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Dennis Cooper’s new ‘gif’ novel is his weirdest work yet

Zac’s Freight Elevator is a play on the nightmares of our imagination, a visual archive of the most surreal and sinister gifs going

Dennis Cooper started making experimental literature in the 70s when he founded the punk zine, Little Caesar, a “literary journal with an anarchist spirit”. Since 2015, he’s been writing fiction almost exclusively in gifs.

In his latest novel, Zac’s Freight Elevator, Cooper has turned reading into scrolling. The narrative is a vertical stack – an elevator – of meticulously curated gifs. After trawling the internet for material, he fashions his images into surreal, often sinister sequences: Louis from One Direction swishes his hair dreamily while a knife disembowels someone, over and over again. As in Cooper’s written fiction, violence features heavily, as he explores the fragility of our bodies, online and IRL.

The novel works by harvesting images we think we recognise and arranging them in fucked-up ways to provoke an intense emotional response – fear, disgust, hope, anxiety, joy. Cooper makes dark jokes out of the debris of the internet, as the narrative lurches from one gruesome surprise to the next.

In the second chapter, he stacks 11 apparently innocent sea gifs on top of each other. Seascapes have become a recognisable trope of internet language: a screensaver cliche, associated with peace and calm. (As I write this, I’m blocking out the background noise of a coffee shop with “5 Hours of Relaxing Wave Sounds”) After 11 standard waves-lapping-shore gifs, an anonymous hand drowns a young boy by holding his head underwater.

So, how did you get into writing fiction with gifs?

Dennis Cooper: So, I have this blog, and a while ago I got really into picking a theme – say, chandelier, for example – and then I would just get every picture of a chandelier that I could find, and stack them up on top of each other. For whatever nerdy reason, I was doing that, and then, when I started putting gifs in them, I noticed that really interesting things were happening, completely by accident. That just got me interested in seeing what I could do with them – I started making image stacks that were entirely gifs. So I was just fooling around with them for a long time, and then I suddenly realised that I was writing fiction. I realised I was trying to write a novel, using gifs instead sentences and paragraphs And, to me, Zac’s Freight Elevator really is a novel to me, because I’m not a visual artist at all. It was totally made using the same kind of principles that I used to write my fiction, and, to be honest, it’s a more interesting process.

So, clearly, you wrote Zac’s Freight Elevator as a novel. But how far is it possible for someone to read it as a novel? Are there consistent narratives, characters and other plot devices?

Dennis Cooper: There absolutely are characters, and a narrative, you just have to find the characters in a different way. Because, obviously, as they’re found images I can’t create a visually consistent character, so look for archetypes – the young male, the young female, the dog, the ghost. You can work out that this one male is always sad, this one is psychotic, this one’s always horny. And if you do that you can find this whole narrative that goes through, but that’s only really for people who are really fascinated, like I am, by taking things apart. Obviously, far fewer people actually pursue the thing as a novel. It’s also totally OK to just respond to them as a sequence of images, as things that are pleasurable or disturbing, too.

“I usually put the word ‘weird’ in front of my search term, which gets you much more interesting gifs. Although you also get loads of stuff featuring Weird Al Yankovic” – Dennis Cooper

I’m really interested in the process of harvesting and selecting the images. What do you look for in a gif?

Dennis Cooper: I try to use gifs that seem to be incomplete, like there’s not enough happening in them. I like the ones where you’re like, ‘Why on earth did somebody make this?’ I just look for them online using Google or GIPHY or Tumblr. You can’t be too precise, you have to do general searches for things like ‘sad’, ‘sad guy’, ‘falling’, ‘bleeding’, and then I’ll have to search through millions individually and see if any of them fit, and usually you get tonnes and tonnes of crap. I have found one way to narrow it down, though. I usually put the word ‘weird’ in front of my search term, which gets you much more interesting gifs. Although you also get loads of stuff featuring Weird Al Yankovic.

It’s obviously difficult to be precise in terms of what you want. But I’ve also learned that at some points the accidents are really interesting. I’ll just pick a random word and see what happens. Even though the chapters are really precisely thought-out, sometimes I’ve come across the best stuff completely by accident. Sometimes I’ll find something totally random and end up including it, and it will do this amazing hallucinatory thing that I wasn’t looking for at all. Often I have to completely rethink what I was doing based on these really amazing accidents. All I can really do with gif fiction is see if I can juxtapose things in an interesting way if I can tone something down, or push it to its limit, or make it more emotional. One of the reasons I like this process is that it’s complex, and I don’t fully understand it.

Let’s not forget Zac’s Freight Elevator nearly didn’t make it to publication, because Google deleted your blog and your email. What was it like when you thought the whole project might have just been lost?

Dennis Cooper: Yeah, it was horrifying, because the only place (the novel) existed was on my blog, and I’d been working on it for seven months. I had all the gifs I’d used in a folder, but I didn’t know the order I’d put them in. It’s such incredibly elaborate, time-consuming work that I don’t remember where everything goes, you know. I started trying to recreate it but obviously, it wasn’t the same.

But they did eventually restore everything to you.

Dennis Cooper: Yeah! I still can’t believe I won against Google. It really didn’t seem like they were going to let me win for a long time.

You’ve said that Zac’s Freight Elevator will be your last gif novel.

Dennis Cooper: Yeah, I just feel like, this is my best one, and I’ve pushed the medium as far as I can. But it’s been a fascinating process. When you’re working with words, it’s like you’re giving someone a drug and letting their brain do all the work. But in gifs, you’re presented with a figure or a situation that’s all spelled out for you. I’m really interested in how we take things in physically from the internet. How do you react physically or emotionally to images online? Like, what does it do to you physically if you see Harry Styles doing something weird? What does it do to you if you hate Harry Styles, or if you want to fuck Harry Styles? It was like being a scientist and trying to figure out this physical process.