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Book Review / Fiction

Caught in an Intricate Web of Words

DELIRIUM by Douglas Cooper, Hyperion, $21.95, 240 pages

March 09, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few notes on Douglas Cooper's second novel, "Delirium": It has ruminations: some on the nature of architecture (labyrinths and skyscrapers in particular, although these don't get much past the first floor); some on the nature of prostitution (in the biblical, biographical and business senses of the word).

It has locations: the Middle East, Paris, New York but mostly Toronto, and specifically, the Letztesmann Tower, a skyscraper of "Metropolis"-like horror, which hovers above a mall that houses secrets both living and dead.

It has characters: Ariel Price, a famous cynic of an architect; Cosimo, his hunchbacked assistant; Tom Sorrow, a commercial real estate salesman; Bethany, a homeless waif from somewhere in the north of Canada; Izzy Darlow, a confused writer, whose dead brother narrates the book with Charon-like nonchalance, ferrying the reader from one paragraph to another; Theseus Crouch, a mediocre mind, whose decision to write an unauthorized biography of Price has disastrous consequences.

It also claims the distinction of being the first novel serialized on the Internet. What this means is that, back in 1994, "Delirium" first saw the pixels of day as a computer-drawn map that could be navigated with a mouse. Each click brought the reader text (and a few nebulous pictures). Once Cooper had written a certain number of chapters, a Net surfer could sample "Delirium" in a number of ways. He could follow a single character or a single location or a single rumination or jump around at whim.

What all this means is that "Delirium" comes to the reader (by book or by screen) in baby bites, each 250-word section the love child of an aphorism begat by a parable. Reading the novel on the Net feels akin to playing MYST without the pictures.

But in its printed form, "Delirium" expects us to digest the melange in the order presented. And elliptical as the narrative is, jumping from Bethany dancing for Cosimo in Toronto to Ariel learning Kabbala in Israel and then back to Izzy in New York, that's not, in fact, a tremendous problem. Resonance as a storytelling device is a well-accepted MTV-approved replacement for logic these days.

What becomes cloying, however, is the way in which Cooper narrates: building his story with adjectives that have little to do with either his characters or his locations. One character taps a "crippled pencil against the glass desk, the hollow wood tip, emptied like Gloucester's eye socket, making a dull noise." Another "carries his shaken self up through the cold Negev into the green irrigation of Galilee." This relentless rhythm of adjective-noun leads the reader down a Sesame Street of objects and people with cardboard signs around their necks: pencil ("crippled"), Negev ("cold").

One stops distinguishing between characters and locations. Everything merges into a single self-conscious voice that hearkens back to S.A.T.-filled nights of vocab cramming and Frank Zappa. Which is a shame.

Cooper's first novel, "Amnesia," was compared to the work of such masters as Michael Ondaatje, Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov. In the delirium of such praise, perhaps Cooper has forgotten that, as elliptical as these writers could be, they all had well-trained, well-focused ears for the nuance of language.

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