Dennis Cooper's latest book, Zac’s Haunted House, was released online in mid-January by the Paris-based small press and label Kiddiepunk. Dubbed an “html novel” and offered as a free download, it consists of seven html files, each of which expands into a long, vertical scroll of animated gifs. You could call Zac’s Haunted House many things: net art, a glorified Tumblr, a visual novel, a mood board, or a dark night of the Internet's soul. It has just a few words—the chapter titles and a few subtitles embedded in some of the gifs—but it still very clearly belongs to Cooper’s own haunted oeuvre, capable of evoking powerful and gnarled emotions. Although it is something of an about-face from his last novel, The Marbled Swarm—with that book’s intentionally contrived, digressive language—Zac’s Haunted House still displays Cooper’s obsessive attention to form and style. It also features his by now nearly classical imagery and interests: The vulnerable young male body juxtaposed with death and failure; charged use of subcultural vernacular; and confused bodies, to say nothing of identities, fumbling through sex and subterfuge. Cooper has always written characters whose ineloquence hints at experiences that defy language; now, telling a story almost exclusively in images, he pushes this inarticulateness in a new direction. The result is surprisingly eloquent, and accurately speaks to our experience of the present, online and IRL.

In Zac’s Haunted House, the endlessly repeating fragments primarily evoke a stream of memory. A boy asks “Why am I even here”; another scratches “Die” into the sand and the words dissolve into “You filthy whore,” this time lovingly handwritten. “Go forth” appears emblazoned on an ocean. George Clooney forever peers over a hedge. Metal kids raise a salute; sugar cane blows in the breeze; and Aaron Carter tells you to kill yourself. There seems to be an internal logic to the sequence, but it’s difficult to pin downthe flow brilliantly captures the mood and persuasions of an internet crawl.

Even now, to call a series of gifs a novel—a form arguably premised on the deft wielding of language—is a bold move. Gifs are often regarded as shallow, and they are essentially gestural rather than linguistic, a kind of visual shorthand, pointing to a mass of material that is supposed to speak for itself. Animated gifs disregard genre, pedigree, or distinctions between high and low culture, and are at once contemporary and primal. They are more than quick bursts of looped movement, and may actually do something quite deep in their sheer breadth—namely, capture our ephemeral cultural memory. They are easily shared, easily understood, and yet more gifs doesn’t necessarily clarify or enlighten. Instead, they overwhelm. But even if Cooper’s raw material for his new work is inherently unnovelistic, he constructs a narrative by way of recurring motifs and juxtapositions, as in a stretch of chapter one where five gifs of pouring water are stacked one on top of each other with a gif of a flailing boy on a floor on the receiving end of the stream, or a passage of chapter two that is predominately composed of scenes of falling or mishaps reminiscent of ‘FAIL’ memes that end in another splash of water. By harnessing a way of communicating that prizes brevity and the hook and lure of bright novelty, Cooper constructs a mise en scene of the type the characters that tend to populate his novels might make. Here, he has used the ready-mades at hand‑or at click—and what's crowding up to our hands now are jpegs and gifs begging to be pinched, zoomed, dragged, copied, or trashed.

Zac’s Haunted House is perhaps best understood in the context of artists’ e-books such as Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE (2012), which features 107 pages captured from various iterations of the artist’s computer screen, cluttered with in-progress rendering projects, Text-Edit notes, to-do lists, poems, screeds, insults, icons, and lines of code. It reads like a kind of scrambled diary. To take it all in demands the blurring of two sorts of interpretation: the kind involved in reading a text versus the kind involved in reading an image or composition. Both, of course, demand a familiarity with the grammar and syntax of their respective mediums. When the two types are collapsed, though, as in HELL_TREE or Zac’s Haunted House, the result can be confusing. Yet confusion has always been set to work to productive ends in Cooper’s novels, and he’s professed an interest in such effects before, notably in a 2011 interview in the Paris Review: “Most people fear confusion, but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out.” In doubt and disorder, one can stay open to improvisation, learning, and change. In clarity, we make judgments, reject, and rule out.

Reading Zac’s Haunted House feels a little like joining a conversation with people you know, though they’re speaking in dialects you’ve never heard them use before. You are left off-balance and the overall experience is associative; you are forced to create links and narratives—to create meaning—yourself. In a way, the experience of scrolling through Zac’s Haunted House resembles that of a character in Cooper’s 2005 novel, God Jr., in which a father grieving the death of his son plays—and seems to become a part of—the boy’s favorite video games as he searches for answers to his son’s mysteries in both life and death. As the father, Jim, is drawn progressively further into the video game’s world, he begins communicating with the characters therein, attempting to access his son via their memories of him. It becomes hard to tell whether Jim has found a hidden part of the game or whether he’s imagining it. To make meaning is to imagine it, Cooper seems to be saying across his recent novels, and this latest one is no exception.

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