The Marbled Swarm and the Varied Career of Dennis Cooper

On the surface The Marbled Swarm is the story of a young aristocrat, the secret hallway-furnished chateau he wants to purchase, and the troubled boy he wants to cannibalize. However one realizes as early as the first chapter of Dennis Cooper’s characteristically slim ninth novel that its narrative is as deceptive as the chateau walls. As the same plot repeats itself with different characters, more houses conceal hidden passages, more brothers harbor incestuous desires, and more fathers embrace voyeuristic impulses. Making the waters murkier still is the narrator’s voice, the titular swarm which suggests Nabakov at his most erudite, “generated from a dollop of the haughty triple-speak British Royals employ to keep their hearts reclusive, some of the tricked, incautious slang that dumbs down young Americans, a dollop of the stiff, tongue-twisting jammed-up sentence structure and related terseness that comes with being German, some quisling, dogmatic Dutch retorts, and a few other international ingredients…”

This voice is a departure for Cooper, whose cool, minimalist prose has invited comparisons to Joan Didion and Samuel Beckett. Apparently the inspiration behind this shift in tone is Cooper’s relocation to France. “Because I don’t speak or understand the French language all that well, I only semi-understand what’s going on around me,” Cooper related by email. “I often have to guess or use my imagination, and I’ve found that to be a very interesting if kind of alienating way to perceive the world, and I wanted to try to simulate that experience in my fiction.” Still, if his latest novel is complex, it is no more so than his previous books, only more pronounced. “I wanted to flush the complicatedness that’s always been in my work into the foreground, partly so that the reader’s experience would be closer to the disorienting, studious experience I have as a person who is trying to write legible novels about confusing things.”

As the author puts it, “emotional confusion and the inability of language to articulate emotion adequately” are recurring themes in Cooper’s oeuvre. Knowing this is key to understanding how Cooper can go from documenting a grieving father’s attempt to memorialize his dead son by building a life-size model of a videogame setting in one novel (God Jr.) to chronicling the literal comings and goings of a gay escort site in the next (The Sluts). The one is a somber family drama, the other a darkly comic farce. Yet Cooper’s career-long fascination with the insufficiency of language shines through both books and consequently lends them his distinct authorial stamp.

But his books are perhaps better known for their scenes of graphic violence, the nature of which runs the gamut from torture and necrophilia to rape and pedophilia and occasionally comprise a combination of the four. Excluding God Jr., (an anomaly containing little profanity, a completely heterosexual cast, light drug use, and only one dead teenager) his work is not for the faint of the heart. That said, Cooper doesn’t exactly pack his books to the gills with grisly imagery. His characters occasionally allude to horrifying acts, but Cooper rarely shows the violence. In The Marbled Swarm Cooper employs mise-en-scéne to describe the disturbing content just once. A chilling squishing, it is the centerpiece of the novel and the moment the reader is least likely to forget. Asked about the role of violence in his books, Cooper said, “When presenting disturbing scenes to readers, I need to be very careful that they aren’t too oppressive or are in any way sadistic acts against the reader, and since most people consider being presented with violence as inherently an act of assault, it’s very difficult to circumvent that effect without robbing the violence of its full power and thereby cheating the content. So, there’s a lot of preparation going on in my writing before I present those kinds of scenes, both to initiate the reader and to prepare myself and my writing to handle the scenes in a way that I think is fair to everyone and everything involved.”

(Portland Rearguard)