Dennis Cooper Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dennis Cooper 1953-

American novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Cooper's career through 2002.

Cooper has earned cult status and critical distinction for his deeply disturbing fiction, which explores the furthest limits of morality and desire through graphic descriptions of sadism, necrophilia, and ritualized abuse in the homosexual underworld. Drawing upon the dehumanizing violence of horror films and hardcore pornography, Cooper's writing revolves largely around extreme acts of sexual assault, pedophilia, physical degradation, and gratuitous murder. His protagonists—disaffected gay adolescents, drug addicts, and predatory pedophiles and pederasts—are motivated by destructive sexual obsessions or shocking passivity that underscores the impossibility of intersubjective understanding, self-knowledge, or transcendence. In the tradition of the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs, and influenced by a nihilistic punk-rock aesthetic, Cooper's fiction chronicles the various horrors, mutilations, and indignities that the physical body may suffer in the vain pursuit of truth and meaning. Though beginning his career as a poet, Cooper is best known for his loosely connected quintet of novels, Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997), and Period (2000).

Biographical Information

Cooper was born in Pasadena, California, and grew up in nearby Arcadia, California. His father, Clifford Cooper, was a wealthy entrepreneur who owned a company that built missiles for NASA. Cooper's parents were friends with Richard and Pat Nixon, who visited often when Cooper was a teenager. Family life in the Cooper home was traumatic, however, and the protracted divorce of his parents impacted Cooper significantly. From an early age, he often stayed with friends to avoid the difficult atmosphere within his own home. During grade school Cooper met George Miles, an unstable boy whom Cooper befriended and served as a caretaker; Miles, who committed suicide in 1987, would become the inspiration for Cooper's quintet of novels. After eighth grade, Cooper transferred from public school to a boys' school. He was expelled from Flintridge Preparatory School in eleventh grade for his poor academic record. Cooper, however, has attributed his dismissal to his drug use and open homosexuality. At age fifteen, Cooper discovered de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, a book whose subversive subject matter resonated with him. In addition to de Sade, Cooper became fascinated with other writers such as Genet, Burroughs, Charles Baudelaire, and Andre Gide, all of whom have shaped his work. Cooper attended Pasadena City College and later Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where a poetry teacher encouraged him to continue writing. Cooper began writing during the mid-1970s and published poems in several gay literary magazines. Finding the hippie movement unappealing, Cooper immersed himself in the burgeoning punk scene and moved to England in 1976. He also became interested in the avant-garde films of French director Robert Bresson. Upon Cooper's return to the West Coast, he established Little Caesar, an underground fanzine that embraced the spirit of punk art, literature, and music. The magazine's success enabled him to found Little Caesar Press in 1978, which featured the work of alternative artists such as Brad Gooch, Amy Gerstler, Elaine Equi, Tim Dlugos, and Eileen Myles. He soon published his first volume of poetry, Tiger Beat (1978), and, during the same year, became director of programming at Beyond Baroque, an alternative poetry project in Venice, California. His poetry collection The Tenderness of the Wolves (1981) was nominated for the Los Angeles Times poetry prize. Cooper moved to New York City in 1984 and, in 1987, followed a Dutch boyfriend to Amsterdam, where, while attending to his own drug addiction, he matured as a writer and developed work in various forms, including his first novel, Closer. After returning to New York, Cooper wrote Frisk, a novel that attracted notoriety and death threats from a gay-rights group for its unflattering portrayal of its gay characters. Frisk was adapted into a film by director Todd Verow in 1995. Cooper has worked as an art critic for Art Forum and Art Scribe and has also contributed articles to the Village Voice and Spin magazine.

Major Works

Cooper arrived on the punk literary scene as a poet with Tiger Beat and Idols (1979), which focused on Cooper's obsession with boys he knew in his youth. He also published The Tenderness of the Wolves, a collection that included the notable short story “A Herd,” which describes the homosexual rape, mutilation, and murder of teenaged boys by a calculating psychopath, thus establishing a dark and recurring theme in Cooper's fiction. Cooper's works are typically filled with characters—usually attractive, angst-ridden gay teens—who are so emotionally stunted that ordinary relationships cannot overcome their stultifying boredom and sense of isolation. Only violence, death, and dismemberment—discovering what is actually inside the body—can connect these characters in any real sense to fellow humans. To convey this perspective, Cooper's prose is decidedly spare, fragmentary, elliptical, and infused with the banal colloquialisms and shallow observations of drugged and disenchanted adolescents. It is set largely in the urban milieu of Los Angeles and against the backdrop of punk music and bohemian youth culture, and adults, except for pedophiles, are pointedly absent.

Closer revolves around the relationships of several teenaged boys, principally David, a narcissist with rock-idol aspirations and a profound disdain for human flesh, and George, a drugged and dangerously submissive aficionado of Disneyland. George is eventually enticed into a relationship with a Frenchman, Philippe, who, along with another psychotic friend, Tom, enact their fantasy of sedating and dissecting an attractive young boy. In Frisk Dennis is haunted by the pornographic “snuff” photographs of a mutilated boy (later revealed to have been an elaborate fake) that he viewed as a young teenager. Obsessed with fantasies of murdering and disemboweling one of his young male sex partners, Dennis travels to Amsterdam, where he records the details of his heinous—albeit imaginary—serial murders in letters sent home. Try, the third novel in the series, revolves around Ziggy, a confused, drug-abusing teenager who is sexually brutalized by his two gay foster fathers. Seeking to cope with his molestation, Ziggy befriends—and is rebuffed by—Calhoun, a straight heroin addict who hates all emotion. Attempting to cope in other ways, Ziggy turns to publishing a magazine, I Apologize, for sex abuse victims. Though Ziggy is portrayed more sympathetically than characters in Cooper's previous fiction, redemption is not a possibility, the innocent and defenseless—including the freshly deceased—are callously sodomized, and Ziggy's pathetic search for genuine affection, culminating in consensual sex with one of his fathers, goes unrewarded. The narrator of Guide is Dennis, a self-conscious projection of Dennis Cooper the author, and the narrative is a loose amalgam of real-time observations and recollections dealing with rough sex, drugs, pornography, and alternative music—all staples of Cooper's fiction. The novel is nominally concerned with Dennis's infatuation with two younger men, Chris and Luke, and is peopled by the author's circle of wayward acquaintances—teenaged hustlers, addicts, and pornographers—as well as thinly disguised appearances by actual members of British bands Blur and Silverchair, one of whom is drugged and raped. Period, the final installment in the five-book series, involves Nate and Leon, two teens who have made a pact with the devil in order to fulfill Leon's fantasy of raping a deaf-mute boy. Nate later travels with a satanic Goth band, The Omen, that roams about in a van, picking up and murdering runaway boys. The narrative is further complicated by various doppelgängers and a parallel story involving Outsider artist Bob and author Walker Crane, who has written a cult book, called Period, a tribute to his dead lover, George.

In My Loose Thread (2002), Cooper returns to the bleak landscape of damaged high school boys in urban California. The narrator, a dazed teenager named Larry, engages in an incestuous relationship with his younger brother and becomes involved with a group of mercenary Neo-Nazi classmates who plot to kill another student and steal his diary. The story concludes with an episode of anarchic violence reminiscent of the Columbine High School shootings. Cooper has also published Wrong (1992), a volume of previously published short stories and sketches, including “A Herd,” He Cried (1984), and the novella Safe (1984); this collection also includes Cooper's oft-quoted remark, “AIDS ruined death,” by which he suggests that the real-life disease nullified death as an aesthetic or romanticized statement. He served as editor of Discontents (1992), an anthology of experimental short fiction by gay writers, and has collaborated with artists on several works: Jerk (1992), a mock children's book featuring Cooper's trademark motifs and photographs of puppet displays by conceptual artist Nayland Blake; and Horror Hospital Unplugged (1996), a parody of a rising rock star named Trevor Machine and Los Angeles-based popular culture, illustrated with surreal drawings by Keith Mayerson. Cooper has also written two plays, The Undead (1989) and Knife/Tape/Rope (1989). The Dream Police (1994) is a collection of Cooper's erotic verse from previous volumes of poetry, along with ten new poems.

Critical Reception

While Cooper's harrowing fiction has, not surprisingly, failed to gain a mass readership, he has attracted a cult following and consistently respectful reviews. His work is favorably compared to that of de Sade, Genet, and Burroughs, and even critics who find his subject matter unpalatable concede that Cooper manages to probe the darkest recesses of the human psyche with unflinching artistry and purpose. Cooper's work has drawn inevitable comparison to Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, which describes the gratuitous serial murders committed by an affluent white male. However, most critics are quick to note the superiority of Cooper's fiction, which derives from the author's frightening powers of imagination and distinct, claustrophobic prose. His five-novel series, concluding with Period, was hailed as a major achievement by reviewers, who praised Cooper's audacity and uncompromising commitment to the subversive literary project that he set for himself. Though marginalized as an avant-garde gay writer, many critics insist that Cooper's concern with gay relationships and deviant homosexual couplings—albeit central to his work—belies a greater interest in the problem of human alienation and the fundamental inadequacy of language. Furthermore, despite the depravity and ruthlessness of his characters, many critics discern an underlying morality in Cooper's work that, though repeatedly refuted and undermined by ever-greater acts of inhumanity, is revealed in the genuine desire for pure feeling, perfection, and transcendence repeatedly expressed by Cooper's protagonists. Nevertheless, Cooper's detractors maintain that his explorations of such abhorrent subjects—notably pedophilia, necrophilia, and coprophilia—offer little redeeming merit, even in the service of art. Moreover, the difficulty of separating Cooper from his fictional creations, a problem that arises from Cooper's semi-autobiographic appearances in his novels and his casual, matter-of-fact descriptions of the most malignant acts, have caused some critics to question Cooper's authorial distance and, consequently, his moral position. Though few would dispute that his work is shocking and often repugnant, it is in such extremity that Cooper has challenged the limits of artistic expression and established a voice and aesthetic uniquely his own.