The Guild of Saint Cooper
by Shya Scanlon
Dzanc Books; 350 p.
As an alternative teenager in 1990 I was friends with many people obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I could see that it was cool, but I found it baffling, not in the right way. The Kyle MacLachlan character in his dark suit was handsome, strange, an outsider, and vibrating with something that looked romantically like misery—and the actor had been Paul Atreides in Dune, my God, my forever-love—but he was a hokey FBI agent? I couldn’t get it.
If 20 years have given me any insight into a series I still haven’t really watched, I realize now that discomfort was the point. Twin Peaks’ pleasurable narcotic anxiety comes in the distance between its two peaks, from how each character is an archetype and its opposite.
The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon, a novel coming out in May from Dzanc Books, is an homage of a sorts to Twin Peaks and MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. Scanlon’s hero is a struggling writer named Blake, who pursues a mysterious Dale Cooper through a post-apocalyptic Seattle and across various meta-fictional hijinks. Dzanc is a small imprint known for cultural insider-ness, and this is a manhood tale for the type of reader who knows he’s chasing archetypes, necessarily ephemeral, fictional, hey, based on a surrealist TV show, fuck it, it’s what we’ve got.
When the story starts our hero Blake is living with his mother in a Seattle that has been evacuated for a happening-any-minute global-warming catastrophe (melting polar ice cap, tsunami) and left to the survivalists, cult members, bicycle-pot-dealers and other people who won’t leave. At first there’s kind of a pleasant summer-in-a-college-town vibe. Blake has stayed—actually he’s come deliberately from elsewhere—because his mother lives there and she’s dying of breast cancer. But he’s also slacking, avoiding writing a follow-up to a first novel and has been abandoned by his wife.
Scanlon’s prose is wonderful and very funny. An emergency radio crackles “like a dog eating bones,” a pretty girl’s shirtsleeves fall back “to reveal pure white arms like lines of cocaine.”
Men other than Blake—his younger brother, a survivalist neighbor, a man building a bathysphere to protect his wife and child during the upcoming flood, are grappling with the situation. Of himself, Blake says that “neglect was a lifestyle decision.” The action opens with him stealing a TV from a neighbor’s abandoned house instead of doing anything useful.
I found this flawed character engaging because he cares what kind of man he is. Most of the book’s riffs and variations seem to ask, on one level or another, What am I doing in this emergency and what does it say about me?, a question that can be extrapolated to all of life. Blake’s answer is nothing, or storytelling, or having, as he once puts it, a “deep faith in symbols.”
Scanlon has published a book of poetry as well as other novels, and he uses resonance like a poet. Most of the book’s ideas come out in riffs and juxtapositions, which are both messy and thought-provoking. For example, in one scene Blake and his brother are trying to install a broken sculpture sent by their absent father, who most likely seems to have abandoned them. Kent, the competent brother (banker, kids, survivalist mojo), has poured cement and Blake says,
“…without him, I would never think to use cement. Intellectually, I recognized that it was doubtless a simple task, and the bag indeed bore clear instructions for its use. But there was something remarkable about my brother’s seemingly native expectation that such instructions would be perfectly suitable, would fill the gap between experience and effort. I had no such faith.”
A few sentences later Kent asks,
“‘Blake, are you going to help or just stand there?'”
Blake can’t take on the man-of-action ethos, which requires you to grab tools and do home improvement projects with confidence. But, broken sculptures are one of the book’s beautiful echos, and they join many broken things, from Kandinsky paintings to disassembled clocks as metaphors for the book itself. And Blake, we know, is a writer of books. So which brother is the more successful inheritor of the father’s gift, the one who can pour concrete or the one who is making a sculpture?
It doesn’t matter, Blake is disappointed in himself, and in a conflicted, half-assed way wants more from himself, and the increasingly broken narrative rises to the challenge. The book is divided into five sections, with chapters labeled Day 1 through Day 38, and there are enough structural innovations as we move through skewed versions of Blake’s adventures that I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more about the plot. I was not ultimately sure how it all tied up or if it perfectly did so.
The post-apocalyptic and metafictional elements slowed me down as a reader, which might go back to the fact that I am not a Twin Peaks fan and have limited patience—and specific tastes—when it comes to the surreal. But still I was seduced by the prose and the puzzles. The book needs to be read forwards and backwards, several times, underlining symbol groups from birds to aliens to underage girls in order to get the drift. Do it that way and Dale Cooper, manly man, FBI agent, fake, lover of New Ageism, trafficker in symbols, becomes more and more interesting as the focus of a manhood-quest, especially as his existence becomes more questionable and theoretical.
Here’s another riff: Our hero Blake’s absent wife is also named Blake, a really nice post-gender twist that creates an equivalency between two human beings and allows Blake to compare himself as well to the women in the book. How do his actions stack up to the coping skills of his mother and wife? And he’s not emasculated by them, either, always a sexist trope; it’s a sincere comparison. In this leveled world “manhood” itself is questionable, theoretical, and surreal. Sort of like Dale Cooper. Pretty brilliant, no?