Saturday, August 25, 2007

T Cooper's "Swimming"

Well, I found it. I hadn't recycled it after all--it was sitting on the radiator next to the bed, underneath volume 16 of The Onion and a handbook on drum kits. So, a week late, I have read "Swimming," which I am afraid I really intensely dislike.

I don't want to overstate this, because I think T Cooper is possibly a very good writer. It's all in the rhythm--the story has a nice coiled-up energy to it, and repeats itself in musical ways, and feels precipitous, all fine things for it to be and do. But the story itself--the protagonist, the situation, the moral universe it inhabits--seems odious to me.

The narrator is an American living in Cambodia. He moved there after he backed over and killed his own son with the car, and his wife left him. He's a doctor, and his manner is casual and numb, until his anger comes spurting out in random ways. He states that his accidental murder of his child has given him "the right to fuck the youngest, hottest girl with the tightest pussy in town and make her fall in love with me and yet bear no responsibility toward her or her family beyond shuttling them to the clinic when their grandchild was ill."

In other words, he's an asshole. The assholitude, I think we are supposed to understand, is in some kind of compensation for his guilt. At the story's end, he seems to be supposed to be learning some lesson by gagging on some sharkmeat while hearing about his girlfriend's father's escape from the Khmer Rouge, but I dunno--it seems like horseshit to me.

The thing is, a guy who killed his own son doesn't sound like this, would not be telling this particular story in this breezy way, because who is he telling? Who would listen? Guilt is hard to write about, and I feel that Cooper isn't bothering--he's writing about displaced guilt instead, and anybody with a laptop can displace guilt onto any emotion he likes, and run with it. The dead kid is an excuse for the displacement riff--it's not a real experience, it's not real guilt.

I can think of two stories you should read instead--Lorrie Moore's horrifying "Terrific Mother," about a woman who accidentally kills her friend's child; or, better still, Andre Dubus's fantastic "The Doctor" (is that in fact the title? I don't have it in the house, I think that's it), about a doctor who fails to save the life of a drowning child trapped under a heavy stone in a creek, and then later sees a garden hose, slices off a twelve-inch length of it, and stows it in the trunk of his car. Simple, beautiful, and perfect.

I admire Cooper's ambition here, because it's damned hard to write a story that starts the way this one does. And I will gladly read more of his stuff. But--and I say this as a guy who imagines backing over one of his kids every time he gets into a car and will probably do so long after they've grown and moved away--this one eluded me.

UPDATE: Well this is interesting!! Rhian remembers "The Doctor" differently--she recalls the garden hose already being in his trunk--thus making him more culpable for the child's death. Who's got this story handy? Maybe we're both wrong!


rmellis said...

The literary habit of killing off children to add emotional weight to a story bugs me to no end.

rmellis said...

BTW, JRL, you're right about the Dubus story -- the doctor is actually out for a jog when the accident happens, but he could have used the garden house from a nearby house.

The more I think about it, the more I hate that story. Dubus should never have published it. It's like having a nightmare permanently installed in your brain.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it is indeed a doozy. Unforgettable and not necessarily in a good way.