Zac’s Control Panel by Dennis Cooper
Kiddiepunk (download or view online)
In September, Dennis Cooper released his newest novel, and second composed entirely of gifs. The first, Zac’s Haunted House, was put out by Kiddiepunk this past spring. Some people got it, some people didn’t. There were features and interviews, but I don’t think there were any actual book reviews written, which isn’t entirely shocking considering writing a book review about a gif novel certainly presents difficulties.
But to me, it felt like a disservice. If we are to view Cooper’s artfully crafted and articulate arrangement of gifs as a novel, which we should, that novel deserves a review as justly as any other book that comes out, especially one by a writer as accomplished as Cooper.
Before I started working on this review, I thought about the logic behind why it was not only necessary, but also important to review a book like Zac’s Control Panel and came up with some line of logic not unlike the following: if gifs are considered to be a form of communication, they can be called language; if they can be called language than it can be argued that an arrangement of gifs can be considered a novel (just as an arrangement of language can be called a novel) and, therefore, should be reviewable. In fact, Zac’s Control Panel seems firmly rooted in a lineage of avant-garde art and writing that plays with the appropriation of found materials and can be traced to Dada and the likes Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-up method or even be tied to the cinema collage of Stan Brackhage and Martha Colburn.
From the start, I decided to read each of the eight parts straight through and trust instinct and impulse, resisting the urge to scroll back up and “reread” certain portions until I had made it through once. I felt this would be worthwhile because it would force me to record my more immediate and less processed thoughts. Then, by returning to particular parts that were intriguing or puzzling or caught my eye, I could think more fully about meaning in the broader context of other gifs and overall tone, etc. I don’t know this was valid or necessary but I do know that it was a helpful and reasonable roadmap to a novel reading experience that was undeniably unique.
Part one is composed of four flash fictions and begins with what would be a rare appearance of text, telling the reader “it’s all just in my mind” and “trapped in my own fucking mind,” before ending with the far more sinister, “welcome to reality. It fucking sucks” which acted as an excellent and early reminder that yes, this is a novel and yes, these are meaningfully arranged blocks of text manipulated by an expert puppet master and yes, reality does fucking suck when compared to the limitless possibilities of our mind (even if we are, in fact, trapped there). These sentiments also placed Zac’s Control Panel firmly in line with much of Cooper’s work, which is often fascinated with the juxtaposition between what lies in our mind and the reality of our daily lives.
Part two, entitled “34 Gusts,” produces images that are beautiful, wistful, romantic and serene and, for a few moments, I cannot believe I am reading a Dennis Cooper novel. Images of wind blowing through grass and through wheat, romantically tussling women’s hair all produced incredible emotions that forced me to look outside my window and examine the change of seasons and frequent and heavy gusts of Midwestern wind that command and toss the newly brittle and darkened leaves like part of some master plan I know doesn’t exist.
While reading this section, I found myself almost vulnerable for a moment, but quickly an image of a noose produces itself, causing the tone of this section to shift dramatically. Suddenly, the gusts of wind begin manifesting themselves in increasingly more sinister and threatening ways; someone grasps at a noose but it is first person, so it is us that grasps the noose tied to the edge of a bridge looking over a beautiful brook. We place our head in and jump to our inevitable end when, suddenly, we are flying through the clouds at enormous speeds. We jet through the sky and then, emerging from darkness, are greeted chaotically by demon angels. It’s a harrowing and frighteningly intimate glimpse at an interpretation of death that is, for Cooper and a novel of gifs, tremendously straightforward and incredibly satisfying.
Cooper frequently builds a groove, or rhythm, in which his reader can begin to relax or contemplate a narrative of some kind before blowing it up entirely and changing pace. Later, in part four, we find ourselves bathed in pastoral imagery, shown gardens and lush fields before, almost surgically, Cooper cuts in to images of a sheep exploding and we are suddenly on to another trip.
During the second half of the novel, we get an influx of what have become familiar images, surging water (not stagnant) flowing blood (also not stagnant), crowds and performers at metal shows. All seeming to indicate a purging, not just because we see movement in gifs, but because Cooper is capitalizing on this movement to communicate something; the water flowing, or blood pouring, or guitar dudes head banging or stage diving all evoking a purging, a release.
Later, we also see another beautifully narrative sequence of a rope being shuffled/a bike tire spinning/someone crossing a ladder that acts as a bridge while mountain climbing/a first person point of view speeding down train tracks/leading to another first person account of walking off a cliff. The fact that this has no emotional resonance when transcribed to the page while being one of the most moving passages read in Zac’s Control Panel speaks to the unique and valid nature of using gifs as creative expression. This sequence accomplished that perfectly amazing and inarticulate something that only certain pieces of art are capable of. It was that moment that I knew I could never explain or pin down why I was moved or felt something, but knew I did. In an interview with Joyelle McSweeney at Fanzine some months back, McSweeney commented on how Cooper’s first gif novel was more moving than she had anticipated, and I suppose I am echoing that sentiment about his newest.
While reading, I often found one way to desensitize myself to the violence was to fixate on one gif for more than a few seconds. By removing the gif from context and watching it repeat over and over, I could detach the violence from the action, if even for a second. This worked all but two times where multiple viewings only made the gif more disturbing. The first was a gif of a man blowing his own face off and the other was a man hurling himself onto subway tracks in front of an oncoming train.
This caused me to think about something Cooper stated in an interview recently about how the people who generally make violent, documentary-style gifs edit out the consequences of real accidents and turn the “accident victims into acrobats” which, to him, doesn’t soften the blow (as it might for many of us) but contrarily, is presentable as a constant reminder of the unseen consequence. I reflect on that and think perhaps these two gifs are most frightening to me because the consequences are so visceral and present; we see the man’s head in pieces after he pulls the trigger, we see the blood on the screen after the subway jumper gets crushed by the train. Zac’s Control Panel is comprised of these sorts of consequences; it reminds me that sometimes we cannot explain or articulate what moves us, but that we are moved is simply enough it its own beautiful, fulfilling experience.