Roberto Bolaño defined high-caliber writing as having "the ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking. The ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love." It's not enough to write well, he argued, not enough to write extremely well. The very best write on the edge.
Carolyn Cooke, whose novel Daughters of the Revolution was a 2011 Chronicle Top 10 Book of the Year, is Bolaño's kind of writer. She approaches subjects of sex and death, desire and illness, and the borderland between sanity and madness, civilization and the wild with a directness that is both disarming and enthralling.
In Amor and Psycho, her second short-story collection (after the PEN/Robert Bingham Award-winning The Bostons), her characters suffer divorce, physical and emotional abuse, deaths of lovers, family and friends. In "Isle of Wigs," the protagonist, Sura, has terminal cancer, and we're taken into the infusion center, seated in "one of the titan-size pink Barcaloungers," where the nurse "sunk a needle into the port of her chest, which Dr. Frank said wouldn't hurt after the first time, but it did. Why wouldn't it? It throbbed like a heart, demanded attention like a child."
In "Opal Is Evidence," the victim is a 9-year-old girl with a brain tumor that keeps growing despite painful operations that leave her bleeding and bandaged, half deaf and slurring her words. And in "The Antiheroes," a 12-year-old Brazilian boy watches his mother collapse and die in front of him. "The loss was absoluto, a hole in himself so wide that even grief could not live there, but blew through him violently and rearranged him."
Summarized, these stories sound like major downers, yet somehow they manage to be bracing. Cooke writes with humor and great affection for people, and she is unafraid to take on the inexplicable. Her willingness to follow her characters to places of mystery, wonder, pain and confusion makes the experience of reading these intense, remarkable stories a deeply empathic one.
In the title piece, which is the longest and most capacious in the collection, self-named Psycho is a "wacked and brilliant" spoken-word poet gunning for the Grand Slam Finals in San Francisco. She freestyles about sex with strangers in public restrooms, about the time her mother hit and nearly killed a baby with her car.
"Hyperarticulate self-revelation was Psycho's talent," Cooke writes. "She illuminated experiences other people would avoid, repress or hide." Like the fate of her Amor, the tortured Harald, who kills himself by slitting his wrists with an X-Acto knife. " 'When I speak,' " Psycho says, 'I want you to see the beautiful ugliness of the world, like a cathedral made of tin foil gum wrappers, dead cigarettes, condoms and bright-colored suckers.' "
This same "hyperarticulate self-revelation," this "beautiful ugliness" marks the whole collection. The prose is taut and gorgeous. A number of the characters are writers or artists of some sort, people whose work is generative, whose libidos thrum, serving as a counterweight to the pervasive presence of death.
Even the seriously ill feel stirrings. Upon seeing her hairless head, a cancer patient wants nothing more than to have sex, and goes about finding a willing partner on the Internet, who soon flies in "from Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska" to meet her in a Bay Area hotel.
The book's 11 stories are mostly set around San Francisco, though a couple take place in New York, including the opener, "Francis Bacon," about a young woman who writes Penthouse Forum-esque fantasy stories for a Bob Guccione-like porn king. The structure of the collection mirrors the title, in a way, stories of love followed by stories of destruction, life growing out of death. But Cooke is not one for easy epiphanies.
The narratives go where they will, resisting the arc of traditional plot. "Life is a loose, flowing thing," Sherwood Anderson wrote. "There are no plot stories in life." And so, too, here. Just a mad sprint along the precipice, as if time were running out, as it is for so many of these characters.
The last story, "Among the Mezima-Wa" seems at first to be an exception. The narrator, a grief counselor, observes her son falling in love with an African immigrant, and it appears we're headed for a happy ending. A wedding! The in-laws arrive. Traditions are respectfully followed. But will all go well? In this book, where the forces of love and destruction are locked in constant battle, we can hope for Amor, but more often than not Psycho has the last word.