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In Jerk, artist Nayland Blake and writer Dennis Cooper have crafted the most successful book of its type I have ever seen. One is unable to distinguish whether image precedes text or vice versa. The result is an extended dialogue between the visual and the textual, particularly appropriate in the case of a subject that calls any kind of primacy (of experience, of language, or of images) into question. Blake and Cooper's seamless collaboration, centered around the genius of puppetry, consummates their most treasured interests: desire, identity, and morality.

Jerk is designed as a disarming facsimile of a children's book, complete with a "this book belongs to" label on the inside cover. But the book is anything but child's play. Though puppets often portray the most morally didactic characters, Blake turns them around--sometimes literally, as when a blank white puppet is reversed over a sequence of three photographs to reveal an equally inexpressive black twin--in order to demonstrate the futility of seeking meaning through a depth model, of unsheathing the surface to discover the truth of the interior. Blake's puppets are often displayed beside their empty boxes, again playing against the expectation of revelation. Several puppets are mounted on steel poles with chalkboards attached to their handles, as though to teach lessons about truth through illusion. The boards, however, are blank, and the lessons are more about the vanity of the puppeteer, whose identity is veiled by his careful control of illusion.

Cooper's text unfolds on four levels. First, accomplice killer David Brooks speaks to us "live" about his experiences "as a drug-addicted, psychotic teen murderer in the early seventies." On the second level, Brooks hands the audience two files of "nonfiction" stories that introduce serial killer Dean Corll and another accomplice, Wayne. Corll articulates the central impasse of the "intellectual" murderer: how can one really know one's object since the inner life of the victim remains inaccessible? This disquisition is answered by a Mephistophelean knock on the door; a teenager, who, like the other victims, virtually offers himself. These are figures whose lives are so empty that death seems the ultimate experience. "The worst that could happen," says one, "is nothing."

Brooks' script for a puppet show is the third discourse in which a freakish turnaround occurs when Corll speaks as the voice of his victim. This provokes the conceptual crisis of the story: identity becomes merely an act of will, as permeable as fabric. Dean tries to overcome the distance between killer and victim by identifying the victim with one of his television love-idols, the boy from Flipper or from Dennis the Menace. As he explains, this handles the problem of interiority, since television stars have no inner lives. This mimicry, the ultimate act of making the corpse into a puppet, provokes Wayne into killing Dean and finally David into killing Wayne. But this is not so much a conventional moral judgment about the limits of murder as an inquiry into the limits of representation.

An appended student paper from a course in "Freudian Psychology Refracted through Post-Modern Example" forms the fourth layer of discourse. Diagnosing a loss of meaning at the core of Brooks' puppet show, the student finds that the harder Brooks tries to convey the events, the less certain their meaning becomes. Intelligence gives the illusion of mastery over things that one nevertheless cannot possess.

Though logically arrayed, none of these four levels of discourse is privileged over the others. They form an elegant double (or triple or quadruple) mirroring, a kind of Jacobean play-within-a-play. During the puppet sequences, Brooks also films the murders, providing yet another layer of simulacra. A third murder is inspired by viewing these films, and the final death occurs when Brooks throws the camera at the head of his accomplice and lover, Wayne. Jerk is thus a meditation on illusion, desire, and representation, and on their manifestation in the real world, as identity. These murderers are not only guilty because they kill, but because they overidentify with their desired prey.

Matias Viegener is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles.
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Author:Viegener, Matias
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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