Published on October 30th, 2012 | by Brian Folan0
The Marbled Swarm
Books to Read for Halloween #1
The Marbled Swarm – Dennis Cooper 2011 – Harper Perennial
With Halloween creeping its death-head ever closer, I wanted to write about fear. If you are anything like me you will be spending Halloween like any socially introverted weirdo, reading a book. Of course there are movies, parties, and shame spirals to be attended so I try to keep it simple. I’m going to post some books you should try to read within the next few days. I promise they will be easy to read and perfect for these last goose-pimpled days before All Hallow’s Eve.
That being said, it’s been a very long time since I read a book as truly frightening as Dennis Cooper’s 2011 The Marbled Swarm. The novel starts with the cartoonish trope of a man behind the painting. You see the portrait of, oh let’s say Napoleon, and as you walk past the eyes follow you. You look back and the eyes are as ageless and unblinking as the paint itself. So this isn’t the scariest image by today’s standards, but somewhere in those thin walls is a man watching you eat, piss, and sleep. With such household ubiquity, the man behind the painting gives audience to the scenes in front of him. He is like a proxy narrator of the house. Much like a parent. And in this case, it is the parent, and it’s no trope.
The Marbled Swarm is largely about parents manipulating their kin by way of secret halls that trace the interior of their house. Watching, whispering, and plotting every move from within the walls of their own home, they become sick with the power of control. They force (or try to force) incest, murder, and cannibalism. They turn their sons into monsters without ever being seen. This literally happens in several instances throughout the novel.
But “literally” in this novel only means it appears on the page. There is a much more subtle manipulation happening by way of our young and handsome unnamed narrator. The “fancy drainage ditch” that is his mouth is constantly spewing a lush labyrinthine syntax he calls “the marbled swarm.” This titular dynamic of speech is, by the narrator’s definition, meant to divert the listener from the subject by way intensely formed rhetoric: “…its tedium is counteracted by linguistic decorations, with which the speaker can design a spiel to his requirement.” It was devised by his father and passed down to him while the father was very drunk and the son was very high on ecstasy. The marbled swarm, as the title suggests, becomes the subject over the course of the novel. The words veil the man behind them just as the painting obscured the man behind. What we see happen on the page is no more the action than the paint is Napoleon He’s seen and unseen, making you turn the page and take part in what turns out to be one hell of a grisly confession.
Fear is not much mentioned. It is casually stipulated that the narrator will rape, kill, and eat Serge (also known as #7), an emo French boy practically sold to our narrator by his father at the novel’s start. The “swarm” is a mellifluous treatment on some gruesome acts and you feel its undeniable power by turning each page as you try to figure out if Serge raped his brother or if his brother raped him, and just exactly how much was the father lying when he said he hadn’t raped either of them.
Cooper inscribes memory, sickness, and self doubt on the bottom of our narrator’s silver tongue. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert was a force of blind ego; his power of prose swung romantic and the unreliable narrator hides well behind it. Cooper’s narrator is far beyond Professor Humbert. Because the marbled swarm is an invention of the narrator’s father, we only see it being sorely imitated. This young cannibal balances his speech between what is actually happening and how he wants you to see it. Occasionally, he exposes how thin his thread really is while grappling for control the truth. While detailing his plans to sodomize and kill Serge, he has to recant certain mentions of sexuality that come too dangerously close to the truth for him: “Now, were I gay or, if you insist, entirely gay, I would have…well, you tell me. I’m not gay enough to know.” Moments like these bring the true torture of language to the forefront. Maybe he is a very contemporary man who eschews all sexual labels, but when he talks about letting a couple of Swedes ravage his asshole in Paris, you start to see how much the language distorts the soul. He will tell you a dozen times over, everything he says is false. There are no safe places to hide here.
The lunatic’s ramblings are like a constantly creaking floorboard drawing you to the next room while the killer gets his knife ready. The decaying eloquence of our narrator is as unsettling for us as it is for him. As he tediously teases his yarn we see first hand the deep psychological horror in the burden of expression. There is a writhing so subtle between every word of the novel you can’t help but feel perverted in its telling. You will read this book and look at the man across the room and wonder who he has stomped paper-thin with a fire extinguisher. You’ll wonder what the most charismatic man really means when he asks you if you want to “chew the fat.” But be assured, the nefarious conclusions of the novel aren’t there for shock, they speak volumes about vanity, parents, memories, loss, and absolutely desperate wanting. While the narrator tries to have us look the other way, Cooper seems effortlessly in control of what we see – true torture. It’s time to get scared.