The Marbled Swarm

  • Dennis Cooper
  • Harper Perennial
  • 208 pp.

Sexual violence, magic, a concocted language and strange humor fill this novel that explores observation as a means of control.

Reviewed by Alice V. Leaderman  

The Marbled Swarm begins like a fairy tale with the narrator’s arrival at a chateau in the French countryside where secret inner rooms allow spying on the inhabitants. The mood soon becomes less benign as the father and younger son, Serge, make contradictory claims of violent acts:  Serge says his older brother repeatedly raped him and so Serge murdered him. The father, who has been spying on his sons, says he was the one raping Serge and he, not Serge, killed his older son. Add to that the 22-year-old narrator’s taste for raping young teenage boys, then killing and eating them, and you have a strange world, to say the least.

The next section is set a few years earlier, when the narrator lived in Paris with his father and younger brother in a building — a stack of lofts also equipped with secret rooms for spying. There is a subsequent house with secret spy passages, and another that is a gigantic child’s play house that doubles as a theater. Similarly, there are two other “families” consisting of a father and two teenage sons who are lovers. All this duplication, and the fact that the characters are flat, without emotion or moral sense, may lead readers to suspect that the author does not intend any of this to be “real.”

The unreality is contradicted by the presence of some vivid action, most memorably a long, gruesome scene when the narrator, along with François (one of the fathers) and the narrator’s chauffeur, brutally rape and bludgeon to death the narrator’s 12-year-old brother, Alphonse. François takes away the body to be prepared for consumption in his four-star restaurant, where the narrator will join him later. Were it not for the horrific preceding scene, this last part would be funny.

In fact, were it not for the sick proclivities of the narrator, more talked about than acted on, much of this novel would be funny and like a game. The Marbled Swarm contains countless references to performance, the stage, actors, costumes, comic books, mirrors, magicians’ tricks and Internet virtual reality.

Cooper’s nameless narrator knows readers are likely to question his trustworthiness. He repeatedly gives pointers about how to read the novel, such as, “When one reads novels, it’s the realness of the characters that seals your eyes between the covers, whereas the world they supposedly inhabit is closer to a compass, built just carefully enough to help you keep your bearings.  … If I’m right, then I’ll suggest you try to get things backward.” Elsewhere he suggests analogies: the chateau is his voice, the secret passages are subtexts, and his words are the chateau’s furniture. He says his story of what occurred at the chateau was “all lies,” and a “mindfuck.”

  Cooper’s language is arch but controlled and compelling. Sentences are long and rhythmical, and there are never more than two to a paragraph, which allows frequent shifts and makes for speed. Metaphors are plentiful, as are references to pop culture, from Bob Dylan to manga (Japanese comics), from Harry Potter to Emo punk rockers.

The “marbled swarm” is a language the narrator’s father created, a magical concoction made from aspects of various European languages, none of which can be detected in the narrator’s version, which he calls the “cheap paperback edition.” The narrator says the marbled swarm’s purpose is to control the world, and the father has used it to make the narrator what he is, including making him and his brother lovers. The narrator uses it to control his lovers, doomed to reappear as dinner. He seeks to use this language to control the reader — as all writers do, but more overtly here.

Cooper has said in interviews that he was influenced by French theory and literature. It is likely that he has drawn on Michel Foucault’s discussion, in Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish), of the panopticon, a model prison in which the cells encircle a central tower so the guards can observe the prisoners continuously. Although Foucault was writing about political institutions, not individuals, he does talk about observation as a means of control. He notes that a method of control may become detached from its original institution and move to another, like the swarming of bees (essaimage) from one hive to a new one. To explain “marbled” is more difficult: it may evoke fatty meat; it may mean mixed together as opposed to neatly ordered, as in marble cake vs. layer cake; it may refer to a certain sexual practice involving bodily excretions.

Many of Cooper’s earlier novels feature teenage boys, homosexual rape and brutal murders. In interviews he has suggested that the desire to kill and eat a lover is a way to know him completely, to try to grasp why that person is so fascinating to the killer. If so, then the killing can be seen as a way to destroy this attraction, as it seems to be in Cooper’s novel My Loose Thread, in which, through all the sex and violence, the characters experience gut-twisting pain caused by fear of being gay and a need to be loved.  Cooper has suggested that the violent scenes in his books are not meant to be “real,” but are just his protagonist’s fantasies.

At the end of The Marbled Swarm, the narrator, now age 13, suggests that the whole novel has been a sleight of hand.  In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has coupled a clever intellectual romp with stomach-turning brutality and quite a bit of humor. Some readers may be rewarded. Others will remember his word “mindfuck.”

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, hikes, skis, gardens and volunteers with Chesapeake Natives, a group that promotes the use of native plants. She lives in Maryland with her husband.

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