An elegy for a friend, lover, and muse that resists conventions of storytelling and expands the possibilities of the novel form with daring and vulnerability.
With his five-part George Miles cycle—beginning with Closer (1989)—Cooper made his name as a Sadean enfant terrible, never shying away from depicting graphic scenes of sex and violence while capturing readers with hypnotic narrative authority. This group of novels, we learn in the opening pages of his latest, was not only an homage to his beloved friend—whose suicide at 30 the writer did not learn about until a decade later—but his only way of articulating a pain “that talking openly can’t handle.” Less narrative than prismatic, this book explores imagined landscapes, George’s childhood, and the depths of Cooper's own psyche to ask: How does the artist alchemize his grief into a work that is legible and worthy of attention? In the first major section, a narrator explores George’s traumatic upbringing by a sexually abusive father and his mental health as he transitions into adulthood while living with untreated bipolar disorder. Here, Cooper refers to himself in the third person, too, as if to examine the conditions for George’s suicide through an objective eye. Other sections examine George and the author’s relationship to him by way of wry humor and playful storytelling. In one section, a secular Santa Claus—described as “a kind of genius, [who] needs to love someone who’s very complicated"—chooses George as his favorite yet agonizes over what kind of gift to offer him. Another section bends and twists the fairy-tale form to depict a fictional encounter between George and artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater. Though the book’s emotional register can seem, at times, to be stuck in a rut of despair, its fragmentary structure allows for a range of emotional valences, ranging between grief and celebration, anger and love. Cooper’s urgency to relate his friend’s story is felt in every word, image, and narrative move; even the most oddball structural decisions possess tremendous power.
Spare but powerfully wrought, this is a book that pushes the novel’s capacity to capture grief, love, and truth.