by Richard Labonte
“The Marbled Swarm,” by Dennis Cooper. Harper Perennial, 208 pages, $14.99 paper.
Time and again, the unnamed narrator of this deliciously, defiantly non-linear novel addresses the reader directly. “I’ve gotten lost, and so have you,” and “I’ll ask for a wad of your imagination,” he announces, and that’s about as true as this exalted jumble of dizzying twists and dazzling turns gets. Many of Cooper’s familiar tropes are present, depravities rendered devout by authorial distance and literary formalism: sex aplenty, plenty of it gruesome, much of it involving boys, some of it sex by rape, much of it ending with blood, some of it leading to cannibalism – unless, possibly, it’s all a sleight of hand lie. One element is new: a grandiloquent narrative style – the marbled swarm, a “cumbrous mouthful” – quite unlike the prose in Cooper’s other novels, sentences that magically invest even the most salacious acts with sly wit. There is much to shock in this labyrinth of a novel, with its secret passageways, elusive truths and elegant intricacies. But it’s not shock for the sake of shock; it’s shock that evokes eloquent dispassion.
“The Lost Women of Lost Lake,” by Ellen Hart. Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99 hardcover.
The marvel of Hart’s 19-novel mystery series is that each book is distinctive in its own compelling way. The constants are restaurateur and part-time P.I. Jane Lawless and her chaotic sidekick, Cordelia Thorn; the variables are the well-drawn, always different characters and the moral lessons imparted as the plots progress. The lesson here: a violent past will haunt a peaceful present. The character haunted is playwright and theater director Tessa Cornell, in a long-time, loving relationship with Lost Lake resort lodge owner Jill Ivorsen, But the serenity of their idyllic resort-town life is shattered when a supposed journalist arrives with pointed questions about the identities of Jill and of another woman, the owner of the local soda shop. Jane and Cordelia, in town to help out after Tessa sprains her ankle, are soon drawn into the mystery. Rooted in the revolutionary passion of the late 1960s, Hart’s unusually somber novel explores the intersection of retribution and justice and the stark decision one character must take with riveting storytelling.
“The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,” by Paul Russell. Cleis Books, 384 pages, $16.95 paper.
Fact is woven into fiction, to mesmerizing affect, in Russell’s heart-wrenching novel based on the re-imagined life of famed novelist Vladimir’s younger, sensitive and overshadowed brother, Sergey. The two lived far different lives: fiercely heterosexual Vladimir went on to achieve literary fame; quietly homosexual Sergey died in a German labor camp. But that comes after the conclusion of this story, which has the two brothers escaping revolutionary Russia for the calm of Cambridge and then sees young Sergey sexually active on the fringes of the Ballets Russes, drawn into the literary salon of Gertude Stein and lost in an opium haze with his occasional lover, Jean Cocteau, all before finding delicate contentment with a German lover – an interlude that ends with their arrest. Sergey is stranded in Berlin, the “present” of the story, working for the propaganda ministry but under surveillance for anti-war utterances that lead to his imprisonment. Russell’s prose, engagingly evocative of the period in which the story is set, is studded with gems of dark wit that add quirky grace to a masterful novel.
“God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality,” by Jay Michaelson. Beacon Books, 232 pages, $25.95 hardcover.
And so it was written, that the Bible forbids homosexuality and condemns queers to perdition. Not so fast, says LGBT-faith activist Michaelson in his three-pronged scholarly dissection of Bible-based homophobia. In part one and part three, the author makes the case, cogently, that basic human values buttress equality for sexual minorities and that their inclusion is good – not bad – for religious communities. He argues that there is no conflict between being religious and being gay, and that the basic tenets of both Judaism and Christianity dictate that queers should be embraced by people of faith, not shunned. Such reasoning is backed up by the book’s middle section, in which Michaelson makes a well-footnoted case that the biblical verses used to condemn homosexuality – only seven of them, it seems, out of more than 30,000 – are riddled with translation errors, many rooted in the biases of early translators. The author’s impassioned assertion is that sexual diversity is something normal, a fact that ought to be acknowledged by the haters – except that facts seem irrelevant to religious fundamentalists.
Does a magician’s trick lie about the top hat in which a card appears to vanish? Is a cartoon lying about the computer on which it was laboriously hatched? Does your favorite song lie to you about the badly dressed musicians who sang and strummed and tinkered it into a tune while separated from each other’s work by days or months and soundproofed booths? In both the marbled swarm founded by my father and the marbled junk I’ve siphoned off, there is no lie or contradicting truth you need to fear. Neither are there plural truths or lies you need to worry you’ll discover, much less keep apart or in a special order.
– from “The Marbled Swarm,” by Dennis Cooper
MORE DENNIS COOPER: From William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen to Joan Didion and Stephen King, “The Paris Review” has interviewed 213 writers for its “The Art of Fiction” series. The most recent is queer “enfant terrible” author Dennis Cooper, in the Fall 2011 issue, an articulate discussion revealing that, as a kid, the author of a number of complex novels, both shockingly erotic and intellectually compelling, favored “mostly” junk – novelizations of TV shows such as “Batman” and “Get Smart.” That changed at 15 when he read an interview in which Bob Dylan lauded French poet Rimbaud, which led to Genet, Gide and eventually de Sade – and “suddenly my secret investigation of disturbing, sexually charged things and my confusing fantasies were legitimized.” Further into the interview, Cooper discusses how gay readers for the most part cringed at his work: “Because I was gay and my books were considered to have gay content by people who insist on categorizing things in their identity politics-based way, and because I wasn’t using my work to promote the many wonderful aspects of being gay, I was treated as a turncoat.” Most fascinating are Cooper’s memories of boyhood friend George Miles, a troubled younger boy whose depression and eventual suicide permeate the structure and tone of the author’s five-novel cycle, “Closer,” “Frisk,” “Try,” “Guide” and “Period”; equally fascinating is that the author of work focusing on what many consider sexual excess is such a soft-spoken fellow.