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Queer Cryptograms, Anarchist Cyphers: Decoding Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm: A Novel

From: Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 45, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 95-112 | 10.1353/sli.2012.0012

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The celebrated and controversial American novelist, poet, playwright and blogger Dennis Cooper is most often identified with other so-called transgressive fiction writers that came to the attention of the academy in the mid-late 1990s. According to its advocates and critics, the primary concern of such writing, which included the work of other Grove Press authors such as Kathy Acker and Gary Indiana, as well as Bret Easton Ellis and Lynne Tillman, was to propel writing towards the limits of acceptable moral and ethical behavior. Their respective treatments of sexuality, violence, and drug use (and often conjunctions of all three), it was proposed, comprised a violent and shameless assault on social convention (see Gardner). In an article coining the phrase “transgressive writing” in 1993, Michael Silverblatt aligned the emerging genre with the subversive corporeality of de Sade’s transgressive fiction avant la lettre: “Exploring the sexual frontiers implicit in Mapplethorpe’s photographs or Karen Finley’s performances, transgressive writing has violation at its core: violation of norms, of humanistic enterprise, of the body. Really, it’s the Marquis de Sade who officiates at the American orgy.” Though so-called transgressive fiction was not without its detractors, to aficionados it exposed the artificiality and hypocrisy of socially defined norms, subverted sexual and gender stereotypes, and, by so doing, prized open spaces for the articulation of alternative, non-normative modes of sexual experience (see Gardner 56; see Neeper). A brief article written by Cooper in 1992 entitled “Queercore” appears to substantiate such a position, in its enthusiastic endorsement of “a new brand of queer defiance … where ‘queer’ defines not a specific sexuality, but the freedom to personalize anything you see or hear then shoot it back into the stupid world more distorted and amazing than it was before” (295).

However, while the transgressive writings of de Sade and Georges Bataille are no doubt important influences, it seems to me nonetheless unhelpful to confine Cooper’s work within the proscribed limits of the genre of transgressive fiction. Such a designation hardly palpates a modicum of the variety and richness of Cooper’s prose or the fiendish complexity of his relentless literary experimentation. Neither does it take into account, moreover, the fact that Cooper’s mobilization of transgressive strategies in his writing and his persistent concern with the limits of personal freedom in contemporary society, are in fact symptomatic of a more profound identification with anarchism. Thus, while relatively dismissive of the transgressive fiction label, he is openly and avowedly anarchist, readily acknowledging that “anarchism is extremely defined in how I live my daily life. I believe in the old anarchist dictum that as soon as you gain power, you must disperse it. Anarchism is a utopian notion, but as a system by which to think about the world and myself, I think it flawless” (Cooper and Stosuy 20). From his controversial series of novels called the George Miles cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period) to his post-cycle work, which includes the award-winning cyber-noir The Sluts, Cooper’s fiction has persistently sought to fashion forms of literary expression most appropriate to his experience of the world as an anarchist artist. Taken together, I would suggest, his novels constitute one of the most remarkable examples of sustained artistic engagement with the subject of anarchism in American letters. Embedded within each text, concealed beneath the smooth, atonal veneer of Cooper’s celebrated “blank” prose and the bright hum of his ostensibly sensational subject matter, lie numerous imbricated critiques and dramas of anarchy shot through with subcultural expressions of dissident desire and encounters with contemporary conceptual art and avant-garde writing (Aaron 115). In what follows, I will consider just one example of Cooper’s efforts, The Marbled Swarm: A Novel, which represents his most recent and extravagant effort to capture a number of such concerns within the confines of a single text. Here I will show that, by creating a text whose structure is hewn from secrecy and cloaked in codes, Cooper appears to draw upon modes of dissident expression found in queer and anarchist subcultures and, in doing so, effectively aligns his work with both.

1. Decoding The Marbled Swarm...

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