Swarms of Swarms: The Awakened Space of Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm

Blake Butler


The Marbled Swarm
by Dennis Cooper
Harper Perennial
November 1, 2011
208 pages

There’s really nothing I can reveal or explicate about The Marbled Swarm that will prepare you for it. Ok, sure, let’s start there. Tonight is tonight again, and I am rereading the book for either the third or fourth or fifth time, having just come home from dinner in which my memory-destroyed father lifted a piece of bread from the plate and called it, not pleasurably, “bone.” Then he ate it. This has more to do with the book than I would like. It is part of the apparatus, or apparatuses of The Marbled Swarm, that what the nature of this language means to flood at is your life. “Like atmosphere into a punctured jet,” as the narrator of the novel says, though his description refers to the potentially mesmerizing aspects of the face of a fourteen-year-old boy who said narrator plans to murder. Your life is not simply language masquerading as more story, but a series of sentences that are aware that you are there, that are not meant to replicate or entertain your experiential senses, but augment them. To adhere space onto old space.

This isn’t news, as such, for those familiar with the work of Dennis Cooper, who at all points of his career has had a mind bent to making language work as would a face, buried, sure, with layers of vision, sickness, want, etc., but also looking back at you, taking in your head. The Marbled Swarm finds Cooper raising this distinction to its highest mode of hyper-function to-date: the head is not only measuring your reaction and swallowing it; it means to respond.

The voice of our narrator is the first and most clear level of the body in which this novel has been housed. From the very first sentence, we still find the familiar wicked slant of Cooper’s perennial knack for penetrative dialogue (in more than one sense, and  with a degree of simultaneous awe and terror that I believe is unmatched in fiction), though the trajectory of it has been bent again. This speech is an amalgam; it sounds at once jarring, slick, earnest, puppeted; a wreck on neon wheels. It seems both arcane and overtly modern, singularly evolved. The speech is, the narrator reveals in rounds of oddly open and still guarded forms of address, a method of communication, and yes, of incanting, mesmerizing, in a sense, learned from his father, which they call the “marbled swarm.” As the book continues plotwise invoking the narrator, to put it as plainly as possible, in a whorl in which he buys a house rumored to be haunted by a dead boy, the family of whom fill the remaining air of the home in complex ways, this manner of speaking will continue to reveal itself to the reader, building line by line on the opening speech-riff with a pyramidal kind of stacking that brings new emphasis to how a book architecture can make it come not only alive, but to surround the reader in something not quite written, but intoned.

That’s one way to say that Cooper is hellishly good at crafting affect in his narrative structures, which, again, most of us knew. But here the tools of that craft are laid simultaneously more plain, in that the narrator seems to tell us he’s doing this, and at the same time, they are way, way more diffused, more spread out into not the sentences coming on and eating you in what they offer, but in the hull that building touches onto the air of the entire book, and, fuck, your home, you. Cooper connects it to the layers of the flesh, the body as a package of misrepresentations and fat, phantasms, laid over a person somewhere therein. The maze of the book builds with you inside it. 

Here’s the narrator describing the fourteen-year-old’s ass the first time he touches it: “In the guise of restive gayness, my fingertips were drafted in as spies, distinguishing the tight jean’s CGI from the more honest ass secreted in their shadow, bypassing the ‘ass’ that owed its charm to be squished and repositioned to find the one that didn’t deserve to be held hostage and strangled.” Like the house the narrator purchases, which he finds outfitted with tunnels that connect not only to viewing chambers for all the rooms, but to an entire subterranean conduit the extent of which we get only a glimpse, the body of the human here, particularly as a function of storytelling, held in the layers of the swarm, is entirely chaff, 2D manipulation, bent to fold you through them around the essential ingredient of the human, which is mushed in him, can be squeezed out.

Representation is huge in The Marbled Swarm. Our narrator mentions directly the presence of a kind of gas that may or may not be in the secret corridors surrounding the home, “whereby the non-secret world could start to look too vivid.” The passages allow the people inside them to see what is done in the rooms of the home where no one sees, what kind of meat the house hides and yet contains, masked by the walls that seem impenetrable––like an end of the world––though are as flimsy as flypaper. Even in the awareness of the swarm, which as a practitioner the narrator calls himself in comparison to his father’s mastery––“Hayden Christensen’s wooden rendition of Anakin Skywalker,” a hunk of flesh standing in for the body image of the actor paid to stand around inside the guise of a character farted out of a filmmaker’s brain. The narrator’s father himself refers to the space as “an inside joke for what would more prosaically constitute margins of error.” The walls are there, and behind the walls, maybe, the beings, who record the image on the eye, eject the images into what they see from there forward. There must be potential entrances in any surface, and so in all surfaces at all times. What goes in and out or on and around the houses in the distillation of the language are less real, less the crux than the space where they have been, a space that, yes, contains you, and your father, and that home.

This is where the language of the plot or idea of The Marbled Swarm makes itself apparent as more than a sum of affective ideas or sentences, as, let’s face it, how affective can a book on a shelf really be? This book is just as tired as anybody of hearing those reviews that claim the book a thing that ‘will linger longer after the book is put down,’ which we’ve all heard so many times. The narrator himself claims to have been “brainwashed by those stationary ghouls into an artful work of human whose charms are similarly thin and geared to vex.” If the book is to be a glass castle then, the construct of the air of the book, if it is to go on, must not mirror or even overwhelm, but append, or even, as the later nature of the book begins to address, consume.

In language, the self must be destroyed. There are structures, and there is air. The rest is acting, assimilating, and while the grip of that sets the bar of language above itself before it even begins, if we begin there, there may be new rooms. We might, among these rooms, find somewhere not already affixed to the human, to the light we’ve been absorbed by. The Marbled Swarm takes that space head-on and feeds it to you like the body that you wear, gives us, in clusters of language every bit as thrilling, rapt, and brain-waking as we could want from one of our living legends, moves us far closer to assuming, in Cooper’s words, “the independence of an actor who can disappear into his body as behind a puff of smoke…”


read Dennis Cooper’s blog here. Buy The Marbled Swarm here or from your local store. Check author Blake Butler here or on HTML Giant, a site he edits.