To tell the truth, I am not sure I completely understand what Dennis Cooper's latest novel, THE MARBLED SWARM, is about. Ostensibly, it is the story of a son dealing with the loss of his enigmatic father. But it is also about rape, murder, cannibalism, secret passageways and, perhaps most importantly, language.
"Patient and careful readers will be rewarded for their diligent attention to the text with a controversial, dazzling and intelligent work of literature."
The unnamed narrator begins the story as a 22-year-old heading from Paris to the countryside to purchase a chateau. Upon his arrival, he meets Francois and his son, Serge, who each tell a different yet equally horrific story of the rape and murder of a second son. The chateau itself hides secret rooms and peepholes through which Francois observed his two young sons. Later we read that this demented family mirrors the narrator's and that his own 12-year-old brother, Alphonse, was raped to death and then consumed by a group of his father's cohorts. And the narrator was a willing participant as well. In this middle section of the book, we learn about the narrator and his relationship with his brother and father. He doubts his paternity, but nonetheless it is the man who raised him who has shaped him.
The house in which the narrator was raised, actually a set of urban lofts, is also full of secret rooms and peepholes through which the father spied on his sons. As this second family, so similar to that of Francois, is introduced, readers may wonder about the reliability of our narrator. At times he admits it is a flaw in his storytelling: “there's a strangely wending path between what I intend to say and what I gather I am thinking,” he says. There is yet another father-son triad as well as a film, perhaps starring the boy's biological father, about cannibalism and the paterfamilias, to confuse the whole thing even further. By the end, when the narrator tells us he is just 13 years old, it is difficult to say what aspects of the story were fantasy, which, if any, were reality, and which were a clever and twisted combination of the two.
This whole postmodern novel is told through a wordplay called “the marbled swarm.” It is the invention of the narrator's father, combining French, English and other languages designed to confuse and charm listeners, thereby giving the speaker control. While the marbled swarm as spoken by the father is elegant and useful, the son's version is weaker. “The marbled swarm,” we are told, “is spoken at a taxing pace in trains of sticky sentences that round up thoughts as broadly as a vacuum. Ideally, its tedium is counteracted by linguistic decorations, with which the speaker can design the spiel to his requirements. The result, according to this mode's inventor, is that one's speech becomes an entity as open-ended as the air it fills and yet as dangerous to travel as a cluttered, unlit room in which someone has hidden, say, a billion euros... My 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.”
Patient and careful readers will be rewarded for their diligent attention to the text with a controversial, dazzling and intelligent work of literature. Others will find it to be a mind-numbing and horrific story. Plenty are sure to find all of the above to be true. Cooper pushes the limits of language and taste, so THE MARBLED SWARM is not for everyone. Brave readers keen to explore meaning and language should find it compelling and unique. Like the sick fathers who live in the empty spaces beyond the houses proper, Cooper seems to suggest, we readers are only peeping in, spying, unable to get a full picture and finding entertainment at the expense of others. Blending classic themes with pop culture, brutal violence with an oddly beautiful style, Cooper sets out to confuse and illuminate.
In the end, this much is true: THE MARBLED SWARM is a shifting, complicated and difficult book about one son's shifting, complicated and difficult feelings for his deceased father. The text is in fact the marbled swarm itself. Or maybe not.