The Ivory Dagger and the Bathroom Sink: On Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm

by on Mar.13, 2012

I want to say “Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm is as cunning, deadly, and exquisitely made as a slim dagger carved from the horns of an extinct miniature Indonesian hooved quadruped and presently applied with extreme precision between the reader’s third and fourth ribs” except that I would also have to say the opposite: “ Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm is as large and stunning as a white and deadly blow, as skullcrushing as a clout in the head from Zeus or a muscleman wielding a porcelain sink.” It has to be both because The Marbled Swarm is an impossible book– an inside-out book. It is a queer, sprained construction-in-profusion that somehow also launches itself with arterial force from the vacant no-place of its heart(-less) (non-)center.

Dennis Cooper deserves a medal from the French, the one for the books of strangers (or, more lucratively, a casket of those smart-metals from the Chinese)  for this brilliant, killer book. For one thing, I have never before read a book whose raison d’etre, obsession, icon is its own style, whose style is its main character, its idea, its ideal, and its ordeal.

“Serge favored vintage black Slimane jeans, so tight in the legs that his near-robotic gait would have made Pinocchio a track star. His faux old-fashioned choice of a  white and gauzy sweater flecked with Christmas trees was geared to mismate with a visible black T-shirt whose skull-emblazoned front seemed to represent his tortured soul’s Peeping Tom. His limp, unimaginatively brown, forgotten-esque hair was worn in two chin-length, barely parted bangs that cordoned off a lightly made-up face so classic that, had he not been such a downer, it might have sucked fan mail into his in-box like atmosphere into a punctured jet.”

I had to read these sentences so slowly I felt like a black fly on the waxen-brow of a coma-victim, or like a penitent crawling on my knees on the highway to some grotesque church where a saint’s backbone softly farts a rose-odor: black, filthy, heart-quickened, despairing, exhilarated, converted,  dizzied, not long for this world. There is something necrophilic about the narrator’s verbal licking of Serge’s motionless form, and also something violent about the fantastic closing image—as if a stiletto puncture to the lung is in Serge’s future, as if so slim is his obsessively flattened image that he must soon be fully crushed. And indeed, dear reader, read on to find what kind of violences await Serge and the other teenage ‘Flatsos’ pressed in this Bataillean album.

Finally, I want to say that the ‘inside-out’ brilliance of this book comes from its obsession with its own style, with wealth, race, image, and fantasy, and also, especially with architecture. As a gratuitously twinning geography of bodies and buildings begins to overpopulate the book (and I use the word ‘gratuitously’ positively, as I detest fair-market-values) the narrating consciousness (which can barely be called that to begin with)itself gets almost squeezed off the pages, indeed, does get squeezed into a fatal spasm of inarticulateness and stylelessness, an artless howl which collapses the ivory vault of the book.  Every structure of the book inverts, shows itself to have hidden passages, hidden conduits of control.  When this happens, that is, when the narrative reveals itself to have a raison-d’etre besides its own gratuitousness (what a conventional mind might call a ”plot”, or even, more shockingly, an ‘author’) it can’t live with itself. The book dies.

The Marbled Swarm one hell of a book, the perfect toxic cocktail, viral attachment or poisoned kiss for inverts and degenerates like the lot of us.







6 comments for this entry:
  1. Michael Peverett

    Should say – “His faux old-fashioned choice of a white and gauzy sweater flecked with Christmas trees was geared to mismate with a visible black T-shirt whose skull-emblazoned front seemed to represent his tortured soul’s Peeping Tom.”

    But your typo unwittingly emphasizes how close, yet also how far, Cooper is from opening the door into e.g this:

    “The pit of knowledge; dig yourself out. He’s not the sort of sound that is heard by ears, his time swinging open again and again—agape—the iterability of insatiable need: tumour hunger on the cancer ward. About its walls flicker burnished masks, blue devils thrashing angels and archangels, the branch of an acacia, bisecting skeins of hot wax, a chimera or basilisk, papier mâché cocks, dentiform battlements, semée of crosses of lilies, a goatfish (the ibex), she-goat bleating at the rim of a moat, scattered pine needles, and the inevitable spine of a stingray piercing the tongue-pad. His paintings are prehistoric, interpreting the birthcart—the children, their time—and that looks like alpine snow beginning to fall as we write. Reminds me of that time in Zurich, head in a box of bones at her feet. He had always disliked flowers, gently distilled flowers.”

  2. Johannes

    I tried to get a hold of you a while back. Can you email me your address so that I can send you a copy of Transfer fat?


  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Michael, thanks for correcting typo, and can you expand on your point? Google tells me this is Richard Makin’s work, and you prefer it for going further than Cooper stylistically– that’s what you are saying? Thanks for insights, J

  4. Michael Peverett

    I spose what I meant was that , though we do certainly have to read Cooper’s sentences three times, he is, just about, telling a story with locatable characters and location; while just across the boundary Richard Makin (taking him as representative of non-narrative fiction) is writing prose that requires a very similar level of attention but it lets go of story, doesn’t have locatable character or place. My point wasn’t at all about better or worse, (though it’s tough for me to resist going on about how giant a writer is Richard Makin). My point was about this big difference in the reader’s experience, and yet pretty strong similarity, in terms of the attention demanded and a sort of reification of style. The accidental typo underlined it by pushing DC momentarily across the boundary into non-narrative fiction.