Book Review: The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

The Marbled Swarm is one of those books where I thought, “What the hell am I reading? Maybe if I keep going, I’ll figure it out.” Luckily, it’s a short book, so I didn’t have to submerge myself in WTF-ness for too long. If you combined Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut, and then added cannibalism and a dollop of Hostel, this is what you get. Does that sound a little crazy? Well, it is.

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper (cover)The unnamed narrator begins by looking at a house put on the market by a couple who have just lost one of their sons in what may or may not have been an accident, and they think perhaps their property is haunted. The remaining son, Serge, is “a childish-looking fourteen-year-old and hardcore Emo like his sibling.” Serge takes the narrator on a tour of the grounds surrounding the house.

[E]erily he epitomized one of my “types,” as those who shrink-wrap their opinions in set phrases like to put it. I have four, although, for the sake of brevity, I prefer to call them hot spots, each with its own set of qualifiers and subcategories, and they will queue up here later.

However, lest the term “type” mislead you, let me add that were I gay and not the creep to whom you’ll turn the other cheek soon enough, I might have preferred, in Serge’s case, someone tall enough that I could jab my tongue into his mouth without appearing unsightly.

He’s decided he wants to kidnap the boy, yet a forceful kidnapping is not really necessary, as Serge’s father comes right out and says to the narrator that he’s tempted to include his son in the sale of the house, along with any furniture he’d like, and that “my wife and I won’t be alerting the authorities.” He then decides to show the man the house’s special, secret feature of a series of passageways inside the walls of the chateau, fitted with peepholes into various rooms, including his sons’ bedroom. That is the least fucked up detail the father reveals, but in the interest of not making you shudder too much, let’s just say that he viewed his sons as having “an expiration date.”

Happily, the narrator take Serge away in the trunk of his car, and he returns to Paris, intending to alert others of his “mindset” about the new body they have. From there, the story winds back and forth between the narrator’s childhood, including the violent, sexual death of his own brother, and the present. Nothing is made entirely clear – not motive, not honesty, and certainly not anything resembling a typical “plot.” The reader is continually distracted by superfluous detail, and Cooper has written an abhorrent-yet-compelling character.

You’ll have noticed I tell stories in a high-strung, flighty, tonally unstable rant, no sooner flashing you a secret entrance than pretending no such route exists, twittering when there’s bad news, and polishing my outbursts. Flawed and mutually shortchanging as the method may be, this is the only way I know how to engage what I’ve done with due respect and keep you somewhat agog simultaneously.

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.

The narrator sees himself as “a miscast, bargain-basement chip off the veritable old block.” Yet, he is compelled to keep recreating his father’s behavior, delighted by devising ways to feed his need for flesh and psychological misdirection. Though his speaking style often seems like something out of another century, the story occurs in the present, with mentions of Facebook, IMAX 3D and various other modern trappings. Still, the reader is never allowed to get a clear picture of setting, as the narrator controls the presentation of all information. We see what he wants us to see, and over time, he learns that he’s only been seeing what he wants to see.

If I were pretending to be a literary know-it-all, I suppose I could go on about Dennis Cooper being a subversive genius and that The Marbled Swarm is an excellent piece of transgressive art. Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that I did not particularly enjoy reading this book. True, I didn’t flat out hate it, as I did finish the thing, but the only way I’d recommend it is if someone wanted to read something very strange. Being over-the-top is part of the book’s point, probably, but I can’t say for certain. It’s one of those things people describe as “an experience.”

I read this book a couple months ago, and I hadn’t reviewed it before now because I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. I thought, maybe time will give me some perspective and I’ll realize something important that’ll only come once the story has settled. Instead, my brain promptly moved on. The only thought I gave The Marbled Swarm since the beginning of March was, “I should get to that review,” so I can’t even tell you that it’s the type of story that sticks with you. Maybe that’s for the best.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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