Beyond the Borders of Expectation: The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon
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“‘[A]rt is born of the individual’s unique response to his own existence,’” one of the characters says in Shya Scanlon’s new novel, The Guild of Saint Cooper. Scanlon’s readers’ experiences are colored, too, by the characters’ response to their existence, and the changes they make as they rewrite their own pasts. Scanlon’s novel follows Blake, an author living with his mother in “post-evacuation Seattle” who is asked to write a retelling of the city’s history that casts Twin Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper as the peoples’ hero. As Blake begins his canonical text, the city’s history, and his own life, is changed irreparably. In the fabric of his novel, Scanlon demonstrates our complicated relationship with truth; this tricky novel works itself up into a frenzy in order to pose questions about the trust we, as readers, place in narrative.
The structure of Scanlon’s novel is unique and sometimes the author loses us — as Blake begins writing, we are taken back in time to an alternate universe. In this way Scanlon comments on the fallacy of memory. Once things begin to change, the characters struggle to maintain their thread on place and memory, often being unable to remember how they got to where they are. Blake questions his own memories as we are to believe he’s simultaneously writing them.
“I nodded. I tried to remember something, anything.
‘Do you mean a memory of having memory, or a memory of the memory itself?’
Goldie thought about this. ‘I like you,’ he said. ‘So what I’m thinking is, if you can’t have a memory of it, it’s not an experience. Which means it’s, whatever, something else. A whole different type of thing. I don’t give a shit what’s going on in the brain.’”
With a novel such as this, the writer must be allowed some freedom to challenge traditional ideas of plot and structure. But this also means that we experience some of the characters’ confusion while we read them experiencing it. Is this the point of Scanlon’s work? Perhaps. But it can make for a disoriented reading experience. The first section of the book is a long, explicative passage that the reader will initially want to turn way from but he is able to shine a light on our collective comfort with narratives, particularly as they relate to the stories and theories we come to trust in the ever-evolving news cycle. While Blake writes a new narrative, he questions his old work. In the first section (before he begins the work that will alter his past), he also wonders about the relevance of what he writes. In each timeline there’s tension between what we want to read and what we need to read, whether because we need to escapism or witness literature:
“After reading over the book I’d begun before everything fell to shit, I felt like abandoning the project. The fantastical plot and airy themes that before felt somehow noble in their abstraction now felt merely escapist. I was worried that the only literature it made sense to pursue was that of witness, and I knew exactly nothing about witness literature.”
Blake’s realizations about the power of his work allow Scanlon some pseudo-Fight Club-style revelations. Eventually Blake’s identity is called into question as much as his role in the city’s historical narrative.
“‘Blake,’ he said, ‘you set all this in motion.’
I was holding onto nothing now. My fingers left the tabletop.
‘You were the reason I went undercover in the first place. It was you who discovered what Weyerhouser was up to with our extraterrestrial visitors, and you whose first experience with transpositional epiphany led us to the discovery of Existencelastic Macrobial Foreshortening.’”
Scanlon utilizes a form of escapism that challenges the notions of the genre. In some ways he is most relevant to current events when he begins to write about aliens, special agents from TV shows, and glowing lights. The farther away from the original timeline Scanlon takes us, the more he has to say.
Scanlon’s most compelling argument is one for comfort with ambiguity — as a philosophy — the idea that we can both hold an idea in our minds and not believe it:
“‘Self-deception? It’s basically the ability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time. For some reason this was always represented by the letter P. As in, P and not-P.’
I could tell Josie was trying to think of an example, so I gave her one.
‘Say you’re an alcoholic, I mean you’re really addicted, and you know this, or part of you knows it. But at the same time, you tell yourself you’re in control.’”
Scanlon puts his reader through the same philosophical process as his characters. Are we to believe in both his first narrative and the alternate? Scanlon pushes us toward negative capability, and some readers will be more comfortable with this than others. But it’s worth acknowledging that this complicates the readability of the book for any reader. Even if we are tracking right along with the author, he’s asking us to retain parallel storylines at the same time.
“‘Truth is truth,’” Blake says, stating the central tension of The Guild of Saint Cooper aloud. When other characters challenge him — and challenge the idea of narrative itself, it’s clear that we’re each in different places with respect to our level of trust in stories. Some of us need them in order to frame the world we observe. Others would rather ignore the story and examine life on its own terms. Scanlon’s unusual and complicated work draws our attention to this fundamental difference. The Guild of Saint Cooper unwrites as it writes; Scanlon bends his narrative to suit this bizarre and twisted story. If you can suspend your disbelief, Scanlon’s wild ride will take you past the borders of what seems possible.
by Shya Scanlon