It's hard to know exactly what terrain Bernard Cooper is surveying in "Maps to Anywhere," a curious, luminous and ultimately mysterious book that consists of two dozen or so autobiographical "essays" of varying length but uniformly dazzling prose.
The book is nonfiction, we are assured by the publisher, but Cooper will suddenly announce: "Everything I have told you is a lie." And then, coyly but intriguingly: "Almost everything."
The "essays" in "Maps to Anywhere"--one might as well call them poems--are short bursts of wordplay, sometimes only a paragraph in length, and never longer than a short story.
Cooper, who teaches at the Otis/Parsons Institute in Los Angeles, draws on the experiences of life in a faintly recognizable landscape of Southern California--Echo Park Lake (drained), the downtown library (burned down), a kosher burrito factory ("He just had to find a rabbi who'd bless them")--but his reminiscences are strange, troubled, dreamlike. "Maps to Anywhere" lacks a narrative thread; the collection is stuck together with memory and obsession.
Cooper is fascinated but haunted by the physical decline of his father, a colorful lawyer with a taste for willing women and odd cases ("HEADLESS ROOSTER HOPE OF MILLIONS"). He wonders aloud whether his mother really swam all the way from Russia to America, as she used to tell him in childhood. He mourns the death of his brother in childhood.
Cooper's mind is restless, even tormented, but his eye is sure and clear; each sense impression is captured in sharp prose--a butterfly impaled on a pin.
He contemplates the potato, the Visible Man, the axial rotation of the earth, the extinction of the dinosaurs, the House of the Future, the gender of coral; all his ruminations are linked in oblique ways to the most intimate and exquisite memories of love and loss.
Then, too, Cooper is a dreamer, and there is something faintly but insistently erotic in his dreams of beds and pools, even if these dreams often involve his brother and his father.
Indeed, there is a homoerotic tinge to Cooper's reveries, a passion hinted at but never named. It colors each one of Cooper's elaborate metaphorical constructions. "My instinct was to kiss my brother," Cooper writes in one of the rare passages when these stirrings break into consciousness. "The more I found his body compelling and the closer a companion I became, the less I dared touch him. Instead, nearly every evening, I presented him with my drawings of cities, intricate, hypothetical cities. Hiding my desire became my second nature, like learning to speak without moving my lips."
Clearly, Cooper is a writer in love with language and haunted by memory, and that's the secret of his odd, glowing book. "More poets than pranksters," he writes of his own childhood telephone games, "we thrilled to language in its abstract conditions, were amazed by the ways a name could bluster and make us as giddy as the pop tunes of the times: My boy lollipop, he makes my heart go giddy-up and Da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron ."
Most of the autobiographical miniatures collected in Cooper's book appeared first in a random assortment of little magazines, anthologies and chapbooks, ranging from "Sun Dog--The Southeast Review" to "Mississippi Mud." But there's a kind of alchemy at work here that transmutes the commonplace into something rare and precious, and fuses the little fragments of prose into a unitary whole. That's why "Maps to Anywhere" is much more than the sum of its parts. Bernard Cooper has given us a patchwork of prose that achieves the stature of a novel.
"Maps to Anywhere" is "a chamber in which Then and Now collide and coalesce," as Cooper himself writes in a different context. It's a daring little book in which "all experience settles as beautiful language."
Next: Richard Eder reviews "Profiles" by Kenneth Tynan (Harper Perennial).