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Born Identity

T Cooper’s gritty debut novel, Some of the Parts, offers a suicide, a mugging, blowjobs, AIDS, carnival freakage, pill-popping mothers versus Edward Scissorhands--like suburban conservative mothers, and a manipulative 20-something, borderline lesbian named Taylor at the center of it all. Taylor isn‘t fazed by her queeny Uncle Charlie, his lover Isak, a transgender man who’s really a woman, or her single mother, Arlene, who used to be married to the biggest dildo ever. Mary, the male dog, serves as a sort of metaphor for the family‘s strange mix. The story is told from their four perspectives, each chapter titled according to who’s speaking.

Though she now lives in New York, Cooper is from Los Angeles, and the locations in her book shift from Providence, Rhode Island, to Hollywood and Pasadena. I appreciate the ambiguous plot, too; not that much happens -- but, nonetheless, Cooper does manage to explore eccentric family dynamics and the subtleties of gender. Relationships are healing, and people in general are getting it together. If you normally detest psychological journeys into wussy family politics as I do, you might still enjoy this book. (Who doesn‘t like to get tips on how to give first-rate head?) There’s a hardcore element to keep skeptics and perverts satisfied. Underneath the hardcore, there‘s a soft core (not porn): love.

L.A. WEEKLY: Some people are calling the family in your book postmodern. Really, though, what does that mean anymore?

T COOPER: You’re asking the wrong person about postmodernism! If anything, you could call it a post-nuclear family. This family could comment on where we are at the turn of the century, and it certainly comments on how families are comprised of not only birth relatives, but people you choose by will. If there‘s any post-ness going on, it’s about an artistic lifestyle, an urban lifestyle. I kind of see this book as an update of where we were in the 1980s.

In the book, Taylor says, “The ultimate power is taking yourself away from somebody against their will.” Do you think that‘s true, or is it only true for the character?

Well, for the character, that’s true. Taylor‘s sense of control is based on her beauty, style and personality. She knows she can get by on other people’s help. She‘s a high-class, unofficial hustler. She bumps around from situation to situation until things don’t work out, then she arrives in Los Angeles and hooks up with this high-level producer. She‘s a walking cliche! What she gets off on more than anything else is the fact that people will give her anything.

So, if you can get anything you want in life, the only thing left to get off on is taking things away from others?

Yeah. And always being in control. Isak, on the other hand, is a character who doesn’t even enter into the power situation. If you talk about post-anything, the book is about identity. I mean, Isak‘s a transgender, sometimes she gets beat up, but that’s not all she is, that‘s just one aspect. People label her X or Y, but below that, what is there? Taylor has it all: She’s an actor on an inane TV program [Beverly Hills 90210], but beyond that, the power trip is all she has.

Taylor also says, “It‘s funny how people can just be exchanged.” Do you think this is true -- that people are interchangeable when you’re creating an extended family for yourself?

In a way, yes. Because when you aren‘t fulfilled and you aren’t getting what you need, you have to go elsewhere. The narration in the book, in its multiple perspectives, helps to underscore the fact that people who are related, either by birth or by being roommates, may not know each other as well as they think. You can live with someone for 20 years and not know them. I learned a lot by having my characters comment on the same event. In a family, assumptions don‘t float. You can’t assume you know somebody. Arlene and Charles grew up in the same house, but they have two entirely different space orbits going around inside their heads. We just go through life thinking we know -- that we know our spouse, we know our kids, and sometimes we know them the least.

You mention reality a couple of times, and your book is fairly realistic. Do you consider yourself a realist?

I started out as a nonfiction writer in college, but I wasn‘t interested in writing about myself. I love reading nonfiction research books, historical studies; but when people only talk about themselves, I just want to slit my wrists. With that background, I learned not to take as many liberties as fiction writers sometimes do. It took a while to train myself to make things up. Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything Is Illuminated helped. There‘s some magical realism in it, and he’s very inventive.

One criticism of my book is that the dialogue is too realistic, and mundane as a result. But when I read a book and know a person wouldn‘t really say something in that way, I don’t like it. I tried to read Harry Potter, but I don‘t like fantasy. I like true crime. When I finally read Helter Skelter, I was so happy.

“You spend your whole life getting hurt,” says Arlene, “and out of it you hope for some grace somewhere in all that hurt.” Do you think a lot of people feel that way as they get older?

That quote is similar to the Virginia Woolf quote that the book’s title is taken from. In To the Lighthouse, [Mrs. Ramsay] feels so much emptiness, so many parts missing, but at the same time she notices some of the parts, so it‘s okay. Some people think that my book is bleak because of this. There’s a lot of heartbreak, but there are also fleeting moments of grace. I see humor in it. Some of the most gruesome stuff is funny as hell.

SOMEOFTHEPARTS | BY T COOPER | Akashic Books | 264 pages | $15 paperback


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