“I’m not interested in the stuff of conventional novels,” Dennis Cooper says in an interview in the latest Paris Review. “I’m dedicated to writing about pretty specific things, in the hope of coming to a point where I feel no desire to address them anymore.” That statement encapsulates what’s both appealing and distancing about him: He eagerly challenges novelistic structure, but he’s done it while sticking to the “pretty specific things” of transgressive sex and violence. He has his fans, though the reviews of his past work have never encouraged me to investigate further.
In any event, I don’t love Cooper’s new novel, The Marbled Swarm. I have a fairly thick skin for fictional blood and gore, but the book’s scenes of cannibalism are queasy all the same, and a line like “[D]ead boys aren’t exactly wheels of brie, however much they might smell the same eventually” is off-putting even if you get the narrator’s gallows humor. (There’s more where that came from if you happen to be one of those fans.)
But Cooper’s goal in the book is a respectable and interesting one: He wants to look at how words can seduce and manipulate, and how poisonous that instinct can be when the person using the words is fairly bonkers. The “marbled swarm” of the book’s title is a term the narrator uses to describe his father’s enchanting manner of speaking—”trains of sticky sentences that round up thoughts as broadly as a vacuum.” The narrator’s father used it to make money, while the guy we’re listening to deploys it for sexual and gastronomical ends, but even if it serves low ambitions the tone makes The Marbled Swarm a more writerly novel than Cooper is often given credit for producing.
Novelists have a way of making madmen hyperarticulate; it’s a way for the novelist to recruit readers into being more patient with the craziness than they might otherwise be. Lolita might be one relatively contemporary example; Bret Easton Ellis‘ serial-killer tale American Psycho and Joyce Carol Oates‘ JonBenet Ramsay riff My Sister, My Love would be more recent ones. In the latter two cases there’s a slightly off-kilter pitch to the prose that highlights how bad things have gotten: Think of the doofy, obsessive record reviews that Patrick Bateman writes in American Psycho or the heavily footnooted and recursive writing by Oates’ narrator. (Of course, those comparison points would be too conventional for a writer more interested in Burroughs or Sade.)
Cooper’s twist on the theme is to make his narrator not just hyperarticulate but hyper-self-aware—to the point where, ironically, we’re able to stick with him even though his actions are more repulsive than anything in Nabokov, Ellis, or Oates. “My [version of the] marbled swarm is more of an atonal, fussy bleat—somewhat marbled yet far too frozen tight and thinned by my loquaciousness to do the swarming it implies,” he writes. But lest you think he’s displaying false humility: “Still, it seems to be a sleeper hit with guys my age and younger, or at least with the majority who tune in once they’re weakened by my stunning looks.” He knows where he fits in; what’s creepy is how he decides where to fit.
The Marbled Swarm isn’t plotted so much as it’s designed to be a negotiation with the reader: How patient will you be with the scenes of rape and young men who fantasize about being run over by steamrollers? If the narrator can admit his failings as a narrator, will you stick with him a little while longer? “I should be out of kilter, so I’ll try to wreck the next few pages of my story in some self-effacing fashion,” he writes later in the novel as the body count rises. By turns, he’ll confess to “this mannered spiel to which you’ve grown accustomed,” or his “fetish for rerouting sentences that plummet at their points into Chinese puzzles.”
That’ll keep you curious till the end—at least, it kept me going as the grotesqueries piled up. The downside—to get back to that “conventional novel” business mentioned up top—is that this linguistic seductiveness doesn’t lead to much of a resolution. The narrator experiences little in the way of transformation or judgment, except one that he passes on himself: “I’ve failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules an premise.” Cooper told the Paris Review that the novel was written like a piece of music: themes and motifs “would be emphasized or de-emphasized at different points, mixed into the foreground, middle ground, or background, being moved around constantly so the reader’s attention would be directed all over the place.” That all-over-the-place aspect is the novel’s main frustration, even more than its gross-out gestures; the sole comfort is the curiously shattered and undeniably intelligent narrator who’s serving as tour guide.