Thirty-Three Swoons: A Novel by Martha Cooley

Patricia Storms

Danny is a nagging, childish pain, Camilla's ex-husband is just too damn nice to be believable, and Camilla's best friend Stuart, the former mime now book shop owner, is the poster boy for the self-absorbed pretentious arty-farty.

Thirty-three Swoons

Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 320
Subtitle: A Novel
Price: $23.95 (US)
Author: Martha Cooley
US publication date: 2005-05
Amazon affiliate

In Martha Cooley's previous novel, The Archivist, the first sentence reads: "With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced." And with exquisite understanding and detail, Ms. Cooley introduced her readers to unlikely connections and truths, revealing the depths of human love and despair.

Sadly, in her second novel Thirty-Three Swoons, Martha Cooley's attempts to once again prove that "anything can be shown to connect with anything else" falls irrevocably flat, like an over-ambitious acrobat who has misjudged his leap and lost his balance. The image of the acrobat was deliberately chosen because theatre plays a significant role in Cooley's second novel, though not necessarily a fitting one. As with The Archivist (and it is so difficult not to compare), Thirty-Three Swoons explores the concepts of repressed emotions, hidden truths which slowly reveal themselves, and figures in literary/artistic history who play vital roles within the framework of the novel.

Enter Camilla Archer, a 50-year-old divorced woman who sells theatre memorabilia for a living in Manhattan. She seems to have a pretty good life: she enjoys her work, she's blessed with arty, loving friends who care deeply for her (including an ex-husband, an oh-so-amicable relationship which borders on the really-hard-to-swallow), and she's even got a married lover on the side, "Nick the paramour", to satisfy her carnal urges. But all is not well in Camilla's ordered life. Her volatile cousin Eve has recently died of meningitis, and now Eve's daughter Danny is desperate to discover the truths surrounding her mother's promiscuous background, and the identity of her real father. Danny is convinced Camilla knows the answers, but is holding back. Holding back, in fact, is what Camilla does best; she's wound up so tight she can't let anyone in, or anything out. No doubt this stoic nature is due in large part to her complicated relationship with her distant father Jordan, a perfume chemist who passed away 10 years earlier.

The novel focuses on Camilla, and her attempts to help Danny discover family secrets, but the main story is really Camilla's own self-discovery of her past and present. But this is not your typical 'protagonist discovers self' story. Cooley experiments with fantastical techniques in telling this tale, and unfortunately it doesn't work. A key element in the novel is a doppelganger for the early-20th-century Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and it is this doppelganger who introduces the reader to the story of Camilla and her conundrum. Why a Russian theatre director? Well, apparently Camilla's father had a small connection with Meyerhold many years earlier, and so we are to believe that this doppelganger has existed in time since the real Meyerhold's execution by Stalin in 1940, searching for someone to help, in order to atone for not saving poor Meyerhold those many years ago. Confused? I don't blame you. But it gets even better. In order to help Camilla solve her many unresolved issues, the doppelganger plays around with her subconscious, putting messages in her dreams for her to interpret, and thus piece together her family puzzle.

And what a puzzle! Or perhaps I should say a Russian matryoshka, those round wooden decorative dolls which contain smaller and smaller versions of each other as you open each one up. I should have known there was trouble ahead with this novel once I saw that clichéd imagery used on the first page. Mind you, at least a matryoshka has more believable structure than this story. The novel jumps from the doppelganger to Camilla's dreams and then to Camilla's daily life. These shifts do not flow smoothly, and quite frankly, the doppelganger, who has a fairly large role in the novel, is annoyingly pompous and pedantic. The entire structure of the novel lacks authenticity and cohesion. I found myself also getting increasingly annoyed with all the characters in the story. Cooley doesn't dig deep enough to explain why Camilla is such a tight-assed pill, so it becomes increasingly difficult to find any sympathy for her. In fact, none of the characters in Thirty-Three Swoons are sympathetic or even likable. Danny is a nagging, childish pain, Camilla's ex-husband is just too damn nice to be believable, and Camilla's best friend Stuart, the former mime now book shop owner, is the poster boy for the self-absorbed pretentious arty-farty. His affected dialogue made my skin crawl.

The one saving grace in this big disappointment is Cooley's undeniable talent for beautiful descriptive writing. Most delightful were her explorations of perfume, scent, history and memory:

For Jordan, perfume was more than anything else an acknowledgment of impermanence. Fragrance is time-bound: it ends in decay. Rather than attempting to deny or overcome this reality, Jordan found ways of exploiting it. He orchestrated his fragrances' life spans like beautifully shaped musical compositions. Magically mobile, they registered in the mind like a dream.

Passages like that made me wish so much that she had focused more on the themes of scent and memory, and just dumped that damn doppelganger altogether. But as good as Cooley's writing is, it wasn't enough to save this pretentious mess.

I don't enjoy being so harsh with such a truly gifted writer. No doubt I'm part of the problem, considering my own limitations in accepting certain experimental fiction. And I also cannot deny that my expectations were very, very high, having been completely swept off my feet by The Archivist, which was a national bestseller, and a New York Times "notable" title for 1998. It's hard to imagine how one could attempt to enter the "second novel syndrome" after creating such an amazing first novel, but after waiting seven years, I certainly expected more than what Ms. Cooley has provided. The Archivist, which was in part a book about books, is strong and solid, like a good book should be. It will stay with me forever. Thirty-Three Swoons is that disappointing expensive perfume that will linger only briefly, and then fade away without a trace.





'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.