When it comes to the gif novel, Cooper is a force of one
In 2016, Google removed Dennis Cooper’s blog, DC’s, for alleged violation of terms of service (meaning anything and nothing). It seemed, for a few weeks, that everything was lost. The years of daily blog posts on the intellectual history of the world, the intimate dialogues in the comments, even the original work—Zac’s Freight Train Elevator, a novel written entirely in gifs, was believed to be among the wreckage. After public outcry, and major press from places like The New Yorker, New York Times and Frieze, something happened behind the scenes, and the blog miraculously reappeared.
I once believed that the vast majority of texts written in a radically unfamiliar structure were nothing more than puerile experimentation. Still, something attracted me to them, and I would vacillate between love and hate for writers like Arno Schmidt and the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets. If one calls these linguistic experiments, one in turn has to call Cooper’s gif-format novels something entirely different.
The book, which Kiddiepunk Press published in July, is his fifth installment in the gif series. The figure Zac threads the series together: Zac’s Control Panel, Zac’s Freight Elevator, Zac’s Coral Reef, and now Zac’s Drug Binge. Cooper himself “invented” the genre in 2015, when he published Zac’s Haunted House.
Each page consists of two or three gifs. An occasional word or two appears. The story is ostensibly about climbing the ladder of crack/cocaine and then falling from the top rung. It’s not without the usual dose of blood, violence, and sex for which readers know Dennis Cooper. The story that you see, however, is secondary to the mechanics of the very short novel.
In my teens, there were few novels I enjoyed more than those of the American meta-fictionalists, writers like Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes. Those novels achieved a certain degree of popularity in part because they made the reader feel smart for bearing witness to an intricate system of mimicry and reflection between the low (content, character, plot) and the high (form). Dennis Cooper’s gifs, on the other hand, don’t make the reader feel particularly smart. But they’re successful for another reason. They achieve the reduction of content to a framework stripped bare and pure, an exterior form and two-dimensional appearance, on which the reader projects and imagines meaning.
Cooper told novelist Blake Butler in an interview that he “thought of [the gifs] as these crazy visual sentences. But unlike text sentences, they do all the imaginative work for you. They render you really passive […] ultimately, they’re mostly rhythms.” The gifs are the mere external rhythm then, the sonic guide for a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Dennis Cooper is on his own in this genre. You can’t say that the series proceeds from the American net art or hypertext tradition. Rather, if one were to build a family tree, it would delineate from de Sade, Rimbaud, Blanchot, and Bresson—four Frenchmen with a distinct desire to shed away all the excess of language, plot, and character, and arrive at a kind of absolute creation: mere form.
Take Robert Bresson for example. The French filmmaker casts a long shadow over all of Cooper’s work. Bresson’s practice of using non-professional actors to read out lines in a dead-pan, often emotionless voice, lacking everything traditionally associated with “sympathetic characters,” christened a nascent genre of film-making that never found proper discipleship. These actors became what Bresson called “models”—automatic vessels. Actors are acting, models are being. “Don’t think what you’re saying, don’t think what you’re doing,” he wrote.
In a profoundly unconventional way, Dennis Cooper carries a portion of this style on through his gif novels (though he might disagree). To really find the Bressonian elements, one would have to go to Cooper’s traditional fiction. There, at times appearing disaffected, disinterested, or even sociopathic, Cooper’s disquieting characters mimic the formal elements of a Bressonian dialogue. They’re plastic containers, floating along a secret tunnel system upon which Cooper builds his fiction.
This style is not anti-humanist, but rather essentially, painfully human. Escaping the chokehold of “character,” Cooper, following Bresson, manages to explore the possibilities of language to be “absolute”. Long live Bresson, long live the gif.