Zac Descending: the Attractions of Dennis Cooper

On Sadean Texts and the Literature of Accumulation

The novel is morbid by design: its word-people held in place so that a reader may return upon their every triumph and misfortune. Even so, Zac’s Freight Elevator, the latest visual novel from Dennis Cooper, is a special occasion to sequester oneself and to read aversively, in pained auto-oblivion, to the awful finish. Like the 2015 prequel, Zac’s Haunted House, the novel is assembled from hundreds of collected gifs, arranged suggestively in descending columns and chapters. Reading here is more falling than turning, like a Choose Your Own Adventure without options. In spite of its unremitting intensity, perhaps Cooper has never been so playful.

Few writers elicit as much squeamishness as Dennis Cooper, whose name seldom appears without distancing epithets like “infamous” or “controversial”; a gesture duplicated here only to note that such judgments are second-hand and contentless, a common response to a presumed-common response, making a citation of another’s offense. In Cooper’s pornographic novels, gayness is de facto and unnamed, and never treated as a social difficulty in itself. Furthermore, he makes no apologies for the sadistic killers and fatedly vacant youth who people the pages, nor does he pathologize them. In this sense, Cooper’s works are hopeless, but utopian. This relative autonomy is more likely to upset would-be censors than any explicit content per se. Then another self-protective reaction to Cooper’s writing is the critical appeal to a canon of literary transgressors who have been gradually assimilated to contemporary taste; and Cooper’s writing may be collated across time with that of Genet, Bataille, Burroughs, Acker, and of course, preconfiguring and in many ways exceeding all of the above in extremity, D.A.F. Sade. Cooper himself identifies a youthful phase of his own process with the Marquis in a bracingly plainspoken poem:

When I started writing
I was a sick teenaged
fuck inside who partly
thought I was the new
Marquis de Sade, a body
ready to communicate
with Satan …

Sade’s licentiousness may have been impetus for a young Cooper to receive Satan into his prose, but it is ad hominem non-criticism to call any work sadistic, which denotes a disposition or worse, a disorder. Rather, properly Sadean literatures would encompass fantasies of mechanical insistence and quantitative obsession, unrestricted by any standard of propriety whatsoever. As Leora Lev notes, “Cooper’s writing styles and novelistic architectonics are more polychromatic and inventive than the aristocratic libertine’s clear but notoriously wooden style and monotonous structures of orgy-disquisition-orgy.” An angst suffuses Cooper’s work that is absent of Sade’s repetitious world.

Both Sade and Cooper revel in the sovereignty of writing, which allows for infinite torturous and permutatory designs upon the captors of the novel. But Cooper not only eschews written language in his gif novels, he makes a great deal of the most unsovereign provenance of his found characters. Where accumulation and repetition are concerned, as formal means as well as themes, Zac’s Freight Elevator may be Cooper’s least sadistic, and most Sadean, novel yet.

There are certain stylistic hallmarks of a text that may be called Sadean, a postulated genre to which Cooper does and does not relate, in spite of how frequently both he and Sade are introduced as gallerists of the macabre. To this end, rather than start from any shocking content in particular, it seems fit to begin with an account of the book-as-compilation, and arrive upon the horror show of Zac’s Freight Elevator with some formal precedents in mind.


A few preliminaries are in order when examining a book that isn’t one, let alone a book which almost wasn’t. So it’s difficult to write about Zac’s Freight Elevator without alluding to the circumstances of its near-destruction and subsequent recovery. The life of this work was endangered last year when Google summarily deleted Cooper’s email account and blog. Cooper’s email is nobody’s business, for which reason its deletion is everyone’s concern. His blog, on the other hand, is a longstanding repository of queer, transgressive, and non-denominationally outré writing and criticism, perhaps one of the earliest examples of a serious engagement with the platform. Google’s reasons went unstated for weeks, during which bewildering interval petitions attracted the attention of high-profile supporters like PEN America. Finally, months later and with little ceremony, the contents of both blog and email were restored, including the material comprising Zac’s Freight Elevator, then in-progress.

Perhaps Google’s attempted destruction of Cooper’s work augurs a new era of censorship, one in which state suppression is less a threat than the whims of private corporations who monopolize social expression. Zac’s Freight Elevator would be a fitting riposte to this regime: sculpted from images in general circulation, it could hardly be more filthy or upsetting than the miasmal mass-kink of the web that spawned it. This collective inculpation is lost on Google, however, who ultimately have the ability to confiscate whatever content they wish.

We could start, then, with the agency of the archive. It was a complaint about an image, Google claims, that caused Cooper’s blog to be shut down in the first place. This is worth considering, for there is a hermetism to written language and the discrete book that resists the opprobrium of the conservative non-(or anti-)reader. The labyrinthine prose of The Marbled Swarm, Cooper’s last print novel, is defense enough against sensitive eyes. But the image is contaminating, instantaneous, accessible. Questions of legality open onto considerations of legibility. And Dennis Cooper’s gif novels don’t so much pose a problem to legibility as they open up this category to consideration; a consideration in which consists a kind of reading. Page over page, one is made complicit in the reproduction. Reading is an act of seeing that presumes interest; morbid, again, but then measured to taste.

Cooper’s work may pose and reply to the question, “What can a novel do?” Zac’s Haunted House and Zac’s Freight Elevator in particular appear to provoke and extend this storied form. But is the branding merely suggestive? What kind of a novel is this?

There are certain familiar traits. Cooper’s visual novels are serialized and accumulative works, with recurrent characters and themes. Key characteristics of page literature are retained: Cooper thinks in paragraphs if not frames, and his selections of gifs are partitioned so as to preserve this suspenseful organization. The separate components work at cross-rhythms to one another, and the effect is nothing short of poetic conjuncture. Here ease of reading is a test of writing; and, as usual, ease is deceiving. Pain begins in pleasure, and confusion in the threat of comprehension.

Writing Reading Writing

In 2014, artist Xu Bing, intending the first universally legible text, produced Book From the Ground, a novel comprised entirely of pictograms. The result may travel less well than Bing advertises, for some training is required to take emotional cues from so many typographic elements and emojis; obscenely regularized placeholders of facial plasticity. To boot, the total rebus of Bing’s text documents one day in the life of a white-collar worker; a quotidian sequentiality that lends itself to a directory of emotional traffic signs.

Similarly, Cooper’s gif novels seize upon the expressive purposes of found images in order to elaborate upon them laterally, or vertically. But Bing’s workaday realism is all fixated surface, whilst Cooper’s moving image exerts a different quality of fascination. As an ultra-condensed, often hyper-referential, quotation, gifs more or less work as transferrable punchlines, reducing any foregoing text or conversation to a familiar joke. As nodal points of online discourse, the poignancy, hilarity, and recombinable conversancy can’t be overstated. But much as Cooper’s cult novels evoke the blackhole of sinister vacuousness belying counterculture, his gif works appear to seize upon the repetition compulsion implicit in this traffic of images, and by so many cuts and combinations, create a magically stalling tableau. Writing here is collecting and cross-referencing, a suitably obsessive and secluded pastime.

Because Cooper does not have a set stable of actors to work with, the recurrent characters are shapes, patterns, gestures, colors. Human cameos, interchangeably anime and flesh, are distant echoes of a type; so many hysterical auditions for the part of Expendable Boy. Like any melodrama, Zac’s Freight Elevator relies upon strong leitmotifs. Several moods predominate. Symbols recur in a kind of sight-rhyme, an x followed by a y followed by a z: a hand squeezes a lemon and rain falls acidly. These associative chains appear to follow a kind of dream logic, re-tracing the letter of an obsession. A subject trains upon concatenations such as these, as Freud demonstrates in “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis”:

Many months later, in quite another connection, the patient remarked that the opening and shutting of the butterfly’s wings while it was settled on the flower had given him an uncanny feeling. It had looked, so he said, like a woman opening her legs, and the legs then made the shape of a Roman V, which, as we know, was the hour at which, in his boyhood, and even up to the time of the treatment, he used to fall into a depressed state of mind.

Any such susceptibility to recurrence is already readerly. Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of narrative prose follows Veselovsky, who defines the simplest unit of narrative in formalistic, and then imagistic, terms, as a repeatable motif. According to Shklovsky, however, the acculturated reader is automatized: “prepackaged” word-objects are “grasped spatially in the blink of an eye,” for the sake of expediency if not pleasure. The calling of art, Shklovsky then famously posits, is to de-automatize consciousness by elongating perception.

Shklovsky focuses on methods of “deceleration” that work against the narrative current, a tension that affirms the inexorable directionality of the text. These are poetic tricks; sonic or thematic correspondences, rhythmical parallelism and tautology. The sight-rhyme binding Cooper’s text spans these two stalling methods. By Shklovsky’s account, prose style disappears without impediment: and Cooper’s visual prose is truly intransigent, that one may return upon each image, and each image itself may return; picturesque eddies at cross-rhythms to a narrative stream. Morbid continuity notwithstanding, each page (or grouping of images) rewards attention, as the gifs are of uneven length and undergo constant realignment over the course of sustained viewing. Eventually the images appear to click in a moment of near-mechanical synchronization, but this too has the feeling of readerly serendipity more than laborious design.

With this rhythmical synchronicity in mind, we could move from literary to cinematic formalism, as Zac occupies a space between the two, and consider Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of “the attraction:

An attraction… is any aggressive aspect of the theatre; that is, any element of the theatre that subjects the spectator to a sensual or psychological impact, experimentally regulated and mathematically calculated to produce in him certain emotional shocks which, when placed in their proper sequence within the totality of the production, become the only means that enable the spectator to perceive the ideological side of what is being demonstrated – the ultimate ideological conclusion.

One could enumerate the attractions of Zac’s Freight Elevator to critical ends, much as Eisenstein condenses the action of The Wiseman into twenty-five exhibits, so that a metaphorical system is revealed. Of special interest here, however, is Eisenstein’s description of the “lines of action” connecting segments, and his method: “free montage of arbitrarily selected independent (also outside of the given composition and the plot links of the characters) effects (attractions) but with a view to establishing a certain final thematic effect-montage of attractions.”

Still more amenable to Cooper’s horror novels, Eisenstein’s handiest examples of “attractions” are the gory vignettes of the Grand Guignol. And while Cooper’s text is too frightful to be formalized, the succession of images is regulated so that the seams blur and a plot, or ideology, suggests itself.

“What Happened Next”

The overture consists in line drawings and abstract forms, less vignettes than static mandalas – musica universalis, closed loops emblematic of a world at peace. An animated line drawing of a boy with tousled hair looks blankly up at the reader. “oh hi,” the first words in the novel, scroll by in italics beneath his acknowledgement of our, or someone’s, presence. Perhaps his under-elaborated beauty and reticence is the first sign that we are in a Dennis Cooper novel – a world in which beauty and fragility foreshadow sadness and death. The archetype ought to be familiar: George Miles’ first appearance in Closer is sitting for a portrait: “Facial features appeared on the page as random shaky lines, fine as the hairs on a barbershop floor … John studied the portrait, then George’s face, then the portrait, and made the eyes look like caves. It looked more like an ad for some charity. He tried to erase the eyes. The paper tore.” Or compare lines from the opening chapter of The Marbled Swarm: “So taken was I with the drab atmospherics and festive details of this crosshatched-seeming boy that I was caught quite off guard when his morose eyes rose just far enough to spot the bulge he had occasioned in my slacks.”

Chapter two commences with a colorful explosion. Metal vocalists and hurtling meteors recur, played against each other for relief, as assured extinction renders the millenarian subculture bathetic. An occult causality conveys the gifs to sequence: one thing makes another happen, elsewhere. Pairings of halved faces advance like a flipbook, eyes fixed on a common disaster. All sad boys’ eyes are skyward, penitently: “SOMETIMES I WANT TO DISAPPEAR,” one specimen thinks, but the end times make suicidal ideation oddly less viable. And finally, a songbird, lighted on an American Ararat, perhaps, prays for the reader: “I HOPE YOU FIND A WAY TO BE YOURSELF SOME DAY IN WEAKNESS OR IN STRENGTH.” After the foregoing bloodbath, these platitudes are eerily moving.

The next sequence opens under a blood red moon upon the wages of survival. This median is the juiciest part of apocalyptic fiction, and the cause for which the seemingly climactic disaster should come so soon. Pillared gifs depict the debauch of subsistence which ensues, and when the final image announces that this is the end, the reader, without skipping ahead, knows this to be wishful thinking. True to this false promise, what follows is the most rhythmically incessant section yet: head-banging, foot-stomping, type-pounding, waves-crashing, fist-bumping, drum-beating, blood-spraying, car-crashing images collide the onlooker’s eyes with mechanical insistence. Here the focus of the violence has changed; no longer visited indifferently upon a populace from on high, it is lateral, interpersonal, aimless and frustrated.

The epilogue is a literal descent: gifs are arranged in a solid black column down the center of the page, the eponymous elevator shaft perhaps. A vacant-looking blond boy, fleshly counterpart to the sketch from chapter one, blinks his eyes in disbelief. Like Devon Sawa in the live action Casper movie, he is come of age, only too late. The moments of symmetry between chapters one and six are striking; blossoming flowers, line drawings of hands, and other modest signs of beauty recur; quotations from a simpler time. “The connecting moments, when there is no direct transition, are used as legato elements and interpreted as the varying arrangement of apparatuses …” Then the Lynchian trope of the Singer, both Orpheus and Virgil of our journey, thanks us for coming “and, uh… shit,” we’re out. The penultimate image is a stroboscopic slide, the mechanism of the novel’s constituent parts reduced to a binary assault on the senses, and then black.

“The Book Is Mortal”

Cooper’s visual work appears implicitly to understand and respond to the slasher film, a micro-genre of American formalism, plot points reduced such that happenstance is indiscernible from fate; much as the film consists in retrospect as several indelible scenes of stylized violence. Everything hangs on the anticipation and recollection of such scenes: the rest is a time capsule of teenage fashion and vernacular.

Filmic then, if not a film: if Zac’s Freight Elevator is the least overtly homoerotic of Cooper’s works, it would be the easiest to masturbate with. Pornographic, more specifically Sadean, tendencies of Cooper’s work appear built into the gif itself: a fantasy of infinitely repeatable, perfectible, death; of willful murder with indefinitely forestalled consequences; of meaningless acquiescence. Every discrete gif remains in its place, repeating indefinitely, even as one scrolls past the paragraph to which it belongs. And the same may be said of any sentence of a literary work. Says Shklovsky, “it is easy to see that, in addition to a progressive development, there exists in a story also a structure analogous to a ring or, rather, a loop …”

A surprising affinity may be observed with Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, a book boasting fifty-odd stalling prologues in order to stave off the painful separation that is implicit in every beginning. The author’s naive question is, how is eternal love possible when everyone must experience death? Fernandez affirms belief in an “eternity of Personal memory, individual memory, of all that once made up someone,” the transcendental guarantor of which is not the author-function but the reader. So the novel, for which one may imagine an infinity of possible readers, is a sentimental technology by which to immortalize the fleeting moment of the beloved. Fernandez mocks the credulity of readers who suppose that characters have contrasting lifespans allocated them; rather, he says, “as people of fantasy, the characters all die together at the end of the story.”

There is an unexpected correspondence between Fernandez’s description of the novel as an immortalizing technology and Zac’s Freight Elevator, comprised of so many repetitious vignettes depicting global cataclysm and its frantic aftermath. Not only does each discrete interval of distress continue to repeat in a seconds-long loop after one ‘turns the page,’ they continue indefinitely in concert, and it is only within the finite totality of the book that these macabre dioramas may attain to order, tempting closure. Further, I can’t imagine a more precise description of apocalypse than that we each die our miniature deaths, albeit together, at the end of the book. “The book itself is mortal.”

One might suggest that accusations of literary sadism have to do with the nervous policing of a boundary between reader and author, a hazy distinction which Cooper specifically repudiates. As noted, the completist prodding characteristic of Sade is absent of much of Cooper’s work, whose vivisectors are far less executive in their desires, often appearing lost, or even loving, themselves. Hapless contingency is the rule: there is no moral system structuring encounter. George Miles is not Sade’s Justine; though each remains immaculate over the course of their travails, there is a difference between pure passivity and improbable piety, let alone a would-be bottom and a wanting supplicant. In this sense, Zac’s Freight Elevator may be more properly masochistic.

Karmen MacKendrick ventures a comparison between sadism and masochism as literary styles rather than personal dispositions: “Sadism (in the sense of Sadeanism) is the wild repetition of reason, Masochism of imagination, each preoccupied with the death instinct as fragmentation and stillness.” Masoch’s aesthetic is visual, MacKendrick continues, in a description that closely corresponds to Cooper’s visual project: “The sequentiality of process and change, the movement of hearing, kinaesthesis, and to some extent touch, the developing and unfolding of words or acts in life or literature, interests him only insofar as it can be stopped. Masoch places the fetishistic elements of his images next to, not after, one another visually.”

Sadistic repetition is that of discursive reason, and recursively, its reasons; masochistic repetition is fixated upon the image. So, without ruling upon Cooper’s work as a whole, one could suggest that while certain novels, The Marbled Swarm in particular, are exquisitely Sadean in their linguistic performance of justifications, Zac’s Freight Elevator (and its prequel) may be considered as a masochistic counterpart to such florid abstraction. In ‘Coldness and Cruelty,’ Deleuze traces this distinction, as though to elucidate Cooper’s project:

Sensuality is movement. In order to convey the immediacy of this action of one soul against another, Sade chooses to rely on the quantitative techniques of accumulation and acceleration, mechanically grounded in a materialistic theory: reiteration and internal multiplication of the scenes, precipitation, overdetermination… The novels of Masoch display the most intense preoccupation with arrested movement; his scenes are frozen, as though photographed, stereotyped, or painted.

One could elaborate upon the relationship of the gif to the tableau vivant. In each case, a frame rules upon a relationship of figures. Each engages “the form or temporality of the fantasy” in its relative fixation. For the gif is self-enclosed, asynchronous. Flesh falls off a face: an eye opens and closes. A narrative breach spans each pole of this binarized, ‘fort-da’ mechanism. This simple oscillation contrasts with those gifs that appear to form a seamless loop – a rotary figure, a finger tapping ad infinitum – such that the image is eternalized in stasis. Masoch’s fetishism, as MacKendrick describes it, places visual elements next to, not after, one another; and Cooper elaborates an internal relationship of elements within a visual chain on similar principles. Zac’s best paragraphs enact a contemporized asynchrony, corresponding to the evocation by Deleuze of an image in which “all the elements (of a fantasy) are conjoined.”

Much like The Marbled Swarm, Zac’s Freight Elevator is a readerly mystery: one must reconstruct the dissipation of a central character into a maze-like and mega-structural dreamworld for oneself, the hidden chambers of the Swarm’s sprawling manor corresponding to the “floors” that Zac’s elevator doors open upon. Similarly, a masochistic thrill at convolution may inhere in the tension between a multi-tiered plot and the incessant linearity of its presentation. One may not turn the page, but one scrolls: which is the difference between inhabiting the imaginary strictures of a bound totality and the unfurling of a destination in the moment of arrival.

“End Timing”

The Sadean text may inculpate the reader in its reasons, identifying their attention with the desire of the author-vivisector. The masochistic text shows reason’s aftermath, an imagistic résumé for sensual consideration. In perusing Cooper’s work, one feels voyeuristic; as though partaking in a private fascination. The choreography, however, suggests that this compendium was always arranged with an onlooker in mind; placing the reader on the side of many a hapless Cooper character, having stumbled upon something implacably sordid and irreversibly upsetting. The masochistic requirement of excitation at the altar of an image, as distinct from the executive authorship of the Sadean book, poses a special kind of challenge to the archival regimes of Google and its governments. The algorithmically hierarchalized tiers of information comprising an online public are incessantly belied by the arcane criteria of a given user’s desire. As in Eisenstein’s montage, movement derives from an arrested totality.

This may be crucial to understanding Cooper’s style, which charts the decomposition of a narrative body in its finality. By the time of Period, the final novel in the George Miles cycle, the eponymous fatality is an urban legend, a posthumous celebrity memorialized online by admirers, who tend to his memory repetitiously. Says one webmaster: “The George Miles Zone is nondesigned, like a high school year book. It’s a square grid of thumbnails, showing ‘George’ in several outfits, locales, and emotional states. Scrolling down, there’s a link to my index-in-progress of characters, scenes, dialogue, and ideas…” George is lusted after as an index, and the living theatre of his memory, updated fantasy by fantasy, consists over the course of so many sensual “attractions,” as montage. The anthologist explains: “my fascination lies not in ‘George’’s myriad problems, per se, but in the novel’s tricky, ulterior form.” A formal requirement of this living index is the fixity in death of its adored subject. Likewise, Zac’s cataclysmic action seems to respond to the narrative requirement that teleologically, we the written are already dead. Then, given the millenarian mandate of our moment, the book is especially timely; for, rather than a survival guide, it is a compendium of ecstasies attendant on descent.

If Sade were to have his way, nobody would survive the book, nor would they die. To which indefinitely delayed end, Fernandez’s novel seems to coincide with Heaven as envisaged by the Talking Heads: “There is a party, everyone is there. Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.” Conversely, consider the soft sadism of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which depicts a dinner party that no one can leave, try as they might. Like Buñuel, like Sade, Cooper’s hospitality is total; no less so for that the event and the invitation are both in a book.

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