Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Marbled Swarm - Dennis Cooper (2011)

It's not often that I read other reviews of a book before I attempt to write my own.  I used to think that was "cheating" when I wrote film reviews for Washington Square News Weekend at NYU.  It was "cheating" because it was almost like I was afraid to say how I felt about something--or more specifically, afraid that I would praise a film that would be dismissed as a cinematic disaster, or pan a film that would show up on every critic's year-end top 10 list.

We are reaching an important point on Flying Houses.  Recently I applied for a Press Pass for the Pitchfork Festival.  If I get one, it will be the most audacious experience in our history, as I will try to bring in a cameraman and film interviews with the likes of St. Vincent and Beck.  But I won't find out until June and dreams tend not to come true.  Moreover, April 1st will mark our sixth birthday here, and I will post as I have the past couple of years an "MD&A."  After more than 270 posts, one would think I would have the courage to state how I felt about a book without consulting other reviews.  But The Marbled Swarm is one of the more troubling books I have read.  I both liked it, and didn't like it.  It's probably easiest for me to list all of the other books by Dennis Cooper that I have reviewed here and state that I liked it less than all of them.

That's my knee-jerk reaction before even checking all of the others.  But between Closer, Ugly Man and Try, I certainly rank it below Closer and Try, and probably beneath Ugly Man too, though maybe I would say it's on par with that.  More importantly from the Ugly Man review, I list and rank all of his books that I've read (six others, three or four of which I would re-read), and from this list I would not put it any higher than #7.

It will be fun to try to explain what this book is about.  First, to continue with the comparison theme, I will say it is most similar to Period in that it is extremely experimental.  I would also say it is better than Period, but maybe I wouldn't stand by that statement if I re-read that book.  But the plot:

The narrator (who is nameless, I am pretty sure) is rich--apparently he is a 22-year-old billionaire (though it doesn't really seem like he is that rich) whose parents were famous French actors.  Well, at least his father, Pierre Clementi, was (I'd need to re-read to check on his mother).  He wants to buy a chateau.  He meets the owners--the father, the mother, and their 14-year-old son Serge--and decides he wants to buy it.  They had another son--16-year-old Claude--who died (Maybe, I think?  For some reason I'm not concerned about spoilers in this review).  Basically, Serge is "interested" in the narrator, and the father seems to think he is a nuisance so he says he will "include him" in the price of the house.  The narrator puts Serge in the trunk of his car and is driven back to Paris (he has a driver, Azmir, of course).  Serge is then raped, murdered, and eaten (Maybe?).  The narrator then starts reminiscing about his younger brother, Alfonse, who was very into Manga and was also eventually raped, murdered, and eaten.  By the narrator and a couple cohorts.  One of those cohorts has a son named Didier who is eventually groomed to look exactly like Alfonse.  Finally, there is the issue of the narrator's father, who apparently dies at some point after Alfonse (though this is confusing, too), and has another property in his will that nobody really knows about in a remote part of France.  There is another story about this house and the people that stayed in it/the reasons why his father built it, that seems to coalesce with the chateau from the beginning of the novel as well as the lofts in which the narrator, Alfonse, and their father reside at in Paris.  Then, the novel ends, and the ending I have to admit is one of the more beautiful endings that Cooper has written.

Why is the ending beautiful?  Because, as may be clear from my plot summary, this book is fucking bonkers and basically impossible to "get."  The most obvious "themes" are younger/older brothers (and this is not the first time Cooper has touched incest--see My Loose Thread), rape/murder/cannibalism (the first two are in nearly every single one of his novels; the last is something new, but seems more "out there" for some reason, and just there to shock), and most conspicuously, secret passageways.  But the ending ties things together as best as it possibly could.

This book is not totally inscrutable.  Cooper does pull back the curtain a couple of times and acknowledges that  he knows that he is not presenting anything close to a linear narrative.  Even so, it is very hard to tell what happened, and I'm not really sure what the whole point of it is:

"The play was set in a chateau whose history of on-site murders, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena required a lengthy spoken foreword, which Claude's father had recited through the speakers for what would have felt like months were not the bloodthirsty details of this story so custom-made for mordant teenagers.
To cite the most agentive of these details, the couple's older son had either killed himself, been murdered, died by tragic accident, or faked his death within the previous few months.
The anguished man and wife had put the crime scene on the market, and the young Parisian, struck by certain parallels between their son's obituary in Le Monde and the clueless death of his own brother years before, found himself inspired to visit the chateau and then acquire it." (171)

I think I've made most of the points I wanted to make about this book, but it is worth noting that in my search for reviews, I came across an interview that Cooper did for The Paris Review in 2011.  You may find it here.  I highly recommend it, as I do most interviews in The Paris Review, which is probably the most important literary journal apart from The New Yorker (though I find The New Yorker to be pretentious most of the time, and really consider an interview in The Paris Review one of the highest honors a writer can receive).  In it, Cooper had this to say about this novel:

"With The Marbled Swarm, I was trying to write a novel the way a sound technician mixes a song or piece of music into its final form. I’ve been studying recorded music and trying to transpose its principles into my fiction ­going all the way back to my first novel,Closer, where one thing I did was try to simulate the sonic effect of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy album with my prose. In The Marbled Swarm I found a voice that let me do that. I thought about each element of the novel, whether it was a narrative thread or character or reference point or an ongoing motif or tone or rhythm. The idea was that they would all always be there, but they 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. My idea was that it would give the writing a three-dimensional quality, as the reader is carried along by the musical surface of the novel, but he or she would also be chasing different story lines and recurring ideas as they waver and scamper about and hide inside the prose."

This novel certainly creates that sort of feeling.  Cooper also says in the interview that he wants to write one more novel, and then be done with them, so that he can finish with an even ten.  That makes me sad, but he has been pretty prolific over the past 25 years, and the world of literature is richer for the contributions he has made.  I'm sure some people would take issue with that statement, but one of the factors that makes his work more interesting than 90% of his contemporaries is its divisiveness.  While this is not my favorite book by him by a good stretch, it was still a worthwhile read, and the ending was very nice:

"I've failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules and premise, and, although you'll never know the difference, barring errors that weren't meant as an insidious direction, there is nowhere deeper or more intricately stifled by my story than this hotel room, and I'm out of means to keep you waiting for the secret that involved my sleight of hand unless you think a very frightened thirteen-year-old boy who looks vaguely like Pierre Clementi seems magical or promising enough." (194)

I also loved the references to Isabelle Adjani.

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