This article originally appeared on VICE.
There's been a lot of talk over the last decade or so about how the novel, a medium traditionally based on paper and ink, can remain relevant in an increasingly multimedia-driven landscape. Why would you want to read a book when you can Tumbl all day? the thinking goes. But for me, our slide into the digital abyss has only made me appreciate books more, made it more refreshing to disappear from the machines and enter a world of pure illusion and imagination.
In any case, literature's relationship to the internet is growing rapidly, and Dennis Cooper is on the forefront of those web-savvy authors defining the new landscape. From his earliest novels—including a sequence of five deceptively shape-shifting books called theGeorge Miles Cycle all the way up to his latest proper print release, an insanely textured labyrinth of mirage-like ideas titled The Marbled Swarm—Cooper's work promises to totally recontextualize the ground behind it, thereby revising the way we think.
That innovation is particularly evident in his latest release, Zac's Haunted House, a free digital novel composed entirely of animated GIFs. The novel appropriates an experience somewhere between carnival mirror labyrinth, deleted Disney snuff film, and a deep web comic strip by Satan, building out the idea that a book doesn't have to simply be sentences on paper, or even terribly concerned with language at all.
Cooper and I discussed via email his novel, the internet, and what the hell else might be next.
VICE: What gave you the idea of writing a novel using only animated GIFs?
Dennis Cooper: The GIF novel evolved from this thing I was doing on my blog where I would create these tall stacks of images—maybe 70 to 120 of them—that illustrated a particular theme or idea. I began introducing GIFs into the stacks, and then I became so interested in GIFs that I started making all-GIF stacks. That's when I started to notice all these really curious, unexpected things were happening in them and between them when they were combined.
So I started experimenting with that, trying to create really deliberate effects and to organize the accidental things that were happening. Finally, I got the idea to make fiction pieces out of them. That idea excited me, partly because, as much I love writing language-based novels, I've always wanted to submerge the story/characters/plot much deeper within the novels' structures than I've been able to. The closest I've gotten was with The Marbled Swarm where the immediate story and characters are just templates of and secret entrances to this whole substructural world existing inside the novel. But they were still there, hogging the novel's top level.
With a GIF novel, I could see the possibility of those things being built on the bottom, and that the structure and style and trickery in which they were imbedded could be the dominant aspect.
It's kind of strange how distinctly 'readable' the chain of GIFs in the novel is, despite being all image-based. How did you begin to construct the feel of a story underlying the organization of those stacks?
I think the animated GIF is a super rich thing, mostly unintentionally? For the novel, I thought of them as these crazy visual sentences. But unlike text sentences, they do all the imaginative work for you. They render you really passive. They just juggle with your eyesight, and you're basically left battling their aggressive, looped, fireworks-level dumb, hypnotizing effects to see the images and the mini-stories/actions they contextualize. I think, ultimately, they're mostly rhythms, or they reduce their imagery and activity, etc. to illustrative components of these really strict rhythmic patterns that turn the eye into an ear in a way.
My idea is that if you make a novel out of them, the visuals in the individual GIFs can serve double duty in the same way that the instrumentation and vocals in music samples do. They become just the texture of the loop's rhythm, and that somehow seems to isolate the GIFs' content from their source material. When you combine and juxtapose the stacks, if you do it carefully, you can break or disrupt their individual rhythms in a way that makes their imagery either rise to the surface or become abstractions. Basically, you can then use their content and appearance as sets and actors and cinematography in a fiction. They can hold their references, if you organize them to do so, and you can use those associations to create short cuts to some idea or emotion you want to get across, or they can become quite malleable and daydream-like, or you can empty them until they're just motions that are as neutral as a text.
The really exciting thing for me is that the narratives can be as unrealistic or abstract or senseless or trivial or abject or unreadable as you want, and they will always remain inherently pleasurable.
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