If Dennis Cooper were a United Nations delegate, providing him with a translator would be utterly useless. While one could, perhaps, prove that he does, in fact, speak English, the man just doesn’t seem to respond to same language cues as do the rest of piddling humanity. Maybe he should have been on the debt supercommittee … just saying.
Of all the comparisons critics have made between Cooper and William S. Burroughs throughout the former’s steadily aging cult fiction career, the simplest — and most veracious — may be that, no matter how thoroughly we end up categorizing either one, we’ll never really pick up what they’re laying down. But if Burroughs is like mainlining heroin (not that I know what that’s like), Cooper is a bit more like that huge pile of coke Tony Montana was sitting behind at the end of Scarface.
The Marbled Swarm is, fittingly then, both the enigmatic title of Cooper’s ninth novel and the enigmatic crux of said novel. As his narrator says, dripping with the best kind of postmodern pretension:
I’ve gotten lost, and so have you. I’m not as witty as I wish, and you’re nowhere near as patient with my heaping phrases as I evidently am. … I learned this quote-unquote exalted style of speaking from my father, who originally cooked it up after several early business trips around the Western world. He nicknamed it ‘the marbled swarm,’ which I agree is a cumbrous mouthful, and its ostensible allure received a decent portion of the credit for accruing his, now my, billions.”
And it’s not just über-elegant wit, or inheritance money, that pervades the life of the 22-year-old Frenchman. Tucked behind secret passageways, hidden within the walls of his home — as well as the mental crevices lodged within his troubled mind — we find the darkest reaches of cruelty and deception, a hopelessly twisted father-son relationship, and murderous perversion.
It’s not fiction for the masses. Cooper’s voice is gorgeously dark, drawing us into a perpetual game of cannibalistic killing, a theater of absurd sex and cold, mindless, impossible desire. The sub-200 page novel is sweetly succinct and dense as a diamond, but his prose is painstakingly crafted, fitting like a creepy latex glove over the raw emotions and naked bodies of his characters. The marbled swarm style of speech lies behind every introduction and description, but we’re never quite sure whether what we’re reading is the real thing or just a failed interpretation, as the narrator readily admits.
The key here is that, as we learn about the powers and limitations of that complex language, we simultaneously lose all reasonable sense of the narrator’s identity, his feelings, and his real place in the novel. Along with its role as powerful literary device, that deeply focused look at strained human communication needs to be recognized as an important link in a long chain of postmodern reactions to the technology and media that have defined us for decades. Not too many people can make this kind of fiction work; Burroughs did it by cutting up the words, and Cooper is doing by cutting up the thoughts.
The Marbled Swarm is a constant phase shift through place, time, and perception. It’s blissfully nauseating. You’re probably not going to get it; I felt more like a helplessly passive observer of Cooper’s genius than someone who could engage with the elements of the story. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t masterful.