The Art of Confusion: What is a Novel?

Recognizing that the films were entirely about emotion and, to me, ­ profoundly moving while, at the same time, stylistically inexpressive and monotonic. On the surface, they were nothing but style, and the style was extremely rigorous to boot, but they seemed almost transparent and purely content driven. Bresson’s use of untrained nonactors influenced my concentration on characters who are amateurs or noncharacters or characters who are ill equipped to handle the job of manning a story line or holding the reader’s attention in a conventional way.

-Dennis Cooper, The Paris Review, Fall 2011.

I remember watching Rated R movies since before I can remember and there is nothing I can do about that now. Sitting on our ripped up, leather couch, as a five year old, maybe a little older, maybe a little younger, I absorb all the light from the television: all the bullet wounds, deep cuts, exploding heads, serial killers, homicidal living dolls, drugs, sex, and bright violence. To me the adult content, like the early weekday morning and Saturday cartoons I would schedule myself to be awake for, was all pure story, all narrative. It all existed on one plane and that plane was storytelling, or how to grip you in or out of place. The trouble, or the scary parts, was the narrative. I remember watching The Shining and wondering why all the colors looked so scary and began to look for them in real life, but I've never seen a red like the red in The Shining until I was bleeding from an open gash in my head that I suffered from a nearly fatal car accident. Movies and TV, before books, taught me story.

In an interview w/ Michael Silverblatt for KCWR's Bookworm for the release of her book When the Sick Rule the World, Dodie Bellamy talks about wanting her writing to be accessible, that she would never want to speak down to anybody, but it's also important for her to be considered smart. Listening to the podcast commuting to a tech job I feel hallowed out from, I think, Fuck, yes. Dodie Bellamy. Fuck, yes, Dodie Bellamy. Walking from the hissing bus, crossing swamps and parking lots to the corporate campus, and walking through crowds of my endless, tech contract co-workers, some wearing football jerseys, I think, I just want you fucks to think I'm smart, like I belong in this god damn world. I think, I just want everyone here to feel love.

Listening to Bellamy, I feel my muscles contract in a way when I hear another human in the world wanting the same things I want from the world, and I think I have a heart and the day is still young. Growing up impoverished, first born Vietnamese American, and weird as fuck, I can relate to wanting to seem smart. I can relate to feeling invisible. In a perfect world, there would be no doubt about how much grind I have in me, that I can hang on a bar or a cliff as long as the next crazed workaholic. As a writer, I echo Bellamy, in wanting my work to be accessible, as accessible as TV, open to any reader, almost blue collar, while still wanting to be respected, honored, and worthy of discourse and commerce. 

It's just as important to me to be able to talk about Jean Genet in a room full of people as it is Jean Claude Van Damme movies on a dime when being asked about it from either the person from my left or my right. To me, there is no difference between high and low culture even if there is a difference between good and bad art. 


To me, I answer the question of what is a novel by answering the question of what you can do with a novel. I think of what has staggered me.

The first time I read Dennis Cooper, I was working a midnight shift at an independent movie theater and I was tripping on his prose and glued to the page. Never had I read such frank treatments of graphic violence, gay sex, and complicated, relationships of love, lust, and deep megalomania, and never had I read prose crafted so carefully. I could feel the author's care on the sentence level, which felt tender and consoling despite the sometimes ultra-violence. After one Dennis Cooper book, I wanted more and more. I could barely understand at the time about what was so amazing about his prose, why was I addicted to these books, and how he could manage this mesmerizing effect with the spare economy of his sentences?

In his interview w/ The Paris Review, Dennis Cooper talks about the influence of French filmmaker Robert Bresson in his fiction. Noting that Bresson often used non trained actors in his films, and noting the effect of the audience almost internalizing what emotions the actors on screen were unable to portray despite trying to portray, especially during scenes of high tension, was a method in filmmaking that made the details remarkably present tense. Cooper applies this thinking and methodology when writing his novels, where his characters are amateurs, non characters, ill equipped in some way to handle the situation of the world they're in, and it causes the reader to bridge the gap swim in the language and find the heart of the matter.

Instead of approaching the novel in a conventional way, like Bresson, Cooper takes the formula and makes it bend to his will. The reader's attention, like the gaze of a camera, follows the lives of Cooper's beautiful rejects, often young men, his emotionally distant characters, all of whom are trying to connect with each other through scenes of absolute horror, twisted excess, and prey and predator kinds of despair. His characters don't belong in a novel, but the reader stays the course, eyelids as though forced open, and we see everything. We witness love and brutality. 

Cooper's books, or that of the George Myles cycle of five interconnected novels, are filled with great empathy, which is part of their cruel magic, due to the extreme subject matter of sex violence and abuse that span the cycle. Sentences are short, precise, and they can break glass despite being completely accessible, simple, spare, user friendly sentences. Reading the books was a visceral experience for me, and I remember feeling less lonely, less dazed, and wanting more to read.

In his novel Guide, Cooper has a character named Chris, who is a young porn star who wants to experience death from someone else's hands. It also has a character named Mason, who fantasizes hardcore sex about British pop bands, and a teenage runaway named Sniffles, who grows more and more detached with life, but is always filled with the deep need for love, and self-destructs. But the most powerful device in the novel is Guide's narrator, someone named Dennis Cooper, and he claims to the reader as the story progresses, that he is indeed the author of this terrifying novel. He is a presence in the novel and has a hand in everything, every little thing, every evil deed and detail. 

Guide is a novel about the thought process, and the fiction is an illustration of the thought process. Because the narrator is also named Dennis Cooper, making him inherently unreliable, the reader is always having to ask the question, Is this real? Those pauses, or brief moments of confusion, elevate the horror, as the reader is left even more jarred and forever curious. There is a war between nonfiction and fiction, and then the war between those two of truth and lies, and then between fantasy and whatever collective reality would be. There are parts of fiction, polluted with nonfiction, and the language has, what Cooper says, "a trippy reasonableness, everything is reasonable, everything is slightly askew and unreal."

Working paycheck to paycheck at a movie theater, I read Dennis Cooper and often thought, I love this shit. I love how far he takes it, and how much he loves his characters.

Joy Williams, while quoting Nadine Gordimer, says that, fiction, good fiction, burns a hole into the page. As far as she was concerned, that hole was "whole." A total experience. Something that speaks from the ether. Not a trick, not a twist, not flowers, not kitsch. But a cold voice from the ether, a voice that knows you.

A total experience that can be only measured in the eye of the beholder, not like beauty, but much more like measuring obscenity in the obscenity test. Obscenity being I know when I see it. Joy Williams is not a horror writer, but her novels have hallowed me out, and I realize that devastation is a total experience, a narrative whole.  

I consider Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams a perfect novel, and I modeled my first novel after its structure. It is about deeply disturbed lovers who are drifters, named Willie and Liberty, in their strange odyssey toward many kinds of doom and dreadful encounters, and the novel explores the sad distance between the lovers as they break into people's summer homes with their dog Clementine. 

"I have never known how to write a novel," says Joy Williams, in an interview w/ Michael Silverblatt in 1991. Publisher's Weekly panned Breaking and Entering, saying the plot is as disconnected as its protagonists, that the plot leads to nowhere. After reading the review, I realized why this was a perfect novel for me.

"I don't know how to write a novel," says Dennis Cooper in an interview in 1997. "I use narrative to make my ends."

BLAKE BUTLER Do you put yourself in your characters’ feelings, are they tools, or both? Some of the stories specifically explore the role of the detective as being mostly useless beyond his ability to ask critical questions, while other less objectively described characters’ emotions are formed in the very act of trying to find an answer. The area between those two extremes here is so rich.

BRIAN EVENSON Yeah, there is an investigation of the nature of character that goes on in the book too. On the one hand, you think of characters as a kind of noise or words on a page. You know, a collection of bits of language that cause a particular effect. On the other hand, we tend to respond to characters as if they’re living, breathing things. Certainly I do; I feel very attached to some of my and others’ characters, like I could have a coffee with them. So there are moments where characters are fairly empty vessels; they’re serving a function within the story. And there are other moments in which they refuse to play that role, they insist on acting human, and they become uncomfortably close. The book as a whole is playing around with the degree to which fiction is something that’s mimetic and producing a reality and the degree to which fiction is something intensive that’s having an effect and making the reader experience something.

-Brian Evenson in BOMB Magazine, 2012

Perception is a form of construction. The brain will try to make things cohere in ways they really don't. Deeply interested in fiction that unsettles, Brian Evenson's language may range from very spare and stark, to dense and rich. In his novel, The Open Curtain, Evenson creates three sections that form a terrifying whole. The novel is about a teenager named Rudd, who when investigating his father’s death, a supposed suicide, discovers a mysterious half-brother and a dark secret to his Mormon church. Like Cooper, Evenson lets the story run at its own pace in the reader’s mind, providing only portions of the whole, in glimpses and alternate realities, their juxtaposition one after another creating its own final reveal and spell. Evenson often with recursive imagery and sometimes repeats whole passages purposely, knowing the reader will experience the echo, to show how a character is losing his mind, his place and time. 

When I think of Brian Evenson's fiction, I think of Leatherface in the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the scene where Leatherface pulls and drags a screaming victim back into danger and shuts the steel door closed to the viewer. The horror we imagine as we watch the quiet steel door is terrifying. It's far worse to imagine than watch.

In an interview w/ David Naimon, Evenson talks of writing as experimenting, as a way of putting pressures about notions of the self, interested in seeing what happens to readers and characters as certain thing occur on the page. He writes books that continue to work on readers, haunting, dark matters, that continue to have an effect even after the book is finished, raising questions that never get answered.

"I am sure that we can never be really sure about anything," says Brian Evenson. "There is so much about the imagination -- your imagination is going to create situations for you that are just much more disturbing than anything I can do on the page. I often see writing as a kind of catalyst that's there to kind of get your imagination working, get your mind working, and lead you to a place that's very particularly your own."










08.8.2016 Fanzine published my piece 'Pockets Full of Cake: Damian Lillard & Feeling Snubbed

09.20.2016 Frances Chiem killed it at the Salon of Shame #69 at the Theatre Off Jackson. She read from a piece from her high school journal about her LARPing days. It was so dope and funny and the crowd loved it. Right before the show, I had to take an emergency phone call and I walked my co-worker through a stressful, small scale disaster. At the end of it, I realized I enjoy pacing back and forth on the sidewalks in public. I am not shy about disasters, not shy about small fires. I felt a little deranged before feeling good again, and entering the venue, I looked for Frances in the deep crowd and felt better a hundred fold. Frances, sitting with friends, was already looking at me, and smiling.

09.24.2016 I ran 2 miles this morning and decided to do this first blog post. Tonight Frances and I will be having dinner w/ Sonora Jha, and tomorrow, I am going to prepare for my panel next week at UW Bothell for the Fall 2016 Convergence Conference. Brian Evenson will be part of my panel and I am nervous and stoked af. as fuck.

required reading & viewing: