Secrecy, speed, affect: The Marbled Swarm

The Marbled Swarm

The Marbled Swarm

by Dennis Cooper

Harper Perennial, November 1st, 2011

$10.19 / Buy from Amazon







1. A precursor: the often repeated and often obvious dictum from authors: if one could summarize the idea or express the idea elsewhere, it would not be a book.

2. Another precursor: I have to use numbers for this review. The accumulative force in The Marbled Swarm has made me nervous to write about it. These numbers should help. Related: numbers are very rarely used in the book; we are maybe twice given them as markers, as soft attempts at erasure, but more so as another meter to remember. I understand the absence of counting in the book.

3. Formal book reviews mostly feel homogenous to me; some young limping component of an old structure; sutured to print? The format seems off, or rather: very rarely off. I’m pretty often baffled, too, by the claim that some argument must be lodged and pushed through to agree a reader; maybe I discredit the militaristic form of rhetoric, or of establishing a reading. To me, the reviews, the books too, that are interesting and alive feeling do not seem camped or aimed, yet open and transfixed.

4. I read The Marbled Swarm for the first time on a plane. Enclosed by a tube, moving very fast through different pressured air, hoping for a smooth passage. Fantasizing about puncture.

5. The book, on the first read, left me begging to know. It is a formal agent of confusion. The steadiest, most rarely undermined premise or concept in it is that of the power of the marbled swarm, a highly designed and culturally varied rhetoric. The narrator is deploying his version, an admittedly flawed reproduction, while showing us events.

6. The book moves thus: a mystery is lodged. Not much later, we learn that the book is a functional report, or tale; it is a written memoir. The writer is the hero is the writer. Then more mystery. The board game Clue is a good reference: in the first mystery, there is a house. Important rooms. Newly familiar guests. Motives. A crime; better to say an act, as there is no punishment or policing; the game doesn’t end. Instead of unwrapping the envelope and counting up whatever solutions you’ve stored, a new envelope is discovered, or the bottom of the board is found to be an entirely new playing surface. You flip the board, and you begin again. The text masterfully shifts in time and recounts another odd circumstance or coincidence and its inevitable discoveries, in which you are quickly lost.

7. This accumulative web of information does, must, have its holes. Reading the book for a second time, I was sure the sure the space behind the web was the tactful and often seemingly taxed act of confession. The gears revealed. The spinning momentarily acknowledged, reversed, slowed.

8. I was wrong. I think.

9. As reader, we are given a total story that contains within it many tracks: we often move forward in one direction, moving ahead by a straight timeline and a mounting proclivity or desire, then an incoming force approaches in the opposite direction, our path still holding as the desire morphs into an abandonment, or a lack of agency, and as the two forces become parallel, you’re switched tracks, now moving in the opposite direction, still moving just as fast, fed new information and motive and context, all the while caught in a direction that will eventually return you somewhere that feels like the origin. Subtext is the track.

10. To get more material: The Marbled Swarm accumulates mystery, desire, and connections as it appears to shed mystery, desire, and connections; magic. Or sleight of hand.

11. The presumptive power of the marbled swarm allows you to assign as many or as few secrets to the book as you’d like. And, of course, later we are left to think there are no secrets at all.

12. On a sonic and syntax level, the voice of the narrator, the book, is entirely peculiar. In my first read it took me thirty pages or so, the first section, to relax into its rhythm and get used to how it deployed information and tasked out images. There’s a lot of distance installed in the book’s tone. A sparring distance. As you start to feel you’re getting it, digging into the book’s tunnel, you find yourself diagramming and assessing paragraphs contextually, looking for blatant codes or clues like alliterative elements or the utility of an odd word or phrase, but also reexamining the surface of each unit; seeing the paragraph in relation to its top and bottom, seeing the page in relation to its chapter or some phrase littered a dozen pages back, or holding on a sentence and trying to find a pattern or shaped hole in the web. Now, writing this, I realize that’s hard to do when you’re stuck in the web. I wonder where a fly looks when it struggles.

13. As an actor, this book is extra effective. A fundamental consideration in the book is the idea, execution, and presence of performance. How and when to be something else. What mood to transmit or sell. The willingness to subsume yourself in another’s plot. As the characters in the book die or disappear, some are passed off into another body, another boy. These new molds are less dopplegängers, but more scarred replicants. As if with each generation or genesis there is a new piece of the machine’s logic that isn’t broken in, or busted down. The book highlights, through its mangled actors, the ability of the Story to yield to chaos as long as it moves. That the final result or grand goal of Story is mostly to make sense of things, structurally or emotionally, seems a very small and myopic task. Great art does cohere around erosion; it opens up the field of experience. Like Deleuze & Guattari said, great art restores the infinite. This book is great art.

14. Confusion, as a resting place, is as tortuously paradoxical as other terminal points. Dennis Cooper has said, “Most people fear confusion, but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out,” and also, “I think confusion is the truth, except when I’m feeling it, ha ha.” That one can feel based but entirely lost, on a pure blank flat horizontal plane. As opposed to the final screen in David Foster Wallace’s Mister Squishy, this place is frenetic and always opts out, not further in.

15. I don’t want to expose the details of The Marbled Swarm. I would rather face it.

16. There is camera, then light, then makeup, then skin. There is so much more to say.

17. A detail to remember: the book invokes cartoons and fantasy and play, but not mainly to subvert them to whatever evil purposes; the subversion is not a one layer operation. Also: this book is really funny.

18. It would be lazy to equate this book to a fancier Robbe-Grillet; it is not that. More strikingly, this book finds less abstract ideas to grip on and less stringent lairs to roam. The only hard, decoded data I’d give as advice to someone about to read this book: Believe lies.

19. That gets you deeper.

20. What is the most engaging movement in this book, to me, is the emotional admission. After hours of murder, cannibalism, profane aestheticism, gruesome sex, abuse, and a hyper-measured delivery more unnerving on the page than all that activity, we are given a feeble child. And whereas in most books this would serve as the justifying confession to the book’s prior sin, the moralist reader’s WMD, this appearance does something totally new to me. It invokes itself almost as a ghost; a presence both present and gone, a force that you then realize has haunted all the halls and mirrors you’ve glided in for years. Finally, amid all the interpretation and artifice and architecture, we are given the only obvious door. The fine and masterful beauty of this book: we can seek a way around it.

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  1. Scottmcclanahan

      This is great.

  2. alanrossi

      wow.  this is an excellent read. 

  3. deadgod

      1.  To begin:  go back ten words and one number from here.

      2.  A comment functions in a variety of supplementary, antagonistic, excursive, and (/or) non-attached modes and perspectives.

      3.  There are ways ‘to view a book again’ causatively – to make present something of an absent book – and there are other ways.

      4.  Likewise, to reply to a review in a comment is to stake, and so to risk, one’s very being.  Alternatively, it is not.

      5.  Parenthetically, dichotomies are either one thing or another.  In inner parentheses, or they are both, or neither, or some mixture or entwinement of the two.

      6.  Embedded note:  the only rule against having it both ways is that rule itself negated.

      7.  You are never not playing.

      8.  A mirror is the flattest form of sincerity.  Also, the roundest about.

      9.  What’s in it to quarrel with inclusive, I like this review.  Damn!  –compliments are moralistic readings.

      10.  Rabbit’sfootnote:  paradoxes are not lies, every thing promises.

  4. Christopher Higgs

      Very excited to read this book.  Very excited.  Art that restores the infinite is what I like.  And this quote is so good:  “Most people fear confusion, but I think confusion is the truth and I seek it out.” YES!  I need to get that issue of the Paris Review. 

      Great review, Ken, because you’re both secretive and revealing simultaneously.  I like that.  It’s as if I almost have a sense of the book, but then I don’t.  Which, of course, makes the book an itch I can’t scratch, thus intensifying my desire to get it!  

  5. M. Kitchell

      this is terrific.  i want to read this again RIGHT NOW, i’ll have to get my copy back from math haha.

  6. Jeff

      Excellent review, Ken. I loved how you described the sensation of the book’s ending and how in the abstract it could seem simply moralist, but on the page the effect is so much more complex and affecting. I had a similar reaction but hadn’t been able to put it into words. The board game analogy seems right on, too – having to flip the board and begin again with every new chapter. I can’t think of any other novel that does this so aggressively while still maintaining a headlong narrative momentum (or at least the illusion of it). Anyhow, I’ll definitely be thinking about your take on the book when I read it again. 

  7. Ken Baumann

      Thanks, Chris! Desire: filled.

  8. Ken Baumann

      Thanks Jeff. Glad I could provide.

  9. Bernard Welt

      Wow. That is a really, really smart review. I’m pretty amazed that you found a way not to “review” the book but give a sense of how it works and what’s unusual about it without resorting to “explanation.” I see why Dennis is excited about it.

  10. Anonymous
  11. The Marbled Swarm swarms now | HTMLGIANT

      […] I reviewed it here for Fanzine; Ken reviewed it here on HTML. […]

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      […] Ken Baumann puts in his two cents about Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm. […]

  13. Geryon

      Fantastic review, thank you!