Review: The appropriated world of The Guild of Saint Cooper

The Guild of Saint Cooper cover

The Guild of Saint Cooper, a novel by Shya Scanlon

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. — attributed to Pablo Picasso, among others

Discussion of cultural appropriation has surged in the last few years in the context of race relations. White culture has borrowed and stolen from black culture for decades, particularly in entertainment, usually without enough credit to the origins of a style of music, dance, poetry, or performance. What happens then, when a writer creates a fictional world wholesale out of another fictional world? Is he borrowing in order to comment on that world, or stealing from it because he can’t come up with a better idea?

Author Shya Scanlon appropriates shamelessly from a realm created by another artist, director David Lynch, to manufacture a post-apocalyptic Seattle in The Guild of Saint Cooper, published by Dzanc Books in April 2015. Lynch is best known for Twin Peaks, a quirky, strange, and beloved television series that aired just two seasons’ worth of episodes. The first season, the better of the two, focused on a murder investigation by Dale Cooper, an FBI special agent with his own methods and approach to detective work. Cooper’s character combines the calm certainty of a Zen monk with a fascination in the unseen anticipating another fictional FBI agent, Fox Mulder, who appears in a different TV series, The X-Files, which debuted two years after Twin Peaks ended.

Scanlon casts Cooper as a ghost-like troublemaker in a near-future Emerald City evacuated by authorities as the climate declines. Much is made of the appearance of mysterious intelligent lights, purported to be aliens in league with Weyerhaeuser, a tree-grower and lumber-producer that stands to gain–what? In the midst of this confusion is Blake Williams, the writer of a best-seller who moves to his old home town from New York to care for his possibly dying mother and finds that his well of creativity has dried up, or rather, he’s too feckless to go dig another well. Despite this, a godfather of sorts hires him to write an alternate history of the city as a way to impose his will on its new circumstances. Of all Scanlon’s characters, only his mother seems grounded in reality.

No one knows quite how to categorize Scanlon’s story. Is it dystopian science fiction, magical realism, or fabulist fantasy? Though it veers dangerously close to fan fiction, it may fit best into weird fiction. There’s little resembling a narrative arc, much like Twin Peaks in its latter episodes, but Scanlon manages to keep the reader interested all the way to its arbitrary end with good pacing and incisive satire. The best sections are protagonist Williams’ interactions with Cooper, ironic because Scanlon stole-borrowed-appropriated Cooper from someone else. Perhaps that’s the point: Everything’s been said before, so let’s be honest about our ongoing thefts. Originality, in other words, is an illusion. Maybe, but at least the artist could make an effort that makes sense.

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