In a State of Confusion and Being Lucid As I Can: JOYELLE MCSWEENEY interviews DENNIS COOPER
Recently released from Kiddiepunk, Zac’s Haunted House is a free, online-based novel composed entirely of animated GIFs. Besides its ingenuity of form, somewhere between language and video, the construction invites the reader into a narrative that visually and narratively redefines the role of affect and terror in storytelling.
Recently, Joyelle McSweeney and Dennis Cooper exchanged some emails about the nature of the construction of the work and the experience it provides, as well as re: porn, collaboration, recognition, physical law. Below are the results. – ed.
Joyelle McSweeney: I expected Zac’s Haunted House to be zany, funny, smart and hectic, but I did not expect it to be so moving. Reading this truly novel novel. I found myself caught up in thrill of feeling one gesture repeated again and again—a thrown down hand, a falling body, a rain which in one frame is gravedust and the next pixie dust, this relentless way a single gesture pushes through scenario after scenario, GIF after GIF, until finally it hits a material that changes it (a bed, some guts, etc). That relentlessness was very moving to me, the haplessness of just being stuck on this planet with these shitty physical laws and having to somehow flail through all the meat. Can you talk a little bit about the affects or energies you are attempting to drive through the various chapters, and the relationships of these energies to ‘all the meat’?
Dennis Cooper: First, I’m really happy you felt the emotion it was trying to generate because that was paramount for me, or it was the grounding I was trying to keep really central to prevent the novel’s effects from being too shallow or frivolous. Like a doomed and dooming relentlessness. Well, the novel is a vertical construction, and that was really important. I thought of it almost as an elevator shaft with the white space breaks as the floors, and the gif sequences as happening in between the floors in a motion that was kind of like a broken, dropping elevator. So each chapter was falling to its doom, and I would let it free-fall sometimes then try to catch it or even try to reverse the motion so that the energy was moving upwards, which was very hard to do. I don’t know if that makes sense. And I was also thinking constantly about rhythm, each gif as a looping rhythm with an image illustrating the rhythm. A rhythm that turns the eyes into a pair of ears in a way. And I was trying to carefully create extended bursts of connective but disjointed rhythm. That rhythmic composition usually determined the length of the gif sequences more than anything, It was a really curious thing to make because I was feeling what was happening with the aligned gifs and just steering what was naturally happening there as much I was controlling it, so it’s hard to talk clearly about. When you combine gifs, you get this immediate intense energy, and then it’s just modulating that through editing choices and by interfering in it with narrative and scenic or interior design ideas too, working with the color schemes and stuff. Wow, I don’t know if that answered your question at all. It’s really complicated, and I’m still sort of figuring out how to put language to how I made it because it was very strangely so calculated but also like trying to landscape a rushing river or something like that too.
JM: I was very taken by the verticality of the reading process, the sheer drop of it, as well as by the competing time signature of the gifs that repeat and repeat, almost frantically signaling at me as they went by. I suppose there’s some humor to this sheerness, this forward motion. This delicious drive, this hilarious headlong quality, is also something I love about the Gothic and Horror genres. With this novel, should we be thinking about that motion as the prerogative of an authorial or narrative hand? Or the hand of fate? Or our own hand? Or Zac’s? Or is it a technological imperative or drive? In other words, who or what is driving this thing?
DC: Really interesting question. I felt like there were numerous drivers, and I was one of them, and I was juggling and accommodating the others, or juggling the ones I felt I could control and trying to accommodate those I couldn’t. There is a narrative, or rather a number of intersecting non-linear narratives buried in there that are cohesive, and that was the thing I was most concentrated on organizing and laying out as the novel’s official driver. But there was the haunted house attraction premise and lobby through which I imagined the reader traversing while being entertained and/or startled and/or amused and/or made comfortable by the spooky gif decor. So making the haunted house fun and surprising and a little nerve-wracking was a constant concern. Then there are the more complicated things going on, say the gifs themselves, which come from often recognizable sources, so there’s the effect and kind of interesting problem created by the fact that readers are going to recognize not only the general contexts from which some of the gifs were lifted — Disney movies, Neil Young, Game of Thrones, Pippi Longstocking, etc, etc, — but even, in some cases, the original narratives that the gifs are sliced from. So I had to think about those polluting suggestions, and the possibility that those absent narratives would come into play and disrupt or complicate the pure narrative I was trying to create with them. Also, the ongoing rush of the reading experience from Chapter 1 to 5, which I tried to control rhythmically as much as I could, was subject to all kinds of unforeseeable delays and disruptions that would be caused by readers pausing on individual gifs long enough to go, ‘Oh, that’s from Luigi’s Mansion’, or, ‘Oh, that’s One Direction’, or even just, ‘Oh, that one’s really trippy’, and so on.
So, in a way, there is a lot of hand of fate involved. I think written fiction is a super collaborative thing happening between the writer and the reader. The power dynamic and mystery and second-guessing there fascinates me when I write a text-based novel. With the gif novel, the collaboration is so much more multi-level. There’s the gifs’ source material on one side, and that’s mediated by the tech and compression of the gifs, and by the gif makers’ initial choices and designs, and then the reader is on the far other side, and I’m in the middle trying to mediate between the viewer and the material and kind of hoping to play God at the same time. I guess I mean the novel has a bunch of backseat drivers maybe, including me, including readers, but I just happen to be in the driver’s seat? I don’t know. It’s complicated. Something like that?
JM: When I was reading the novel, I did have some of those mini-orbitals of recognition when I would revolve the gif in my mind, thinking about the contexts from which it was derived. But I also starting classing them in my mind—here’s an animation, here’s something from a movie, here’s some human (often child) hurting himself in some hapless stunt and filming it (or being filmed). Those massive yet instantaneous shifts in texture really stuck with me. I thought a lot about what harm is, what damage is, why are some kinds of damage and harm ‘humorous’, what is this humor. Since this is such a constant in your work, I wonder if you would mind commenting about this seam of black humor that runs through this novel, or if there is some other way to read the video clips which show ‘actual’ people undergoing damage or harm, often edited for the video in such a way as to make the stunt look funny? I feel both bathos and pathos about those clips, not pathos so much for the individual person but for what a stupid fucking species we are, consigning ourselves to total misery in both diverse and patterned varieties, across the planet and into space, and bringing so many other species with us on this moronic death trip.
DC: Interesting. I thought about those things too vis-a-vis the documentary gifs. Those gifs were difficult to work with because they have no imagination, and the effect of the other clips, even the non-fiction ones showing, say, bands performing, are filtered through some kind of concept and self-consciousness that was fairly easy to coopt and sidetrack and blend into my trajectories. The real ones are kind of shocking. That’s partly due to how visually raw and aesthetically primitive they are, but you also can’t neutralize what really happened in them. Generally, and maybe even always, whoever made the gifs edited out the consequences of the real accidents and turned the accident victims into acrobats. Not in a softening way, but with this kind of heartlessness, I thought, and that interested me. If a kid falls off a bunkbed, you know he or she maybe broke their arm at the worst, or that’s where your imagination goes, but if a kid falls off a bunkbed over and over at high speed — because gif motion tends to seem very hurried — and does so forever, as they do in the gif loops, they’re being subjected to ever compiling, worse and worse injuries. It becomes really horrifying. I mean, you can read those documentary gifs as torture devices employed on real people, and I decided to read them that way rather than de-realizing the people in them into just realistic looking, cog-like fictional characters.
Anyway, I was interested in giving those eternal accidents-in-progress really big, showy endings. And I was interested in using them to try to make their fictional and illustrated/rendered/cartooned neighboring accidents emotionally scarier by association. I think you can kind of accomplish that because, when you sequence gifs, the gifs become like garish strobe lights. If you organize them carefully and pay attention to their rhythms, you can make them seem to happen so quickly that they kind of blind the viewer, and then you can try to suggest the fictions are hallucinations.
But now I’m way, way off track from your question, sorry. Re: the novel’s black humor, I think gifs are, basically, a comedic medium. Physical comedy, specifically. Sometimes they can be wise and subtle like Tati, but most often they’re like Adam Sandler or something. I decided that, to write a gif novel, it was going to have to be a comedy. Either I was going to fashion and subvert that comedy or I was going to try to paralyze it completely and, in doing so, risk coming off pretentious or something. I tried to give the comedy depth when I could and blacken it when I could and infect it with meaning when I could and escape entirely it for brief periods when I could. What I guess I’m saying is that the comedy was already there, a given. I didn’t make that. I just tried to make it as flexible as I possibly could. Sorry for the rambling answer. Did I get even close to answering what you asked me, I hope?
JM: Dennis, I’m really moved by these ideas, and it reminds me, I’ve often thought of Benjamin’s Angel of History parable as a kind of gif— the angel suspended, perhaps his wings flexing just minutely back and forth, and then the damage piling up at his/her feet, cycling, piling up again. And I wonder if the Internet is the storm blowing in from Paradise. And Paradise. A damage-paradise.
I wonder again about Pain as an absolute location of the political. And yet I also think the term ‘political’ feels too tiny, circumscribed, easy and mundane to describe what I think of as the bloody essence, force, material, almost unsayable ‘itness’ of your work. For me, to write violence is to write politically, given the amount of political, economic, environmental, corporate violences in which all human and inhuman bodies are constantly drenched on this planet. My own writing vibrates with the violence of the world. My own work is obscene because it brings what is supposed to be invisible or unspoken into presence, tangibility, viscerality. And I think of your work as operating at this zero-point as well, this ground-zero, or, with Zac’s Haunted House, with hundreds of dispersed ground-zeros. (Every body his own ground zero). But do you think your work is political? How do you feel about that word?
DC: The Walter Benjamin thing and the internet as the storm blowing in from Paradise is really beautiful, wow.
Well, I’m an anarchist when it comes to politics, belief, and philosophy even. I’ve been one since the mid-70s. That affects everything I do and think and make as an artist. My friendships, my love life, and kind of everything. Anarchism, or my form of it at least, is based on kind of really simple basic principals having mostly to do with a constant, and almost subconscious at this point, gauging of power, my own and others’, by which I guess I mean political, cultural, social, aesthetic, etc. power, and keeping a really close watch on the hierarchies that result whether inside me or all around me in order to not find myself and my efforts influenced by the external and/or habitual contexts that force structure onto everything I do and want to do. It’s a hard to describe, and I know I keep saying that about everything, but I really do believe that remaining in a state of confusion and being as lucid as I can from there is the way to the truth if there is anything like truth. Confusion or maybe roaming curiosity as ground-zero maybe.
When I write about violence or horror, or, in the case of ZHH, use gifs instead of language to do that, I find that the only way I can do that with any authority or fairness is to write about what violence, etc, does to my imagination. That’s what I’m always trying to represent. I’m always trying to understand what privileges the anarchic safety zone of my imagination give me, and how does my imagination’s isolation from the consequences and responsibilities that come with actual violence cripple or blind my understanding of it, and what happens at the borderline between my writing and anyone who would read what I write, and where is the borderline, and how do I illustrate that meeting point into something coherent and collaborative. The only way I’ve ever been able to do that as a writer is to plan out these really complicated structures for what I want to make before I can start to write. And they can take a long time because, for me, they have to be fair to what I want to write about, and fair to what my imagination does with the chosen material, and fair to what I try to imagine a reader would want or need to do the huge traveling necessary from where they think to where I’m writing.
So, even in the case of ZHH, first I thought up a structure that I thought serviced my intentions and that wasn’t a power play, and it was based in narrative, but not a linear one because, I don’t know, I have this idea that linear narratives are kind of fascist by default. In written fiction, it’s really, really hard to try to eliminate them, or it is for me because of the limitations of my talent, even though I always try really hard to only employ linearity when I think it’s the only way to be fair to the reader. With the gif novel, the power relationship between the source material and the reader are complicated for the reasons I explained, meaning due to the multiple, layered authors and how their intentions were already a blend and blur by the time I got ahold of their things, and that made authorship into something almost purely organizational, and that I found that allowed me to work more irresponsibly and with less conventional order than I usually do in written fiction where I feel like I need to believe that everything I write is sourced only from me, and that was really freeing.
Do I think my work is political? I suppose it’s only political, but, yeah, that word tenses my fingers when I write it. I know a lot of people who say anarchism is apolitical. I have so many Marxist friends who get completely fed up with my beliefs and think that because I don’t have a go-to, externally provided structure through which to talk about politics and think about the world like they do means I’m naive or primitive or something. I think I’m more into the idea of ground zero like you suggested, and, yeah, a whole slew of them in the case of ZHH. Does my wanting to start from ground zero mean my work is apolitical? I don’t know.
JM: Ok to shoot things in a slightly different direction— your recent book, The Marbled Swarm, is incredibly focused on lexicality, on verbalness. The particular stylistic compulsions of the narrator provide the title of the book, its material, its subject—The Marbled Swarm also reminds me of The Maltese Falcon, a present/absent thing that all the plotlines must go out from and return to. The lexicality of this book is its whole deal. And yet ZHH is almost wordless. Though not truly wordless, because words are mouthed. Words are a shape the mouth makes in some of the gifs, and it is when I attempt to ‘lipread’ that I feel I am most properly ‘reading’ ZHH. Can you discuss what it was like to move from this hyperlexicality and this almost compulsive wordiness in one novel to something like wordlessness in a subsequent novel? Or did matters of words, syntax, grammer still come up in assembling the gifs?
DC: Ever since I finished the interlocking George Miles Cycle novels, whenever I complete a novel, I do these exercises to destroy my voice so that I don’t know how I wrote the novel anymore, and, ideally, even remember why I wrote it in the manner I did. Generally what works best for me is writing porn, just crappy, base porn, because it makes the hand move faster than the mind, and it kind of clears away the constructed habits and mannerisms or whatever and turns my writing into garbage. I do that partly because the narrowness of the subject matter and ideas and themes and etc. that I want to work with could easily lead to me repeating myself, so I feel like I need to start each novel from scratch to make sure I’m doing something new and challenging enough for me.
So I did that after The Marbled Swarm, and I started writing a novel that’s still in progress and that is its polar opposite, very plain and personal and ranty and which relies on my natural speaking voice and thought patterns because I’ve never worked with them in a way that wasn’t heavily adorned and chiseled into architecture. It and the gif novel are both part of a new novel cycle I’m in the early stages of making. Anyway, that attuned and automatic voice has been very interesting to work with, but there are things I did in The Marbled Swarm that I had longed to do and tried hard to do ever since I first wanted to be a writer when I was teenager, and you addressed some of those things in your question. That novel was, for me, vis-a-vis my intentions and wishes for my work, a huge breakthrough. And I was reluctant to just throw what I learned there away.
When I started experimenting with gifs and realized that I might be able to write fiction using them, one of the reasons I got so excited about that idea was because I found that, with the gifs, I could actually continue and hopefully advance what I was doing in The Marbled Swarm. I’m really happy with the weird narrative voice that forms TMS‘s top layer, and I managed to make it transparent to some degree such that readers could use its clues and devices to find the really complicated secret tunnel system inside the novel where the real ‘story’ is taking place, but to make a voice and narrator that were simultaneously propulsive/ engaging and a just text that was a map required that top layer to be pretty dense and hard to see through. With the gifs, I realized that I didn’t have to create a fictional top layer because the gifs’ effect was engaging and energetic enough, and that, in fact, I could put the narrative at the very bottom of the novel, in other words kind of flipping what I was doing in TMS completely over. Also, the texts that arose in the original gifs were so eaten by the rhythms and images and energy of the gifs that they didn’t dominate anymore than anything going on in them, and that was very interesting — to make a novel where the language didn’t automatically become my intentions’ headline. I thought about syntax and grammar and all that stuff very carefully as I always do in my writing. I thought of the gifs as the phrases and sentences I was using, and I tried to manipulate them via their combinations the same way that I do with words and phrases and sentences in my writing. And it was weirdly not so difficult to transpose my writing rules onto them.
JM: Dennis, we’ve taken an invisible pause in this conversation while you worked on a film and I attempted to survive the Rust Belt winter. Can you describe the process of imagining, building and editing a film as opposed to putting together something that functions as a ‘book’ or ‘novel’ in whatever media? What kind of collaborator are you?
DC: Well, this film (Like Cattle Towards Glow) came about in a lengthy, complicated way. As briefly as possible, it started life as a porn film. I’ve had a near-lifelong dream of making a porn. I’ve always thought visual porn was a medium that’s theoretically really open and susceptible to doing something really smart and complicated and artful, but very few porn directors have ever even tried to do something above and beyond mere titillation with it. So, I mentioned my porn making dreams on my blog about seven years ago, and this guy in the porn industry contacted me and said he could help me make a porn film. I asked him for guidelines, and he said I could do whatever I wanted. I wrote a script for what would be my ideal porn. It used porn’s standard structural model, i.e. a sequence of short, unrelated scenes centered on a hardcore sex act and interconnected only by an overall theme and general setting. The sex was central, but it was basically used as an excuse to explore and enunciate the effect — emotional, aesthetic, political, etc. — of wanting to have sex and of having sex on the characters. I wanted the sex acts to be hardcore, but I wanted them to be as confused, weird, unsatisfactory, not sexy, etc. as real sex can actually be at times. And I tried to make the script as layered and formally playful as my fiction.
Of course, it turned out that no one in the porn industry was willing to finance the film because it was too complex, too controversial, not sexy enough, etc. So I put the script away. But then, years later, this German producer Jurgen Bruning got wind of that failed project and said he would be interested in considering it. I mentioned that to my great friend and collaborator the artist Zac Farley, and he said he’d be into directing the film. We went back and rewrote the script together. We ended up preserving most of the original scenes’ builds and dialogue and their purpose as a framing device for a hardcore, explicit sex act, but we decided that the actual sex acts would only be as explicit and/or shown as the circumstances of making the film would allow or cause to seem interesting. For instance, we weren’t going to cast the film based on whether the performers were willing to fuck on film or not because depicting the private impact of the horniness and of having sex was far, far more important than giving viewers boners. And the sex in the film wound up being sometimes visible, oftentimes awkward and failed, erased completely in a couple of scenes, and porn-like explicit only in rare moments. So, LCTG is a film that was conceived as a porn film, that has the architecture of a porn film, and that is about sex in a fundamental, no-holds-barred way, but which is not a porn film in effect or intention, if that makes sense.
The process of making the film was familiar to me because of my ongoing collaboration with the French theater director Gisele Vienne. Similarly, Zac is the director, and it’s ultimately his work, but we collaborated on every other aspect from the conception to the casting, rehearsals, revising, shooting, and we edited the film together. I’m always thinking like a fiction writer even when I’m devising texts and strategizing about narrative and detailing and ‘performances’ in a visual medium, but, of course, the huge difference is that, with theater or film, my control is infected by the fact that I’m working on an assignment full of variables. In LCTG‘s case, they ranged from the fact that Zac’s ideas and plans were always paramount, to all kinds of interim, uncontrollable things that happened unexpectedly — say, how the scenes’ locations and decor were finally determined by cost and availability or how, upon casting the performers, my ideas and plans became necessarily subservient to their physical forms and particular charismas and abilities. So, it’s not like writing a novel where everything is cement and you can decide when and how it dries.
I think I’m a good collaborator. I love collaborating, and I don’t have ego issues in that situation at all, I don’t think. With Zac, we have incredibly similar interests and tastes and notions of what an ideal presentation would constitute, etc., but his talents are more visually and sonically oriented than mine, and his imagination’s poetic is at once recognizable and awe-inspiring to me, so working with him feels like being able to work in a completely ideal way without my usual limitations. And our conduciveness allows us to collaborate in different mediums. As well as other film projects, we’re working on the pilot for a puppet TV show, and we’re putting together a book about Scandinavian amusements parks, and I’m hoping that one of the novels in the cycle I’ve begun writing for/about him — Zac’s Haunted House being the first volume of the cycle — will be co-authored with him. Normally, I think collaboratively made fiction is nearly always an interesting exercise and treasure hunt at best, but there’s a particular connectivity I have with Zac that I think could get completely around that overly mish-mashed problem. Anyway, I’m an excitable collaborator at the very least, I guess.