Cooper, T (2002), Some of the Parts, Akashic
Some of the Parts is T Cooper’s debut novel; it has earned him a lot of attention and well-deserved praise. Cooper has since published a second novel, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes and a fairly large amount of journalism. Some of the Parts is a good novel, but it’s clearly a debut novel, uneven sometimes, often less dazzling and impressive than it could be. Its centered around four characters: Taylor, Charlie, Isak and Arlene. It is structured in short chapters that bear the name of the focal character and are written from his or her perspective, usually in the first person singular, with one exception: Taylor’s chapters are related by a third person personal narrator. We are, however, spared long-winded ruminations and soul-searching. Cooper’s writing is spare in the best sense. It’s never exceptional or particularly quotable, but it makes for comfortable reading, except for the odd phrase in Charlie’s chapters whose voice is sometimes a tad annoying.
The figurative gold in this novel, however, is found in the characters and the ideas, both of which are rich and interesting and, more importantly, interdependent. The most important and the most prominent character is probably Isak. Isak is a young transgender person, born as a girl and christened Thea, he is now living as Isak. As we enter the story he is living in New York and the decision to be himself is rather new, something that becomes obvious when we watch him meet his parents. Isak works in a circus freak show for little money as a ‘gender freak’, and as a hooker on the side, earning considerably more. His ‘profession’ as a freak show exhibit in a circus reads almost symbolic, a trope for his subversion of gender expectations, think Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque; additionally, a circus is a powerful trope for traveling cultures.
As so often, however, Cooper decides to strike a note instead of indulging and exploring a trope, thus assembling a large tapestry of related concerns. Similarly, his work as a hooker puts him at the margins of bourgeois morality; the subversive power of prostitution in literature has been pointed out and explored a huge amount of times, among many notable instances there’s Hawthorne’s story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”. This, too, is not explored at length; instead Isak’s narrative briefly comes up short when Isak is accosted by a man on the street and then beaten to a pulp. Subsequently, Isak leaves New York and travels to LA to live with his parents.
One of the best things about the novel is its treatment of Isak’s being FTM. This issue could be treated in a sentimental way, discussing the plight of a girl who always felt like a boy and then decided to make the changes, hormones, dresses, these things. These kinds of stories often just reinforce the ubiquitous and frankly harmful gender dichotomies by riffing on difference; this kind of difference is always read in relation to a generally accepted norm. Cooper just tells us, thus sidestepping the problem. She does, however, raise the point of acting out certain gender roles in smaller vignettes, such as this one: we first meet Isak as he loiters in front of the circus, seeing his predecessor in the freakshow, a rebellious hermaphrodite, leave after her father makes a plea
“I’m just trying to have a conversation with my -” and here the hermaphrodite’s father stumbled on his words, for when he last left her, she was most likely a man, or as much of a man as she could manage. “I’m just trying to talk to my daughter here, sir, so if you’ll just give us a few seconds.” (…) The wife looked as though her knees were about to collapse under the burden of her body.
Interestingly, the ‘normal’ mother is the only one who collapses under the burden of her body. Isak’s problem is not ‘her’ body or his feelings towards it, at least not as far as the novel is concerned. His problem are others, the audience, the onlookers, and last not least the guys who beat him up. In an episode in the middle of the novel we accompany Isak and Taylor on a road trip, passing through the Bible belt, where Isak, who is paid to act ambiguous for the circus audience, acts manly and straight for the rednecks, a different kind of audience.
Although these elements may appear to be highly symbolic and weighty, the novel strikes a perfect balance between its overt embrace of ideas and a realistic, almost journalistic treatment of the events described. No flowery descriptions, no dreams or fantasies. In fact, as we see Isak hitting the pavement we are not offered the release of a poetic distancing, we are just handed the brutal facts. We see him standing up, afterwards, humiliated, dirty. His danger, again is not being different, its failing his act. A completely different danger has caught up with Charlie, his roommate in NY, Isak lives with Charlie, who is a middle-aged homosexual man dying of AIDS.
Charlie is significant, for two reasons. One is his addiction to TV shows, especially to Beverly Hills, 90210. The other is the fact that he’s dying. His death provides a strong counterpoint to the main narrative, which is a story of two young people growing up. 90210 plays an intriguing part in the novel. For one thing several of the characters watch the TV show, which provides an interesting cultural cohesion. Additionally, the narrative of the characters, especially the two younger ones, as they ‘grow up’ is shown to mirror the events in the TV show which is, after all, in its last or second to last season, with the characters leaving school and college and trying to make it in the real world. A twist is added when Taylor is offered a small part in one episode of the show, which illustrates the way pop culture and life, for lack of better words, are interwoven in the book.
Taylor is a young woman, so astonishingly beautiful that she smites every man (and some women) she meets. She flits in and out of jobs, drifting through her life without, apparently, a direction. She is privileged by the fact that she is part of the right class, race and even has the right look, but she appears not to be aware of these facts, at all. Her shallowness and her utter lack of personality is also reflected by the fact that Cooper has her chapters be the only ones without a first person narrator. Her mother, Arlene, is also Charlie’s sister, invites him to spend his last months at her house in Providence. She lives in a rather affluent neighborhood, working in a craft shop. As Charlie’s illness is a fixpoint in the narrative, so is her home and it is this same home where all the other characters will end up in, to assess their successes and their failures, to plan their lives and their death.
For a debut novel, T Cooper’s Some of the Parts has quite a lot of the parts of a great novel; ideas and writing are remarkably mature and assured, and it bests many more established novels that treat a similar topic, simply by being frighteningly smart. Cooper does not take short cuts in his thinking and, which is rare for a debut novel, he is never self-indulgent; he knows how much meat the bones of his ideas need. The sparseness, however, is also its major weakness. The writing is never quite convincing, never quite as good as the ideas and the characters conveyed through it. This writer is clearly testing the waters and it’s a great joy to watch him do it. Recommended.