Review: Userlands edited by Dennis CooperDennis Cooper (ed)
Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground
Published by Little House On The Bowery
Reviewed by Bec Chalkley
Userlands is a hefty anthology created by a constellation of writers formed around Dennis Cooper’s blog. In Cooper’s words, his comments section became “something of a virtual workshop full of supportive yet sharp discussions about the writing by the people posting there.”
Editor Cooper notes, “it seemed to me that my creations were less the point than the lure that brought newcomers into the growing artistic community that had formed in the backstage of the blog’s main page.”
Like does however seem to have attracted like, generating a collection that’s almost homage in places – the stories are decidedly Cooper-esque in tone and theme, being bleak and troubling tales of disrupted childhood, malfunctioning domesticity, thrill-seeking teenagers and perilous, messy sexual encounters.
Likewise, reflecting the early demographic of Cooper’s blog, the contributors to Userlands are for the most part male and North American or British, despite a smattering of European and female authors. The editor’s claims towards diversity are most accurately located around the writers’ ages, their limited access to an audience and atypical subject matter. With a nod to the collection’s internet genesis, some of the pieces dismiss conventional syntax and some have an exploratory or experimental style, while others are fully realised short fiction. “There are writers of great sophistication and nerve, writers who have personal truths they need to express in fiction as forcefully as possible,” says Cooper, “I hope writers who might doubt the possibility that their own unusual fiction could find a rightful audience will read Userlands and think again.”
It’s replete with graphic snapshots of violence, fucking, death, abuse and alienation, set against a claustrophobic urban backdrop that’s strewn with broken glass, bare lightbulbs, knives, guns, cigarettes, coffee, drugs, booze, scars and orifices. The pages fairly run with blood, piss, tears, come and sweat. Of the pieces in this vein, Matthew Williams’ devastating hustler epic ‘My Body’s Work’ is especially striking.
Other highlights include Angela Taveres’ atmospheric tale of betrayal ‘Fast Ones’, Jeff Jackson’s disquieting ‘Three Untitled Stories About Smoking’, Jose Alvarado Lopez’s haunting ‘Fake Animals’, and ‘Dear Sybellus’ by Joseph Marcure, which begins whimsically: “Been sad lately, been eating lots of ketchup. Used to suck it out of the bottle but now that I’ve lost my teeth I put it in a bowl and slurp it off a spoon.”
Some of these tales particularly recall the dark early prose of Cooper’s Dream Police, others Rebecca Brown’s unsettling short story collection The Terrible Girls or James Williams’ But I Know What You Want. Userlands is a worthy addition to these works. Emotive and gory, it’s open heart surgery in every sense. A gruelling, if rewarding, read.
Bec Chalkley has contributed to various publications and websites including Chroma. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org