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T Cooper’s latest book tells a pretty average tale: boy leaves home, goes to Hollywood, makes it big, loses big, moves to New York, struggles, and overcomes.
It’s studded with A-list stars, sexy ladies, hard drugs, Scientology, and life lessons. It’s nothing you couldn’t find in the gossip rags—except that the protagonist, Beaufort, is a polar bear, who was separated from his family by a loose ice floe on the Beaufort Sea.
This quirky story is told in a matter-of-fact deadpan style, highlighting its playful combination of the mundane and the unusual. Illustrations by Alex Petrowsky embellish this narrative trend with a mix of line drawings and photo collage: we see Beaufort, a polar bear, pouring water at Nobu to a jaggedly-drawn but recognizable Leonardo DiCaprio; being embraced by two skinny women before a photograph of a grand California mansion; serving coffee to tired New Yorkers from the MUD truck; and sitting behind a table on a barren stage telling his life story a la Spalding Gray. A video accompanies the book (also accessible on Cooper’s website), narrated by David Duchovny, and it is definitely worth a watch. Duchovny’s monotone voice and the video’s ragged, mix-and-match style encapsulate the narrative tone of the book itself.
T Cooper is something of a household name in queer and trans circles, which will certainly guarantee an audience for this slim novella. But is anything about this book particularly queer?
For one, Cooper touches on themes many of us are familiar with. At one point, Leo tells Beaufort, “You make your own family,” and Beaufort thinks, “it was the first time I really appreciated the difference between the family you’re born into, and the one you create. Just before we headed out to shoot another grueling scene on the ice, I asked Leo if he might like to be a part of my new family” (24). Cooper’s previous works (Lipshitz 6 and Some of the Parts) also deal with the failures of blood families, a common queer topic; Beaufort brings a stark poetry to the confusion and loss many queer people feel.
Later, Beaufort goes on to recreate a family of bears, albeit those of a very different sort. He ends up the world of gay clubs and drugs, where his loneliness soon causes him to spiral out of control. His tales of drug-fueled partying and the search for meaning are certainly pertinent to urban queer communities, but Cooper doesn’t explore new insights or plumb new depths of this standard trope. One might wonder if Beaufort’s being a bear is a metaphor for the queer or trans experience, but Cooper never makes it clear if such an inference is welcomed or warranted.
The book has a light touch throughout, rescuing it from being a heavy-handed metaphor about anything, but its deftness can also have the unintended effect of having the book not seem to be about much at all.
The Beaufort Diaries is a fun, quick read, beautifully created, and a strange delight to explore. It makes no pretense at being anything more than what it is and maybe holding it to the standards of Cooper’s previous work is unnecessary. Readers won’t discover anything new or have any life-changing moments, but fans of Cooper’s work and illustrated novel aficionados will enjoy it nevertheless.