The Guild of Saint Cooper
By Shya Scanlon
Dzanc Books, May 2015
414 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
If you could go back in time to change history, would you go? If you did, how would you know you succeeded? Wouldn’t the world—destiny—find a way to correct the possible future into the one originally planned? Would you follow Dale Cooper if he asked you to? The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shyla Scanlon is a lot of things: an alternate history to a yet-seen future, a story of connections and expectations, and most importantly, an intersection between memory and truth, fiction and reality. It’s a novel for the current generation. It’s the nostalgia we seek every day on the internet and the feeling of laughing at old pictures you can’t quite place.
The story begins, although that may not be the best word, with the narrator Blake, in a “post-evacuation” Seattle, living with his sick mother and failing to create a plot for his novel. Soon after, he stumbles across a letter left behind by his drug dealer, Zane, which introduces an interesting story about children playing with marbles and discussing Dale Cooper, a name that both the narrator and many a reader, will vaguely remember. The letter is addressed to a Guild of Saint Cooper. Eventually, the reader will be introduced to an idea to save the future by actually rewriting history, creating a fiction with real world implications, with Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks fame, at the helm. Blake has a plot now, and his novel is written with effects that few others have. Scanlon’s novel shows the result of Blake writing that novel.
It’s difficult to describe the plot as it’s not so much linear as it is a loop of sorts that the reader catches halfway through. Everyone in the story seems vaguely familiar with each other, remembering just enough to place a stranger or a saying. Even the dialogue seems familiar. This intentional confusion is needed. It forces the reader to take a step back and refocus. This isn’t a difficult novel in the traditional sense—it doesn’t bog you down with obtuse language or overly-complicated plots. The plot is clearbut in order for it to succeed, the reader needs to be dedicated enough to unfocus their view of the overall story so they can find the true focus of it. And this is true for Blake, as he doesn’t understand his place in this novel until the end, when he realizes what he’s done.
Any reader would be spoiled by the content of this story, and they should. It’s everything you are led to believe and more. It fits into that pile of books you wish you wrote yourself. With that in mind, the experience is that much better with a poet behind the wheel. You get lost in this story not only because of the sense of déjà vu you get while reading and wondering how characters can both know each other and not. You are the frog in the pot of water and you are slowly burning; you have Scanlon and his uncanny ability to wield the words that could bring you over the very edge:
The frightening but harmless first rust of water followed by the strong, silent undertow, the water pulling back from Puget Sound, pulling out into the Pacific as if in retreat. It would be quick, but quiet, the water seeming to drain, to sink, to evaporate, but in fact gathering force, redoubling, coiling like a snake.
This novel subtly forces you to savor each word, not only for the sake of understanding the story, but to enjoy the view while you travel through it.
Scanlon faces the demons of authorship in this novel; a feat many authors before him have tried and the results are a mixed bag. In this book, Scanlon uses the very dilemma of authorship in a way that is both fresh and enticing to the common reader. The narrator is a shade of our author and is an author himself. The novel Forecast sounds good until you realize that Scanlon wrote Forecast and there’s a moment in which you may doubt the reality of the novel. Sections of this novel will come across confusing, and it’s intended to be, but not for the sake of throwing the reader off. Instead, they must unfocus to refocus; they are pushed to see the effects of changing history first hand. Characters already introduced will vaguely remember why they are there, talking to characters they seem to remember but can’t place. Is this alternate future one of our very own? Of all the characters to create, why risk the reflection, the abstraction? Russell and Blake discuss this very question late in the book:
‘Truth,’ he said with a straight face, ‘is a narrative.’
‘Truth is truth,’ I said.
‘And I’m not concerned with that narrative. I don’t want that story anymore. I’m bored with that story. I’m bored of being trapped by it.’
‘It’s a means of control, is what it is. It’s how the conversation is controlled. You’re raised to respect the truth so you can be easily controlled, and soon enough you’re bound to this discourse you didn’t author, nor did you authorize, revolving around an arbitrary value with an inherited priority that leaves you helpless in the face of authoritarian rule.’
Authors create worlds all the time; it’s a necessary aspect of writing. Facing that very power down and looking it directly in the eyes, that’s something else. This sense of knowing the novel is both simply a novel and yet something else entirely leaves you speechless for some time. We are seeing history rewriting itself with every chapter—a history that we didn’t even know existed until just a few moments prior. We are in control of the very words we read with our own eyes.
It would be enough for any author to head into this story the way many novels are written today, the plot itself is worth a read. Luckily for the reader, Scanlon wields language and structure in such a way, that when you finish this book, you blink for a second and are just as out of place as the misplaced characters. It’s a feeling rarely created and constantly sought after. This is a novel that you reread immediately after finishing the last line, not because it leaves you hanging or even hungry for more, but because it begs you to refocus and to understand; it wants to be understood. 2015 already has its share of incredible books, a parade of hidden treasures for all to enjoy; The Guild of Saint Cooper should be added to the front of the line for everyone to see. This is fiction at its edge; this is memory playing games with history.
This is the narrative of truth.