Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Locked in the Funhouse

A troubling book seeks to make the novel novel

Joshua Cohen


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View through Olafur Eliasson's 2001 work Viewing Machine at Kistefos Museum, Norway, 2009.

When considering time travel, one thinks more often of the metaphysics involved in altering one’s own present condition than, for example, the terrors or joys of inadvertent incestuous sex. But these two concerns can be contorted into one, as if entwined in a tautological sixty-nine, in the problem known as the Daddy Paradox, which asks: What would happen if you ventured backward in time and killed your father-as-a-youth? Would you live? Would your story continue? For that matter, what would happen if you got pregnant by your father, or inseminated your mother? Would you, voilà, become your own parent?

American-born writer Dennis Cooper is a recent émigré to Paris—approximately fifty years too late for its last avant-garde—and his new novel, The Marbled Swarm, is a wannabe time traveler in which testing the Daddy Paradox is all in a day’s pleasure. To be sure, it’s not that the book’s narrative travels in time as much as its aesthetic does, and its language does. Cooper’s novel is nothing but the sweaty, overwrought monologue of an unnamed twenty-two-year-old sadist who both couples with and kills off literary forebears, including the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, and Ronald Firbank. A literary parricide, he’s also—in a nod to Cooper’s earlier work, particularly the five-novel George Miles cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period)—a very real victim of incestuous rape, and a sexual predator and killer of adolescent boys.

The language, though, is where the book’s strange warp-power lies: florid, fustian, Chateaubriandesque, Proustian, Baudelairean, Lautréamontian, adjectival, French. Now take all that bluster and subject it to the faux objectivity of the nouveau roman. With that antiquated language sufficiently Robbe-Grilletized, Pingeted, and Sarrauted, Google-translate it all into German, then into Albanian, and then into Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Turkish, back into French, and finally into English—the lingua of Cooper’s closest readership.

A related linguistic algorithm might have at least generated the title. “The marbled swarm” apparently refers to the seductive Eurotrash English the protagonist’s wealthy father—a businessman and installation-art collector—trained his son to speak. It’s a tongue that itself is, or attempts, a pun, as it sounds like the narrator is swarm-talking, with marbles in his mouth:

On the off chance my manner hasn’t made self-flattery a metaphoric gild to my veritable lily, allow me to infer that on the issue of attractiveness, I could spend many numbing if prettily overwritten pages counting the ways in which my beauty is a fact, disputed by no one I’ve ever met, although I suspect a simple background check might do.

It’s with the richesse of this rhetoric that Cooper’s heir negotiates the buying of a bizarre mansion called the Château Étage from the parents of two teenage sons: one, Claude, who was recently mysteriously murdered; the other, Serge, whom our protagonist conspires to sodomize and murder. It’s also this cant that relentlessly sells us—and at the same time complicates—this troubling story.

It’s almost impossible to conduct a review-reader through the halls of this book without ruining the few freakish twists, though they’re so buried in the text as to be less windy gothic passages than tunnels that punctuate in medieval dungeons. Suffice it to say that, as in time traveling, there’s time doubling, as the narrator’s father is revealed as having been a violent pederast himself; and as in space traveling, there’s space doubling, with every room in the narrator’s château and every wall in his loft in the Marais containing hidden shadows: recesses, crawl spaces, peeps. “You see, the home in which I’d spent the greatest portion of my life also hid a scrawny, ill-lit secret realm similarly fashioned from the hollows of the normal-looking house, and, while far less of an involving place than the chateau’s, I assure you it was just as wicked.”

While such doublings allow an author to travel even while staying in place, Cooper’s sentences, yes, redouble this effect by assigning every character a doppelgänger, and every crime its copycat. These twin casts and scenes overlap, overstep, and, in one plot twist, even fall headlong into the multiplicity of the Internet, where distinctions further blur, giving off “an atonal, fussy bleat,” for which the narrator makes no excuses: “I’ve gotten lost, and so have you. I’m not as witty as I wish and you’re nowhere near as patient with my heaping phrases as I evidently am.”

It turns out that all this logophagy recapitulates one last crucial doubling: the doubling of a person when he consumes another—cannibalism. Our narrator comes to declare himself the leader of a cabal of Parisian people-feasters who dine on the young male flesh they’ve just murdered. This cohort includes Christophe, a mid-forties cosmetic surgeon to the stars, and François, a fifty-something chef at the four-star restaurant L’Astrance. Christophe’s son Claude—obviously the same name, for initially obscuring reasons, as the Étage owners’ murdered son—had been a ballet dancer until his sixty kilos went to feed his father’s friends, while François’s technophile sons, Olivier and Didier, fatter, “rounder,” should sate the fraternity with subsequent courses. Now, if you’re beginning to suspect that this insistent mirroring of architecture in filiation is too simple and schematic, rest assured, the book proceeds to frustrate any meaning you might expect: “In other words,” the narrator admits, “everything you’ve read thus far was more mischievous than you imagined.”

What Cooper’s parallels have led us to anticipate is a clef—a skeleton key that will unlock the text. But—because we’re no longer modern, no longer even postmodern—an easy solution to this book is never to be found. Cooper withholds an ultimate coherence in what appears to be a recanting, or palinode—an assertion that turning literary tricks à la Paris émigrés Joyce, Beckett, or Henry Miller has become its own species of deviancy that, like all recent deviancy, has become rather tired and flaccid. Cooper has published some of the most violent and sexual fiction of his era, and his withholding here seems to be an admission that trying to make a novel novel—trying to make the next new shocking book—has turned, for him, into an attempt at autocannibalism. As he couples the exhaustion of the vanguard with the exhaustion of a gay subcultural aesthetic, it’s difficult to drool over the offal left: a pile of unsignifying verbiage. Nearly a half century after the uncensoring of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—that book so frank about penises and orifices—it’s a revelation that Cooper has written a book that transgresses primarily by emphasizing the clichés of its transgression (an emphasis most painfully conveyed when his narrator perseverates in the comparison of yet another underground passageway to yet another rectum).

Cooper, projecting onto his serial killer, murders his artistic progeny by murdering his parentage, thusly achieving freedom: not as the foremost gay novelist of his generation, but as a foremost novelist, tout de suite. However, this emancipation can only come in the final pages of The Marbled Swarm, when the protagonist—just done seducing a pair of Swedish boys he met by the Eiffel Tower—performs a few paragraphs of criticism on yesterday’s Paris, and on Cooper’s very fan base:

Apparently, there is a novel titled Story of the Eye that, although mistaken by French readers in the ’50s for porn just erudite enough to carry on the metro, was instead a work of genius that co-opted the erotic—a kind of sheep in wolf’s clothing—and this novel’s eminence is such that it was prominent among the volumes lying open on the Swedes’ bed and the second to the last to be knocked onto the floor.

Its success led hornier authors with fewer ulterior designs to dress their novels’ sexy scenes in Linguist Chic. The most famous of these knockoffs is The Story of O. It and novels titled virtually like it seemed to titillate a marginally better class of reader on release, but their steamy scenes were too uncomplicated for the French intelligentsia and their artfulness too thin to work as a deodorant.

Nowadays, these books are only valued for their frilly raunch by boys too nice to hack the monitoring software off their pantywaist computers, and when the books are spoken of with multisyllables, it usually involves a backward compliment about their porn’s off-putting gussiness, which certain brainiacs find interestingly camp.

Obviously, when I discuss these shallow novels, it’s a roundabout self-portrait, and when I parse their readership, I speak obliquely of the Swedes as well as every ex for whom I’ve seemed to guarantee an orgasm so rash they might have gotten pregnant through their hands had I not been there to swallow it.

Wash your hands and gulp—encapsulated here is the essential confession of Cooper’s career. Though Cooper might believe that his readers read him to be titillated—“an orgasm so rash”—he also has to believe that he writes for more than titillation: He writes what he writes because he must. It’s Cooper’s disgusted, often antagonistic, awareness of this dichotomy that has made his daring, perplexing books—of which The Marbled Swarm is the most unreadable, but also the most personal, and honest.

Joshua Cohen is the author of three novels, most recently Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), about the last surviving Jew. His collection of novellas, Four New Messages, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2012.

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