Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.

Links: Gag Rule

Shalom Auslander answers most of the questions in his Q&A with the Rumpus with jokes. Which makes moment when he (more or less) doesn’t, in response to a question about the connection between comedy and morals, interesting: “Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny)…. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness—its preachiness—and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.” I’m a fan of Hope: A Tragedy, though it deserves a fuller treatment than that linked blurb.

Caitlin Flanagan bids Joan Didion farewell.

Lorrie Moore considers the Roches, who “sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.” (Suzzy Roche has just published a novel.)

Robert McCrum on skimming novels.

Madison Smartt Bell offers a brief survey of New York City in fiction: “I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon.” (Thomas Caplan‘s 1987 novel, Parallelogram, which I hadn’t heard of, sounds interesting—proof, Bell says, “that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book.”

Jonathan Lethem: “Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away. I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.”

“The best rock novels I’ve read are more embodied with rock than overtly about rock.” (Related.)

Darin Strauss on when to start stories, drawing on an assertion by one of his former teachers that “story equals trouble.”

On the New Yorker provocateur Wolcott Gibbs.

Spin magazine is pursuing a Tweet-heavy reviewing strategy. I’m not panicking: It might work for book reviewing if somebody were skilled enough to do it well. As Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts noted in a recent interview, what gets taken away in reviewing is often replaced with something else. What’s changed (maybe) is some of the the economic incentive for long reviewing: “[Y]ou take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure.”

Pico Iyer‘s essay on long sentences has one bum sentence, a short one: “If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us,” he writes. This seems to imply that there was once a time when people didn’t oversimplify debates by reducing them to simple sentences—or a time when people didn’t try to oversell points by inserting them in brocaded ones. If books are shelters from “the bombardment of the moment”—and that’s not all they ought to be—it won’t be the length of the sentences that matter.

Democracy Now

I’ve never tried hosting a group read on this blog. That’s partly because I don’t want to apply any more structure to writing-I-do-for-free than I have to, and partly because I haven’t found the a book that seemed right for that kind of project. But starting January 22 I’d like to give it a try: With the help of my friend Jennifer Howard, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education and occasional Bookslut blogger, I’ll be devoting a couple of weeks to posting about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel about Washington, D.C., politics, Democracy.

Jennifer and I came up with this idea last fall, when were chatting on Twitter about D.C. novels that a) we haven’t read and b) most eagerly wanted to get to. Democracy topped the list mainly because it’s reputed to (still) be among the most spot-on portraits of political maneuvering in the nation’s capital. Having since finished it, I can say there are plenty of other reasons to read it too: It’s wickedly funny, makes observations about D.C.’s nonpolitical life that still apply today, and couches all this in a well-turned romantic tale. (Though, this being a D.C. novel, the romance and the politics tend to get mucked together.)

We’ll post back and forth on our blogs, working with the Library of America’s Adams anthology. Of course, the novel is easily had for free. Questions? Leave ’em in the comments. Regardless, I hope you’ll join us, whether the novel is long familiar to you or completely new.

Little Sentences and Middle Ground

In Open Letters Monthly, Nicholas Nardini has an interesting take on Don DeLillo‘s first short story collection, The Angel Esmerelda, arguing that DeLillo’s sentences are better equipped for his big-canvas novels:

Despite the big novels, the basic unit of DeLilloan literature, the scale on which he seems to consciously work, is not the volume or the chapter or the paragraph, but only the lowly sentence—and usually a short sentence…. Momentum, in fact, is something that DeLillo’s novels seem to actively resist. They are best characterized not as plots but as conglomerations of sharp, individual perceptions, each competing for the limited attention of the reader…. DeLillo’s atomic sentences, bound only covalently to their neighbors, are the stylistic signature of the species of modern attention he records.

This approach works in his novels, Nardini, argues, because there’s a sense that his sentences are serving something all-encompassing, while in his short stories those sentences tend to read as an arid piling-on of gnomic utterances. I haven’t read The Angel Esmerelda, and it’s first DeLillo book I haven’t made time for since Underworld. That’s mainly because, as Nardini rightly points out, DeLillo’s short game isn’t very interesting: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is a drab set piece about a pair of college students, and “Hammer and Sickle” is a stiff portrait of an inmate imprisoned for Madoffian crimes. Both felt like little more than sketches, overtures to novels that don’t exist, so I haven’t seen the point in investigating further.

Nardini’s piece is worth reading in full, though I think he neglects something in setting up this split between DeLillo’s short stories and his ambitious historical novels like Underworld and Libra: the short novels that have made up the bulk of his post-Underworld work. The Body Artist and Cosmopolis are lesser books, but 2010’s Point Omega was a novel that got to have it both ways: It had a brevity that drew attention to the (as Nardini calls it) Little DeLillo Sentence at its best and enough of a plot to make sure those sentences don’t feel almost comically overburdened with Import.

As I wrote about the novel at the time, the novel pits the big-picture musings of a retired war strategist with the more emotional concerns of the filmmaker who visits him, and neither feel like they’ve gotten short shrift. And the sentences can even be downright pretty, an adjective that rarely gets applied to DeLillo: “I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment.” DeLillo may have abandoned the doorstopper and the short story may not be his former, but his late period may yet be redeemed by the short novel.

Links: Make It New

Ruth Franklin delivers a few of her reading resolutions for the 2012. Her fourth one, about avoiding distraction, seems increasingly essential. As for me, last year I read little besides 2010, ’11, and ’12 releases, and I hope to spend the coming year spending more reading time with books that aren’t on the new-release schedule; we’ll see how it goes.

There is no question about the political import of contemporary writing that George Saunders cannot politely bat away. In an interview with Full Stop as part of its series of questionnaires on “The Situation in American Writing,” he defends writing as “useless work” and writes that, at best, “what fiction can do is inspire tenderness.” This would come off as protesting too much (or, rather, overly protesting a fiction writer’s utility as a protester), except that he acknowledges that a writer is a product of his or her allegiances; because those political and class positions are unavoidable in the writing, he argues, why expend the extra effort broadcasting them?

James Campbell looks at the first volume of Ernest Hemingway‘s collected letters and Paul Hendrickson‘s biography, Hemingway’s Boat, and finds some of the roots of Papa’s self-aggrandizing fictions. His son Gregory was fed up with that and plenty else besides by 1952: “If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (from his 1898 novel, The Uncalled): “There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller.”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I was enchanted by James M. Cain‘s 1933 essay on the city, “Paradise,” even the parts grousing about what makes for a quality chamber of commerce. Still, if you get through the virtuoso opening section you’ll have read the best writing in it. Cain nails a tone at once awed and skeptical about Southern California, as in this bit where he empowers the reader to add a few cultural touches to LA: “If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators.”

From Bernard Malamud to Helen Frankenthaler to Dick Cheney in a few easy steps.

Deborah Eisenberg: “You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on.”

Jane Smiley, debunking the notion that great writers work in solitude: “[A]s I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren’t by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the [Iowa] writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too.”

Wrapping Up 2011

For the first time in a while, I haven’t been asked to submit a formal list or do a write-up of my favorite books of the year. Rather than feeling shut out of a conversation, I only feel relieved. Even setting aside my aversion to lists in general, there are still a lot of 2011 books I’d like to get to, which would make any top-ten list feel even more tentative and arbitrary than it already is; the tail end of the year is when I try to catch up on what I’ve missed, which means I discover a lot of favorites past early December, when lists usually need to be filed. Last year it was Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies and Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings. This year, to pick just two examples, it’d be Ben Lerner‘s Leaving the Atocha Station and David BellosIs That a Fish in Your Ear?, both of which I came late to—past deadline, if there were a deadline to miss.

So, no authoritative final judgments from this camp. Still, I did put together a list of six of my favorite pieces of short fiction for Washington City Paper‘s Arts Desk blog. “Short fiction” instead of “short stories” because one of my selections is a chapter from David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King—the only part of the book that still sticks with me, and at 100 pages it may test the definition of “short.” But what’s a list without arbitrary categorizations and judgment calls? Click the link; you’ll see.

And that’ll wrap things up here for 2011. Thanks as always for reading; we’ll pick things up again in the new year.

“Please Tell Me”

Ian McEwan just wrote me about the new book and said, ‘People say there’s not a class system in America,'” Jeffrey Eugenides tells the Paris Review. “‘Now I know there is, and I can tell them what to read if they don’t know.’ I didn’t know The Marriage Plot was that much about the class system, but I guess it is.”

It isn’t. Or, more precisely, it’s a disservice to say it’s solely about that. But Eugenides doesn’t ignore the subject, and it makes a difference. A novelist who writes about people trying to make their way in the world fresh out of college has an easier time focusing on matters of love or work, and you couldn’t blame an author for avoiding such characters entirely, for fear of generating a batch of solipsistic kids. (Exhibit A here, at least for novels in recent memory, is Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men.) Dave Eggers once recommended skipping the parts of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, “which concern the lives of people in their early twenties…. [T]hose lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.” Rightly so.

But Eugenides isn’t only interested in what his characters feel about themselves, or how they feel about others—he wants clarify where they fit in, classwise, and how that guides their motivations. That issue isn’t so pronounced in the case of Madeleine, a young WASP. She worries about what she’ll do after Brown, but not with whether she’ll succeed at whatever she does; when she decides to be a Victorianist, she treats it as a fait accompli, with her failure to get into Yale for graduate school more an irritating roadblock than a firm judgment on her talents. Mental illness is the biggest concern for Leonard, the man she falls for, but even in the midst of his despair he’s attuned to where he stands in the relationship. He knows he won’t quite measure up to the demands of his girlfriend’s parents:

Leonard didn’t believe for a minute that Madeleine’s mother’s objection to him had only to do with his manic depression. The manic depression was just the more allowable of her prejudices. She couldn’t have been thrilled that, instead of being Old Money, he was just Old Portland, or that he looked to her like someone in a motorcycle gang, or that he smelled of cheap gas station cigars.

The class issue is most pronounced, though, in Mitchell, the third leg of the novel’s triangle. His emotional and spiritual awakening is the most powerful story The Marriage Plot has to tell—he’s the only character of the three who could carry his own book, and much of his character is driven by his eagerness to rise above his provincial childhood. After college he heads to Europe with Larry Pleshette, a friend to whom he’s not especially close but who has a lot to teach him:

Since coming east to college, Mitchell had been trying to wash the Midwest off himself. Sitting around in Larry’s room, drinking the muddy espresso Larry made and hearing him talk about “the theater of the absurd,” seemed like a good way to start…. The Pleshettes’ refrigerator was the first place Mitchell had encountered gourmet ice cream. He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabars? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghliev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits.

There’s a lot to love in that passage, not least the way it encapsulates how class anxiety often works—Mitchell is confronted with something unfamiliar but ostensibly high-class, and a whole avalanche of concerns that have nothing to do with a tiny tub of ice cream pile in. (“Who was Diaghliev?”) The other thing about the passage—and it’s part of a much longer one on the subject—is that Mitchell’s aspiration to a higher cultural station doesn’t mean he’s entirely dismissing where he’s from. Mitchell’s parents’ “artistic enthusiasms ran to Ethel Merman and Andrew Wyeth,” Eugenides writes, and their half-gallons of ice cream might be “greedy,” but the Eugenides’ (and Mitchell’s) judgment is a mild one.

Mitchell wants to wash the Midwest off himself, yes. But he doesn’t want to throw off his past so much as know more about the parts of the world he doesn’t yet understand. Eugenides understands that class anxiety doesn’t always breed resentment. If Mitchell were simply resentful, he’d spend a lot of time fuming in Providence in a much duller novel. Sometimes what class anxiety does is propel movement—it pushes Mitchell to do the spiritual seeking that helps The Marriage Plot earn its bulk.

Words Fail

Ha Jin wrote a dull novel about an atrocity, but the unsettling thing about Nanjing Requiem is that it almost seems engineered to be dull. Negative reviews of the book (and there are plenty) have tended to point out that Jin is a nonnative writer in English, and critics have cited plenty of examples of awkward phrasing in the novel. But that’s not really the book’s problem—accepting his style is a pact you make with Jin whenever you read him, and Nanjing Requiem‘s flaws aren’t a matter of an ungainly phrase or two. The flatness of his prose, when it works, acquires force over time. A Free Life, for instance, was richer for being so plainspoken; it echoed its hero’s simple, stubborn effort to establish a home with his family in America.

But A Free Life was a straightforward novel about assimilation in peaceful suburbia. Nanjing Requiem is a novel about the slaughter of thousands of Chinese by Japanese soldiers, which makes a bit of dialogue like this harder to process:

“What happened?” I asked.

“Some Japs broke into the deserted building where we stayed last night, and they cut down my dad and brothers. Then they stripped my mom and me and started torturing us. I screamed, so they punched me again and again until I lost my voice and blacked out. When I came to, I saw my mom’s body in the room. She couldn’t take it anymore and hit her head on the doorjamb and killed herself.”

Nanjing Requiem is full of tell-don’t-show writing like this, in which events that expose humanity at its most pitiless and cruel is presented in a flat register. The teenage girl describing her horrors isn’t suffering from shellshock, or at least the trauma isn’t signaled as such; this is just how Jin’s characters speak. And because these events are conveyed through dialogue, they’re stripped of more precise detail. Cut down—in what way? Started torturing us—well, how?

But that’s the issue. If I demand such details in the fiction I read, that’s my problem, not Jin’s, right? Nanjing Requiem, as the title suggests, is meant to be more of a tribute than a dramatization, a book designed to honor the dead instead of giving adjectival, metaphorical, novelistic shape to them. That approach is understandable, because stories about the Rape of Nanking have a ways of attracting melodrama. Iris Chang‘s 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, did much to bring word about the massacre to U.S. readers, but her suicide seven years later has made her into something beyond a mere journalist or historian—I hesitate to use the word “martyr,” but it’s not entirely off. There’s a statue in her honor, and I can’t think of another journalist who’s been paid tribute with a soggy ballad:

That soggy ballad exists in part because there’s a dispute about the facts as Chang reported them—the tune reflects an urge to elevate her (and thus her reporting) above criticism. (I claim no expertise on the fine points on the matter, but it’s not hard to find people intemperately arguing over the details.) There’s similar melodrama in the 2009 film John Rabe, about the so-called “good Nazi,” the head of Siemens’ Nanking outpost who helped protect thousands of Chinese in the aftermath of the attacks. It’s formally well-made, but leaves you cold—the string swells, explosions, and cliched secondary roles (loose-cannon doctor, dutiful wife, romantic subplot) make it seem like a story we’ve seen before, Schindler lite:

Nanjing Requiem reads like a retort to such squabbling—to be neither a researched work that attempts to settle the facts once and for all, nor a novel with the usual comforts of fictional narrative. The novel’s arc, to the extent it has one, focuses on Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the Nanking women’s college that took in thousands of refugees. She’s the filter for the tragedy, but the story is doubly filtered through the novel’s narrator, Anling, an assistant at the school.

That’s where the book’s problem lies, I think—fair as it is to avoid a blood-soaked narrative about the attacks, or to put Rabe or Vautrin on pedestals, Anling herself never becomes a compelling character in her own right. Her personal drama involves her son marrying a Japanese woman, but this hardly registers as drama at all—that relationship takes place offstage, and when Anling learns they have a child, her response is prim and nonplussed. “The hostility between the two countries would cast a long shadow on their marriage,” Anling thinks. Jin has claimed a place and a moment for his novel, and established how it shouldn’t be written about—he writes with solemn respect for the dead, as it should be with requiems. But a studious avoidance of melodrama seems to have stripped a sense of life among those he’s imagined to tell the story.

An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

Crazy Talk

“I’m not interested in the stuff of conventional novels,” Dennis Cooper says in an interview in the latest Paris Review. “I’m dedicated to writing about pretty specific things, in the hope of coming to a point where I feel no desire to address them anymore.” That statement encapsulates what’s both appealing and distancing about him: He eagerly challenges novelistic structure, but he’s done it while sticking to the “pretty specific things” of transgressive sex and violence. He has his fans, though the reviews of his past work have never encouraged me to investigate further.

In any event, I don’t love Cooper’s new novel, The Marbled Swarm. I have a fairly thick skin for fictional blood and gore, but the book’s scenes of cannibalism are queasy all the same, and a line like “[D]ead boys aren’t exactly wheels of brie, however much they might smell the same eventually” is off-putting even if you get the narrator’s gallows humor. (There’s more where that came from if you happen to be one of those fans.)

But Cooper’s goal in the book is a respectable and interesting one: He wants to look at how words can seduce and manipulate, and how poisonous that instinct can be when the person using the words is fairly bonkers. The “marbled swarm” of the book’s title is a term the narrator uses to describe his father’s enchanting manner of speaking—“trains of sticky sentences that round up thoughts as broadly as a vacuum.” The narrator’s father used it to make money, while the guy we’re listening to deploys it for sexual and gastronomical ends, but even if it serves low ambitions the tone makes The Marbled Swarm a more writerly novel than Cooper is often given credit for producing.

Novelists have a way of making madmen hyperarticulate; it’s a way for the novelist to recruit readers into being more patient with the craziness than they might otherwise be. Lolita might be one relatively contemporary example; Bret Easton Ellis‘ serial-killer tale American Psycho and Joyce Carol OatesJonBenet Ramsay riff My Sister, My Love would be more recent ones. In the latter two cases there’s a slightly off-kilter pitch to the prose that highlights how bad things have gotten: Think of the doofy, obsessive record reviews that Patrick Bateman writes in American Psycho or the heavily footnooted and recursive writing by Oates’ narrator. (Of course, those comparison points would be too conventional for a writer more interested in Burroughs or Sade.)

Cooper’s twist on the theme is to make his narrator not just hyperarticulate but hyper-self-aware—to the point where, ironically, we’re able to stick with him even though his actions are more repulsive than anything in Nabokov, Ellis, or Oates. “My [version of the] marbled swarm is more of an atonal, fussy bleat—somewhat marbled yet far too frozen tight and thinned by my loquaciousness to do the swarming it implies,” he writes. But lest you think he’s displaying false humility: “Still, it seems to be a sleeper hit with guys my age and younger, or at least with the majority who tune in once they’re weakened by my stunning looks.” He knows where he fits in; what’s creepy is how he decides where to fit.

The Marbled Swarm isn’t plotted so much as it’s designed to be a negotiation with the reader: How patient will you be with the scenes of rape and young men who fantasize about being run over by steamrollers? If the narrator can admit his failings as a narrator, will you stick with him a little while longer? “I should be out of kilter, so I’ll try to wreck the next few pages of my story in some self-effacing fashion,” he writes later in the novel as the body count rises. By turns, he’ll confess to “this mannered spiel to which you’ve grown accustomed,” or his “fetish for rerouting sentences that plummet at their points into Chinese puzzles.”

That’ll keep you curious till the end—at least, it kept me going as the grotesqueries piled up. The downside—to get back to that “conventional novel” business mentioned up top—is that this linguistic seductiveness doesn’t lead to much of a resolution. The narrator experiences little in the way of transformation or judgment, except one that he passes on himself: “I’ve failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules an premise.” Cooper told the Paris Review that the novel was written like a piece of music: themes and motifs “would be emphasized or de-emphasized at different points, mixed into the foreground, middle ground, or background, being moved around constantly so the reader’s attention would be directed all over the place.” That all-over-the-place aspect is the novel’s main frustration, even more than its gross-out gestures; the sole comfort is the curiously shattered and undeniably intelligent narrator who’s serving as tour guide.