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Are GIFs The Future Of Novels?

Novelist Dennis Cooper’s latest books use found GIFs to tell creepy horror stories.

Novels are made of words. Graphic novels are made of pictures, and often words. But what does a novel composed of GIFs look like, and can it be called a novel at all?

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That’s what Dennis Cooper, a Paris-via-America artist, editor, and performance artist is exploring with his latest pair of works: HTML books that use GIFs from the Internet to create an entirely new–and wholly disconcerting–medium that feels something like Google’s Deep Dream algorithm hooked up with Giphy, then told some horror stories.

Published by Kiddiepunk, the plots of Zac’s Haunted House and its follow-up Zac’s Control Panel defy transcribing in words. They’re more mood pieces; as you go through them, the arrangement of GIFs offer semblances of narrative in snatches. But mostly, they’re explorations of tiny storylines and nervous imagery seemingly designed to get under your skin in an undefinable way. Take, for example, a GIF of a woman vomiting viscous blood into a book follows several loops of cascading water, then a man curled up fetally on the floor; a toucan hops between blades on a ceiling fan, before a desiccated corpse comes to life. It’s all definitely abstract, but the vibe behind the disquieting arrangement is palpable.

Talking to me about Zac’s Haunted House over email, Cooper says his GIF novels are meant to a kind of puzzle. “There is a story that runs through it, and characters as well, just like in a written novel, but they are hidden inside the house,” he writes. “You have look carefully at the combinations and sequences of GIFs and figure out what they are doing to be able find the story and characters, if you want to.

Cooper is no stranger to writing more traditional novels, however. The author of ten books, including the well-reviewed George Milles cycle and his most well-known novel, The Sluts, Cooper says that the idea for Zac’s Haunted House and Zac’s Control Panel came after he started experimenting with GIFs for a sort of moodboard he was creating to piece together scenes and stories.

“Writing fiction with GIFs is very exciting because you don’t have to start with a story and characters and plot,” he says. “You can begin with a mood, or with a certain kind of beauty or ugliness, and then you can create a coherent narrative based on the effect of the GIFs. It’s a much freer way of writing fiction than when you are forced to only use written language.”

All of the GIFs used in his two works are found GIFs, plucked from the Internet, then pointedly arranged by Cooper according to a visual grammar of his own devising. He tells me he thinks of GIFs as like a language, and that it is more appropriate to think of these works as “novels” than as movies, or motion comics. “When you write fiction with words, you don’t invent the language you are using. That language already exists, and you are borrowing it to write your novel or story or poem,” he explains. “I feel that if I made GIFs myself, the works would become like visual art or like films. It’s very important to me that, when I make something with GIFs, I am writing fiction. I don’t want to have any influence on them from visual mediums like visual art or video or film.”

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Both Zac’s Haunted House and Zac’s Control Panel are available to read free online. If the future of literature is GIFs, and if those GIF novels are as good as Cooper’s experiments, someday you might not even need to be able to read to win a Booker Award.