The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

 

Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

 

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Experimental Review: Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

YTD: 03

William S. Burroughs is an unusual author, and this book irritated me, in a way. I’ve decided to adjust my review a bit to fit my mood, reaction, and the author.  I do this out of love and respect (and frustration).  William S. Burroughs was a master of the cut-up technique – he was a postmodern writer, “Godfather” to the Beat generation, and he oftentimes had a habit of writing in a nonsensical, satirical way, particularly about things – political/social- that he felt were being addressed nonsensically by those in power.  This includes, primarily, drugs, sex, and privacy.  As Burroughs is a favorite of mine, and because this book and its predecessor (the third and first, respectively, in a trilogy, which includes a book called The Ticket that Exploded, which I’ll likely read later this year) were so ridiculously cut-up and disjointed, I’ve decided to pay homage in my review, thusly:


Plot/Story: 2 – Plot/Story could work with better development.

Third in a trilogy.  Fourth in a quartet.  Nova Express – agents of the body searching for, fighting against, elements exploding.  Some sex – homosexual, heterosexual, asexual- mild.  Tame. Boring, comparatively.  Not the Wild Boys. Third book following Naked Lunch makes Burroughs prudish, bizarre, twisted, normal, odd. Remember disembowelment?  Remember parasites – anuses, walking and talking?  Anuses like mouths, with teeth to bite.  Burroughs forgets – forgets the past, forgets the future, forgets, mid-sentence.  Remembers.  Where are the cats? The balance?  Closed captioning provided by the Nova Agents – looking for you.  Put you on drugs to make you weak. Make you stupid.  Catch you on drugs – detox, death.  Double paradox.  Double jeopardy.  No-win situation.  Chemical and biological hazards, walking bombs, all of us.  Overdose.


Characterization: 2 – Characters slightly developed.

Character development.  Human faces, human emotions, inconsequential.  Attachments where attachments due, feeling detached.  Characters Good?  Bad?  These are descriptors – qualifying phrases applied to one and another, sometimes with cause and sometimes without.  Fruit salad.  Rabbits.  “Agents.”  Characterization lacking – list of goods, non-existence, list of bads, like The Goodbye Mister.  People stand for things, things mean what?  Control elements vs. language – power vs. power.  Nature vs. machine.


Prose/Style: 3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Jonathan Swift, but not really.  Eat the young?  Maybe. Probably – especially the boys, if they’re high.  To get high.  Brilliant in a way, subtle.  Subtle but over the top – possibilities previously impossible, unexplored.  “Good Grief, Charlie Brown.”  Masterful like Stein – obnoxious like Stein.  Henry Miller.  Love child. Cut-up experimentation, finished.  Culmination of phase, of trilogy, of mathematical series (four).  Onward to reality (which is what, exactly?).


Additional Elements: 3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Control elements:  Government, Society, Culture.  Language is virus.  Language is power.  To catch the virus – to get sick – to make noise.  To be vocal, is power.  Is wrong and right.  Right is might.  Speak out against Control Elements.  Law powers create criminals to justify existence of Law powers.  Good creates bad to create good.  To be in control.  Addiction, dependence.  Junkies.  Criminals are the powerful ones – only if infected.  Infected with speech.  What is human?  Who defines humanity?  Addicts, homosexuals, criminals – disappear for utopia?  Not really.  Make more for Utopia? Not really.  Break down the walls – with voice – break down the walls to win.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Drugs, Privacy (Invasion of), Sexuality, Cut-Up Prose, Postmodernism, Beats, Culture

Review: The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 53

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical tale of one boy’s struggle to love “normally” and not “crookedly.”  The reader meets the boy, Jack, at birth, where a strange confluence of events results in his infant heart being fused with a cuckoo-clock, in what would be a 19th Century makeshift-pacemaker.  We ride along with him to witness his first encounter with Miss Acacia and his discovery of the idea of love (or perhaps, more correctly and eerily, a ten-year old boy’s discovery of “lust”) and how that love grows, painfully and tragically, over time.  The story is told in the style of, perhaps, the Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll, a phantasmagorical-type whimsy which shares an innate fatalism as the likes of Hans Christian Andersen.  The tale certainly bears more relationship to the original story of The Little Mermaid than it does to the Disney version, which means there is no happy ending – so do not be expecting one.  When I say the prose was believable, I am not being literal in any sense. The story on its surface is completely bizarre, imperfect and, at times, hard to follow.  Still, it is magical in the old-school sense of literary-wizardry.  There is something of Cormier’s I am the Cheese in the looped and revelatory ending, coupled with the almost scary fantasy of Spenser’s epic tale, The Fairie Queene (referring largely to the employment of allegory and symbolism, and not to imply that this book is written in verse).  The reader is led to believe, right up to the end, that Jack may finally get the girl and learn to live with his new heart but, alas, only one of these realities may come to pass.  There is something truly great and real about this, though, and though we learn some disturbing things about Dr. Madeline, the witch-doctor who places that cuckoo-clock in Jack’s chest, we also can understand and appreciate her sad motivation.  

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The novel’s only downfall, for me, is the characterization and character development, or lack thereof.  We do see Jack grow and learn from his mistakes, though he goes off repeatedly on the same doomed journey but, other than this, we do not learn much about any of the characters and what we do know remains static throughout.  The story is strengthened in this regard due to the fact that it is, really, a fairy tale and not a traditional novel, so not as much time or attention needs to be paid to its characters, since the importance is meant to be placed on the story itself and its delivery (which is extraordinary).  Fairy tales are often didactic or morality tales, and they are meant to be told in a beautiful way, but without much depth.  This is certainly the case for The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart as, somehow, the reader is meant to believe that this boy could fall so head-over-heels in love and lust for a girl at the age of ten, and then to pursue her across the continent, repeatedly, even journeying after her again when he has just come out of a months-long coma. The character relationships are weak and are not really meant to be trusted, but this is because the real story is the action of Jack’s growing up – putting aside his old, wooden clock of fantasy and accepting his new, logical clock, which keeps him more firmly grounded in reality.  Still, had the author managed to somehow maintain this creepy, fantastical tale and also incorporate deeper, more realistic or at least rounded characters, the beautiful fairy tale could, perhaps, have become a great novel.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

From the first sentence of the first page, Malzieu’s characteristically-French prose (translated into English quite masterfully) drew me in completely.  It is clear that the author spent much time on the style and prose, so as to allow his story to unfold in the disturbingly magical way that it does – a feat that would not have been accomplished in most circumstances.  Many reviews find the novel’s prose to be the only redeeming quality for the book, and I can understand this sentiment, as it far outshines the characterization and the plot itself, the former being weak and the latter being simply bizarre.  Still, Malzieu certainly understands that his story is strange and extraordinary – it is the mark of a true artist that he managed to deliver the unusual story with a unique and effective prose and style, equal to the peculiarity of the fairy tale.  There are some confusing historical references, such as the comments on the Tour de France which, as far as I know, was not happening in the late-1800s, but it is possible to accept these as confusion from a narrator who is reflecting on the story of his boyhood while writing as an older man or to accept them as flaws in the story and move on (as I did).  Also, some of the sexual references can be odd, particularly when coming from a ten year old, but upon reflection and discussion with others about when (and how) boys begin to fantasize, I believe these burgeoning sexual feelings are acceptable, if not completely comfortable.  There is something very similar in style to Shane Jones’s Light Boxes, which begins to make me wonder if we are on the cusp of a new literary movement.  How exciting!

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The Boy with the Cuckoo-clock Heart is a terrifying marriage of Peter Pan and Pinocchio.  We have, here, the fantasy-boy, whose life and self-image is largely designed by a lonely, childless elder, similar to Pinocchios Geppetto, and we have the boy’s struggle with maturity and growth – the Peter Pan who never wants to grow up, or who just cannot figure out how to do it.  The story is a dark and cynical fairy tale which, admittedly, will not be for everyone; in fact, I would be reluctant to recommend the book to anyone, as it is rather sad, confusing, and bizarre.  That being said, the overall sentiment is the dangerous power of love – unwelcome, unrequited, unrealized, or unknown.  It is one of the most fascinating and ever-present themes in literature and in life.  Malzieu delivers his version of this never-ending story in an eccentric way, but it is outlandishly beautiful and poignant, despite the failures in characterization and the not-so-happy ending.  

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Postmodernism,  French Literature, Coming-of-Age,  Phantasmagoria, Fairy Tale

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 10

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Very beautiful… very difficult.

Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

Unbelievably good sci-book. Probably the best ever.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

One of the funniest books ever. I actually ‘laughed out loud.’

Paris France by Gertrude Stein

Wonderfully playful with words and style.

Candide by Voltaire

Hilarious.

Briar Rose by Robert Coover

Stunningly creative and playfully postmodern. An examination of itself.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival

Very pretty. Great use of magical realism.