This Novel Is Made Entirely of Terrifying GIFs
By Blake Butler
February 11, 2015
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.
You are a super intense mapper and organizer with your novels, so I was constantly looking for keys to the system, things that linked the project throughout. Is the inspiration of these thru-ways all gut, or gut at first and then figuring the gut out and building outward? Or something else entirely?
It started with a series of motifs or even of things I wanted to use. For instance, I initially wanted there to be a through-line involving earth moving equipment. So I just set off in search of related GIFs. Basically, I just did what I think you can only do—use keywords plus the words “animated GIF” in a general Google image search, and also on Giphy, Tumblr, etc. And then I would add in adjectives to try to get into the less public recesses where GIFs reside. There weren’t very many interesting earth moving equipment GIFs, but I found other motifs in the garbage that ended up contextualized in that category, and those were useful and ended up mutating the original motif. It’s not really very different than the way I write text novels because I always construct dense subsystems in my novels involving motifs and images that work together via what I call “internal rhyming” of different sorts. The main difference formally is just that you’re limited by online resources with a GIF novel rather than being limited by your imagination when it’s text.
Long story short, making the novel involved a weird and excitingly difficult combination of working in an extremely planned out way and also kind of in an extremely intuitive way too. Sometimes gut came first, sometimes it was the opposite, and often it was simultaneous. This form is really new to me, so talking about it feels quite raw.
People seem to comment on the gruesome aspects of your work, and yet your sense of humor has always struck me as so important to the voice. What are your thoughts on humor in your work, particularly in Haunted House?
I’ve always used comedy in my books. Early on, especially in the George Miles Cycle novels, I deployed it judiciously, and it was always in service to some idea I had or another effect I wanted that I thought was more important. I used it mostly as a way to sneak up on the reader or to distract the reader vis-à-vis some impending thing that I knew would be startling and probably off-putting. So, I would think of comedy as a kind dressing and as a sleight-of-hand-like device.
In Zac’s Haunted House, I was coming to a medium—the animated GIF—that was largely comedic from the outset. So it was different than my written works because that costuming was already there, and, rather than figuring out how to generate humor at the right temperature and tone, it was more a matter of working as complexly as I could to generate content and emotion and tone and stuff within that preset. Even with the more horrific sequences, visually depicted horror is so tied to generating nervous laughter in the viewer and so designed to cause that reaction that, when creating sequences that were disturbing, it was always like trying put some evil clown through unusual motions.
I was glad to see this creation called a novel, despite being online and made of mostly images. As someone who has always seemed a step or two beyond the edge of where things are headed, I wonder if you have any thoughts about the necessity of the novel adapting to the attention spans of the internet generation, and incorporating media into its narrative.
Obviously, there are writers doing interesting things with internet-only material like memes, links, chat space and its language abbreviations and shorthand. But it’s mostly been in short fiction or poetry forms so far, I think. I was just talking with someone on my blog the other day about the idea of a novel written entirely with emoticons. The thought arose because of that guy who wrote reviews of Tao Lin’s books using only emoticons. Now that people are starting to create paragraph-length strings of them in their social media commentary, for instance, it might be possible to write long fiction with them, although it sure would be a taxing thing to read.
I wonder if video clips could be interesting thing to work with, for instance. Or maybe writing a novel located in multiple, shifting locations where the sites themselves could be employed to reinvent the space around the text into something that would be plain enough not to interfere with or ick up the writing with novelty, but which could broadcast the different and dispersed contexts’ qualities or purposes as backgrounding or marginal input. There must be tons of possibilities.
But I don’t think there’s any necessity for the novel to mutate in order to live more relevantly on the internet. I think PDFs and eBooks are perfectly in tune and not overly primitive for writers who want to stick to text-only, page-based work. It’s just that in every other great art form, there are artists—some of them quite popular and respected—who’ve studied the internet and soaked its advancements and particularities into their work, especially in music, visual art, and film, without corrupting the identity of their mediums or alienating anyone but hardcore purists. So, what’s stopping the novelists?
Read Zac’s Haunted House here.