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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Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

1025812Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 20

Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.

Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case.  In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed.  Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.

Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students.  It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school).  Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships.  He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).

Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance).  His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press.  Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye.  Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.

The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument.  He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work.  He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack.  Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book.  Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.

Brief Thoughts: 3 Texts on Literary Theory

39933How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
YTD: 07

Goodreads Summary:
What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface — a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character — and there’s that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text keeps escaping you.
In this practical and amusing guide to literature, Thomas C. Foster shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock those hidden truths, and to discover a world where a road leads to a quest; a shared meal may signify a communion; and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just rain. Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the perfect companion for making your reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.

My Thoughts:
Lots of helpful tips, useful references, and practical advice. It’s certainly not critical theory, but that shouldn’t be what one expects going into this text. It’s a “literature made easy” type of guide, but it’s good for what it is. Easy to read & added plenty of texts to my “to read” list. For English majors early in their programs or for casual/recreational readers who would like to get more from their reading experience, this book could offer some valuable tips. It also added quite a few titles to my wish list!

74661Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters
YTD: 08

Goodreads Summary:
“This is a historical account of feminism that looks at the roots of feminism, voting rights, and the liberation of the sixties, and analyzes the current situation of women across Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, particularly the Third World countries. Walters examines the difficulties and inequities that women still face, more than forty years after the “new wave” of 1960s feminism–difficulties, particularly, in combining domesticity, motherhood and work outside the home. How much have women’s lives really changed? In the West, women still come up against the “glass ceiling” at work, with most earning considerably less than their male counterparts. What are we to make of the now commonplace insistence that feminism deprives men of their rights and dignities? And how does one tackle the issue of female emancipation in different cultural and economic environments–in, for example, Islam, Hinduism, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent?”

My Thoughts:
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” This quote by Rebecca West seems to sum up the history and mentality of Feminism; that is, by virtue of defining it, one practically undermines it. Labels are almost exclusively heteronormative and patriarchal, so to use them is to counter the work of feminist thought. All-in-all, I find the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” extremely helpful, useful, and accessible. Feminism was no exception. Walters outlines the history of feminist thought from the 11th Century and up to modern-day. The major theorists, such as Judith Butler and Mary Wollstonecraft, are given ample attention, as are more obscure writers and historical figures. Walters also includes many of the opposing forces as well as the “in-fighting” between different branches of feminism, all of which helps one to understand the larger theory and its place in time, history, and relation to other schools of thought. Highly recommended for those interested in literary and or feminist theory.

239907Queer Theory: An Introduction by Annamarie Jagose
YTD: 09

Goodreads Summary:
In Queer Theory: An Introduction, Annamarie Jagose provides a clear and concise explanation of queer theory, tracing it as part of an intriguing history of same-sex love over the last century, from mid-century homophile movements to gay liberation, the women’s movement and lesbian feminism, to the re-appropriation of the term “queer.” Carefully interrogating the arguments of supporters and opponents of queer theory, Jagose suggests that its strength lies in its questioning of the very idea of sexual identities. Blending insights from prominent queer theorists such as Judith Butler and David Halperin, Jagose argues that queer theory’s challenge is to create new ways of thinking, not only about fixed sexual identities such as heterosexual and homosexual, but also about other supposedly essential notions such as “sexuality” and “gender” and even “man” and “woman.”

My Thoughts:
Plenty of useful information and great discussion of various arguments surrounding gay/lesbian studies, feminism, gender, and identity – but the text seemed to be much more about those elements than about Queer Theory, specifically. Granted, there’s a history leading up to Queer Theory & the fact that Queer Theory is ever-changing (by virtue of its being “queer” and therefore resistant to definition, a characteristic it shares with feminism) would make it hard to write an “About Me” book on Queer Theory. Still, I was slightly troubled by the overwhelming amount of time spent on discussing lesbian(ism) and their perpetual outsider status (outside feminism, outside queer theory, outside heteronormativity, etc.), especially the arguments which made homosexual (or gay, or queer, depending on whom is identifying as what) men the greatest “enemy” to the lesbian woman. Those arguments were not the author’s (Jagose) but there was much attention paid to them by her. And I realize I’ve littered this response with pronouns and descriptors galore, which means I’m an enemy of the queer and the feminist schools, for sure.