Acid Dance & Poppies

excerpts from a novel in progress by Alistair McCartney

Acid Dance (for the disfigured face of Grigori Vladimirovich Elin)

Because I despise language and everything it signifies--must cut all ties with language, must sever the tendons between the signifier and the signified--I’ve decided to give up writing and become a ballet choreographer, ballet, the supreme homosexual art. Surely I’ll have more success in this artistic sphere and be greeted with more accolades than in avant-garde literature.

For my first and possibly my only dance, I’ll require the services of the most beautiful ballet dancer in the world. The beauty of his face, chest, thighs and buttocks must be of equal proportion, balanced perfectly in total harmony and classical symmetry. (Those dancers with amazing bodies but Martha-Graham-in-a-car-crash type faces need not apply.) Of course he must also be a virtuoso, able to dance and master the most difficult technique and exacting steps, for as everyone knows my choreography is notoriously taxing. 

I will search every ballet academy in Europe, every orphanage, every ballet academy for male orphans, I will concentrate specifically on the academies in Eastern Europe, I will not leave any young man unturned until I find the perfect dancer.

(Another option is to enlist the services of one of the recently disgraced ballet principals, perhaps Paulo Ribeiro, who was accused of homosexual sexual misconduct, or that blonde boy, who wears the Lacoste shirts with the collar turned up, who was accused of heterosexual sexual misconduct,  Ashton Docherty I think his name is, who allegedly sent group texts out about quote tying ballerinas up and violating them like farm animals and treating ballerinas like the sluts they are end quote which is interesting as that’s exactly how I feel about him, almost to the word, regardless, I’m sure both have a lot of free time on their hands.)

When my principal is finalized, the choreography will go as follows: wearing nothing but a pair of Nijinsky’s moldy tights, he will execute the seemingly technically impossible steps to a soundtrack of a Chinese audiobook of The Brothers Karamazov. Waiting in the wings will be a young man holding an old glass jar once filled with black cherry jam now filled with acid. Ideally he will be Oleg Lebedev himself, the Bolshoi dancer who arranged to have acid thrown on the face of Grigori Vladimirovich Elin because of quote personal hostile relations linked to their professional activities end quote, but if he is not available we will find a young ballet dancer with a similarly sallow face, straight outa’ Dostoevsky. When I give the signal, “Oleg” will walk up to the principal, and, shouting, For what?, splash the acid over the dancer’s face. Soundtrack will stop. The dancer will scream once and continue to execute the choreography, as the assailant slowly wraps his face in bandages. When his face is entirely covered, “Oleg” will take the dancer by the hand and walk together off stage as a video screen behind them bears this uplifting message:  if language does anything on the page, it splashes and corrodes like acid: it disfigures the beautiful face of my reader, it blinds him.





Perhaps he is being rash about giving up teaching creative writing entirely. Sure, the creative writing profession in the US is a dead-end, infested with nothing but career poets and novelists giving TED talks on getting agents, and memoirists who use notions of sincerity and honesty like biological weapons, but what about somewhere else, like… Afghanistan. Now that the US has left, there might be opportunities. Perhaps he needs to remember his password and go on LinkedIn to see if there are employment openings for MFA programs in Kabul or if nothing is there, maybe Kandahar. 

Perhaps there is a position for an experimental mid-career homosexual writer at an MFA program for, naturally, all male students; a university located next to a poppy field would be ideal.

On days when the weather is fine he could hold writing workshops in the field, beneath the shade of the poppies, pink and red. He might turn a blind eye as his students take out their secret razors and slit the sides of the fat green pods. As they workshopped, he’d watch from the corner of his eye as the sticky white milk oozes out from the pods, watch as his students lick the excess opaque fluid quickly off their razors before it’s exposed to the air. As the fluid oxidizes and turns into a dark brown, viscous substance, sticky to the touch, he’d take in the delicate perfume of the opium mingled with the even more delicate perfume of the boys. 

Ever so tolerant, he’d let it slide as his students, with their deft fingers, massage the substance as it hardens into perfect little balls. If his students offered him some, as a guest in their country, it would be discourteous to refuse. They would workshop and smoke, smoke and workshop: clearly  he’d need to be flexible in regards to time, which would be magically bended and distorted, making the typically unbearable tedium of the MFA experience far more endurable.


Inevitably, throughout the critique, workshop participants would get the brown paste from the flowers on their fingers, smudge the goo onto the pages of the stories, obscuring their comments. His mediation of the group might suffer as he notices and becomes entranced by the opium paste glistening in the curls of his students’  illustrious black hair, in which the perfume still lingers. Before the workshop ends, they’d all fall asleep together beneath the flowers…*

*Required Readings for MFA Creative Writing Workshop at University of Kandahar:

Cocteau, Jean. Opium: The Diary of his Cure. Translated by Margaret Crosland. 1930. Peter Owen Publishers, 2013.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. 1822. Penguin, 2003.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.


Alistair McCartney is author of the novels The Disintegrations (winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction) and The End of the World Book (a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award and the Publishing Triangle's Edmund White debut fiction award). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel, Light/Air, Fence, Animal Shelter (Semiotexte), The James White Review, Bloom, and elsewhere. Originally from Australia, he lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches in Antioch University's MFA program, and directs their undergraduate creative writing concentration. You can find him at  https://www.facebook.com/AlistairMcCartney/ and https://www.instagram.com/alistair.mccartney/