The Digital Body


“The body is a machine with all this stuff inside,” Dennis Cooper once told an interviewer, and the fiction anthologized in Userlands: New Fiction Writers From the Blogging Underground hews closely to that mantra. A pioneer of zine publishing who has long resided in the vanguard of queer lit, Cooper recently went fishing in the digital inkwell. Many of the writers he included in
Userlands are either bloggers or artists attuned to the kaleidoscope of symbols that constitute our culture.

The primary subject here is the human body and our inability to satisfy its most primal urges, no matter how sophisticated we’ve become. As in Cooper’s own novels, violence and desire are easily interchangeable, with technology facilitating movement between the two. The protagonist of Jack Dickson’s haunting “Mine” holds his young lover captive in a basement, alternating savagery with sex. In “letting me out first part” by Zac German, pop culture, lust, and fame bleed into an enthralling, nauseating panorama reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’s work. And as semen erupts from keyboards in Mike Kascel’s “Five Glimpses into Armageddon,” it becomes clear that he, like Cooper, knows all too well that no chat-room tryst or porn-site visit comes without a price.

Though there are selections by established writers like the poet Robert Siek and Stanya Kahn (a prominent video artist), many of the authors are young, and Userlands suffers from a lack of consistency. Several stories read like hastily-edited entries on a personal blog, waxing poetic on a strange sexual encounter or the vagaries of everyday life–an account of working in Barnes & Noble is slathered with so much anguish, one could be forgiven for imagining the author imprisoned in a labor camp.

Cooper’s anthology may ultimately prove that serious fiction still longs for the confines of a printed page, but it does highlight a significant trend: writers using the Internet to hone their craft. What’s more, it asks what the digital revolution portends for our flesh-bound selves. While the Internet may leave no desire unheeded, these stories suggest that we persist in craving the human touch, no matter how destructive it may be.