting manically – why or how does she do it? Because “the empty hours are lava” – to be avoided at all costs.
Susan McKeever is an editor, writer and ghostwriter for several Irish and international publishers and authors. She works from her home in Dublin’s Portobello.