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Book review

‘Amor and Psycho’ by Carolyn Cooke

In the intermittently surrealistic stories of “Amor and Psycho,” the line between human and animal turns out to be permeable, and metaphors threaten constantly to be made flesh.

The restless psychiatrist in “The Snake” sheds relationships and homes “like a snake sliding out of its old skin,” but keeps a pet snake named Herpatia as a symbol of commitment to her current lover’s son. “She Bites” tells the tale of a man named Froyd who constructs “a postmodern doghouse” while his wife turns into a disobedient dog.

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In “Aesthetic Discipline,” the metamorphosis remains metaphorical: A soon-to-be discarded lover reaches “the end of my usefulness, like the charming fish called Him we’d murdered and eaten.”

Carolyn Cooke, author of “Daughters of the Revolution” and “The Bostons” (winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for fiction), writes stories laced with perversity and occupying the territory between realism and outlandishness.

Along with her animalistic characters, Cooke returns repeatedly to the themes of illness (usually cancer), divorce, and violence in various guises: sexual, domestic, suicidal. She’s preoccupied, too, by the mutating relationship between surface and depths, what appears to be and what’s hidden. As the collection’s title suggests, there is love in these stories, but mostly crazy love: off-kilter and temporary, not a quiet, permanent refuge.

The title story and key to the collection is a riff on the Greek myth of Psyche and Amor (often known as Cupid), from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Here the theme of transformation — psychological as much as physical — is again explicit.

In Cooke’s words, the myth tells a story in which “the young maid is cursed through no fault of her own,” essentially the human condition. But instead of being ravished by a monster, Psyche is taken as a lover by Amor, who never reveals himself, and “begins to understand the possibility of desire.” Since she is forbidden to look at her lover, Cooke writes, “the condition of her marginal happiness is total ignorance; and, really, how long can that last?” Psyche’s situation evokes the Biblical admonition to Adam and Eve, and we all know how that turned out.

In Cooke’s story, Psycho is the nickname given to Psyche, a teenage freestyle-poet whose troubled boyfriend, Harald Bugman, will kill himself at 19. “Hyperarticulate self-revelation was Psycho’s talent,” Cooke writes.

“Psycho and Amor” is constructed with abrupt shifts in time frame and point of view. From Psycho’s competitive poetic endeavors, it moves to the tale of Georgie, her new Internet-sourced boyfriend, Ralph, and her breast cancer treatment. Then it jumps back in time, to the depressed Harald and his mother, Babe, Georgie’s best friend, who hallucinates about a Japanese man in a wet suit and white chicken eggs clinging to her hair.

As Harald suffers and cuts himself, Babe carries stones compulsively into her cabin in the woods. She also voices the author’s message, with its Biblical echoes: “Sometimes life’s perverse, Babe thought. You find yourself, which means someone else gets lost.”

A tamped-down gloom is the predominant mood of these stories, most of which have no obvious narrative payoff. But the gloom is generally leavened by mordant humor, and Cooke’s vigorous language is its own reward.

The story “Aesthetic Discipline” is (as suggested by the title) one of her most formally perfect. The narrator, a young woman, has an artist-lover who is “alluring, sexy, passionate in an intense but impersonal way; almost perverse, maybe even borderline somehow.”

He calls her in the early morning hours and she stops by for sex; afterward, he feeds her, walks her out, tries to give her an inadequate $5 for the long cab ride home. She refuses. “I was a feminist,” Cooke’s narrator says, with barely perceptible irony.

“It may seem obvious that a relationship like this wasn’t going anywhere,” the narrator confesses. “I didn’t care; I wanted to go everywhere.” At least she gets to accompany Karim, her lover, on two visits to his parents on Hell’s Point, Long Island.

They live in a “rigorous and modernist” house, at whose center is a wooden tree on which every family member hangs clothes and other items — “a monument to wit, or a witty reference to a monument.” There is an elegiac, Gatsby-esque feel to both “the beautiful silent rooms” and the relationships they contain.

“They had gotten by all those years gliding on the surface, and the surface was perfect, like Zamboni ice, till it cracked,” Cooke writes. Later, the narrator will realize, triumphantly: “The surface functioned as the depth. We were all part of it. What could we do but transcend ordinary, sloppy suffering, rise above it, refuse?” That seems a fair enough summation of Cooke’s credo — at least on a good day.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Email her at julklein@verizon.net or follow her on Twitter at @JuliaMKlein.
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