SOURCE: Ash, John. “The City of Lost Angels.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 July 1989): 7.
[In the following review, Ash acknowledges the pornographic and violent passages in Closer, but asserts that the work retains powerful and original writing.]
Although I'm sure he'd cringe at the thought, Dennis Cooper's bleak and brilliant novel of gay teens in the affluent Los Angeles wastelands could be read as a cautionary tale concerning the advisability of stricter parental supervision. Parents, find out what your son is doing with his buddies in that locked bedroom! According to Cooper, sodomy and drug-abuse are the least of it, which is why—unlike Less Than Zero—Closer will never be made into a movie, even though there are terrific parts for Robert Downey Jr. and other bratpackers. But things are permitted in writing that could never be enacted for commercial cinema, and readers with a passing acquaintance with Sade, Burroughs or Genet will probably be able to get through Cooper's account of relentlessly mechanistic couplings, coprophilia, voyeurism, mutilation and near-murder without losing their lunches. His characters are not so lucky; they vomit frequently and copiously.
Bodily wastes and fluids are a key to the ruling obsession of Closer. Cooper's lost angels and the older men who prey on them are utterly unable to come to terms with the human body. They are obsessed with the thought of what its beautiful, “airbrushed” exterior might conceal. It is the fractured reiterations of this two-note theme that lend Cooper's prose its peculiar, poetic intensity.
John (would-be artist with punk affectations) is dating George, the novel's haplessly passive central character. John feels something “that could have been love but it was too manageable and kind of coldly interesting,” and he is disturbed by the fact that, despite his “cuteness,” George is “just skin wrapped around some grotesque-looking stuff.” So much for the tender, romantic notions of the blank generation. David, who has paranoid fantasies of being an adored rock star (a kind of white, suburban Michael Jackson), worries that he's “just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper.”
The only thing these boys are sure of is that they look good. Their alienation enables them—via Cooper's astonishing prose—to see themselves with absolute clarity: “My body's short, thin, but healthy. It hangs from my shoulders like a clean leotard.” David hates “the fact that human bodies are warm. I think they should be ice-cold or have no temperature whatsoever, like pieces of paper.”
George, with his roomful of pathetic Disney souvenirs, and his inarticulate grief over his dying mother, is the link between all these characters. He seems to understand nothing other than the fact that men find him attractive, and in consequence will submit to anything, almost including his own murder. His older French lover, Philippe, fantasizes about beauty and death: “This particular fantasy nagged him. He'd stroll through streets, eat, bathe, weed his rose garden. And it would gather strength over his head, an insidious halo, as black as dried blood, glittering with the thunder of snapping bones.” Philippe's psychopathic friend Tom plans the ultimate, ignorant investigation of the body, by opening it up and contemplating the entrails. Inevitably, Closer's climactic image is the crushed body of a young man. The unspeakable mysteries of the interior are finally exposed and the result “looks like a flower bed.” It is only at this point that someone belatedly calls out “Get help!” and the police arrive.
Edmund White has described this novel, in what may be a back-handed compliment, as being “as morally repugnant as it is...
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esthetically seductive.” In fact, it is completely in keeping with American puritan values. It is puritanism that has made the natural functions of the body an enigma and a problem, puritanism that has forced a break between consciousness and sensation, and these are Cooper's central themes.
Like most “serious” novels that make extensive use of pornographic materials, Closer implies a surprisingly conventional moral stance. We are left in no doubt as to what the wages of sin might be—one lost boy ends up paralyzed from the waist down, another is killed, while our bemused hero finds something resembling true love. He does so in the arms of Steve, the only character in the novel who is capable of taking effective action to protect himself and his friends. He is also the pampered child of rich parents, and an ambitious young entrepreneur. He could thus be regarded as a typical, successful product of the Reagan years. If this casts some doubt on Cooper's iconoclastic credentials, there can be no doubt about the power and originality of his writing. Sheer force of style raise Closer to the level of (at least) a minor classic.
SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Sad Young Men.” New York Review of Books (17 August 1989): 52-3.
[In the following review, Edwards presents a favorable review of Closer.]
Dennis Cooper's Closer shows young lives not beginning but on the verge of ending in California, here conceived as “the end of the world” in a sense that Moon Palace [by Paul Auster] doesn't suggest. Cooper, whose purposes are anything but “regional,” doesn't call it California, but the big roads are “freeways,” and one of the characters has clearly spent more time at Disneyland than anyone probably should. The center of the action is a high school in a well-to-do suburb; all the main characters are homosexual; the time seems to be around 1980, since a teen-ager is reported remembering that. The Doors were a popular group when he was “a little boy,” and AIDS seems unheard of.
Closer is a kind of homosexual La Ronde, following the interconnected couplings of six high-school boys and an older pederast. The novel seems meant to be, as it indeed is, shocking, at least for most readers, abundantly clinical in erotic details and unsparing in its portrayal of the depressing tone of a subculture. At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, Cooper's youngsters are coolly and ruthlessly committed to fulfilling their desires, to which their ambiance offers unexpectedly little resistance. The few straight schoolmates who appear seem wholly tolerant and understanding of their friends' deviance; parents are determined to know as little as possible about their sons' private lives; the only teacher to make an appearance in the book is not just a fool but a drug user who is in the closet; explicit homosexual and sadomasochistic magazines and splatter and snuff movies are as readily accessible to the young men as People magazine or Star Wars; minors have no difficulty finding and being admitted to gay bars; and of course soft and hard drugs are everywhere. None of this may be surprising, bit by bit, but the bits are added up into a kind of sensual utopia where effort or regret is quite unknown, and I imagine that while some readers will be outraged by the book, some others will enjoy it as pornography.
This would be too bad, since Cooper's intentions appear to be more interesting and honorable. Closer, I think, is intended to be a story about the imagination under the direst kind of pressure, about how desire can persist to the brink of self-destruction and beyond. Certainly all these sad young men have some creative interests. John draws, David fantasizes that he's a rock star, George, who keeps LSD in a Mickey Mouse hat and wishes he lived in Disneyland, describes his perplexities in a diary, Cliff is a photographer and Alex a would-be filmmaker, and Steve, more a managerial type, contrives an elaborate disco in his parents four-car garage. None of them may have serious talent, but their dreams of creativity, like their devotion to sex and drugs and general nonconformity, seem to reach toward some better life that indifferent families, “youth culture,” or the predatory world of adult pedophilia can't give them.
But beyond the unpleasantness of their surroundings waits something even worse. “I'm only sincere when I forget who I am,” the nearly insane David reflects, and his illusion that he's a “gorgeous” rock idol embodies a despair about the self that the others feel only somewhat less extremely. “Everything but good looks should be pointless,” thinks Alex, the film student, and their obsession with being physically attractive, or possessing others who are, moves the book in two directions at once.
One direction, an obvious one, is toward comment on the general culture, where the dream of perfection in the body afflicts not only young people of every sexual persuasion, whose uncertainty about their ability and worth at least gives them some excuse, but also a remarkable number of their elders, who really ought to know better. The other is toward a psychic pathology in which death is the mother of beauty in a sense Wallace Stevens may not have meant. The book's main adult figure, Philippe, once joined a club of men who “wanted to kill someone cute during sex,” and both Philippe the alcoholic coprophiliac and his alarming friend Tom, who's bent on mutilating and killing his partners while observing the punctilio that they must consent, clearly associate desire with the destruction of its object. The body, the seat of “cuteness,” is also the seat of primal self-disgust, and such a sexuality, as Sade told us, aims at transcending not only the sexual act but everything else as well. But then, in a world where all is possible and no conceivable sensation goes unfelt, literal death may be no more than a closing formality anyway. “Kill me, I can't feel anything,” one of the characters begs, and the logic of his request has been made clear.
Closer is a noncommittal, rigorously descriptive, unmoralizing book, painful or even emetic in effect. But it seems an attempt to face squarely what Cooper sees as the implications of homosexuality's darkest corners. If this is so, it is a work of considerable courage.
SOURCE: Silverblatt, Michael. “Tales from the Crypt.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 June 1991): 2, 11.
[In the following review, Silverblatt offers a positive assessment of Frisk.]
To frisk is to “search a person for something concealed, especially a weapon,” Frisk is about a man who wants to kill someone and find what the body conceals. Spiritually, the thing that remains of the body after death is the soul. Physically, the thing that remains is only splatter.
The narrator of Dennis Cooper's novel Frisk also is named Dennis; whether he represents the author remains a question. The narrator seems to be interested in carnage; Dennis Cooper himself seems engaged in a search for the soul.
The narrator is fascinated with sex and death. As a child, he has seen some pornographic photographs of a murdered boy. The photographs turn out to be elaborately faked, but Dennis, hooked, becomes fascinated by the idea of killing. The images of death thrown up by punk rock, by horror and splatter films, by Stephen King novels, stake their claim on him. The line between art and life becomes blurred.
Frisk is ultimately a coming-of-age novel about a young man learning the difference between representation and reality, between pornography and art. Dennis chooses representation over reality; that is to say he becomes an artist rather than a killer, but the art he chooses, is dark and horrific.
The book's vantage point is entirely homosexual. The safe world is left behind, leaving a cast of pornographers, hustlers, drug users and sex addicts. The world displayed is unhealthy in the extreme. Nevertheless, the book is the work of a real writer, classical and aesthetic. The issues raised are moral and spiritual, the treatment austere, rigorous and contemporary. Frisk is an art novel but with the voltage and luridness of the most degraded thriller. It is a portrait of the artist in a world that has outgrown “nice” art.
Gertrude Stein has interesting things to say on the ugliness of the destined classic: “When it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it. … If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating, not only when it is accepted and classic.”
Stein also says, “The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.” Frisk certainly lays claim to being the work of an outlaw; that it is destined to classic status is upheld by its extraordinary vileness, the psychotic imagination of its violence and its bracing ugliness. Unlike some recent “transgressive” fiction, which we grow inured to but we don't really enjoy or admire, Frisk exhilarates by the intensity of its language, and by the suggestion of a spiritual radiance at the core of its dark vision.
Many may ask, Why dignify with the word classic a work that willfully betrays civilized values? Why is the high level of disgust this work causes worthy of so elevated a claim?
This is an odd question that has recently re-raised its conservative head: Why this emphasis on the ugly and the inhuman? One hesitates to answer the question this late in the day, after we have heard the answer again and again in reference to Flannery O'Connor's deformities or Beckett's cripples. It isn't enough to say, “The world is mean, and man uncouth.” But more likely the case is that in extremity the artist finds the clarity to define his vision of the world. By clearing the page of the clutter of acceptable pieties and garden-variety realism, the artist is freed to discover moral and aesthetic connections. The artist need not beautify the world, he may do service by bringing purity and order to its ugliness.
The first and decisive test is the quality and originality of Frisk's language. Yes, it is extremely profane, foul even, so foul that it cannot be quoted at any length in a publication such as this, but its structure and syntax reveal a real ear for what speech has become and a poet's ear for the elegance of modern cadence. The book is about the process of taking forbidden materials and transforming them into art.
Cooper's language lurches about, simulating now the jerky intensity of a hand-held camera in an after-hours club, now the startling disorientation of a jump-cut, representing a lapse of consciousness or the momentary aphasia of a drug-induced blackout. This is the syntax of discontinuous contemporary consciousness; any one who has ever taken a mind-clouding chemical has felt physically the stammer and slash of these madhouse sentences. The disfiguring buzz of ums and uhs and verbal hesitations, the sentences that just stop because the speaker cannot remember what it was that he was saying, the blur of obscenities, slurred and half-meant; these are the daily banalities of language that Cooper converts into the austere rhythms that shape and distort his English.
It's a commonplace to complain about the inarticulateness, not to say illiteracy, of the current generation of Americans. Cooper turns these excrescences to aesthetic purpose, making an art form out of what is available to him: in this case, the “dead” language of people who claim to be aesthetes of the spirit while engaging in anonymous sex. These connoisseurs interrogate the body, finding the odor of the armpit “too blatant.” “Crotch, overrated. Mouth, profound.” They sample the body's secretions, verging on cannibalism. The body is being asked to speak, but it is not being asked to use words.
As Dennis begins to recognize the slightly stuporous, dark-haired boy who is his “type,” the reader begins the descent into the mind of the serial killer. Bodies become clues, valued for the secrets they have locked inside. Dennis loses track of his actual behavior, telling himself he's “perfecting his feelings,” “dissecting their physical perfection.” We witness, awed, the ongoing process of alienation from the physical world. Intimacy, physical and emotional, is replaced by a bizarre quest for ultimate knowledge, a knowledge that can only be satisfied when the body has been torn open and frisked.
Dennis, like the adult admirer of teen idols or the obsessive who fixates on porn stars, is unlikely to address the object of his desire—the result is an elaborate fantasy life that fastens upon the body. The body necessarily has no connection to personality or mind. No wonder Dennis examines orifices looking for “information”—smells, textures, tastes. The body's secretions substitute for language; revulsion and attraction substitute for emotional exchange. When Dennis begins to buy hustlers and talk to them about death and the secrets their bodies hold, the reader is held in the twin grip of repulsion and fascination. The fascination is more interesting than the repulsion, because Cooper manages to subordinate the descent into terror to the quest of the holy.
Slowly, the strategy of the book becomes clear. The faked snuff photos of the opening provide the key. It will calm no one's nerves to say so, but there is no actual murderer in Frisk. Just as the pornographer simulates a victim, using dyed cotton to manufacture a vicious-looking wound, Dennis Cooper has simulated a killer, effectively using the language of sexual compulsion to draw us in.
This is not a book that leaves one with the feeling of ease or edification. Dennis the killer mutilates the bodies of his victims, leaving only a mess behind. Dennis Cooper, a disturbing and transcendent artist, enters the mind of a killer and comes out with a genuine revelation.
SOURCE: Kaufman, David. “All in the Family.” Nation (1 July 1991): 21-5.
[In the following review, Kaufman provides a generally favorable review of Frisk, finding both merit and dissatisfaction in the novel's experimental approach.]
The very ambition to categorize so-called gay literature may be something of a self-defeating proposition: By reflecting the larger world, certainly the better examples of the “genre” transcend any categorical limitations we might infer. To insist otherwise would be to reject the assimilation captured so well in a number of new novels, and to hazard stereotypes that they deny.
This emerges as an inescapable message now that the world of commercial publishing is embracing a range of gay male novelists who refuse to depict the world according to an outmoded dualistic convention of “gay” and “straight” (as if it ever really were that) but rather as a more varied whole, the better to describe the ways in which people lead their lives, regardless of sexual orientation. In this light, what tends to be most remarkable about the fiction of David Leavitt, Paul Monette and even newer comers such as John Weir and Michael Cunningham is how unremarkable their gay characters are. These authors demonstrate that, to pervert the cliché, fiction has always been straighter than truth. (The primary exception in mainstream publishing was to allow for gay coming-of-age novels. But in comparison with the concerns of the new generation, consider how quickly even so fine an example as Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story has acquired an Uncle Tomish aura.)
Whether relieved by gallows humor or in relentlessly somber prose, AIDS is of course also a ubiquitous presence in today's fiction, where it has arrived with the same vehemence it has in our lives. Even Alice Hoffman had to get in on the act with At Risk, an exploitative and mawkish, summer-breezy novel about an 11-year-old girl (“from a perfectly average middle-class family,” as Caryn James wrote in a related profile on Hoffman for The New York Times) who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. By now it is a truism that, along with playwrights, novelists are keeping pace with the evolution of the virus and its social ramifications in ways that Hollywood and television have been avoiding like the proverbial plague it is.
The less obvious but more intriguing point is that the twin leitmotifs of assimilation and AIDS are related: The real common denominator, whether the virus is treated explicitly or not, is a coming to terms with lost possibilities, a better understanding of the life that was or might have been, in order to get the most out of the one that remains. This is true not only of so-called AIDS novels such as Weir's The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, Monette's Afterlife and Halfway Home, and David B. Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed but also of Ken Siman's Pizza Face, set in the 1970s, before AIDS was recognized, and novels such as Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World, which treats AIDS peripherally. Deliberately or not, Cunningham's novel and Halfway Home are part of a literary movement that testifies that nothing less than a new definition of the American family is in order, one that is more dynamic and capacious, more cognizant of the extended possibilities that have already permeated the society.
Although novels invested in eliminating long-held barriers between gay and straight were earlier apparent in fiction from small presses, only recently have they secured the support of commercial publishers. A turning point in literature was marked less than a decade ago by David Leavitt, with his first collection of short stories, Family Dancing, and his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, neither of which dealt with AIDS per se. (Nor, surprisingly, did Leavitt's second novel, Equal Affections, published in 1989, although his more recent story anthology, A Place I've Never Been, does to some extent.) But while Leavitt clearly emerges as a pivotal figure for a legion of writers with visions of an increasingly homogenized world, he also asks the question, At what price, penetration? Though he was seized as a gay writer to be reckoned with by the straight literary aristocracy early in his still-young career, the signs already indicate that Leavitt, in the way of most pioneers, may be sacrificed to the unavoidable concessions he made: In Leavitt's fiction, one still finds an opposition between gay and straight sensibilities, perpetuating the clash by default; this begins to explain why some militants consider Leavitt to be more “straight” than “gay.”
It is rather in the post-Leavitt landscape that the status has become even more difficult to define, the quo harder to locate—exactly the development worth celebrating. Phrased another way, it's the difference between a gay character and a character who happens to be gay, which is a lot less subtle a distinction than it may at first appear. And although Leavitt was welcomed specifically for making that leap, his mission has thus far been too self-conscious to achieve the results of some of his disciples, most notably Michael Cunningham. …
Though Halfway Home revolves around AIDS, which figures only as a hovering presence (and then, only in the later part) in A Home at the End of the World, it would appear to be a vacant topic in Dennis Cooper's latest novel, Frisk. But vacancy is a key to any appreciation of Frisk. And even though Cooper's notorious obsession with a connection between sex and death precedes AIDS (as Cooper himself has written elsewhere, “AIDS ruined death”), sooner or later it brings to mind grimmer aspects of an epidemic that has been permitted to flourish for too long.
Considering its arrival in the wake of the vacuous American Psycho, there will probably be a temptation to dismiss Frisk as imitatively sensationalistic. Unquestionably, it is equally grotesque and disturbing to read. But if Bret Easton Ellis's irredeemably disgusting claptrap has become merely the latest rallying point for a rebellion against its type of content, it would be a shame to lose sight of Cooper's more meaningful accomplishment. It is a far more worthwhile literary exercise, even as it brings to mind much earlier literary curiosities and ventures into gay sadomasochism—such as Alfred Chester's The Exquisite Corpse, and The Story of Harold, which was published under the pseudonym Terry Andrews and prompted wild speculation as to who the author really was.
Cooper has never enjoyed Ellis's popularity or success (nor will he, in view of his propensity for subversive literary experimentation and his eschewal of standard narrative formats), but he has been forging his de Sade-like investigations since the 1970s and was writing about psychosexual serial murders at least by 1982, when Tenderness of the Wolves was published. In Frisk, Cooper achieves precisely the virtues that Ellis apparently sought in American Psycho.
Frisk is unequivocally concerned with what happens after you've “stopped feeling anything,” what remains on the other side of excess, the emptiness that needs to be filled. Or as another character says, “You can get used to anything. Then you stop feeling, you just respond, your brain reduces the world to … whatever.”
On its most forthright level, the story traces the path of a first-person narrator who happened upon some pornographic photos as an adolescent that “went on to completely direct or destroy my life in a way.” We follow him as he moves from Los Angeles through New York and finally to Amsterdam, into ever creepier recesses of his own sick mind. He becomes “totally removed from almost everyone,” investing all of his energies in an intense, suppressed “interest in sexual death.”
Along the way, he meets various hustlers and punks who, via the deadening effects of drugs, become passive accomplices to his heinous acts. “My perfect type,” says the narrator, named Dennis no less, “tends to be distant, like me. I don't mean matter-of-fact, I mean shut tight. Like he's protecting himself from other people or pain or both by excising himself from the world in every way, apart from the obvious physical stuff you need to get by such as walk, talk, eat, etc.”
Cooper is indeed matter-of-fact, and it is precisely the chilling effect of his deadpan tone, his relentless objectivity, that captures our attention and retains it through the extensive pornographic passages. The sex itself somehow becomes incidental to the pathology that motivates it. His obsession inevitably leads to episodes of repugnant murders, described in grisly detail that seems designed to stretch human comprehension.
After his first of a series of murders, Dennis reflects, “I guess I'd fantasized killing a boy for so long that all the truth did was fill in details. The feeling was already planned and decided for ten years at least.” In Amsterdam, he hooks up with two German thugs who periodically accompany him to the windmill he lives in, where the unspeakable acts are committed. “They're as fucked up as I am, just not as intelligent. They kill guys because it's a kick, whereas for me it's religious or something.”
Throughout the narrative, Dennis refers to his intention of better understanding his obsession by writing a book about his fantasies, which obviously becomes the one we're reading. Though in the end, the murders are exposed as fabrications, S&M tales within S&M tales, Cooper has made his point just the same: The effect of reading Frisk is to make us impervious to our own disgust at a profusion of violence, possibly mimicking our long-term response to TV and the daily news.
Perhaps the most telling and truly autobiographical passage is one that indirectly alludes to AIDS:
I just realized the major reason I'm so nonchalant about death is that no one I knew ever died until the last few years, when I was already pretty removed and amoral. Before then, someone else dying was strictly a sexual fantasy, a plot device in certain movies I liked. When people died in those contexts, the loss or effect or whatever was already laundered before it reached me. It was a loss to a particular storyline, say, but nothing personal. So now that ex-boyfriends have started to die off, the situation is really unique, even incomprehensible. The only thing I can do, friends and journalists tell me, is cry. But the idea of death is so sexy and/or mediated by TV and movies I couldn't cry now if someone paid me to, I don't think.
What is Frisk, finally, if not an indictment of a generation left to drown in a flood of images? As Bataille once wrote regarding his notion that literature is evil, “This concept does not exclude morality: on the contrary, it demands a ‘hypermorality.’” But while Cooper is most intriguing for the heavy dose of morality he divulges through his perfectly amoral or numb tone, Frisk remains less than satisfying as a novel, which may be unavoidable for an author who repeatedly sets out to mock the novel as a form.
Though the world that Cooper portrays is exclusively gay, Frisk still subscribes to the current batch of novels that document coming of age in the past few decades—its chapter titles are dated, 1969-89.
Indeed, AIDS has not only eclipsed but also intensified the process of this thing we call life, for an entire generation of writers old before their time. It is a matter of supreme irony that gays should be coming to life in such numbers on the page, assimilated into mainstream publishing, just as we are dying in such numbers on the street.
SOURCE: Byrne, Jack. Review of Frisk, by Dennis Cooper. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (fall 1991): 280.
[In the following review, Byrne discusses the perverse themes and obsessions in Frisk.]
“When Dennis is thirteen, he sees a series of photographs of a boy apparently unimaginably mutilated. Dennis is not shocked, but stunned by their mystery and their power; their glimpse at the reality of death. Some years later, Dennis meets the boy who posed for the photographs. He did it for love” (jacket). Frisk is about what happens between Dennis's first look at such “snuff” shots and his last look at the reality behind the “snuff” and things created for the boys in the back room: “The wound is actually a glop of paint, ink, makeup, tape, cotton, tissue, and papier-mâché sculpted to suggest the inside of a human body.” Is murder the ultimate experience? Dennis Cooper goes beyond the question; he asks “What is it to touch skin, smell it, taste the body's secretions? This is not possession. The lungs, the intestines, the brain: to hold them in bloodied hands—that is it. What is it to murder a trick, a punk, a yuppie, a boy?” Cooper's narrator, also called Dennis, wrestles with this problem throughout the novel, hoping to exorcise the overwhelming desire to experience firsthand the murder of a certain type of victim: “Over the years I've decided or figured out that there's a strain of the human race I'm uncontrollably drawn to. Male, younger, lean, pale, dark-haired, full-lipped, dazed looking.” Clearly, for Dennis, this is the prelude to incipient necrophilia accompanied by latent homosexuality, and a growing interest in the usual laundry list of the pervert's dream of Turkish delights—“three ways, rimming, and drugs,” s & m, booze, mescaline, massage parlors, hard-core and soft-core sex magazines, porn videos, splatter films, marijuana, hash, crack, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down, buckle me with belts, belt me with buckles, all leading to the fantasy of fantasies, murder, dramatized in recent years as snuff movies, those little-seen attempts to market the ultimate horror—the “murder” of helpless victims to satisfy some of those who live for the love that dare not speak its name, in Wilde's phrase, many of whom “see homosexuality as a journey with stages—beginning with humiliation and ostracism, proceeding to glamour and sprezzatura and (after the boyfriends), either seeking a sort of domesticity or rotting in lechery.” Frisk is about the lechery of the mind, the obsession with murder and death acted out in fantasy and bordering on the possibility of actually murdering the victim, ending with the ultimate snuffing out of life. Poor Dennis's apologia of sorts comes when he pouts, “Maybe … if I hadn't seen this … snuff. Photographs. Back when I was a kid. I thought the boy in them was actually dead for years, and by the time I found out they were posed photographs, it was too late. I already wanted to live in a world where some boy I didn't personally know could be killed and his corpse made available to the public, or to me anyway. I felt so … enlightened?” We should remember that in this fantasy world a real snuff film is like the abominable snowman—we have yet to see a real yeti!
SOURCE: Van Leer, David. “Beyond the Margins.” New Republic (12 October 1992): 50-3.
[In the following review, Van Leer discusses the problematic categorization of gay literature and offers a tempered review of Discontents, which he praises for its subversive angle but criticizes for its inclusion of banal experimentalism.]
Homosexuality in literature takes many forms. A teacher suspects his motives for wishing to separate a pupil from his parents. A black American sees his affection for a bisexual African as a kind of economic exploitation. A transvestite dishes the writer Brett Easton Ellis and teases the nipples of the rock star Adam Horovitz. The diversity of these stories might lead some to wonder whether there is such a thing as “gay literature.” Indeed, the meaning of the category is the subject of a vigorous if implicit debate in the new anthologies promoting gay fiction. (In recent years the anthology has become the preferred method for introducing gay literature to a wider readership. Publishers want to demonstrate the variety of gay writing, and to do it quickly before more of the writers fall to AIDS.) Despite their admirable motives, however, the new anthologists have found it harder to tie together such a diverse body of material. …
A more confrontational sense of the relation between sexuality and literature is offered in Dennis Cooper's Discontents: New Queer Writers. For Cooper, both sex and fiction are sites of political struggle. Recently some activists have begun to attack the '60s notion of homosexuality, objecting that the post-Stonewall liberation movement, in promoting a “gay sensibility,” really addressed only the white middle-class males in the community. The most obvious sign of such prejudice was the hostility toward women and black men in the gay meccas of the Castro, West Hollywood, Greenwich Village, and Fire Island. Substituting the word “queer” for the tainted word “gay,” the new activists dissociate themselves from what they decry as the racism and the sexism of “gay” culture, and from the nonconfrontational political tactics of the Gay Liberation movement.
It is in the general context of this furious debate between older liberal gays and younger radical queers that Cooper locates his authors. His collection stands as a “wake-up call” to traditional gay anthologies, with Cooper playing rebel leader to White's role of elder statesman. As with Queer Nation, the activist group most concerned with revolutionizing “gay” politics, the debate begins as one about minority representation. White's authors [in The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction] are almost exclusively white middle-class urban males. Cooper's “queer” collection is more diverse. It includes work by women, and by men who are neither white, middle-class, nor on the Castro-Village circuit.
These differences concerning race and gender originate in a fundamental disagreement about literature. For Cooper, the true villain is not the elitism of White's stories but their aesthetics, their belief that fiction should realistically describe human emotions and situations. Rejecting the careful plotting and the elegant prose of the conventional short story, Cooper's fictions are self-consciously experimental—both “ultraliterary” and “postliterate.” Few are concerned with character development, or with narrative. Many challenge the distinction between fiction and non-fiction by presenting themselves as whacked-out autobiography. Playlets and odd typography interrupt even the most straightforward narratives. “Alternative” cartoons are interspersed amidst the prose. And the whole is peppered with violence and vulgarity—sadomasochism, disembodiment, and excrement.
Such experiments can seem like just business as usual among the terminally hip. Writers like Dorothy Allison and Gary Indiana temper their vulgarities with poetic cadences. But many aspire so little to a high literary style that their works seem less postliterate than preliterate, less cutting edge than dull. At its best, what saves the indifferent prose from degenerating into verbal assault is its humor. The wittiest piece in Cooper's collection is “Myself Sexual,” Vaginal Creme Davis's diatribe against L.A. trendoids, a camp monologue that is two-thirds drag review and one-third Finnegans Wake.
But the barbs strike deeper when they are directed inward. Halfway through the book, Canadians Johnny Noxzema, G. B. Jones, and Jena von Brucker meet for their “Naked Lunch,” a trashing of everything about the gay punk scene from William Burroughs and trust fund performance artists to this book itself. The grumpy dialogue forgoes the high wit of the Algonquin for the low dish of the ladies who lunch. But whatever the conversation's strictly literary merit, it is admirable for refusing to dignify with high seriousness the supposedly solemn topics of coming-out and the “broad scope” of gay literature. Cooper's feisty collection offers a welcome antidote to the apologetic stateliness of the traditional gay anthology.
Still, it is possible to wonder what part queerness plays in these fictions. In such a surreal setting, of course, sexuality does not surface as anything so pedestrian as an identity crisis. These writers reject coming-out anxiety as just more middle-class angst. “Queerness” need not even imply sexual activity at all. In these stories it resides not in plot, but in tone and style. Homophobes frequently use negative adjectives of extravagance, like “outrageous” and “flamboyant,” to characterize homosexuals, but this anthology turns that cliché on its head by implying that, yes, extravagance and homosexuality are the same. Queerness is (as the back cover of Cooper's anthology announces) inherently “transgressive,” and transgression is naturally queer.
The differences between the anthologies, then, reflect the two ways in which minorities have traditionally related to the dominant culture. White reassures his readers that homosexuals are not so bad as people say, that “we are just like you.” Cooper, playing Malcolm X to White's King, or Terminator to his Shane, counters that gays are worse than people think, that they do indeed defy everything that the mainstream holds dear.
Yet however different their rhetoric, in one important respect both editors agree. Cooper and White believe that the character of the literature derives from the nature of the individual writers. That is, gay literature is different because gay people are different. To some degree, this is common sense: whatever else gay literature might be, it is literature written by gay people. Still, this particular truism is also misleading. It implies that gay writers imbue their writing with something special that makes the literature essentially gay, and encourages us to search for this essence in people rather than in writing. Defining literature as an outgrowth of personality, Cooper and White ignore a fundamental danger of minority studies: that a certain way of describing the special character of gay literature may reinforce cultural clichés about who gay people are. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish a positive cultural characteristic from a negative cultural stereotype. No definition of minority literature can be any better than the concept of minority that underlies it. It is no less discriminatory to say that gays are naturally transgressive than to say that they are naturally hairdressers.
Neither Cooper nor White has fully considered how sexuality or any other special interest informs literature—or more generally, what it means to write minority fiction. Minorities do not write minority fiction because they cannot write as well as “major” writers; though he was doubly “minor,” Baldwin was undeniably among the finest American writers of his generation. Nor does the minority status of their work arise from the fact that it deals only with issues relevant to a small subsector of the population: all writers depict general truths through specific experiences, and only later does rafting down the Mississippi or bullfighting in Pamplona seem universally significant.
In a sense, minorities do not write “minority” fiction at all. The minority label originates not with individual writers, but with a culture that makes a priori judgments that some subjects are universal and other subjects are merely personal. And superior literary skill does not really transcend these prejudices. In those masterpieces—Moby-Dick or Remembrance of Things Past—that contain elements of both the major and the minor, readers simply repress those aspects that seem like special interests. We remember the whiteness of the whale, but we forget Ishmael and Queequeg's night in bed.
Writers who self-consciously accept the minority (and minoritizing) label are faced with an additional problem. They wish to suggest that certain material not often represented in fiction is worthy of literary consideration. Classic gay novels like Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and more recently Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, Larry Duplechan's Blackbird, and Jack Fritscher's Some Dance to Remember all introduce readers to settings and psychologies that had not previously been depicted in literature. In so doing, they enlighten straight readers, but they also have a more particular mission for gay readers, which is to reassure them. They tell people who might otherwise have thought themselves abnormal that many share their sexual interests.
Yet this admirable desire to explore new literary material can itself turn limiting. In depicting homosexuality, novelists tend to focus on the small percentage of gay people's lives that is different, and to diminish the emphasis on the larger part of those lives that is presumably the same as everyone else's. The unintentional result is to reinforce the stereotype of gay difference, even to exoticize the sexual practices that they mean to naturalize. Novels about being gay have very little time to be about anything else. In putting homosexuality into literature, they tend to leave the world out of homosexuality.
The question remains, then, whether we can have a gay literature that is not merely about its own gayness, but is true to the variety of ways in which gays relate to each other and to the world. It is interesting to note that at present the possibility of such a complete representation is more fully realized outside the literary tradition of the novel. Science-fiction writers such as Samuel R. Delaney and Thomas M. Disch, mystery novelists such as Richard Stevenson and Michael Nava, and humorists like Joe Keenan place homosexual characters at the center of otherwise traditional genre situations. The very fact that these works are about other things—exploring worlds, solving murders, getting laughs—requires their authors to make their sexual points indirectly. Homosexuality in these popular works is simply taken for granted. And while the result is a fairly conventional use of the genres, these stories do manage to portray more fully the experience of gay people in the world than many more self-conscious works of gay literature. …
After Stonewall, gay writers were impatient with the accommodations that previous generations had made in order to be permitted to discuss sexuality at all. With their new candor and their confrontational style, gay writers and queer writers of the past twenty years managed to open up literature to a serious examination of non-traditional sexual desires. But any opening up can become its own kind of trap. Once gay writers could not talk about sexuality. Now that seems to be all that they can talk about. Gay authors today face not only the commercial challenge of whether to write for a crossover market; they face also the aesthetic challenge of how to depict a world beyond the narrow confines of the individual consciousness. Such scope, which is the beginning of real literature, requires a more inclusive understanding of the ways in which people are gay, and a wider social sense of the environments in which homosexuals must live. If gay literature fails to address the diversity of which sexuality is only one facet, it truncates the experience of the homosexual life. Far from liberating ourselves, we may find that we have exchanged the closet for the pigeonhole.
SOURCE: Cooper, Dennis, and Jonathan Bing. “Dennis Cooper: Adolescent Rebellion Propels His Dystopian Vision.” Publishers Weekly (21 March 1994): 48-9.
[In the following interview, Bing provides an overview of Cooper's life, literary career, and thematic concerns and relays comments from Cooper regarding his work and critical reception.]
In the tradition of the best grass-roots art, Dennis Cooper has been publishing his poetry and fiction at the margins of the cultural marketplace, in fanzines, chapbooks and obscure literary journals, since graduating from high school in the early 1970s. Yet many of Cooper's readers only know of his most recent work, a series of slim and startling books from Grove Press—the novels, Closer and Frisk, and the short-story collection Wrong—each an ice-cold glimpse of gay teenaged sexual turmoil, drug abuse and obsessive violence rendered in his signature spare and meticulous narrative style.
At once clinical and creepily meditative, Cooper's fiction has been championed by some as a bold, dystopian vision of sexual desire and moral laxity in contemporary life, but it has also proven too unsavory for others. Even Cooper's books with Grove have until now remained cultish and marginal: his emotionally drained, gay teen and 20-something characters are hustlers, punk rockers, artists and loners who fill their time with anonymous sex, horror films, amateurish artistic ventures and random acts of self-mutilation.
With the publication of Try this month by Grove/Atlantic, Cooper may finally win over a much wider audience. Try is a wrenching portrait of a manic teenager named Ziggy who is sexually brutalized, in excruciating detail, by his two gay foster fathers. Spaced out, deeply confused and magnetically sexy, Ziggy ditches high school, struggles to articulate his own emotional turmoil by publishing a fanzine about his sexual abuse and devotes himself to his best friend, a hopelessly strung-out writer. Try presents a broader spectrum of male, female, gay and straight characters, and a far more compassionate view of the complexities of human relationships than any of Cooper's previous books, broadening the horizons of his fictional world while retaining its stylistic tautness and its power.
Cooper receives PW in his modest East Hollywood apartment on a sunny Saturday a few days after the Los Angeles earthquake. Compared to the malevolent look of his publicity photos, the 41-year-old author, dressed casually in a T-shirt, black jeans and white Converse sneakers, is genial, with pale, angular features that give him a lanky and ascetic appearance. Asked how he's weathered the earthquake and its aftershocks, Cooper admits, “I'm really enjoying it. I know it's terrible, but I grew up with it.”
Like the disaffected teens of his fiction, Cooper came of age, in his own estranged and unhappy fashion, in Arcadia, Calif., an improbably named, affluent Los Angeles suburb. “I was raised very badly,” he points out. “I was a mess and miserable and did a lot of drugs.” Cooper attended a private boys' school and began writing obsessively after discovering Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade at the age of 15. At that stage, he explains, “I was writing these weird parodies. I wrote this whole novel that was based on The 120 Days of Sodom, and I took all the guys in high school that I wanted to sleep with and I cast them in it and just killed them off.”
Cooper was expelled from private school in 11th grade, which raises the question of whether his subsequent fixation with high school reflects a desire to come to grips with whatever trauma he experienced at that age. “There's no literal event it's about,” he shrugs. “I set them in high school because I like young people, and because I just resist the adult world.” Cooper's voyeuristic fascination with adolescent runaways, punks and social castoffs has led some to view him as the Jean Genet of the American suburbs. Indeed, the glory that Cooper, like Genet, finds in social abjection reflects a relentless revolt against authority, and adults appear in Cooper's fiction in the most reprehensible roles—as serial killers, cold-blooded fetishists or drunk and neglectful parents. “I always hated adults, and I still do,” he observes nonchalantly. “Most of my heroes were rock stars or writers, so I had imaginary adult mentors more than real mentors.”
But, according to Cooper, the conflicted desires and hang-ups of adolescence make the strongest grist for his fiction. “It's a point at which your childhood's eating at you and adulthood's eating at you and you're just in chaos. I feel like that's the truth or something. People in that state are in touch with what the world's really about.”
Cooper's work is also about the ephemeral, awkward beauty of teenaged boys, and throughout his fiction, there is one recurrent physical type, a thin, pale, sleepy-eyed figure with smooth skin and untidy dark hair who tends to subsume all others. Cooper acknowledges that many of his friends are much younger than he is and that the cadences of adolescent slang and the linguistic turmoil of teenagers attempting to give weight to authentic emotions without sounding cliched remain a powerful source of inspiration. ‘What I love about living in L.A. is that type of inarticulate grasping for clarity. The way those kids talk, it's very poetic. I find them incredibly sympathetic.”
Choosing to emulate literary rebels like Rimbaud and Genet, Cooper dropped out of school after a year at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. A prolific period of writing and publishing followed, and in 1976, Cooper launched Little Caesar, a literary journal which he sought to infuse with the anarchic spirit and do-it-yourself ethic of the nascent punk scene. He also began publishing volumes of his own poetry, including Tiger Beat (Little Caesar Press, 1978), Idols (Seahorse Press, 1979) and The Tenderness of Wolves (Crossing Press, 1981). In 1983, he composed a prose poem called “My Mark,” a gritty, Petrarchan reverie for an estranged lover that was incorporated into Safe, a novella published a year later by Seahorse Press. Shortly thereafter, he stopped writing poetry altogether.
Cooper reflects with some dismay on his early writing and is not eager to see much of it reprinted. Safe was reissued by Grove/Atlantic last year in the short-story collection Wrong, a hodgepodge of older sketches and stories which Cooper now wishes had never been assembled. “Wrong has a bunch of horrible old stuff in it,” he says. “I wish it hadn't happened. My agent did Wrong as a two-book deal to get me a little extra money. I like about five things in it and the rest just embarrasses me.”
When Safe was first published, however, in 1984, Cooper suddenly gained the attention of mainstream New York publishers. Jonathan Galassi, then an editor at Random House, expressed interest in his next project, so Cooper moved to Amsterdam and confidently began work on Closer. “I was so naive. I thought, wow, this is pretty much a guarantee he's going to publish it, so I wrote it for him. And I sent it to him as soon as it was finished and he didn't like it at all.” Unagented and still living in Amsterdam, Cooper persuaded his friend, the late Chris Cox, then an editor at Ballantine, to pitch the manuscript to Michael Denneny and other major editors of gay fiction. “Nobody wanted it,” he explains. “And I was pretty despairing.” Eventually Ira Silverberg, then publicity director of Grove, showed it to Wait Bode, Grove's editor-in-chief, who bought the manuscript for ＄2000 on the condition that Cooper rewrite the first chapter. Silverberg has been Cooper's agent ever since.
Closer is an ingenious conceptual study of a circle of solipsistic high school boys centering around the angelic, drugged-out George Miles, who is seduced by an older man whose fetish is to inject his lovers with novocaine and dissect them. Cooper claims to have derived the pitiless, uninfected style of Closer from the French filmmaker Robert Bresson. “No one's seen his work but he's like my god. There's a kind of monotony to it and a kind of hermeticism. In Closer, what I was trying to do was to flatten everything out into these equal paragraphs so it's almost like you're watching a train track, so it would numb everything out.”
Closer also relates the serial iconography of the mass media to the repetition-compulsion of serial murder, a theme Cooper explored fully in his next novel, Frisk, published by Grove two years later. “By the time I was finishing Closer, I knew what I didn't like about it anymore,” Cooper explains. “I wanted to work on the violence more. That's what Frisk came out of.” Frisk depicts the fantasy life of a character named Dennis, who at age 13 encounters some snuff photos of a disemboweled teenager. Obsessed with the notion of killing the boys he picks up for casual sex, Dennis later moves to Amsterdam and pens a letter home describing a series of ritualistic murders he claims to have committed, but which prove to be imaginary.
More thoroughly than his previous work, Frisk evinces Cooper's fascination with human flesh and with the sexually laden pathological desire to open the body up to explore its secret interior. “I believe Sade,” Cooper states bluntly. “The information about life was there, the horror and power abuse. The idea that the body is this package, there's no spirit or anything, it's just this machine and if you take apart the machine then you'll understand it, but you'll never understand it even then. Life's so hopeless. Frisk was a confrontation,” he adds. “Frisk seduced you into believing something was true, and then left you with your own pleasure or whatever you got out of that experience.”
Although Cooper has avoided the denunciation one might expect from the political right (as Edmund White observed, “This is the very stuff of Jesse Helms' worst nightmares”), he has been the target of much criticism from gay-rights activists. During the book tour for Frisk, says Cooper, “People would come up to me and say: you have no right to do this.” The most shattering attack followed a reading at A Different Light in San Francisco, where Cooper was approached by two men who handed him a pamphlet headlined “Dennis Cooper must die.” It consisted of drawings and quotes from the savage reviews in area gay papers. “I freaked out,” Cooper recalls. The pamphlet had been produced by a faction of Queer Nation, which had conducted a literal-minded reading of his work and deemed it politically dangerous. “The idea was that fiction was real, and that by killing them in my fiction I had really tried to kill them. It didn't make a lot of sense.” Cooper eventually found a mutual friend who put him in touch with the director of the group, and the death threat was officially lifted.
Nevertheless, he is still dogged by criticism that his work is sadistic and politically irresponsible. “My response is that for better or worse, gay identity doesn't interest me. It never has. Everybody in my work, until the new book, has been gay. It's a hermetic world, it's a closed system. And they're not interested in their sexual identity. It's one of the few things that isn't a problem for them. They're totally happy about being gay. I'm totally happy with being gay. If anything, being gay should allow a massive amount of freedom in terms of the imagination. So I feel like that's just pure policing.”
Cooper contends that such literal interpretations often fail to grasp the experimental ideas and complex aesthetic effects he seeks to achieve in his books. “I always want them to come from a place that's not conventional and then only get conventional when they absolutely have to make a point or to keep the eye moving down the page.” In Try, however, Cooper avails himself of more traditional narrative techniques, and as a result, Ziggy is one of the most nuanced and sympathetic case studies in child abuse in recent fiction. Cooper acknowledges that when he wrote the novel, he was breaking off a long-term relationship and, like Ziggy, was trying to care for a friend who was addicted to heroin. “It was a really deep fucked-up period in my life. The book was kind of to ground myself in the real world.” He adds, “Ziggy's the first character I've ever done who is trying to understand what's happening to him. And he hasn't gotten very far, but he's trying, and that's like a big step.”
Although pleased with the security he's found at Grove, Cooper is wary of attracting too much attention with his new book. “It's tricky. I like the margins. I've always admired artists who've made an incredibly narrow, obsessive body of work. I feel like I'm mining this stuff that's really like a psychosis for me. It's really personal, and I'm gonna keep doing it until I'm bored with it.”
SOURCE: Viegener, Matias. “Men Who Kill and the Boys Who Love Them.” Critical Quarterly 36, no. 1 (spring 1994): 105-14.
[In the following essay, Viegener examines the American fascination with psychosexual murderers and the portrayal of homosexuals as calculating, deviant criminals, drawing attention to Frisk and Jerk for examples of the pathological, anti-social gay killer. Viegener contends that Cooper's depictions of sexual violence are not a strategy for transgression, but suggest the extreme limits of experience, self-identity, and intersubjectivity.]
The homosexual killer sits at the juncture of two great social obsessions, homosexuality and criminality. The homosexual criminal has a long history, epitomised in life in the case of Oscar Wilde and in representation in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Jean Genet made this perilous equation the centrepiece of his life's work, such that criminal desire (specifically the desire to steal, though also to kill) is not only the analogue but the very constituent of homosexual desire. In this essay, I'd like to site the work of gay writer Dennis Cooper within this tradition of homosexual pathology, linking sexual or gender difference to criminality and illness. In taking up this spectrum of destructive desire, or lustmord—murderous joy—Cooper has not only won the opprobrium of the gay community (for his nostalgia for the pathologised homosexual) but he also undermines the very basis of contemporary gay culture's identity-formation both in terms of representation and of self-image. This subject has been simmering in much recent gay culture, such as Tom Kalin's film Swoon, Todd Hayne's Poison, Fassbinder's Querelle, and in the more mainstream Apartment Zero and Silence of the Lambs. At its core is a quest for limit experiences that surpass the safety of bourgeois sexuality and a resistance—through forms of violence—to unified subjectivity.
Of all the specimens of criminality, the serial killer, heterosexual or homosexual, receives the most intense exposure in the media. He, for so he is gendered, is unlike all other criminals in that his acts are never marked by necessity; he is the only criminal whose motives are without self-interest. Since ‘motive’ is a fundamental category for convicting criminals, serial killers are a conundrum for the legal and medical professions. Incapable of ascribing ‘natural’ criminal motives to these killers, we are directed by sociologists, policemen and even true crime books to the theoretical fringes: sexual pleasure and desire are presented as the best tools to interpret their crimes. Madness is usually judged by a model of medical dysfunction—criminality as disease—much as homosexuality was once addressed as an infection or an illness. More tailored to examining the individual than his context, professional discourse can only see madness as analogous to cancer or disease, rather than as a culturally programmed dialogue.
Serial killers are spoken of as the ‘aristocrats’ of crime reporting, strangely admired both in the prisons and in the media. Better educated and with a higher IQ than most criminals, their methods are usually coldly systematic; they are able to manipulate social, media and police interactions and psychological profiles generally rate them high in ambition. Both popular wisdom and analytic culture face a profound aporia in explaining the serial killer. If sanity is primarily judged in our culture under the precepts of illness, i.e. by disorders of thought or affect, or by the incapacity to function, these killers are profoundly capable. Most of the killers in the research seem highly nuanced in their interpretation of the signifiers of desire, identity, gender and sexuality.
Crime has been the province of three major disciplines, sociology (an academic discourse), criminology (within the framework of legal and penal systems) and pathology (as determined by the medical and specifically psychoanalytical professions). These institutions are supposed to bring meaning to the crime which is beyond mere moral condemnation or superstitious fancy. One of the current sociological interpretations (Leyton, p. 14) is that sex crimes are a consequence of class difference and that murderous desire is always focused on members of the upper-middle class (ignoring the fact that many women who are killed are prostitutes, and that killers generally seem to kill within their own class and race). The most prevalent is the feminist view that considers all sex crimes as driven by hatred for the female; they are at the structural core of patriarchal ideology (Caputi, Morgan, Brownmiller). Men killed by men are assumed to be feminised, despite much evidence that it is their phallic status (autonomy, desirability) that is literally and symbolically attacked. What emerges most profoundly in the studies is that their statistic bases are always inadequate, and that all of the theorists have an underdeveloped sense of the textual nature of sex crime, of murder as a form of writing. My project here is to establish that murder is always a media(ted) act, with its partial object being the representation of desire and representation of murder itself.
It is no understatement to say that American culture is both violent—the USA has the highest homicide rate in the industrialised world—and fascinated by violence, whether in the form of the gratuitous spectatorship of highway fatalities, sensationalised reporting or aestheticised representations of violence. As Edmund Burke says in his essay on the sublime, ‘we delight in seeing things, which so far from doing, our heartiest wishes would be to see redressed’ (p. 47). Our culture famously regulates the representation of violence far more than violence itself. Writing on Genet, Sartre says that ‘it is the specter of murder, even more than murder itself, that horrifies people and unlooses base instincts’ (p. 485). Actual instances of social violence are generally presented to us in mediated form, as highly mediated objects, and we learn to read them aesthetically—take, for example, the Holocaust, or more recently, the Gulf War.1 Rather than focus on the way in which representations influence behaviour and experience, which seems to be how both conservative and liberal critiques are pointed, my course will be to look at how acts of violence are a kind of reading of crime and of the nature of desire.
The more I've read, the less I find serial killers interesting at all. They are surprisingly banal. It is the fascination with serial killers which is interesting. My interest is less in drawing a psychological profile of such a killer than in what his representation tells us about the construction of the homosexual. What motivates our fascination with him? In what ways does this figure countermand the positive identity politics of the post-Stonewall generation? Can he be said to be attacking (with vastly different agendas, from within the gay world and from the homophobic straight world) precisely this fixed identity?
Dennis Cooper's novel Frisk opens and closes with a series of five snuff photographs, a kind of haunted frame; this prologue and epilogue are titled with an infinity sign, signalling their positions as the beginning and end of the narrative universe. The first five are what haunt the first-person protagonist Dennis throughout the novel; they culminate in the victim's crater-like anus, ‘as if someone had set off a bomb in his rectum’ (p. 27). Though these photographs are later alleged to be staged, they haunt the narrator so profoundly that his only resolution in the end is to restage them. The specularity of this frame, centred around the image of the damaged anus, forms a ‘small tunnel entrance, too out-of-focus to actually explore with one's eyes, but too mysterious not to want to try’ (p. 4). This opening and closing plays on the very nature of illusion and its role in constructing both our desires and our representations of them. Desire is always preceded by representation and acting on our desires—destructive or not—is an aesthetic production: we create our objects of desire. Frisk is centred on an elaborate feint, in which Dennis the narrator deceives his ex-lover and friend into believing he's begun to actually murder young men (one of their favourite fantasies); thus the whole text starts to limn how narrative constructs desire.2
The serial killer's relationship to representation calls into question representation itself. Sexual murders (probably because they are so publicised) are among the crimes most likely to inspire copycat killings and false confessions. Serial killers, most memorably Ted Bundy, often report (to the media, of course) that pornography and/or violent pornography have inspired their crimes. Their media careers are marked by excess, by a spectacular nature that forces even the reserved, anti-sensationalist New York Times to revel in details such as Jeffrey Dahmer's frying ‘his victim's biceps in Crisco vegetable shortening’. Tabloid murders have often been the only way in which homosexuality has entered public consciousness. Rarely has the notoriously homophobic New York Times tried to render this explicitly what it is that homosexuals actually do.
What is the significance of sexual violence, as it emerges in both popular discourse (e.g. the Jeffrey Dahmer case) and the gay artist's work? Dennis Cooper focuses on homosexual gay violence with a singular vigour; his stories centre on disaffected suburban male teenagers, with their apparent inability to connect either to a normative heterosexual family or to the existing gay community. Steeped in sex, rock, drugs and violence, these recalcitrant narratives often culminate in images of murder or disfigurement against a backdrop strangely denuded of women, parents, teachers or policemen. Often excoriated by the gay community, Cooper's work is centred on the abject homosexual. Sexuality is no longer a positive self-affirming act, but a profound disruption of identity and psychic comfort. Both in Cooper's imaginary and in popular representation, the sex killer is the apex of disaffection, the killer who ‘chopped what was beneath him until no owner could claim it’ (‘A Herd’, p. 14).
Imagine wanting to speak of language and identity, of psychic mechanisms of masochism, homosexuality, subject and object, identification and desire; imagine wanting to speak of all the abject potentialities of existentialism, and to choose to do so in the language of the average Californian teenager. To do this because the intellectual language of the adult world seems even more evacuated than that of the everyday, and to do so while also avoiding the temptations of allegory—of using simple terms to tell transcendental or moral lessons. Dennis Cooper's style avoids polysyllabic words and subordinate clauses; most of his sentences are declarative and one finds hardly a latinate word. The style flattens all affect; the spiritual emptiness of this work is cast against a faint backdrop of the television as a distant spectator to the character's black mirror of desire. Cooper's characters are mostly inarticulate, their words peppered with ums, ‘etc.’, ‘like …’ and ‘whatever’. There are few metaphors and no elaborate descriptions—except in the case of sex or death—and the writing might be said to bear a relationship to American minimalism except for Cooper's absolute disdain for the kind of petty-bourgeois content of minimalism.
In the general alienation of Cooper's teenager, sexual stimulus is modulated into information, rather than desire. Explaining why he wants a hustler to leave his shit unflushed in the toilet, he tells him that the ‘information’ will ‘create a mental world … uh, wait. Or a situation where I could kill you and understand …’ (Frisk, p. 69). Desire for the other becomes the desire to know the other, to see past the limitations of ‘skin’. The narrator of Frisk, the first person ‘Dennis’, describes his perfect type, hairless, pale, thin:
My usual. Now I'm at the part in the fantasy that always fucks me over. I want him, specifically his skin, because skin's the only thing that's available. But I've had enough sex in my life with enough guys to recognize how little skin can explain about anyone. So I start getting into this rage about how stingy skin is. I mean, skin's biggest reward, which is sperm, I guess, is only great because it's a message from somewhere inside a great body. But it's totally primitive.
Dennis sits and scribbles in his journal, masturbating, ‘but inside my head the most spectacular violence is happening. A boy's exploding, caving in. It looks sort of fake since my only models are splatter films, but it's unbelievably powerful’ (p. 54). The representation of violence is inseparable from violence itself; slasher, splatter, snuff or horror films (Nightmare on Elm St, Friday the Thirteenth) are among the only cultural touchstones in Cooper's fictional universe. Cooper's characters are post-punk aesthetes whose aestheticism consists of finding a few reliable guideposts to get them through the night of everyday life. The scenario in a typical Cooper narrative always involves male adolescents in a world without adults or women. As in the world of Bataille's Story of the Eye, the adults are ineffectual or absent, forming an empty backdrop to the world of adolescent desire. Its severe minimalism, anti-melodrama, an almost-camp seriousness, and anti-bourgeois, vanguard apocalypticism are all inflections of the punk movement.
In Cooper's short story about serial killer Ray Sexton, ‘A Herd’, a similar kind of alienated desire is focused on magazine stars. They ‘were Ray's angels, freed from the limits of IQ and coordination … Teen stars’ perfections haunted him, and a vague resemblance to one or another could, more often than not, be gleaned from the face of a boy he had killed … A boy chained up or tied down, in the midst of whatever torture, might turn his head sideways and an idol's look would appear in one feature or another. … More often, he wouldn't see any resemblance until the boy died … Then what Ray had done took on meaning' (‘A Herd’, pp. 10-11).
It is only death which provides the ultimately empty object on which to cathex one's desires, but this death takes the physiognomy of the television character imprinted as the object of desire in the first place. This object is oddly blank, like Garbo's face on the Sphinx, which Roland Barthes describes as a blank screen, a profound selflessness which engenders desire (p. 70). This central concern of Cooper's allies him with a major concern of many postmodern theorists. Planted in a hyper-real culture without a space for resistance, negation, or political change, writers and artists endeavour to unveil a real which escapes simulacra. Foucault holds fast to a notion of counter-discourse which recovers subjugated constituencies, and, in other registers, Deleuze's rhizomatic and nomadic wanderings over and under codification, and even Baudrillard muses on secret knowledge and seduction. These might be subsumed into Lyotard's retrenchment to the sublime, as they dematerialise the subject within the fantasmatic pleasure of the text, and as they are ultimately anti-narrative and demonstrate a dissolution of language and representation itself. However, I believe that Cooper is both never outside representation and rather polemical in his position regarding identity and (homosexual) desire.
In the recent novella Jerk, Cooper's text unfolds over four levels of discourse. 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 he hands the audience a file of two ‘non-fiction’ stories, which introduce serial killer Dean Corll and his other accomplice, Wayne. Corll soon articulates the central impasse of the ‘intellectual’ murderer: how can one really know one's object? The inner life of the victim, his sensations, remain inaccessible. Is the victim ever ‘ours’? Corll asks his accomplices. ‘They're not ours … not even dead.’ This disquisition is answered by a Mephistophelean knock on the door: a teenager fascinated by Dean's dark magnetism. Like the other victims, he virtually offers himself. These are figures whose life is so empty, death seems possible, the most ultimate experience. ‘The worst that could happen’, says one, ‘is nothing.’
The third discourse emerges in David's puppet show, given to us in script form. Here the freakish turnaround occurs in which Dean Corll begins to speak as the voice of his victim, ‘Dean-as-corpse’. This provokes the conceptual crisis of the story: identity becomes so permeable that it is merely an act of will, as permeable as fabric. Dean tries to overcome the innate distance between killer and victim by projecting the victim as one of his television love-idols, the boy from Flipper or Dennis the Menace. This resolves the problem of interiority, since television stars have no inner lives, as Dean explains: they are only what is onscreen, pure surface. This mimicry, the ultimate act of making the corpse into a puppet, provokes Wayne into killing Dean and finally, after a third murder, David into killing Wayne. But this is not a conventionally moral judgment about the limits of murder. It is as much, as in all of Cooper's work, about the limits of representation. An appended ‘paper’ from a student in a course on ‘Freudian Psychology as Refracted through Post Modern Example’ forms the fourth layer of discourse. In an analysis of David's puppet show, the student diagnoses a loss of meaning at the core of the show, that the closer David tries to convey the events, the more distant their meaning becomes. Intelligence gives the feeling of mastery over things, but one nevertheless cannot possess those things.
While being logically arrayed, none of these four levels of discourse are privileged over the others. They form a kind of elegant double (triple or quadruple) mirroring, a kind of Jacobean play-within-a-play. During the puppet sequences, David's job is also to film the murders in Super-8, which becomes yet another layer of simulacra. The third murder is inspired by viewing these films, and the final death—David killing his fellow accomplice and lover, Wayne—occurs when he throws the camera at Wayne's head. Jerk is thus a meditation on the nature of illusion, desire and representation, and on their manifestation in the real world, as identity.
These murderers are guilty not just because they kill, but because they overidentify with their desired prey. Their sadism is a form of masochism. In his 1915 ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, Freud constructs a three-step process to explain the relationship between violence and desire. Masochism is descended from sadism by a process of reversal: all the subject's instincts include aggressive components which are directed upon its object. In a secondary stage, both the object and the aim change: the impulse to mastery is turned upon oneself and turned from active to passive. Finally, the impulse returns to an object in the world, and another person ‘has to take over the role of the subject’ (p. 232). Freud is not content with saying that masochism is a reversed form of sadism, since he still maintains that sadism is a projected form of masochism, as the sadist could not take pleasure in other's pain without having experienced masochistically the link between pleasure and pain. Within psychoanalysis, this argument is further elucidated; for our purposes, what is vital here is that Freud holds to the primacy of sadism.3 The suffering is ‘enjoyed masochistically by the subject through his identification of himself with the suffering object’ (p. 235).
If identification is at the core of Freud's ambiguity around sadism, it is also at the genesis of Cooper's characters' self-destructions. Their emptiness is self-driven, a search for a limit experience which (like ecstasy, horror, rage, hunger, fear, repulsion) is always located at the boundaries and orifices. But these limits are not the typical ‘heightened experience’ of realism or classical tragedy; they are abject. Julia Kristeva points out that they are precisely those things which break down distinctions, an abjection within which looms ‘one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable’ (p. 1).
If anything, Cooper's work is anti-psychological, opposed to any depth model. By literally showing us what's inside the body, and entering through the anus, he demystifies interiority. By reproaching the exterior/false against the interior/truth, he also takes on the identity formation of the mainstream post-Stonewall gay community. Cooper's work inhabits the stereotype of the pathological homosexual as an aesthetic strategy against endemic homophobia, though to him the gay community as it exists is also deeply homophobic and normative—in particular in framing the ideal homosexual relationship in the terms of mutuality.4 What Cooper's novels do not resemble are the critical anti-homophobic work of much of (the eighties) gay activist art. His novels invoke characters who seek loss and oblivion, who are ‘beyond good and evil’ or ‘neither good nor evil’, as Foucault put it. They are also beyond the oppositional strategies of activist art, which in this context become interpreted as merely reactive and over-rationalised.
The homosexual is suspended within a certain paradox: as manifesting either an excess of passion (which is more commonly held and somehow more forgivable—one sees this in apologies for gay promiscuity) or a strange conscious dispassion, a moral sang-froid which enables him to cross boundaries the ‘decent’ human upholds.5 Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is exemplary in this respect. The homosexual couple is manifestly repressed, over-controlled, and they see themselves as beyond the law, outside the limits; their amorality is a kind of Nietzschean anti-morality, which compels them to kill a schoolmate as a living proof of their superiority to the common laws of civilisation. When not seen as the subject of criminal passion, the homosexual serial killer is more generally represented in the media as a calculating psychopath. This is the terror of the serial killer: not his excess of passion, but his dispassion, his systematic strategies. This paradigm of sexuality evacuates the notion of sex as fulfilment, as truth or comfort; sex becomes an inadequate expression, a site in which power relations are deployed to negate an inadequate fixed identity toward a kind of existential anti-truth.
All existentialist writers begin with the premise that the ontological dimension (Being) has been forced out of consciousness by the institutions and systems of a society that overvalues rationality. However, Cooper is no existentialist. His interests are no more in authenticity than they are in transgression; his novels are if anything a meditation on the inability to transgress, both literally and figuratively, on how it is impossible to murder someone without losing one's identity through an invasion of representation—all the murders that came before—just as it is impossible to ‘really know someone’. Thus his subject at base is banality, not transgression.
And if banality can be ‘overcome’, or displaced, it must be through what Bataille has termed expenditure. A rationalised cultural economy is limited to activity which is either productive or self-preservative, while expenditure reflects the thrall society has in loss, ‘in catastrophes that, while conforming to well defined needs, provoke tumultuous depressions, crises of dread, a certain orgiastic state’. Expenditure is linked to the logic of sacrifice, and examples of it include ‘luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality’ (p. 118). The stress in Bataille which so aptly applies to Cooper is that it considers the problem of surplus, of what a society does with its surplus resources: the circular ritual of destruction in Jerk is a form of unproductive social exchange, ‘generous, orgiastic and excessive’. Moral retribution would require a form of social rationalism, a coherence of the subject over narrative space. Cooper's novels are not moral tales. His notion of heterogeneous experience is on the order of the Marquis de Sade: one which disrupts the demands of the utilitarian, of an ordered and rationally productive society. Heterogeneity in this sense is a form of madness, since it evaporates the distinctions of interior and exterior central to the subject, thus demanding the dissolution of the (in this case homosexual) subject.
Walter Benjamin (‘On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’) comes to mind here: the aestheticisation of violence is the avant-garde of the aestheticisation of politics.
One might argue that the Holiday/Rodney King tape escaped this dynamic; much was made of the crudeness of the video format (a kind of aesthetics of authenticity) as essential in provoking such a strong, i.e. violent, response.
Elizabeth Young argues that at the centre of Cooper's work is the sadomasochistic anal taboo, around which he defies prurience and rejects obscenity ‘in favor of clarity and understanding’ (236). It seems to me that this disregards the element of the subject central to Cooper's fiction.
Deleuze resolves the problem of masochism in psychoanalysis by the invocation of a sadistic superego and a masochistic ego; pp. 123-34.
See David Bergman, p. 40. While discussing Joseph Allen Boone's interpretations of American quest romances, he notes therein an ‘elevation of mutuality—rather than polarity—in the male bond [which] presents a conceptual alternative to the gender inequality institutionalized by marriage in heterosexual relations’.
Both terms of this paradox are homophobic, of course. Most gay artists and writers defend or excuse the excess of passion (and seek normative patterns for it), while relatively few defend dispassion.
Roland Barthes, ‘Le visage de Garbo’, in Mythologies (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1957).
Georges Bataille, ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, in Visions of Excess, trans. A. Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
David Bergman, Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-representation in American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958).
Jane Caputi, The Age of Sex Crime (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Press, 1987).
Dennis Cooper, Frisk (New York: Grove, 1991).
Dennis Cooper, Jerk (San Francisco: Artspace Press, 1993).
Dennis Cooper, ‘A Herd’, in Wrong (New York: Grove, 1992).
Gilles Deleuze, ‘Coldness and Cruelty’, in Deleuze and Sacher-Masoch, Masochism (New York: Zone Books, 1989).
Sigmund Freud, ‘Instincts and Their Vicissitudes’, Standard Edition, vol. XII.
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia, 1986).
Elliot Leyton, Hunting Humans: Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers (New York: Pocket Books, 1986).
Robin Morgan, Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism (New York: Norton, 1989).
Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: George Braziller, 1963).
Elizabeth Young, ‘Death in Disneyland: The Work of Dennis Cooper’, in Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveny, Shopping in Space: Essays on American ‘Blank Generation’ Fiction (London: Serpent's Tail, 1992).
SOURCE: Review of Wrong, by Dennis Cooper. Times Literary Supplement (27 May 1994): 21.
[In the following review, the critic discusses Cooper's portrayal of the emotionally bereft in Wrong and Closer.]
Talking of recent fiction, the narrator of one of Dennis Cooper's short stories in Wrong observes that “The sharpest new writers tend to appropriate either the language or sheen of pornography …”. This is certainly true of Cooper's own work, which is not only arrestingly well written but graphically obscene. Where Cooper parts company with the pornographic imagination is in the traumatized humanity of his writing, and in his attempt to explore the buried emotion under the shiny surface. As the title of Wrong suggests, Cooper is something of a moralist—in the most urgent and least puritanical sense of the word—and his explorations of the further fringes of homosexual life carry a sense of lost emotional and moral bearings. The title-story features a sex killer who comes to feel: “After death, what's left. … Once you've killed someone, life's shit. It's a few rules and you've already broken the best.” This is radically unlike the more familiar tendency in late twentieth-century culture which stresses the blankness and inconsequentiality of the experience, and Cooper's work seems directed against the prevalent anaesthesia of a world which is too hip, too jaded or just too plain stupid to feel that something has gone badly astray. George Miles, the young protagonist of Cooper's most recent novel, Closer, is a case in point. George is a drug-gobbling cipher, an unusually beautiful but emotionally numb all-American kid whose inner life revolves around Disneyland rides. Cooper explores the link between vacuity and obscenity as George's “friends”—who include a phoney artist, a coprophile, and a snuff-movie enthusiast,—lust after his advert-like perfection. The porno-world that Cooper meatily dissects is one where real emotions are out of place; “they don't belong here, any more than a man's fist belongs in a boy's ass”. As the Cooper persona in one of the stories writes, it was only recently “I knew love's function, understood its context, put my reaction to it in quotes when it reared its ugly head. Now I'm holding it under this work like it's something I'm intent upon drowning.”
SOURCE: Laurence, Alexander. Review of Try, by Dennis Cooper. Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 2 (summer 1994): 222.
[In the following review, Laurence offers a positive assessment of Try.]
The writer Robert Hardin has noted “Dennis Cooper will be remembered as the most prophetic writer of his time.” These are strong words, and one can keep them in mind when reading Cooper's latest post-punk novel Try. The main character, Ziggy, is the adopted teenage son of two gay fathers with illusions of becoming respectable. Ziggy spends his time putting together a magazine called I Apologize. His two fathers abuse Ziggy sexually and otherwise. For comfort, he turns to his uncle, an overweight man who makes porn films, and to his best friend, Calhoun, who is a junkie. This deceiving little narrative shifts in point of view as it traces the lives of these strange people. Cooper fuses minimalism with new narrative techniques, references to film and video, and musical familiarity with Hüsker Dü and Slayer helps.
Cooper's fiction has always been a metaphysical struggle to fully possess the body. There is no human soul in Cooper's universe, or better yet, the body and soul are equal. When his characters try to act their wishes on the body, to produce its truth, they are sadists bordering on the impossible. Try is proof that Dennis may be the legitimate heir to William S. Burroughs. Frisk,Wrong,and Closer are an interesting counterpoint to Burroughs's earlier novels. But Cooper still hasn't written his Naked Lunch.
SOURCE: Cunningham, Michael. “Oh for a Little Despair.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 July 1994): 3, 8.
[In the following review, Cunningham offers a positive evaluation of Try.]
If Jean Genet and Paul Bowles could have had a child together, he might have grown up to be a writer like Dennis Cooper. I've learned not to push Cooper's work on just anybody, but if a friend seems even halfway receptive I usually prepare him or her by saying something like, “Cooper is appalling, but so is the modern world.” I go on to remind him or her that Lolita was generally considered perverse to the point of dangerousness when it first appeared. As was Madame Bovary.
Try, Dennis Cooper's third novel, is the story of a ravaged, omnisexual 16-year-old named Ziggy and his hopeless romance with Calhoun, a straight heroin addict who, in his own words, “hates all emotion.” The book traces their impossible love through a world so fried by drugs and brutality that a feeling as concrete as despair would be a relief. Try is a true original, full of perversely moving moments and a bleaker-than-bleak, strangely comic vision. It may be some kind of screwed-up American classic.
In his grungy L.A. loft, Calhoun floats above emotions on an icy little cloud of heroin. Ziggy, stuck in the suburbs, crackles with emotions so electric and unpredictable he can scarcely stand upright. As a “hyper-active, hard-to-place two-year-old” he was adopted by Roger and Brice, two gay men making a “stab at heterosexual-style bliss.” The bliss thinned out quickly, Roger moved to New York, and Brice started molesting Ziggy the year Ziggy turned 8. Now Roger has decided it's his turn with Ziggy. He flies back to Los Angeles from New York with sedatives and a pair of skintight Lycra bikini shorts for his adopted son.
Ziggy copes as best he can by fixating on Calhoun, by sleeping with a kind and pretty rich girl named Nicole, and by insisting that every new atrocity practiced on him is good material for his homemade magazine, “I Apologize: A Magazine for the Sexually Abused.” To sidestep the avalanches of terror and self-hatred that periodically overwhelm him, he writes up his tales of abuse—sometimes as they're happening—with avid detachment. He's like a journalist blandly reporting his own murder.
Calhoun, roughly equally damaged, depends on Ziggy's devotion but will not, can not, respond. For Calhoun, an actual emotion would be too ragged and harsh. It's better to shoot up and drift away. He's ostensibly writing a novel, which appears only as a spectral presence on his laptop, “that glimmering rectangular blueness, that spooky night light.” The laptop is always turned on but never, ever, used.
Dennis Cooper has been charting the course of scarred, nervous lives like these for almost a decade and a half now. His novels, stories and poetry work and rework a few essential … the word themes is probably too mild. The word obsessions may even be too mild.
In Cooper's fictional world, love and torture are so closely related as to be nearly indistinguishable. Emotional connection is too difficult, so Cooper's characters invade their loved ones' bodies in search of the fundamental human essence that's getting blocked on every other channel. Cooper's lust objects tend to be young boys, and I mean young boys. By age 10 or so, they're viable. By 16 or 17, they're over the hill.
Try is Cooper's least horrifying novel, and it may also be his best. In his last novel, Frisk, a character fantasized about torturing a little boy in such salacious detail that I remember thinking, as I read it: “This is a fascinating book, and when I'm finished reading it, I don't want it in the house.” Cooper is a scary guy, and reading him doesn't feel particularly safe. One moment you feel as if you're in the company of a significant artist who doesn't flinch over the numbed violence of our lives right now. The next moment you feel like a kid who's hitched a ride with John Wayne Gacy.
In Try, Cooper lightens up a little without sacrificing any of his edge, though anyone who reads Try without knowing the larger body of Cooper's work may be hard pressed to imagine that it involves a “lightening up” of any kind. In Cooperland, when a 13-year-old overdoses, the man he's been sleeping with doesn't call the hospital; he calls a gentleman who'll pay top dollar for a few hours alone with the corpse. At least in Try he closes the bedroom door.
Cooper's fiction bridges a gap between the behavior chronicled in Literature with a capital L and the behavior chronicled in the juicier newspapers, the ones that keep us informed about serial murders and fetishes that end in death. Cooper is important because he aims his flashlight beam toward the darkest places; he's frightening because he admits to having an appetite for whatever he finds there.
Cooper's voice is full of a zoned-out adolescent poetry, at once brimming with emotion and reticent about showing any emotion at all. He's Mr. Cool—grand passions are for geeks. The most he'll allow his characters is scraps of intimacy and a vaguely apologetic devotion to highly diluted beauty.
There are times when Cooper's vision feels as grimly, impenetrably romantic as an adolescent's, and subject to adolescent limitations. Even as a fan I've found myself growing impatient with a world so resolutely centered on the young, white and miserable. It can feel like a cramped little universe, more generously filled with morbid curiosities than actual truths. It can be hard to remember that this is the same planet and species that produced Tolstoy, Dickens, Garcia Márqúez, Toni Morrison.
With Try, however, Cooper extends his range. Women (well, girls) appear for the first time as sympathetic characters and as objects of desire. Love exists beyond the worship of the flesh, and some kind of grubby, compromised redemption might even be possible. The limitations imposed on the characters in Try are not wholly different from the limitations of the culture in general, in that soaring emotions aren't all that easy to maintain in the face of assorted addictions, endless violence and a sorrow so large it doesn't really have a name. After reading Try you might feel, at least for a while, that almost every other contemporary American novel is a little forced and melodramatic, full of wishful thinking rather than hard human facts.
Cooper is an important and highly idiosyncratic writer, with a nose for some of the least presentable living odors. In Try he has produced a harrowing, intricately accomplished work of art. It should be read. It might even endure, if that doesn't sound too geeky.
SOURCE: Limsky, Drew. Review of Try, by Dennis Cooper. Lambda Book Report 4, no. 5 (July-August 1994): 35.
[In the following review, Limsky judges Try as overly self-conscious and redundant.]
It's not easy to care about a cast of characters composed of junkies, pedophiles and necrophiliacs, and who are continually described in terms of their filth, yet readers may develop a grudging affection for Ziggy, the hapless protagonist of Dennis Coopers third novel, Try.
The product of an abusive upbringing, Ziggy is a mess. One of his two gay fathers, Brice, has been molesting the eighteen-year-old since childhood, and Roger, Brice's ex and Ziggy's other father, habitually fantasizes about rimming his son; he writes Ziggy a series of letters delineating his proficiency in this and other anal-related activities. Disturbingly, every male character over thirty in Try is preoccupied by the anuses of adolescent boys; in fact, the novel is so replete with references to that orifice, that to accurately describe the story's action one would quickly deplete his store of synonyms for “asshole” and have to invent new ones.
Ziggy is in love with the straight Calhoun, who has shot up so much heroin that he can no longer locate receptive veins; Ziggy doesn't register the fact that his intermittently catatonic “best friend” is incapable of having a relationship with anything other than a syringe: “‘You mean so much to me,’” Ziggy tells his day-tripping pal. “‘You mean a lot to me too,’” Calhoun responds, “‘but you know, shut up.’” “‘Right.’ Ziggy responds, smacking his lips together.” Rebuffed by Calhoun, Ziggy falls into bed with his classmate Nicole, the transsexual Cricket, and eventually, one of his fathers (voluntarily, this time). It soon becomes clear that the scarred teenager is looking for love wherever he can find it; he's so emotionally available and so sexually accommodating that he's a parody of neediness.
Yet Ziggy—who spends his free time publishing a magazine for victims of childhood abuse, called I Apologize—emerges as a figure of not insubstantial resourcefulness and pathos, particularly when he's holding forth on his feelings. In a moment of uncharacteristic assertiveness, Ziggy exclaims to one of his sex partners, “‘If you loved me … you wouldn't rim me while I'm crying.’” Cooper makes Ziggy funny in spite of himself, though one can't help feeling that neediness is an easy target.
The author of the novels Closer and Frisk continues to push the envelope, not only in subject matter, but also in language. Cooper's voice is edgy and crisp, and his sensibility is unshockable, full of been-there-done-that attitude. His exhausting prose is characterized by etceteras and ellipses and loose-cannon sentences that go on for eight or ten lines, then snap into place, or not. He is often darkly funny, but his writing is too studied, too self-consciously post-post-modern in a Douglas Coupland sort of way, to seem truly free-associative, as is his intention. Too often the jazzy rhythm of his sentences remain in the reader's mind while content evaporates.
And many readers will simply find the book's rewards too scant for all the repellent acts—the necrophilia scenes are as clinical and odious as in American Psycho—one must endure. Cooper conveys an utter disgust with the human body in general, and one might tire of the sameness of the characters, who all seem obsessed with bodily scents, pausing at length to contemplate their own fetid armpits. Cooper wants to let us know that we're all dirty, disgusting, and guilty of abusing each other, and all that may reverberate with some readers; then again, it's conceivable that one could plod his way through Try just waiting for someone to bathe.
SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Far Out.” New Statesman and Society (30 September 1994): 56.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott offers a positive assessment of Try.]
Dennis Cooper's urgent and uncompromising fiction reduces the critical mainstream to bemusement, and draws polemical support from admirers who recognise its rhythms. This is true of all cultish writing, but Cooper deserves more than cultishness because his work is genuinely innovative and draws from wide cultural sources to develop its confrontational poise.
Baudelaire wrote of three pursuits “worthy of respect” in My Heart Laid Bare: “to know, to kill and to create”, and these are Cooper's parameters too. Books like Wrong,Closer and Frisk are full of violent sex but for Cooper, though “sex is the ultimate intimacy … it's not enough.” In all his writing, sex contains transcendent possibilities in the form of a metaphysics of desire punctuated by death. Divinity takes the form of a kiss, the rectum is a source of profundity and, in Frisk, he has the character Dennis write about “killing cute guys” as “some kind of ultimate truth.”
Cooper's antecedents are clear; from Nietzsche and Sade through Bataille, Burroughs and contemporary cultural theory. He knows exactly what he is doing in his fiction, the boundaries he crosses and those he balances on, and his direct, taut prose rarely snags on itself. But it is the audacity of the writing, perfectly mirrored in its subject, that propels Cooper towards the rank of high stylist.
Try has Cooper's familiar ingredients but in different proportions. Less extreme, it is also more complex and accomplished. It is about teenage Ziggy and his relationships with his estranged adoptive fathers, his snuff movie-making “Uncle” Ken, his experiments with Nicole and his love for heterosexual novelist and heroin-using Calhoun. Ziggy lives with his “main dad” who has beaten and raped him since he was eight, and the novel follows what happens when his “other dad” Roger, a music journalist, arrives in LA after Ziggy agrees to have sex with him, “which is probably this huge mistake”. The soundtrack is Husker Du and Slayer, but the book's rhythm is taken from Céline's triple dot device: tick, tick, tick, pump, pump, pump, tick, tick, tick.
Try gradually accumulates tangential fragments until they form a tightly assembled whole with the fragility of a burnt book. A pivotal scene involves Ken filming his abuse of a drugged boy who later ODs, Ziggy interviewing both for his magazine for the sexually abused (Slayer), Impressionism and a violent necrophiliac. The whole thing is a “revelation” and “cool” for Ziggy, who leaves early with the Slayer tape. Ken says “I had a great time. I did.” The scene is grotesquely funny, clever and unsettling, and exemplifies Cooper's gambit.
His writing represents and does not analyse desire; the only flaw here is the overtly ridiculous voice of Roger, who is too articulate about his fantasies. But Cooper's triumph in Try is to be able to write about extreme experience and even recover a redemptive vocabulary without relying on ironic strategies or the easy collapse into satire.
SOURCE: Jackson, Earl, Jr. “Death Drives across Pornotopia: Dennis Cooper on the Extremities of Being.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1, no. 2 (1994): 143-61.
[In the following essay, Jackson studies the interrelationship of sex and death in Cooper's fiction and the author's explorations of the limits of self-knowledge and metaphysical longing, as depicted in scenes of ritualized sexual violence and physical degradation and mirrored in the simulacra of voyeurism and pornographic images.]
You go not till I set you up a glass Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Hamlet 3. 5. 19-20
Perhaps our true sexual act consists in this: in verifying to the point of giddiness the useless objectivity of things.
Like Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs before him, Dennis Cooper writes consistently within predominantly male homosexual contexts, but his subject is rarely “homosexuality” per se. Moreover, the sexual practices thematized in Cooper's work are not part of an identity politics, but are rather subordinated to an investigation into the interior of the body, a movement of objectification and obsessive violation of the body's contours, a peering inside the costume of the person to his real location. Of the generally accepted erotogenic zones, the penis receives far less attention than the anus and the mouth: orifices, ruptures between the surface of “personality” and the murky labyrinths within, apertures into the more tenebrous realities of the organism.
Cooper's concerns, however, are decidedly inflected and nuanced by the sexual orientation of his male characters. The violence in his writings can be articulated “as a kind of studying the self” without participating in or extending the history of male violence against women that complicates similar themes in heterosexual literature and film (qtd. in Meyer 64). Furthermore, the AIDS epidemic is often a non-explicit horizon of Cooper's writing—a terrible historical accident that imposes an unanticipated literalness upon the risks to the body and the self that sex constitutes in much of his work.1 As he writes in “Dear Secret Diary”: “When I'm fucking someone and he accidentally falls off the bed I like to pretend he's about to be shot for trying to defect. Or I did before AIDS ruined death” (5). The present essay is an attempt at a critical account of Cooper's meditations on sexuality and death in his major works, and of how their dynamics not only delimit but also inform human experience.
THE MELANCHOLIA OF DESIRE: “SQUARE ONE” AND “A HERD”
Cooper's early work celebrates the boys who were the targets of his youthful sexual obsessions (Tiger Beat,Idols). From The Tenderness of the Wolves on, however, there is a shift to an exploration of the vagaries of desire itself—its nature and its location in and among the bodies of both its subject and its objects. Cooper's meditations on the enigma of desire are perhaps most densely encapsulated in “Square One,” a highly personal essay on pornographic film as both a rehearsal of that mystery and a clue to its intractable solution. Here Cooper demonstrates how fantasy and memory condition sexual experience and give reality its lie. “Square One” has three foci: Jeff Hunter, “star of half a dozen videos and films … [whose] physical makeup fits my master plan for the ‘ideal sex partner,’ a guy I've refined from my 15 or more years of fucking and fantasizing” (83); George M., a “long-lost friend and Jeff lookalike … the most focused part of what I'd fashioned into a sex life in '71” (85); and “Ron, Rod, or Rob,” someone Cooper “had sex with in a dark hall behind the screen” (89).2
Cooper retraces the history of his interest in Jeff Hunter from his first viewing of Pacific Coast Highway to finding Jeff accidentally several years later, burnt out and being fistfucked in a porno magazine. In reflecting on his attraction to Jeff, Cooper realizes that it stems from Jeff's resemblance to Cooper's “long-lost friend,” George. At the point of this recognition, the narrative scene alternates between a porn theater where a Jeff Hunter film is playing and memories of seducing George as a teenager. Cooper attempts to extricate memory from fantasy through a real sexual encounter in the theater:
I just had sex in a dark hall behind the screen. I stretched out on a filthy mattress with someone named Ron, Rod, or Rob. … I don't know who I expected to fuck but it wasn't a poorly lit man whose name I couldn't catch. …
I felt like saying, “You're sweet,” but it didn't suit the occasion. So I said, “Bye, Ro-,” muffling the last consonant to be safe.
When I was with Ro- I thought of someone else. First Jeff reared his jaded head. I grabbed Ro-'s ears, shoved my cock up his ass until George's face came up for breath.
“Real sex” seems to obfuscate the mechanisms of desire more than it illuminates them. In fact, the real experience on “the filthy mattress” gained its significance parasitically from the fantasy and the memories that circumscribed it. The relation between Jeff and George is clearer, but no more consoling:
They're distinct. George is the beauty. Jeff's the statue erected of him in a public place, so he'll remain aloft. … Jeff's just the shadow that falls across us when we're at certain points in our lives. By now we know what we've missed and become depressed. I'm a man brushing tears, imaginary or not, from my face.
The despair comes from a network of intersecting deadends: a fantasy/film image that is unfathomable because it has no depth; a memory whose essence is the sense of loss it shapes; and a genital event that can neither correspond to the power nor fulfill the promise of either of the former.
The alternation in the narrative between the Jeff Hunter film and the memories of George figures the vacillation in the modalities of the narrator's desire between mourning and melancholia, with a decided emphasis on the latter. George is the object of Cooper's mourning, Jeff of his melancholia. Mourning is the process of reconciling oneself to the loss (usually the death) of a loved one (Freud, “Mourning” 243-44). Melancholia may be triggered by a similar loss, but often with more tenuous relations to external circumstances. Often the loved one “has not actually died, but has been lost as an object of love,” as when one is “jilted” (245). Cooper's relation to Jeff maintains the logic of melancholia, but reverses its symptom: rather than the object not really being absent, here the object is not really present. Introducing Jeff into his fantasies creates an attainment that is a form of loss, which at once ameliorates and reiterates the real loss of George.
Melancholia can also arise when the subject is not conscious of whom he/she has lost, or when the subject knows whose loss he/she is mourning, but cannot understand what it is in that person that the subject has lost by losing that person (244). Much of this applies to Cooper's object-relations to both Jeff and George, even when George was present. In fact, the conditioning factors of melancholia describe some of the pervasive features of desire as Cooper elaborates them throughout his works. What Cooper lost in George is that which one needs from the object of desire, but Cooper characterizes his sexual relationship with George with the same melancholic inability to ascertain what that is and for what loss its attainment will compensate. Pierre, the porn star in Cooper's novel Frisk, reflects on the mysterious qualities of sexual motivations from the perspective of the “object” of melancholic desire: “[T]he way men deal with me is like I'm a kind of costume that someone else, someone they've known or made up, is wearing” (67). Recalling a client who had been sexually enthralled with him, Pierre said his lovemaking was “like if I was where someone had buried some sort of treasure or antidote to something malignant in him” (87).
The riddle that is incessantly posed to the desiring subject is the nature of the attraction, and the relation of the body desired to the person desired, a riddle whose frustration is most dramatically expressed in “Square One” when Cooper admits that “It was [George] I imagined my cock entering each night, not just his flimsy ass, though that's the first thing I opened when I got the chance” (85). The plots and themes in Cooper's texts often involve the same operative paradox: the persistence of obsessive metaphysical gestures within a radically demystified world, gestures expressing a longing for that X which seems to inhere within a human object of desire that is nevertheless not coextensive with the physical body in which that desire is given shape and through which the desire is brought under control. A desire to know that X—that essence of the person—is overliteralized in acts of mutilation and murder. As Cooper continues to learn nothing of his own desire in reviewing memories of sex with George, he muses, “If I'd sliced into George I'd have been covered with blood at least. There'd be evidence, if no answer” (88).
Cooper's earliest sustained prose exploration of the relations among sexual desire, the transcendence of beauty, and horror is the story “A Herd,” which chronicles several weeks in the life of Ray Sexton, a John Gacy-like serial killer of teenage boys. Sexton begins his ritual as a voyeur, the images of the boys framed in their bedroom windows analogous to the movie screen in porno theaters:
When a boy was undressing in his room … he was relaxed. And if he was watched through a window, cut in three parts by the partly closed shades, by a viewer who had nothing gentle or worthy to do, it was very much like that boy was performing a striptease. … Everything was seen and judged from the window.
The man outside mulled an aesthetic to fit the occasion and fashioned rewards from these limits.
The visions of boys seen through the windows are an accidental and intermediate instantiation of those commodified images of desire that porn perpetuates, as do other, more pervasive media, such as the fanzines of teen idols who configure Sexton's obsessions: “[Teen magazine] stars were Ray's angels, freed from the limits of IQs and coordination, whose distant looks had a cloudy, quaalude effect.” Sexton transforms the compromise “aesthetic” of voyeuristic/consumer passivity into an active and destructively creative one through the slaughter of the boys he desires. The “star” quality that originally attracted him to his victims appears sporadically in their faces during the ordeals he inflicts—“an idol's look would appear. … Then what Ray had done took on meaning” (56).
Sexton's practices suggest a kind of dark Platonism, a searching for absolute beauty by destroying the individual accidents of its corporealizations. Diotima rhetorically asks Socrates a question to which Sexton provides a horrifying answer: “How would it be … if someone could see the Beautiful itself, pure, clear, unmixed—not infected with human flesh and color, and a lot of other mortal nonsense—if he were able to know the divinely Beautiful itself, in its unique form?” (Symposium 211E). Whatever and wherever a boy is once Sexton is finished with him, he is not “the thing on the table.” Diotima's prescribed ascent to the Beautiful requires serial experiences of the physical beauty of boys, leading to increasing generalization and abstraction. Sexton liberated the ideal from the boys' bodies, and kept it within him, checking his memory of each victim with the newspaper photographs after the bodies had been found: “Ray looked at the face of a boy in the newspaper. The young man had put his lips close to a camera and pouted. The camera had focused, flashed. The face had slid through a hole in its side, unfogging slowly” (73).
The essence of a person becomes something which radiates from the body, as a numinous simulacrum of the face that had held it captive. This version of the ideal gives it a shape intelligible to its worshippers, transforming the boys at times into idols who look down from incomprehensible distances—at once fully accessible and absolutely unattainable (like Jeff Hunter's image on the movie screen). This is also the principle of Cooper's volume of poetry, Idols, panegyrics to boys in high school he loved or longed for, and to teenybopper heartthrobs of the '70s. In the prose poem “Teen Idols” Cooper reflects on the pop-culture processes of mass-market image cathexis:
Teen idols are the best boys on the block. … Always romantic, they sign their photos “I think of you and you're beautiful” and then “love always” and then their first names. They know how to please us, to keep us hanging on.
Note the similarity of this description to Sexton's of a boy called Jay: “Ray wished he could hand this boy his photo to autograph. The boy would write, ‘loved you, kissed me, I'm yours … let's fade away’ then his first name” (“Herd” 73). Sexton made Jay a celebrity—an “idol”—by negating his existence—reducing it to the fleeting fame of a newsphoto—a photo of “someone who didn't exist.” Sexton's action is complemented by Craig in the title story of Cooper's collection He Cried, who made enlargements of the newsphotos of a serial killer's victims: “He tacks it next to the others, across his bedroom wall. Ten corpses stare through the grain like hallucinations he used to worry he'd never come down from” (Cried 30).
If Sexton represents a homicidal extension of the idealism of the Symposium, the porn theater in “Square One” is a site for a psychoanalytic inversion of the epistemology of the Republic. In Book VII, Socrates likens the unenlightened to people chained in a cave, forced to look only forward at the wall. Behind them is a flame and between the flame and the prisoners, people walk continually holding up puppets and images of animals and other objects. The only knowledge of objects those restrained have is of the shadows of the puppets projected onto the wall of the cave; such “knowledge”—eikasia—the acceptance of images as reality—is the only option for these unhappy prisoners (514 a-c). The men in Cooper's porno theater have consciously induced a state of eikasia in themselves.3
In Plato's allegory, there are at least two more levels of reality beyond that of the shadow play. The unshackled prisoner could turn from the shadow of the bull-image on the wall to see the real bull-image casting the shadow. The freed prisoner could be led out of the cave to see a real bull. No parallel options exist for Cooper's moviegoers. If the need for the real incited a revolution in the porn audience, the Platonic paradigm could not provide a basis for any reasonable or satisfactory action (in fact all actions arising from such a need would destroy the possibility of the type of satisfaction obtained by viewing the film): “[T]he screen hangs between paying customers and our ideal lovers. If we charged, ripped it down, we'd find a wall of unsupported brick” (“Square” 88).
Cooper's theater does not possess the escape exits of Plato's cave, because its patrons retain the pessimism and frustration caused by idealism, but have discarded the faith in any metaphysical system that would support the epistemological teleology of Plato's allegory. The transition from shadow, to icon, to real object parallels the transition Socrates urges us to make when he condemns art in Republic X: from an artificial representation (a painting of a bed) to a tangible object (an actual bed) to the intelligible object (the Form of ‘bed’). The images on the movie screen hold no guarantee of an accession to higher forms of objects of which they are emanations. The ontological saturation of the film image itself is an ontology by default, due to a technology that can only reproduce a reality that no longer exists by the time of its re-presentation.
Unlike Plato's cave dwellers, the porno spectators actually know the difference between image and reality, but have consciously repudiated this knowledge in order to maintain a fantasy that feeds their desire. In fact, the men in the audience suspend their disbelief precisely because they know that the referent of the image does not exist. The suspension of disbelief in film spectatorship is often compared with the “split belief” of the subject's defensive disavowal of castration.4 But this contradictory belief can also reflect aberrations in the mourning process. When the subject's resistance to the reality of the object's loss is particularly great, the subject may reject “reality” and retain the object in a “hallucinatory wishful psychosis” (Freud, “Mourning” 244-45). Hallucination nullifies the distinction between a presentation in consciousness and a perception (Interpretation of Dreams 565-66); such states appear to be regressions to an earlier phase in which the child imagined objects of satisfaction not really present (Interpretation of Dreams 544-46), a habit gradually overcome by the adaptation to “reality testing” (“Two Principles” 219-21). Hallucinations are not actually brought about by a regression, but rather by the ego's withdrawal of cathexis in external reality (“Metapsychology” 231). Dreams represent a non-pathological form of this renunciation (232); film viewing is a culturally sanctioned and controlled version of this deliberate withdrawal from reality testing. The realism of a film concretely produces an analogous experience to the identification of ideation and perception. If the structural dynamic of spectatorial belief resembles a refusal to complete the work of mourning, the spectator's cathexis to the screen image enacts melancholia in its epistemological and ontological contradictions. Claiming possession of the desired object through its image is also acknowledging the impossibility of that possession. The image is object as non-existence. The spectacle of the porn-image is no longer a subject but a memorial to the abnegation of subjectivity (the subject's deliberate becoming-object of the gaze); but it is also a sign of that object's absence as well. Guy Debord writes that “the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life … as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible” (10). Cooper's texts are one such critique of the “truth of the spectacle.” In exposing that spectacle as the “visible negation of life,” Cooper also lays the groundwork for reconceiving representation as a concrete cultural elaboration of the death drive. In his increasingly psychomythic narratives in which his characters embody and enact this representational tragedy, Cooper delineates the death drive as a force whose symbolization “allows for an intuition of the unconscious, even though it is already at the level of discursive thought: a theoretical exigency, the refracted derivative of desire” (Laplanche 109).
The inevitable temporal and spatial disjunction between the scene of filming and the scene of projection gives any film a potentially elegiac aura: even in mainstream cinema, the film often shows stars no longer young or long dead, times and places no longer possible to experience as they are depicted. The mortality of the depicted real that the film image both denies and demonstrates is magnified to its most nightmarish extreme in gay male porn. Since the onset of the AIDS pandemic, there is a macabre likelihood that a significant number of the cast of any gay porno film is dead. The porn actor, who, like any film actor, gives himself up to the camera, allowing the cinematic apparatus to produce an image of him that will bracket (and thus negate) his biosocial individual particularity, may also be participating in his actual (extrafilmic) obliteration. The acts engaged in in the films also suggest the actual occasion of the infection: porn videos made since 1980 that feature unprotected anal sex may be delayed reaction snuff films. Therefore, the general paradoxes of the cinematic situation (the viewer's deliberate ascription of reality to flickering images; the cognitively full representation of a non-present world) become intensely imbued with death in the gay male porn that Cooper discusses. The films hybridize the qualities of the pop star posters, in the glamorization of male beauty, and the newsphotos of the murdered boys in “A Herd” and “He Cried,” in the funereal quality of these images. In both cases physical attractiveness is an indirect cause of death. (Eidolon, from which “idol” is derived, means both a representation of a god and a phantom of a dead person.)
The other major form of disavowal operative within the split belief of film spectatorship is the fetish. Because Cooper writes outside of heterosexual presumption, he returns “fetish” to a pre-Freudian meaning—independent of the castration complex and male fears of sexual difference. Instead the fixation on representation in lieu of referent becomes akin to a more traditional religious meaning of fetish: “An inanimate object worshipped by savages on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit. A fetish differs from an idol in that it is worshipped in its own character, not as the image, symbol, or occasional residence of a deity” (OED; see also Pietz).
Cooper's search for an absolute that would at least justify the vehemence of human need (most viscerally expressed in sexuality), if not satisfy it, recalls earlier attempts to rediscover the numinous in the phenomenal as a response to a loss of faith. In his concentration on the physical beauty of men, Cooper betrays a nostalgia for certain patterns of Western transcendence. Equating in Safe the “truth” of Mark's body to a skeleton is a virtually medieval gesture both in its iconography and in its repudiation of the flesh. In “Teen Idols” he posits the teen stars as entities “behind” their photos. In “Square One” Cooper ventures behind the screen to have “real” sex with Ro-. Reality is behind the veil, but it is a disconsolate discovery, and one that leaves the ineffability of the screen images intact. It is interesting too that instead of following Plato's cavemen out into the sun, Cooper goes further into the theater, to find that the “real” is banal, and only tolerable when punctuated and screened over by the images of irrecoverably lost objects.
Although in this scenario the belief in the reality of images seems to borrow its pathos from the traces of idealism in a post-idealist world, the involvement with non-real figures acquires additional meaning from a psychoanalytic discovery not to be found in premodern thought: Freudian “psychical reality”—the legitimation of unconscious fantasy, and hence of phantasmatic representations (Laplanche and Pontalis 8-9). The psychical realities (unconscious wishes) that find shape most vividly in dreams allow the embodiments of the fantasies (porn stars, strippers, hustlers, movie stars, and rock musicians) to be replaced as primary objects by the visual records of their allure: these are fantasies whose gratification no longer presupposes even potential physical contact with the bioenergetic entities the icons memorialize:
There are magazines to present them endlessly, in love and lonely. … The boys lounge suggestively each moment of their lives. Pictures prove that. In some ways these photos are the idols, not the boys behind them. …
Visual images become an end in themselves, because of the recognized unattainability of the stars who had posed for them, and because of the perfection possible within these representations that life cannot offer.5 While pornography aids in concretizing and confirming fantasies through its maximalization of the visible, it is also predicated upon the impossibility of the “total fulfillment” it depicts. Furthermore, the transparency of pornography to its object exposes the secrets of the body, but not the mysteries of the body's fascination for the viewer. Desired bodies can be documented, but what makes those bodies desirable cannot be so easily accounted for. The frustration involved in desire arises from the contradictory ontological status that physical beauty is assigned. Beauty is both immediately accessible and ultimately indefinable, at once apodeictic and arcane. Beauty and sexual allure take on transcendent roles within pornographic film, at once manifest as the visible surfaces of the bodies, but also functioning to hypostasize the significance of those bodies beyond the very physical limitations that the film insistently exposes:
Beauty … [is] the deity panning for gold in these wasted stars' used up bodies. It creates dreams out of people the cat wouldn't drag in, aiming our cocks at, averting our minds from “the ditch of what each one means,” as Bob Dylan whined. …
Although the director, as high priest of the fetish-religion, controls the basic structure and sequence of the images in the film, there is something inherent in the body those images depict, something before which the director “is as powerless as the trained dog running alongside a herd of cattle, each of whom could crush him with a misstep. He is merely the right man at the right place, right time” (“Square” Soup 71). The reality of the porn film (“they're really doing it”) is still a delayed—posthumous—one: those “real people” “really doing” it are no longer there. In fact they perform in a non-existent space, one Cooper finds essentially morbid: “I have faith that the man who composed [the scene] has managed an accurate portrait of what it would be like to stand in a place far beyond mine, one I compare to death” (“Square” Soup 72). But the plane in which fantasy and reality, desire and satisfaction coincide is limited to the movie screen, and has no correlate in “real life”; there can be no change of venue, and all attempts to construct a materialist compromise, a spatialization of the ideal, result in a despondent parody (the hall behind the porno screen in “Square One”), in paralyzing hallucinatory refuges (George's Disneyland in Closer), in psychotic parodies of childhood whimsy (Gary's playroom in Frisk), or in sheer life-denying chambers of horror (Ray's crawl space in “Herd”).
Robert Glück has called Dennis Cooper a “religious writer” who, “like Poe,” uses “the horror genre … to test the boundaries of life, generate feelings of wonder and awe” (“Running”). Glück's observation also indicates the affinity both writers have for the work of Georges Bataille, who viewed sexuality and religion as two manifestations of a “disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his [sic] own existence in question” (Erotism 31). Glück's interest in “the sublime” and Cooper's definition of “God” are both unquestionably Bataillean in character. Glück describes the “sublime” as “nothing, … a catastrophe, a violent orgasm … anything that expresses a void which our communities have filled with religions and monsters in order to understand the absence of ground” (“Truth's Mirror” 41-42). Cooper first distinguishes his conception of “God” from the ordinary Christian one, which he dismisses as “that simple and rickety projection into which our ideas about death tend to focus when we get lazy” (“Smoke” 1). He lists the probable locations of his more awesome and seductive “God” in “sleep, hallucinations, daydreams, orgasms, comas, one's own body, others' bodies, the dark, the sun …” and suggests that it is not only aligned with death, but is a powerful temptation toward death, drawing the living out of the boundaries of life. God is a “Siren” and is disruptive of life in ways that inform sexual desire and aesthetic inspiration: “[W]hen we want to see God we might as well get specific—seduce someone, make art, commit suicide, masturbate. …” (“Smoke” 2)
The means by which Glück and Cooper depict sexual access to “the sublime” or “God,” respectively, differ in ways that reflect each writer's schematics of the relations between sexual ecstasis and intersubjectivity. Although Glück's narrator “Bob” in Jack the Modernist is the penetrated spectacle for the involved onlookers in the baths, the orgasm he achieves is his own, through the others but not with them. And sexual culmination is as much an evocative negativity for Glück as it is for Cooper: “I felt a soldier's fidelity to the orgasm … singled out from all the orgasms in the flux. … [T]he spasms that were not me overtook and became me along with a sense of dread. I felt like a tooth being pulled. … I relinquished the firm barrier that separated us—no, that separated me from nothing” (Jack 55-56). In Cooper's system, the subject of desire is never the object of desire; the unidirectionality of desire is modelled on the relation of the spectator to the screen, which also figures both the subject's melancholia and his fetishistic awe of the object.7
Desire is further schematized throughout Cooper's individual works in oppositions between subject-meaning (meaning as an intentional act) and object-meaning (meaning as effect/affect). “Subject-meaning”—what the subject intentionally means by what it does/desires—is one of the themes of Cooper's poem, “Poem for George Miles” (the “George M.” of “Square One”), which is an elegy both for the object of desire and the quality of that desire. The lyric voice is a twenty-nine-year-old “I” looking back at a poem written for George when that “I” was 19 (the nostalgia and the temporal discontinuities of the speaking subject are reminiscent of Beckett's “Krapp's Last Tape”):
When I first sharpened a pencil in purpling language and drew my first poem from its raveling depths it “poured my heart out” as thoroughly as I would, make that could, at 19. … The poem is now cleaned out of power, as bed is once sunlight has entered. I see its mathematics: lines built as an ornate frame around a skeletal feeling that's faded from sight. Who knows what I meant?
On object-meaning, any number of illustrations could be selected. For example, Cooper's musings on Jeff Hunter:
It's not Jeff who moves me, like I said. He's the part I can relate to. It's as though some concept way over my head has taken human form so we can communicate. … It's as if Jeff is moaning, “This is as much as you'll grasp,” and not, “Fuck me,” continuously.
In his prose, the object of desire (the object-meaning) often proves impermeable to revelation while it remains the focal point of the narrative. The narrative itself becomes the flux of desire and is what gets revealed (the subject-meaning), illuminated in contrast to the opacity of its object. This is the dynamic of Cooper's first full-length novel, Safe, a triptych, three separate views of the same enigmatic young man, Mark Lewis. The meaning and nature of the desired object's power is as resistant to explication as Mark is ultimately rejecting of the love of his three suitors in these narratives. At times the subjectivity of the viewer becomes “entangled” (a word Cooper likes) with the object, in the attempt to excavate the secret of the object's power. In the “My Mark” section of Safe, the first-person narrator, “Dennis,” deconstructs a photograph of Mark in which intentional and affective meanings coalesce over Mark's absence (or the absence which Mark embodies) and the enigma of Mark's erotic power:
A head that has power over me. A globe lightly covered by pale flesh, curly black hair, and small, dark eyes whose intensity's too deeply meant to describe or remember the color of, seemingly smeared and spiraling.
I fill a head with what I need to believe about it. It's a mirage created by beauty built flush to a quasi-emotion that I'm reading in at the moment of impact: its eyes on mine, mine glancing off for a second, then burrowing in.
What Mark reveals to his lovers, his beauty—as captured in the narrator Dennis's photo of Mark's face—is also what conceals his “true self” from them. The fascination Mark held for Rob, Dennis, and Doug drew them to him but ultimately kept him a secret. Dennis's truths are always finally elegiac, his meanings trivial when compared to the inarticulate radiance of the desired object. “My Mark” is both exploration and resignation:
What's left behind is Mark's beauty, safe, in a sense, from the blatant front lighting of my true emotion, though it creeps in. I'm moving stealthily closer, I think, to the heart of the matter, where Mark's body acts as a guide to what he has been feeling. That's his, like great art is the century's it was created in, though still alive in the words of a man who speaks well of him.
POSTMETAPHYSICAL SACRIFICE: CLOSER
Cooper's characters have a resentful fascination with the body's limitations, without the option of cyberspace (as in William Gibson); they act on a suspicion of the body's truth, without the promise of a supraphysical plane (as in writings of religious mystics and in ghost stories). The characters in Cooper's fiction often either embody or act out a paradox central to any sexual desire and practice, no matter how refined and urbane. Roland Barthes comments on the irony in the great care he lavishes on his appearance to arouse his lover to engage in acts of passion that will ruin that very highly groomed self which had been designed to incite its own destruction. This observation on the contradictory nature of the “toilet” he performs on himself in preparation for the “encounter” leads him to investigate the etymology of the word “toilet,” where he discovers two obscure meanings:
“the preparations given to the prisoner condemned to death before he is led to the scaffold”; … “the transparent and oily membrane used by butchers to cover certain cuts of meats.” As if, at the end of every toilet, inscribed within the excitation it provokes, there were always the slaughtered, embalmed, varnished body, prettified in the manner of a victim. In dressing myself, I embellish that which, by desire, will be spoiled.
In Safe Rob discusses Ray Sexton with his lover, “equating the shambles Sexton left high school gymnasts in to the flushed, dripping wet mess Mark becomes in his arms”(20). The contradictory impulses of self-assertion and self-abnegation that cofunction in sexual desire also subtend the parallels of violence and sexual intercourse in the (usually unwelcome) threat that violence constitutes to the physical integrity of the body and the (often sought after) threat to the ego-boundaries in sexual union. These parallels, as well as the similarities between orgasm and death as annihilations of the discrete self, inform the sense of erotic horror that permeates Cooper's work.
Just as the movie screen concretizes a heaven that evacuates all metaphysical longing, the mass media problematizes the structure of the psycho-physical self—particularly in terms of the relations between the external and internal “person.” The boys in Cooper's work live in a media-ocracy in which the ultimate significance of a person is flattened out into a form of celebrity (as in Warhol), absolutely exteriorizing the self through a radical identification between the “self” and its public persona (the “Sean Cassidy” and “John F. Kennedy, Jr.” poems in Idols, for example). The real boys experience contradictions between external self and internal life that never disturb the blissful sheen of their cult heroes's posters. Furthermore, the literalization of space described in “Square One” and “A Herd” is paralleled here in the pervasive interest the characters take in the difference between the beauty of the visible body and the awful “truth” of the internal organs. “Interiority” loses its mystical and psychological meanings of soul and mind, and is transposed onto viscera. Jeff Hunter's “heart” cannot even nostalgically suggest a center of human emotions, as it is simply “a lump of confusing blue tissue two feet up his asshole” (“Square” 89). This dualism renders the human fundamentally inexplicable. The beauty, personality, and actions of the boys are a veneer whose interior reality is simply a complex of body parts that would be disgusting to most people, and meaningful only to medical specialists.
Closer concerns a half dozen wealthy gay high school students in a suburb of Los Angeles, all of whom are sexually obsessed with one another, and in particular with George Miles. The boys are divided into subjects and objects of desire, the subjects being at least relatively articulate, and the objects either dazedly incommunicative, like George, or immersed in a fantasy world, like David, who believes he is a rock star. The key actors in the novel each have a specialty that involves a particular manipulation of the body: John is an artist who sketches the boys, Alex is an aspiring filmmaker who documents some of the sexual activity central to the plot, and Steve is an entrepreneur who fills his converted garage nightclub with bodies and sets them dancing. These would represent the positive creative urges, matched by the negative creative urges of the two adults in the novel, Philippe, who dreams of mutilating and murdering young men, and Tom, who actually does.
The body in Closer is repeatedly demythologized. John conceives of his drawings as a means to disable the beauty of his subjects, to “reveal the dark underside, or whatever it's called, of people you wouldn't think were particularly screwed up” (5).8 Even sex does not allow the body to elude the sense of its grisly facticity. When John has sex with George, he wonders at the fact that “George's skin felt so great. That was the weirdest part, feeling how warm and familiar George was and at the same time realizing the kid was just skin wrapped around some grotesque-looking stuff” (7).
David's biologist father decorated the walls of their house with pictures of semi-dissected adolescents. At dinner David cuts his “quiche into eight thousand pieces,” trying to keep his eyes averted from a poster above his father's head of a boy roughly David's age, whose “back is turned and where his ass used to be there's this thing that looks half like drawn curtains and half like what's left of a cow once it gets to the butcher's shop” (28). Such brutal reality may be one of the factors that had driven David into his rock star delusion and his obsession with his own beauty that he admits “helps me believe in myself and not worry that I'm just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper” (22).9
Both of these sentiments suggest the incorporation of an ego that is as entirely surface as the posters and movies that have formed it. Such an ego bears a striking resemblance to Didier Anzieu's notion of the “skin ego,” which is part of his adjustments of Freudian psychoanalytic models to empirical changes in predominant pathologies. When Freud was practicing, the majority of patients were suffering from “straightforward neuroses,” but in Anzieu's own practice he notes a significant increase in “borderline cases” between “neurosis and psychosis” in which the patient suffers
from an absence of borders or limits … uncertain of the frontiers between the psychical and bodily Egos, between the reality Ego and the ideal Ego … unable to differentiate erogenous zones, [the patient] confuses pleasant experiences with painful ones, and cannot distinguish between drives, which leads him [sic] to experience the manifestation of a drive not as desire but as violence. The patient … experiences a diffuse sense of ill-being … of watching the functioning of his body and mind from outside, of being a spectator of something which is and at the same time not his [sic] own existence.
These borderline states lead to a profound sense of emptiness in attempts at meaning that produce, instead of an ego-object relation, an ego-abject relation (Kristeva, “Within” 43-44; and Barzilai 295). “Abjection” is the dread of that which was once part of the body but was expelled as “unclean” or “disgusting.” These abjects however continue to threaten the integrity of the subject with a chaotic dissolution of the boundaries of inside and outside (Kristeva, Powers 3-4). The precarious balance between the skin ego and the viscera in John and David's psychic structures should be clear from the above passages. The balance is displaced as the narrative progresses.
Within this wasteland of self-preempted youths, George becomes deeply involved with Philippe, an older Frenchman with bizarre tastes. Their sex involves necrophiliac fantasies, beatings, and coprophagia. Eventually Philippe introduces George to Tom, another older man who examines George matter-of-factly and brutally, forcing a hand down his throat and up his anus. After a particularly violent threesome, Tom drives George home, and tells him if he ever considers suicide, to call him. George makes note of that invitation, and its ambivalence. He then goes into his room to examine his ass, to see if he can understand what these men find so attractive about it. Here George attempts to assimilate the inexplicable pleasure of the Other into his assessment of his own value as a person. He mistakes Philippe's and Tom's objectification of him as a confirmation of him as a subject (it is exactly the opposite).10 This is the same error that Henry makes in Frisk when he describes a recent sexual experience and his interpretation of it:
[L]ast weekend I slept with two … guys. … They kept calling me “that.” One would ask, “What does that taste like?” and “What's the temperature inside of that?” … It made me realize I'm important to certain people.
The boy's need to reduce thought to neurological quiescence through excessive drug use, and their compulsive fashioning and delimiting of the self to fit the desire of the Other, are expressions of the death drive that takes George to Tom's house after George's mother's death. As he writes in his diary before leaving for Tom's, “It's like a party or something to say my goodbye to the person I am” (Closer 98). George did not realize how true that might have become: Tom novocained him and began “chopping him down” in his basement. When Tom asked him if he had “any last words” George intoned the words of the Disneyland ride, “Dead … men … tell … no … tales,” which brought on the tears that literally saved his life: disgusted at this display of emotion, Tom threw him out of the house (99-100).
The importance of Disneyland to George cannot be dismissed as a deus ex machina. It locates the kind of pervasive vacuum in which George lives and which he particularizes in both his self-apprehension and his willingness to subject himself to dehumanization.11 George becomes a (necessarily) inarticulate embodiment of the postmodern environment that engendered him. For Baudrillard, Disneyland is “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc.” (Simulations 23-24).12
George becomes as much a simulation of a person as the automated denizens of the Disney pavilions, or the inexhaustibly available images of the porn stars. Alex describes George's “hyperreal” state best when he compares George's looks to “the real boy that Pinocchio was forced to become” (Closer 62). When Philippe sees George fall on the street, he reacts in a way that explains why he can use George as he does: “When Philippe pictured George's expression approaching the ground, he saw pretend pain, the look that would creep over dolls' faces when children left them alone in the dark” (105). George's beauty taken to be an unreal perfection of reality suggests Baudrillard's “automaton”—particularly in the kind of deadly curiosity George arouses in his adult admirers: the automaton is “an interrogation upon nature, the mystery of the existence or non-existence of the soul, the dilemma of appearance and being. It is like God: what's underneath it all, what's inside, what's in the back of it?” (Simulations 93). These are precisely the questions that Tom and Philippe (and before them Ray Sexton, and after them the “Dennis” of Frisk) attempt to answer.
Philippe's melancholia reverses the disavowal of the hallucinating mourner and the average moviegoer; he looks at a real person (George) and disavows his reality. George and Philippe share a disorder that is necessary for hallucinations, and that is analogically enacted in film spectatorship: the failure to distinguish consistently between what is internal and what is external to the ego.13 Philippe and Tom sought the secret of George through literal invasions and excavations of George's body. George (like the other boys) confused his inner self with his “innards,” in a detour of abjection, which according to Kristeva is an attempt to individuate the self by demarcating the divisions of inside and outside (Powers 60-61).
Even when more successfully accomplished than in George's case, abjection leaves a residue of the contingency of identity in the materiality of its biological components—that which can be expelled or incorporated, but which signifies the morass into which the subject can re-devolve (Powers 9-11; 70-71). The vehemence with which George was handled and literally reduced to bodily secretions/excretions in his encounter with Philippe and Tom actually galvanized his need for these men. The materials they forced from his body made him realize that his interior offered no support for an articulatable self. Furthermore, these “abjects” attest to the “precariousness of the subject's grasp of its own identity,” foreboding the return to “the chaos from which it is formed.” George's dependence on the adults' objectifying lust to fortify his exteriorized ego against this anxiety is a will-toward-death as subject, but it is also a defense against the abjection he experiences at their hands, since this abjection itself is “one of the few avowals of the death drive, an undoing of the processes constituting the subject” (Grosz 74). The dissonance between the scatological horrors of George's sex life and the ethereality of mass media ego-ideals only perpetuates the cycle, since abjection itself constitutes a dual acknowledgment of the necessity and impossibility of the subject's “desire to transcend corporeality,” in which the subject rejects yet affirms “the defiling, impure, uncontrollable materiality of [its] embodied existence” (Grosz 72).14 Neither George nor Philippe understand what Glück calls the “disjunction between self and body” (“Truth's” 41-42). The sublimations of this disjunction Cooper's characters effect, inaugurate the melancholy mystery of desire and its often tragic resolutions.
The central obsessions of the novel are figured most graphically in Philippe's memories of a snuff film made by one of the members of Philippe's circle:
He'd picked up the hitchhiker, coerced him home, got him drunk, numbed his body with Novocaine, led him into a basement, started the film rolling, mutilated his ass, asked if he'd like to say any last words, to which the boy had said, “Please don't.” Then he killed him.
The only sound in the room was the clicking projector. Sometimes the clicks and the stabs matched for a few seconds. … Then the boy made a very bland face. “Is he dead?” someone asked. “No,” the man answered. “Not yet. Watch.” …
… At what seemed a haphazard point, everyone in the room heard a brief, curt announcement. “Now,” it said. …
The film ended. It flapped like a bat. People redid their pants.
Like the more innocuous porno audience in “Square One,” these men share a fascination with what the images reveal and what mysteries they mark but mask. The boundaries among living individuals and between the living and the dead are concatenated in this awful ritual, which recalls Bataille's explanation of sacrifice in a less self-conscious historical period of human evolution: “The victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the sacramental element” (Erotism 82). Note the striking similarity in tone and theme in Glück's description of spectator sex in the baths:
Men stood around, serious, watching us. … [O]thers tended me respectfully because the one who is fucked induces awe by his extreme exposure. … [T]heir collective mind said he's doing it which my finite mind repeated. Although they masturbated themselves to obtain immediate knowledge of my excitement, it was as spectators that they solemnly shared in what my pleasure revealed.
(Jack 54-55 second emphasis added)
Each of the passages above concerns the communal witnessing of an event that makes intensely present an extreme boundary of human being: death and orgasm, each an incontrovertible “now” which absolutely interrupts the continuity of consciousness. The mediation of film makes the situation in Closer significantly different. The temporal and spatial divisions between the viewers and the center of attention structures the non-reciprocity of subject-object relations (the object cannot return their look). The boy's murder forecloses the possibility of a full knowledge of what is seen: the onlookers in the baths or in the audience can experience orgasm but not death. The spectatorial situation exemplifies the intersubjective limits of these men's desire; conversely, the transitive negativity of their desire (sexuality as annihilation of the object) informs a theory of representation that is practically an occult reverence for representation as an endlessly iterable expression of this outwardly directed death drive. The snuff film implicates representation, because the filming and screening of the murder are integral aspects of the crime.15 The film incites a religious awe as a memorial of the point at which the person ceases to be. This, however, is only a peculiar variation on the logic of filmic practice, since any film or photograph is also a record of the absolutely lost, a testament to the absence of the object it represents. Film and photography are thus perfect techniques for realizing and preserving the de-entification of the living person. Film/photography becomes the postmodern version of the functions Bataille discerns in the cave paintings of Lascaux: “The cave drawings must have been intended to depict that instant when the animal appeared and killing, at once inevitable and reprehensible, laid bare life's mysterious ambiguity” (Erotism 74).
The corpse—in its hideous resemblance to the living person now gone—is an obscene subversion of personhood (Kristeva, Powers 9-10; Blanchot 256; Gallop 45); the photographic or filmic image is an attempt to retain what is already gone, which is informed with the death that the corpse literally embodies.16 Sexual fantasies, either those “within” the person or those expressed in pornographic media, instigate a coalescence of the simulacrum of the corpse with the retention of the lost object. Bazin suggested that “the plastic arts” might owe their real impulse to the “practice of embalming the dead” (What Is Cinema II, 9). Art historians tell us that realistic human portraiture began with death masks (Ariès 257-58).17 Cooper's work insistently exposes the relation between representation and death—the negation of the real in the image; the self-alienation within desire; the internal negation of the referent of the metaphor—all based on the resemblance of the corpse to the person who has died. The trajectories among representation and reality, life and death, desire and its ends, are dramatized in Cooper's work as passion plays in a childlike world where childhood has always already been invaded by the negativity of adult sexuality (Ferenczi 156-57).
The sacrificial quality of sex, in which the object becomes an opacity of negation and the subject disincorporates itself within the image of the desired object, finds an ancestral model in the cave painting of a man with an erect penis before a dying bison, a paradoxical image which (in Bataille's assessment) asserts the “essential and paradoxical accord between death and eroticism,” a truth that “remains veiled to the extent that the human mind hides from itself” (Tears 53). This is a truth or an awe-filled intuition of the truth that Dennis Cooper explores, most recently emblematized in the entranced gaze at the fake snuff photo in the opening section of Frisk, in which the plaster-of-paris wound on a boy's supposedly shot-open anus takes on the forbidden fascination of death and sexuality itself—an uncanny sight that lures one into the abyss, something which, in Cooper's words, is “too out-of-focus to actually explore with one's eyes, but too mysterious not to want to try” (4).
I would like to thank Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, Bo Huston, David Jansen-Mendoza, and Kevin Killian, for their conversation and support.
“I think in my work there's always been a sort of terror about sex. The desire for sex that you could have with someone you objectify but the terror of having to deal with a real person. … Sex is a really scary thing, you've got to choose your partners carefully, and what to do. … I always think the sex in my books is so unsexy, because they're nervous about each other, and it's so much about just wanting to get something out of this body they're with and some idea they have about this person. … [And since AIDS] it's just a general terror that's come over sex. And I think it's reinforcing that in my work” (qtd. in Meyer 64).
“Square One” was originally published in Soup 4: New Critical Perspectives, ed. Bruce Boone (1985): 70-72. When I quote a passage that appears only in that version and was not included in the later version, printed in Wrong, it will be cited as “Square Soup.”
“An audience made up of men like me has surrendered its collective will to a filmmaker's. Like a cheap spaceship prop in an old sci-fi flick, a grungy theater scattered with hopeful, upturned faces seems to speed toward its destination—giant bodies composed of light” (“Square” 83).
Freud, “Fetishism,” and “Splitting”; Mannoni 175-80; Mulvey.
Even people with “real” sex lives often prefer the numb and numbing refuges of the world without consequences provided by pornographic media: “The life pornography pictures is ordered. … Doug wants to live in this one-dimensional world. … If someone he fucked died he'd never hear about it and if he did the world wouldn't compute or feel real to him. He'd be involved in his latest orgasm, face drawn so tight nothing else could get under” (Safe 84-85).
The Dylan quotation, from “The Gates of Eden” (Bringing It All Back Home), which also refers to the “object-meaning,” is used again parodistically in Closer (5).
The only major symptom of melancholia as Freud describes it that is not directly evident in Cooper's narrative personae is the tendency to berate the self as morally inferior (“Mourning” 246-48). A desiring subject in Cooper's texts does, however, tend to disregard his corporeal self as a meaningful part in any sexual encounter. In other words, these subjects never wish to see themselves as objects of desire. The “Dennis” narrator of Frisk states that sexual reciprocation makes him “very uncomfortable,” noting that his tricks “must pick up on my tastes right away, since they almost never want to explore me. They just lie back, take it from me. … Usually I don't notice my body. It's just there, working steadily. I wash it, feed it, jerk it off, wipe its ass, and that's all” (50).
John “subtracts from” his subjects by defacing their drawings (Closer 4). “In porn a director can only add or subtract from what exists outside his control—attractiveness” (“Square” Soup 71).
Or the clue David—despite himself—in Closer gives the reader of the origin of his rock star delusion: “Once upon a time I was a little boy. I rode my bike constantly. I wandered everywhere. bought stuff, sang songs to myself. I stopped in a mall. This man came up to me. He was an A & R man for a big record company. He told me I was amazing. I said okay and we went back to his house. He tried to fuck me. I bled all over the place. Then he showed me the door and said, ‘Thanks for being so well designed, kid’” (Closer 37).
Other characters also assess their bodies' attractiveness in the mirror, attempting to see it as others do: Mark in Safe (41) and Julian and Henry in Frisk (13; 16-17).
During George's first encounter with Philippe, he envisioned it as an exploration in a mineshaft in a Disneyland western fantasy geography (50). When examining his wounded anus for its “charm” to Philippe and Tom, he compares the swollen opening to the “painted mouth” of “Injun Joe's Cave,” a Disneyland ride whose entrance always gave him “goose bumps” (90-91). The macabre cross-hybridization of child's play and horror in Disneyland becomes clearer when comparing the boys with the adults. George's Disneyland LSD hallucination is strangely similar to a vision Philippe has as he explores his own murderous feelings toward George. George's trip: “Over his head, a Milky Way of skulls snapped like turtles” (88). Philippe's vision: “Philippe lay in bed imagining George's death. … The world he saw rang with percussion. Skeletons snapped” (106).
The “Dead … men … tell … no … tales” line comes from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. See also Marin, on the postmodern dilemma of Disneyland.
A child learns this distinction through noticing that a stimulus that can be removed by motion is external (outside, perception), and one that is not effected through movement is internal (in consciousness) (Freud, “Instincts” 119-120).
David also acts this out in his fantasy of being skinned alive during a rock concert he stars in (Closer 26-27).
Stephen Heath discusses the relation of filmic representation to death and crime in his expansion of Cocteau's characterization of film as “death at work” through a reading of an Apollinaire story concerning the filming of a real murder (Heath 114). Film inaugurates a representation organically related to death, while becoming the epitome of the depthless surface of the psychotic subject—the “skin ego” (note that in many Romance languages the word for “film” is related to the word for skin).
“The image does not, at first glance, resemble the corpse, but the cadaver's strangeness is perhaps also that of the image. What we call mortal remains escapes common categories. Something is there before us which is not really the living person, nor is it any reality at all. It is neither the same as the person who was alive, nor is it another person, nor is it anything else. … Death suspends the relation to place, even though the deceased rests heavily in his spot as if upon the only basis that is left him. … Where is it? It is not here, and yet it is not anywhere else. Nowhere? But then nowhere is here. The cadaverous presence establishes a relation between here and nowhere” (Blanchot 256).
I am indebted to Robert Glück for bringing this passage to my attention.
Anzieu, Didier. The Skin Ego. Trans. Chris Turner. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.
Ariès, Phillippe. L'homme devant la mort. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1977.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977.
Barzilai, Shuli. “The Borders of Language: Kristeva's Critique of Lacan.” PMLA 106 (1991): 294-305.
Bataille, Georges. The Tears of Eros. Trans. Peter Connor. San Francisco: City Lights, 1989.
———. Erotism. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotexte, 1983.
———. The Ecstacy of Communication. Trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotexte, 1988.
Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1967-71.
Bellamy, Dodie. “Digression as Power: Dennis Cooper and the Aesthetics of Distance.” Mirage 1 (1985): 78-87.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
Cooper, Dennis. Idols. New York: Sea Horse, 1979. Rev. ed. New York: Amethyst, 1989.
———. “A Herd.” The Tenderness of the Wolves. Trumansburg: Crossing, 1981. 51-75.
———. Tigerbeat. New York: Little Caesar, 1983.
———. He Cried. San Francisco: Black Star, 1984.
———. Safe. New York: Sea Horse, 1984.
———. “Square One.” Soup 4: New Critical Perspectives. Ed. Bruce Boone (1985): 70-72.
———. “Dear Secret Diary.” Against Nature: a group show of work by homosexual men. Ed. Richard Hawkins and Dennis Cooper. Los Angeles: L.A.C.E., 1988. 5-7.
———. “Smoke Screen.” They See God. New York: Pat Hearn Galleries, 1988. 1-2.
———. Closer. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
———. Frisk. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
———. Wrong. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.
Ferenczi, Sandor. “The Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child.” 1933. Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth, 1955. 156-67.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Self Defense.” 1939. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 23. 271-78. 24 vols. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 1953-74.
———. “Fetishism.” 1927. The Standard Edition. Vol. 21. 147-57.
———. “Mourning and Melancholia.” 1917. The Standard Edition. Vol. 14. 239-58.
———. “A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams.” 1917. The Standard Edition. Vol. 14. 219-35.
———. “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.” 1915. The Standard Edition. Vol. 14. 111-40.
———. “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning.” 1911. The Standard Edition. Vol. 12. 215-26.
———. “The Interpretation of Dreams.” 1900. The Standard Edition. Vols. 4-5.
Gallop, Jane. Intersections: A Reading of Sade with Bataille, Blanchot, and Klossowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1981.
Glück, Robert. “Running on Emptiness.” San Francisco Chronicle 4 June 1989: 9.
———. “Truth's Mirror is No Mirror.” Poetics Journal 7 (1987): 40-45.
———. Jack the Modernist. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1985.
Grosz, Elizabeth, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.
Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1981.
Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia, 1982.
———. “Within the Microcosm of ‘The Talking Cure.’” Trans. Thomas Gora and Margaret Waller. Interpreting Lacan. Ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983. 33-48.
Laplanche, Jean. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Laplanche, Jean, and J.-P. Pontalis. “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986. 5-35.
Mannoni, Octave. Clefs pour I'imaginaire ou l'autre scène. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969.
Marin, Louis. “Disneyland: A Degenerate Utopia.” Glyph 1 (1977): 50-66.
Meyer, Richard. “Interview: Dennis Cooper.” Cuz. Ed Richard Meyer. New York: The Poetry Project, 1988. 52-69.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
Pietz, William, “The Problem of the Fetish, I.” Res 9 (1985): 5-17.
SOURCE: Cooper, Dennis, and Kasia Boddy. “Conversation with Dennis Cooper.” Critical Quarterly 37, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 103-15.
[In the following interview, Cooper discusses the development of his thematic concerns and stylistic approach, his literary influences, the significance of representative characters in his fiction, and his interest in studying the notion of bliss in future works.]
[Boddy]: I'd like to start by asking you about what seems like a dominant concern of your work—both thematically and stylistically—the relationship between inside and out, the exterior and the interior of things.
[Cooper]: I'm always trying to construct that dichotomy.
But sometimes it's not clear which is more desirable—the surface or the interior. Sometimes it's one, sometimes the other.
Well, confusion is central to the work—lured by the surface, then horrified by the interior, or disappointed. It's a battle within the work over which has the more information in it, whether what the surface suggests to your imagination is the truth, or whether there's some hidden meaning.
It often seems that surfaces are beautiful but not meaningful, or that there's a very easy meaning in the surface, while the truth is inside. This suggests that beauty and truth are not compatible—you can have only one or the other.
But then truth is always a projection of the writer or the characters. There is never an actual truth.
A word that comes up a lot is ‘perfect’ or ‘perfection’.
I was really influenced by the film-maker Robert Bresson. His films are so … well, they're perfect. They're so tight, they're perfect. I'm always trying to create something so tight that it becomes perfect, thinking that some truth might then emanate from it. That's one of the reasons I write the way I do, why the process is as labour-intensive as it is. To get the work absolutely …
Perfect! Is the tension you describe similar to that tension within the stories that, while you enjoy the skin, you can't have what's underneath? The idea that an airtight skin doesn't let anything out or in?
It's the idea that, if you organise something well enough, somehow it will have within it that thing. Organising something really carefully or elaborately is all you can do. Then it's up to whoever to decode it, and that's where it gets vague, the part you can't control.
There are moments in different stories when characters want to talk about what's important—about love or death—and language fails them. They resort to ‘blah, blah’ or ‘etc.’ You talk about film, but as a writer you depend on language. You've worked in dance, and in Jerk you combined your words with Nayland Blake's pictures, while the central character supplemented his words with a puppet show. Do you sometimes feel that language is not enough? That you'd rather be using some other medium? What about film?
I don't feel frustrated with writing. I feel frustrated that you can't articulate or you can't understand … it's not that language is too limited, but that it's impossible to really pinpoint things or understand things completely because you're constantly reassessing everything. So it's a matter of trying to get to some point. And making the characters inarticulate, that's just an acknowledgment … it's a kind of respect for them—that their uncertainty is what's important.
You don't really use the first person very much.
Well, very carefully. I also switch tenses all the time—I have a sense of how each of them work, so it's a kind of distancing, having someone more immediate, having someone less so. Actually characters who use the first person are usually less enterable than those that are in the third person, because that's just the way fiction works. But in Try the character who uses the first person acts as sort of a red herring. You enter through him, and then you realise that that's not where you are, that's not where you're supposed to be. I'm interested in throwing people off, in disorienting them. In Frisk, for instance, I had the ‘I’ in there because I wanted to take responsibility for the material, because it would have been too easy otherwise to write a horror novel.
In part two of Frisk, ‘Tense’, you use quite a straightforward first person, while in ‘Wilder’, at the end, the first person is really weird in comparison. It seems to challenge the easy first person of ‘Tense’.
I don't want it to be easy. I don't want people to attach it too much to me, to locate the ‘I’ too much. In all the books there's the ‘I’, and then there's the third person perspective on the ‘I’ as well, so it doesn't locate them in one sensibility.
You also explore how characters construct themselves through other sources—if you see yourself as a TV character or in terms of the lyrics of a song you are seeing yourself in the third person, on the level of a character in a fiction which makes it easier to deal with unruly emotions, etc.
Right, yeah. It depends on the situation. In Frisk I wanted there to be a character who threw his identity around, who treated himself in the same way that he treated other characters, suddenly entering a character who wasn't the ‘I’ to get an objective view of himself, which of course is impossible and psychotic. That book especially was trying to disorient, to create a puzzle of fictional and nonfictional elements.
It's very theatrical.
Yeah, well it seemed like the only way to do it. I wanted to try to mimic horror films, some kind of genre thing, to keep people on the subject.
The tone seems to shift all the time, which also confuses the reader. One minute you're encouraged to feel compassion, the next it's very satirical. Critical responses to your work don't seem to pay much attention to the comedy.
Yeah, I know. You can imagine why that's true. Comedy is a great sedative, it's a great relaxer, it's a great way for people to enter something, for you to catch them off guard.
It must be frustrating then when people don't pick up on the comedy.
It's only frustrating when people say ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’
Roger's first person narration is one of the most openly satirical parts of Try.
He's a super aesthete.
He reminded me of Humbert Humbert.
Yeah, maybe subconsciously. I used this really over-aestheticised voice all the time in my early work, and I wanted to turn it to candy. I wanted to get away from that way of thinking about things. At one time it seemed like a good way to look at things, and now it seems like a very faulty and simplistic way of looking at things. So I wanted to kill that perspective off because it becomes so ridiculous and boring and repellent and all these things. I sense that one gets kind of tired of Roger after a while, you know ‘oh here's one of these sections again, can I skip it?’
He's also interesting, with Brice, in terms of ideas of parents and how a family operates. Compared with the parent characters in your other books, they are the most visible. In the other books the parents are always in other rooms, they don't seem to notice their kids coming and going. Do you want to write more about parents and families?
Maybe I'll write more about adults. It's sort of one of my goals to accept that I am an adult and write about it. I don't feel very comfortably an adult, I don't relate to it very much. So they're still villains, they have been villains, hopefully they won't be villains any more.
In Try they're certainly more fleshed out than in your previous work.
Well I'm trying to enter them. I still think that they're a bit too much cartoons. But in Try, I wanted to place my sympathies within the work. There had been a lot of misunderstanding of Frisk, and I wanted my sympathies to be clear. So I wanted the adult characters to be understandable, and in a way sympathetic, but, in contrast to Ziggy and Calhoun and some of the other characters who are more thoughtful or inherently kind or respectful of one another, there's a loss of humanity, a loss of perspective that ultimately is troubling.
How much are the parents just cartoon baddies and how much are they really responsible for what happens to their children in your work?
In Try they are responsible. I was kind of exploring stuff that therapy tells you, seeing what I like or don't like about it.
Ziggy quotes his therapist all the time, but at one point he realises that the reason he doesn't kill Brice is because what his therapist calls abuse he actually thinks of as love.
He seems willing to listen to his therapist, and he checks with what the therapist has said all the time, but one doesn't have a sense that he's absorbed it yet. I don't think his therapist would say he should be friends with Calhoun either! Therapy is a very limited thing … I mean I'm in therapy so I'm trying to figure out what I like about it or don't like about it, what's useful about it or not.
Does it interfere with your writing?
No it doesn't interfere at all. It's true that there's a limit. Therapists see you in a certain way, and they do perpetually pinpoint your parents. You can't say anything without them saying, ‘well don't you think that's because … your parents’. Every time you talk about someone you know, it's like ‘oh he or she is like your father or your mother’ and stuff like that. I mean that's too simple, things aren't that simple.
Is writing a kind of therapy?
Well, it has been, it has been. I grew weirdly and my parents were really horrible and all that stuff, but I've sort of changed lately. I often feel sort of alienated and isolated and on my own, and I've gone through periods of being very remote and blank—like things I write about. Writing helped me in my real life to be a bit more sensible. With Try, while I was writing it a close friend got addicted to heroin and I sort of devoted my life to helping him get off—almost twenty-four hours a day for around a year. I was writing at the same time. I wrote that book partially to figure out what was going on. Like Calhoun, my friend wasn't able to do anything, but there was a kind of inherent, understood gratitude that I was actually still staying with him even though he was totally fucked up. He and Try helped me understand that love is important.
Does your control over the language and structure—that perfect airtight quality—help?
Yeah, sure. You're examining, editing, rewriting your thoughts.
Do the formal demands of the writing interfere with your sense of what really happened?
Well, writing Try was really peaceful. My friend would be like convulsing, and I'd be watching over him and writing. It was something I could completely control. In most situations you shouldn't want to control your relationships with other people, they should just happen, but in that situation my friend was really sick and in pain and I couldn't really do anything—all I could do was just be there—and keep myself well because he needed me to be really clear. He needed me to be absolutely stable every second. Writing kept me from losing it.
What you say about spending a year with your friend in his room comes across in Try. In many ways it's a very claustrophobic novel. You're either in Ziggy's room or Calhoun's room. There is a tension between these rooms being oppressive and being safe. But nobody goes outside very much.
Yeah. The writing's like that.
Your work seems to be drawing on a French tradition rather than an American one.
Almost exclusively French.
How does that mesh or adapt to an American context?
Almost all the things that I was influenced by when I was young were French—writing, art, film. But I don't know. I'm obviously a really American writer. I love how American English is so messed up and fluid.
Do you see links between your work and that of other contemporary American writers? Your stories appear in anthologies like Between C & D or High Risk, so people make connections. Is that just a publishing thing?
Well, some of the people in those books I feel close to. Both those anthologies were kind of like ‘bad boy’ stuff, and I don't really … we were lumped together because we write about drugs or young people or violence, basically. There was a time when I really liked Kathy Acker's work. She was important to me when I was first writing, seeing her out there. But there aren't many … I mean I like a lot of people's work, but in terms of relating to it, there aren't many writers whose work I feel is on a similar track. I guess I feel more and more as if I'm on my own track. And the writing's changing now. I'm trying to get away from some of the subject matter that I've used before. I don't think it interests me as much. I think I'm on to other things.
When did you finish writing Try?
Let's see. When did it come out? It came out last year. So I think around spring of ninety-two.
Quite a while. So you've been writing other stuff?
Well, I'm working on a couple of things. I'm co-writing a nonfiction book with my friend, Joel Westendorf. We're writing a book about the history of sensory overload in the arts. That's one thing I'm doing, and then I'm working on a book, a novel, but it's too early. It's kind of mulchy, it's going to be kind of different though, I think. Hopefully more blissful. I want to write about bliss, I'm interested in bliss now.
Bliss in the sense … ?
Well, I'm not sure yet. I'm just figuring out … I'm trying to step somewhere.
Your work seems to be becoming more openly romantic.
Yeah, I guess, but to me it's all really romantic.
The romance is nearer to the surface in Try.
To me Try was about friendship. That was what really interested me. Now I want to talk about … I used to do a lot of LSD, like a lot, and I had some weird experiences. I want to talk about where they took me, and somehow represent them in language—somewhere I was, and somehow use that in the language—how when you're high on psychedelics, you're isolated but you feel peace, you feel a kind of benign interest in things. And my books are always for specific people, and this one will be about a friend of mine, and what he inspires in me, which is a lot more happiness or something. So at this point I have all these different senses of things and I'm just writing all this stuff and then I'll kind of edit, edit, edit and work, work, work and then it'll become something. That's the way it always is.
Parts of Closer appeared in journals before the book came out. Did you write the sections separately and then they developed into a book, or did you originally start with the idea of the book?
There's a piece in Wrong called ‘Wrong’—which has the George character in it. I'd written that, and originally I thought that I'd do something with that, because I didn't think it was quite right yet. So originally that was going to be the ending or conclusion of Closer. But once I started working on Closer, it was very much of a piece.
To come back to what you were saying about the new work. There is almost a religious sense in it, in some ways, with some characters who talk about God quite a lot. Do you think that you are describing, in some way, religious experiences?
Well, that's one of the things that interest me—I mean, not God—but maybe I'm beginning to sense where one finds spiritual comfort or spiritual information, and maybe it's in some place I never thought it would be. I think in a way my work has always been about that kind of locating … The guy in Frisk is, in a way, trying to reach a transcendent state, and so is George in Closer—all that LSD and Disneyland stuff is all an attempt to go somewhere else, to completely disorder himself, to leave the world.
You often cut down those escapes, you don't allow them to last too long!
Well, I don't know. In Try, Ziggy and Calhoun still have a lot of things to figure out—Calhoun is still a heroin addict. But I think, with all sincerity, you know, when the last line of the book is ‘Fuck everything else’, that's not just a joke. I mean it's stupid to say and it's a kind of … I don't know. But the love that Ziggy and Calhoun have for each other … it may not be an escape exactly, but …
But at the end of Try it's starting?
Yeah, it's starting. I think I have a better sense now that there is a kind of serenity or something, and I don't know why, or how it works, or what, but that there is a way that you can live with a kind of peace. It's not something … I've not lived in a peaceful state for most of my life, so it's interesting. It's too early to tell, but I'd like to write about peace. I'd really like to get away from the things that people call nihilistic in the work.
I don't really find it nihilistic because whatever happens there's always a striving for something else.
Yeah, well, they want the sublime, they just have their own way … the direction they've chosen to do it … I mean it's possible to understand why someone would want to reach the sublime through murdering someone, I mean it's a powerful thing to do. It's not a good choice, necessarily! But it's understandable why someone would think murder was the most amazing thing you could do. I don't think that's the most amazing thing you could do … any more! I don't know if I ever did, but I was interested in the idea for a long time.
There's a moment in Wrong where a character says that, since AIDS, this kind of romantic idea of death can't work any more.
‘AIDS ruined death.’ Yeah, I don't know. I may have thought so when I wrote that piece but actually it turns out that AIDS makes death more interesting. If you have friends dying all the time, you start to wonder what death is, and where they are.
It's changed it.
Yeah, it's changed it, it hasn't ruined it. I don't remember why I was thinking that, but everybody always quotes that line. AIDS did ruin a particular kind of romantic notion of death, a notion of death that a lot of my early work perpetuates, I guess.
Death in your work is very controlled—whether you're the killer or being killed in a very controlled environment—and disease isn't like that.
Giving up control is more interesting than trying to have absolute control. I mean in the work, I'll always want absolute control in terms of the text, but I think it's important to acknowledge that everyone is autonomous, and that everyone has control, and that everything you do is part of a combination of controls. I'd like to make my work less psychotic.
Another kind of tension that I find in your work is one between realism and what might be called anti-realism. On the one hand, there is abundance of realistic detail and dialogue; on the other hand, you and your characters are always pointing out how mediated our experience of all that is. So you find yourself seduced into the realism and then jolted out of it.
Yeah, hopefully. In Frisk, where I guess I was using that tactic most elaborately, there's so much set up for everything to be false. Perspectives shift. There's so much hearsay. A character is killed by an actor in an old set from the Twilight Zone TV show.
Although you're also encouraging readers to think it's real.
Yeah, yeah—of course I want that too! So I can't have it both ways—if you make your strategy too obvious on the surface, the work will become artsy, and I really don't want that. I mean, I like the nouveau roman and that sort of stuff, but I wouldn't want to just work from an objective standpoint, however complexly.
Because I think that truth comes from other people and not from books or art, ultimately I do, and that's why I make a decision to prioritise emotion. Even if the characters are fake the work's always about trying to get to another human, with all these things in the way, I want to communicate. I have problems with a certain kind of avant-garde writing where style becomes too much of an interference. I don't have much to say. I mean I have things that I'm interested in, things I want to study, but I don't have any statement. I have nothing to say about any of it. It's all confused and I'm just trying to instigate a thought, or to create a relationship with the people reading me.
Lynne Tillman too has talked about wanting to write in a way that was experimental but didn't announce itself as experimental; that work which announces itself is ultimately not that experimental because you can easily dismiss it.
Yeah, it's a fine line though. For instance, Kathy Acker—her earlier work is extremely experimental but actually I think you can transgress all those strategies very quickly and get in to what she's talking about.
You talk about how your work is changing, and how Try has a more conventional structure. Is your new work like that too?
No, the next one's going to be much more complicated. It will be very accessible in the sense that it will have a certain narrative sensibility and characters you're supposed to think about, but I want it to be much more disruptive. I want it to be much more psychedelic. I think it will be a much more difficult book, in that sense. I'm not getting interested in conventional writing. I resist it. Even in Try, I think it's my favourite thing I've done, but I can see that there are things I had to do to have it cover forty-eight hours where something is happening every minute. There are parts that just function as filler. And I'm terrified of flab, so I certainly don't want to go more in that direction. I went as far in that direction as I could go and now I feel I want to pull away! But I learned some things about how to move a narrative along, which is not something I really knew how to do before. I didn't grow up reading novels, I grew up reading poetry. My first books were all poetry. I always wrote prose but it was very poetic, and I don't know how to do plot and character development and all that stuff—I don't want to know! I'm not interested in work that does that very much. It seems like I'm being lied to all the time.
In terms of prose, the short story seems closer to poetry than the novel.
Yeah, but there's so much more room to move in the novel.
Your novels are often like short story montages or collages.
Yeah, they're always broken up.
Do you still write poetry?
No, I hadn't written poetry since around 1985 and then somebody asked me to write some poetry for an anthology. So I wrote ten new poems, some were old ones I polished up though! I wanted to write about River Phoenix who'd just died. His death really affected me, and those feelings seemed more suited to poetry than to fiction.
Is it because you're writing prose now that you don't write poetry?
Yeah, I'd been writing both and then I got sick of writing stanzas and I didn't think I had much to say, I was so tired of playing around in tiny little spaces. I just started making paragraphs. My first novella, Safe, was very much like a prose poem. It was interesting to write these new poems, but I don't think I'll be doing more. I never think, ‘I'll write a poem’ like I used to.
Because poetry is more … ?
I mean I admire John Ashbery and people like that but I don't think I'm a skilful enough poet to be able to do what I want to do in the form. My poems of the early eighties were very elaborate and very complicated but they just seemed so … self-involved.
But when you wanted to write about River Phoenix you thought that poetry was right?
Yeah, well they're like love poems, in a really loose sense.
What's the anthology that they're in?
It's called Uncontrollable Bodies: Testimonies of Identity and Culture. It's a Bay Press anthology. Lynne's in it, some other people. It came out in the States a few months ago. It's no big deal.
A character in Wrong says, ‘He wanted one fresh perception.’ Do you think one can have a fresh perception within the language of the genres that you draw on such as horror or pornography, or do you have a sense of there being some kind of pure language?
Pure perception. I suppose I feel that one should aspire to that, I don't know if it's possible. There's definitely a lot of language pollution I'd like to avoid. But it would also be too utopian to think I could eliminate all of literature's tropes. Still, that's the idea, the Rimbaud thing.
Most contemporary writers seem not to try to strip language down in the modernist way, but simply to play different languages off against each other.
Yeah, me too. But I'm not interested in all that standard postmodernist interconstructing of texts. I don't have much interest in that sort of thing.
Ziggy's prayer at the end of Try collapses.
Because he doesn't have a language. Well, that's it. That prayer's about love, or I don't know if it was about love, but it was about wanting to be loved, and how you ask for love, and how you can't ask—either it exists or it doesn't. You can't say anything that would make someone love you. It just has to happen. I don't know how it happens. That's like a prayer, when you're asking for something and you don't know how to ask for it, and you don't know what to ask for. You're asking for an abstraction, for something that you can't even see or understand, for something that you don't know if you deserve. Wanting love from someone is like asking for divine intervention.
Bliss is always silent, without language.
Exactly. So I've just got to figure out how to write about bliss! It will be a challenge.
I'm glad you're moving toward bliss.
I don't want to be unhappy any more. You can easily decide that everybody's horrible, you're alone, and hate that you need other people—and I've done that. I thought happiness was ridiculous, a lie. I went through many years thinking that love and all that stuff just meant you were weak, and that happiness was a sedative, just something that Christianity constructed to keep you from pursuing the truth. I'm struggling against that belief now. I'm thinking that maybe there is a kind of pure happiness, maybe there's a kind of peace or something that's not a compromise. The other option is to just go crazy! So we'll see. The great treasure hunt.
SOURCE: Gardner, James. “Transgressive Fiction.” National Review (17 June 1996): 54-6.
[In the following excerpt, Gardner provides a negative review of Try.]
Thirty years ago the art of fiction began to undergo a change similar to one that had already befallen the theatrical arts. Though theater had once been the best loved form of mass entertainment, it yielded that title to film and then turned inward, catering to an elite taste that saw theater as art rather than diversion. As a result, these two factors, which had formerly been united, increasingly went their separate ways. Fiction also used to fulfill the Horatian injunction to delight as well as to edify. But in recent years it too has split, not into different media, as theater and film have done, but into different forms of fiction. On the one hand Stephen King and Jackie Collins are widely read for their entertainment value. On the other, novelists like Thomas Pynchon and William Gass intentionally and provocatively suppress the element of pleasure, as if it were incompatible with serious fiction. …
Fortunately, most contemporary fiction of the artistic kind is somewhat more rewarding. Often its vanguardism consists less in the sorts of formal difficulty that were characteristic of Gass and Pynchon than in the freshness of the authors' identities. Amy Tan, for example, writes about being a Chinese-American woman, Bharati Mukherjee about being an Indian woman in Iowa, Dale Peck about being homosexual, and Ernest J. Gaines about being black. Such literature falls within the modern liberal tradition of embracing difference and being open to other experiences. But both of these undertakings imply a core of shared values, so that, even as this literature asserts the difference between author and reader, it usually has the reassuring subtext of a common humanity that unites us all.
Despite the primacy of this kind of “nice” literature, there is another kind of literature that increasingly exhibits, and sometimes even advocates, very different values. Such fiction is often termed “transgressive,” and there are correlative developments in film and the visual arts. Like the humanistic literature of Amy Tan, it is seen as being somehow liberal or leftist because it seeks the distinction of radical “otherness” and because it aspires to threaten the status quo that writers like Amy Tan and Bharati Mukherjee seek only to correct. The two strains converge from different angles of assault on a center allegedly dominated by a white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, right-handed patriarchy.
The roots of transgressive literature, of literature that violently attacks the center of a culture, are ancient, reaching all the way from Euripides's Bacchae, through Marlowe and Webster and the Marquis de Sade, to Huysmans and Celine. This literature of self-defined immorality, anguish, and degradation is constantly waxing and waning in our culture, as, for its part, is the humanistic strain. Thus the ages of Fielding, George Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, and Saul Bellow were in a general way humanistic, whereas those of Byron and Wilde and the Surrealists tended in the other direction. At the present time—and this is perhaps a unique occurrence—the two strains exist side by side, as different faces of the same coin. Four recent and critically celebrated novels—Susanna Moore's In the Cut, A. M. Homes's The End of Alice, Dennis Cooper's Try, and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho—exemplify this development, each from a different angle.
What unites all these novels, aside from their almost unimaginable gruesomeness, is the peculiar relation in which they stand to the straitlaced center of society. …
In contrast to the sexual awakening of the narrator which is the main theme of In the Cut, we see in The End of Alice by A. M. Homes, another woman writer, and in Dennis Cooper's Try, sexual license presented not as a dilemma but as an accepted fact. The protagonist of the former novel is a 56-year-old man who has spent the past 23 years in prison and whose affected utterances recall Hannibal Lector minus the cannibalism. The plot is fairly simple: this murderous pedophile recounts his past adventures in a correspondence with a young woman who sees him as a role model, except that she is interested in young boys whereas he is interested in young girls. Many graphic scenes of child molestation, sodomy, and murder, follow. “All three boys,” the female correspondent recalls, in a fairly typical passage, “were at that age of supreme softness where muscles waiting to grow are coated in a medium-thick layer of flesh, highly squeezable. They were at the point where if someone were to take such a child, to roast or bake him, he would be most flavorful.”
If anything, Dennis Cooper's Try manifests an even greater level of sexualized violence, but this time from the perspective of male homosexuality. The protagonist, Ziggy, is a victim of child abuse at the hands of the gay couple who adopted him. Though child abuse is very much in the news these days and is always reprehended in the strongest terms, Cooper's take on the problem is one of ambivalence, when not verging on enthusiastic endorsement. Try is an extended fantasy of unbridled sexual license in which those whom society sees as the victims are willingly acquiescent if not entirely complicit in their own sexual exploitation. In this voided world, there is no family structure to speak of. Parents are absent, or else they are ersatz, like Ziggy's. Likewise, school is only a place for trysting and for the purchase of drugs. Crimes go shockingly unpunished. When, in a subplot, Uncle Ken sodomizes the corpse of a 13-year-old who overdoses on the drugs Ken supplied, he simply disposes of the body and that's that. There would be little point in attempting to cite a passage, as it would not get past the judicious editors of this publication.
These two novels are intended for two groups of readers, pedophiles on the one hand, and “normal” people on the other. This loaded term “normal” is used advisedly for the simple reason that the authors themselves implicitly draw the same distinction. One senses that their gaze is always steadily fixed on the reader, as though asking, “Are you revolted yet? Are you shocked?” If this work were marketed as pornography, the term being used not in reproach but simply for purposes of description, we should be forced to acknowledge its usefulness to those whose fantasy life comprises the sodomizing of children, necrophilia, and coprophilia. What is entirely unpalatable is the squeamishness of Try's reviewers, squeamish not in the sense of opposing so off-color a work, but in the sense of being too timid to call it by its name. The reviewer for the New York Times states that “Dennis Cooper has written a love story, all the more poignant because it is so brutally crushed.” The reviewer for Spin calls it “Painfully poignant … beneath the queasy surface, no novelist empathizes more with the pathos of put-upon youth.” Of course opinions may differ. But suffice it to say that I found no trace of poignancy at any level.
What is it then about the three books I have discussed that has granted them absolution from the censure that ordinarily would accompany such unbridled lubricity? The answer is clear. Sexual aggressiveness is traditionally defined in our society as the province of the straight white male. To the extent that each of these books attacks this center, it appears to acquire a contemporary relevance which exempts it from the moral scrutiny that a straight white male would receive. Furthermore, in its implicit threat to the patriarchy, and all that this threat implies of traditional liberal egalitarianism, it seems to take the moral high-ground. Susanna Moore and A. M. Homes display women who are as sexually predaceous as any man. Dennis Cooper displays homosexuals and even child molesters as spirited crusaders against a hypocritical middle class. It is in this light that they gain their relevance for those who read “quality literature,” and it is this that makes them morphologically identical to Amy Tan and Bharati Mukherjee, however different their content. …
One crucial difference between these authors and the authors of ordinary novels, such as Stephen King and Jackie Collins, is that, whereas the latter are content to preserve the traditional protocols of fiction, these newcomers would have us believe, as they themselves believe, that they have penetrated to an all-important and long-hidden truth about human society. And in a general way we, their readers, do believe them. We believe them because in our relativistic age, we have lost the spiritual resources to confront that potent error which they lack either the intellectual honesty or the intellectual power to oppose: the error of supposing that, because everything indeed is not right with the world, everything must accordingly be wrong with the world; the error of supposing that, because we are plainly not a race of angels, we must perforce be a race of beasts. But in the end, they are still fiction writers after all, and this morbid fascination of theirs, this confidence that the center cannot hold, that all of morality is a sham, is the supreme fiction.
SOURCE: Indiana, Gary. “Monster Mash.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 June 1997): 14.
[In the following review, Indiana offers a positive evaluation of Guide.]
Since his writing first appeared in chapbooks in the late '70s, Dennis Cooper has been a uniquely disturbing presence in American literature, a major voice shunted to cult status by mainstream squeamishness, flawlessly fluent in the lingua franca of youthful alienation and its coolest, least affected recording angel. His early poems and short prose were memorably hailed by Edmund White as sounding like “Aeschylus with a mouthful of bubble gum.” When Cooper's first full-length novel, Closer, appeared in 1989, Lynne Tillman wrote that the book “translates the moments and feelings for which we don't really have a vocabulary.”
Cooper's work claims the bleakest regions of American affluence with the sureness of Faulkner staking out Yoknapatawpha County. Widely imitated by writers such as Brett Easton Ellis and A. M. Homes, Cooper lacks their dazzling commercial appeal and desperate wish to shock; he lives where they go vogueing. His novels are peopled by all manner of rock ‘n’ roll burnouts, drug casualties, juvenile porn stars, aspiring serial killers, artists and geeks, materially comfortable or willfully marginal malcontents living way beyond the edge. Shock Cooper does, but not because he tries to. Like the scorpion in the fable, it's his nature.
The burnished youths Cooper writes about—gorgeous on the outside, twisted on the inside—could have stepped out of Lauren Greenfield's recent Hollywood photo essay “Fast Forward.” (One of Greenfield's 13-year-old subjects reports, “My point of view in life was going out, getting messed up and staying out till the late hours of the night, having a big social life.”) In Cooper's novels, the kids are complemented by equally messed-up grown-ups who are eager to consume them like candy. Their goals are hilariously fetishistic and short-term, utopian in the sense that The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom is a utopian book. (In Frisk, the main character invites an old friend to join him in Amsterdam: “I want you to live here with me and participate in … this major transcendence or answer I've found in killing cute guys.”)
Cooper conjures his human wreckage revue with wildly flexible, intimate prose that offers occasional flashes of the author at his desk, a la Jean Genet, cooking everything up as he goes along, sometimes lowering a squeezed-out character through the trapdoor of nonexistence. Murder often happens as sexually assisted suicide, doubling as the killer's effort to “really know” his victim. The author invites us to identify his proto-Sadean heroes' proclivities as his own and to read his books as intricate acts of self-therapy. This probably has a sincere element—Bunuel said that an artist has to kill his father, rape his mother and betray his country once a day to flex his imagination—but the idea that the book is only therapy is also a put-on. Cooper's assaults on the novel form are far too strategic to scan as memoirs. Think of a master tailor ripping a Chanel dress apart and reassembling it as a faux-Carnaby Street three-piece suit or a cape-and-codpiece ensemble.
Unlike Genet, Cooper has a genial, albeit bizarre, sense of humor about the ideas obsessively reiterated in all of his works, a major plus, because the material explores the anus as a magic keyhole into a hidden world. Body odors and excreta are privileged information, and intergenerational rough sex a presiding comic metaphor. (In Guide, Cooper reflects on why a guy he's interested in doesn't read his books: “As Luke has explained, he doesn't understand why anyone would want to write about the subjects my novels recapitulate so automatically. Neither do I, so we're even.”) The comparison to Faulkner seems truer: Cooper fashions unchanging content into one-of-a-kind containers, albeit his content may be intrinsically less digestible than Faulkner's.
It isn't quite accurate, though, to say the content never changes. Each novel carries some residua from the one before it, and the terrain is so unmapped by other fiction that its nuances take time to register. Cooper's narratives play out in micro-worlds in which vocabulary attaches itself to sensation in startling ways, language itself being barely adequate for the dire events and mental states he describes. Acid trips and heroin highs, coprophagic snacks and dismemberments are all standard fare. Starting with Closer's Schnitzler-esque rondelet of drug-inflected sex among Los Angeles latch-key teens, the author has been charting ever-larger quadrants of terra incognita that bring the reader queasily close to his or her worst nightmare. Closer's precocious, self-absorbed adolescents read their dark fates in the brutally dysfunctional adult world around them; in their milieu, where being conscious and being stoned are synonymous, parents either molest their kids or ignore them entirely.
Cooper takes us into a world where the only attractive options are dangerous or lethal forms of self-transcendence, via drugs, death and/or other people's bodies. This world looks a lot like America as depicted on afternoon talk shows without the healing jargon. Its culture is inscribed in Cooper's teens and vulpine adults as weirdly nuanced death wishes and ingenious predatory impulses, acted out in a bath of rock music. (These books, somewhat frustratingly for older readers, can be time-framed in alignment with successive indie-rock trends.) In the novel Frisk, a narrator named Dennis, imprinted at an early age by bogus snuff photos he thinks are real, grows up with a compulsion to literally get inside the youths he's attracted to, in the belief that their eviscerated bodies will reveal something important about them. He views his ultimate failure to act out murderous wishes as both cowardice and a defining moral threshold.
The remote possibility of nontoxic love sometimes holds a wistful attraction for Cooper's protagonists, who nevertheless deflect situations in which feelings (as opposed to manias) threaten. While each of his books has a large, variegated cast, everyone in them shares a protective numbness that functions as self-control. They're terrified to expose their emotions, so acclimated to abuse that they'd rather be beaten to death than risk romantic rejection. Cooper's third novel, Try, twists the pattern of earlier books; Ziggy and Calhoun, though even more extravagantly damaged than Cooper's previous heroes (Calhoun's a junkie; Ziggy's been molested by two fathers and an uncle since he was 8), muddle their way through acres of psychic grand guignol to a place of tentative mutual trust.
Cooper's new novel, Guide, really is a guide, or gloss, that revisits most of the places where Cooper's fiction has been, laying out a multi-tracked plot with brisk efficiency, then scattering the pieces like so many colored tiles in a graffiti-enhanced mural. The narrator calls himself Dennis Cooper and tells us he's writing the book we're reading; his previous work is familiar enough to his teen characters that it's the butt of numerous jokes. (“You're not going to kill Luke, right?” a boy with “five little barbells through each eyebrow” asks Dennis anxiously. “Look,” Dennis explains, “I'm like you. Only you put scary decorations on your outsides, and I put scary decorations on my insides.”) Like Try,Guide has a platonic gay love story at its center, a familiarly semi-abject attachment of an older for a younger man. These lovers edge toward each other, sort of, while a circus of drug overdoses, kiddie porn videos and violent deaths swirls around them. Guide reveals how much a novel really is a wish construction: Chris, the boy Dennis discards to make room for Luke, his new obsession, gets castrated and dismembered by an insane dwarf (consensually, one hastens to add).
The dwarf is one of the book's most inspired bits of pathology, a pure extract of the ravening id that powers so much of Cooper's mental theater. Another wonderful narrative device is a comic strip drawn by a minor character named Scott that depicts Dennis' inamorata menaced by a cave-dwelling monster, which Cooper scatters in verbal close-ups, a few frames at a time, throughout a long section of the novel. There's also Mason, Dennis' cohort, shown raping the adored bass player of Smear after putting Rohypnol in the guy's Pepsi; Pam and Sue, lesbian pornographers, trying to dump the body of a kid who's died from natural causes in their studio; and Drew Baldwin, a much-adored teen who succumbs to Mason's charms after the latter knocks him unconscious with a skateboard. (“But he told me why he did it and … I understand, and … I'm cool with it.”)
This book's form achieves what a lot of contemporary novels try and fail at, a kind of pull-focus effect that blurs past and present, not so much by jump-cutting across chronology as by eliminating time as an overall narrative element. Each episode has its discrete temporality. Guide is structured in musical intervals, with recurring dominant chords and minor motifs, a scheme that allows Cooper's first-person narrator to fold in events he's not involved in, even introducing himself in certain scenes from inside other character's heads. It's an extraordinarily risky method, continually reminding the reader that the supposedly obsessive author he's reading is placing things before him with a high degree of calculation. “Punk's bluntness,” Cooper wrote in Closer, “edited tons of pretentious shit out of American culture. …” Cooper does the same kind of editing job on the modern novel's conventions, especially in the area of verisimilitude. In a sense, Cooper has sliced such a big window into his own prodigious fantasy life, which is also ours in one or another variation, that it no longer matters if events in his theater of cruelty seem “believable” or not. The fact that he exposes them is more than enough.
Guide is much broader farce than Cooper's previous novels; a small but plangent part of its intention is to revise the scary image of its author those other books have created (“… even though my imagination's a freezer compartment for violent thoughts, I'm a wuss”). Happily, this revision doesn't approach the drastic self-bowdlerization John Waters accomplished with “Crybaby” and “Serial Mom” if anything, Guide amplifies the horror that is Cooper's specialty by further breaking down the glass wall between the imaginary and the real. I don't want to take anything away from this book's outrageousness by saying that it's the most seductively frightening, best-written novel of contemporary urban life that anyone has attempted in a long time; it's the funniest, too, and does for Clinton America what “The Tin Drum” did for postwar Germany.
SOURCE: Hainley, Bruce. “Body English.” Nation (16 June 1997): 34-5.
[In the following review, Hainley offers a positive assessment of Guide.]
This is the problem: how to convey the realness of the world, of the guy so beautiful he “white[s] out” vision, when language is often recalcitrant to the point of shutdown, when the only fact that has a sort of truth—even when you are deep in the middle of exploring the terrain of that mystery called someone else's body—is basic human aloneness: the strange opacity of the other, whose distance from you is similar to the distance (that close, that far away) between things and the words for those things. In his work, Dennis Cooper returns again and again to such conundrums—distances—especially when they inhabit a particular type of fine young man who thwarts and also weirdly reiterates the fascinations and lapses of cognition:
It's strange what goes on in your head when you're attracted to someone—I mean, so turned on that your thoughts are just a twisted narration to his day-to-day life, and then by some fluke or fated twist or whatever you get the chance to fuck him whenever you want, and you start to realize that his sublimity's just your own imaginative garbage, period, and that all you're going to get out of him is a new set of needs, body odors, opinions, emotions, et cetera, all of which you completely recognize from your other relationships, and you start thinking, So why am I prioritizing him again?
With Guide, Cooper has provided a handbook to his complex concerns while shattering what too many have come to think of as his only hallmarks. He is often mistaken as the postmodern disciple of Sade and Genet (from whom, unquestionably, he has learned), but the daring of Guide is how clearly he shows his interests in extremity to be a way of getting at the precariousness of living through language stripped down to its most vulnerable, tender and sweet.
Vulnerable, tender and sweet—Dennis Cooper? Yes. (The narrator admits, “my favorite cup … changes color according to the temperature of its contents,” and describes a guy's antics when coming this way: “He yells—I mean, loudly—like his dick is a band that has just started playing his favorite song.”) By breaking the structure of the novel into journal-like sequences and by having the narrator, “Dennis,” pay attention to those people and things (music foremost among them: lines from songs by Guided by Voices, early Donovan, Blur and others float through the novel) that try “in various ways to attract [him] back into the real,” Cooper allows his own pleasure and sadness to shine through. Dennis both is and is not Cooper, but there are clues as to why this shouldn't be read as a roman à clef. Band members' real names are used (Alex James of Blur, Daniel James of Silverchair), while the bands' names slip to Smear and Tinsel-tool. The distance between things keeps everything lively by showing how fantasy (fairy tales, porn, drugs) can map real life and how real life can mess up fantasies.
One of Cooper's goals is to make his novel a safe haven for what and whom he cares for; when Luke, a guy whose looks more than satisfy all of Dennis's requirements for distraction, moves in, Dennis finds that their relationship may be better than his fantasies, and it may provide him with a definition of love. At the beginning of almost every chapter there is a brief paragraph giving the lowdown on what has happened and what is happening; by providing the basic coordinates of the narrative, it lets the reader focus on the miraculously precise yet austerely casual language that, aside from Dennis's complicated emotions, is the only thing holding the safe haven together.
Pam's fucked. Sue, too, for the moment. They're in a holding cell. Chris, Robert, Tracy, and Goof are abstractions at this point. You can basically forget them. Their bodies are gross to one degree or another. Drew is at Mason's. The latter has come on the former's face several times. Luke's getting stoned with some friends at his soon-to-be former apartment. Scott's at my place. We're sober. It feels kind of nice.
Forgoing the plot, one can relax into the book's meditations on drugs, sex, music. Ponder how Cooper shirks almost every responsibility of narrative and description (notice his use of “whatever” and how Dennis announces early on, “The details don't matter”) and yet moves forward and holds on to what may matter more—the blurring that occurs when life is transmuted into words in order to get back into the real. Cooper's accuracy, even when the writing fades away to something pale and doubting, amazes. About David, whom Dennis met while writing an article for Spin (for which Cooper is a contributing editor) on homeless teens, many of whom hustle themselves for money (Guide's chapter “The Spin Article” is like but is not the article Cooper published in Spin using the same material):
Word has it that David allowed himself to be kept by some rich older man. Then he got really, really sick. I mean, way too gaunt to turn anyone on anymore and … here the story gets blurry … he went somewhere else … blurriness … death. I don't know what to do with that story. It's not exactly fact, and it's not quite a fairy tale, either. Me, I plan to believe what I want to believe. Here's how it starts: Once upon a time, David had a bizarre energy that made excellent copy, and a physical beauty that made one hang on his thoughts, and a violent temper that undercut one's attraction to him, and an AIDS diagnosis that gave his life great symbolism. That's as far as I've gotten.
Somewhat cold, coming close to giving up, indifferent and/or resigned, the language is also hauntingly direct and tender.
Dennis is no easier on himself. Soon after revealing that his “imagination's a freezer compartment for violent thoughts,” he admits:
I'll say this once. I'm extremely fucked up. It doesn't show, but I am. Over the years I've developed a sociable, generous side, which I train on the people I know. It makes them feel grateful, which makes me feel purposeful. But secretly, I'm so confused about everyone and everything. Sometimes these moods will just come out of nowhere and lay me out. I'll curl up in bed for long periods of time, catatonic and near-suicidal. Or I'll space into a murderous sexual fantasy wherein some cute young acquaintance or stranger is dismembered in intricate detail, simply because he's too painfully delicious, i.e., through no fault of his own.
All of which means what? Gertrude Stein wrote a long time ago—who was paying attention?—that “if every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.” Of all of Cooper's work, this novel is the most irritating and stimulating: It is a beauty. His stunning prose borrows stylistics from the most vacuous genres available (self-help manuals, New Age tomes, substance-abuse rehabilitation pamphlets, porn). At times I shook my head in disbelief because of the risks he was taking to get everything in and hold it together. He admits the real (and necessary) possibility of failure; he allows his prose to get L.A. hazy; he trusts his admiration for certain bands enough so that to explicate not only something about himself but also something about the experience of reading, writing and being he keeps the lyrics just as they are—part of the drift of living. “Guided by Voices: I can't tell you anything / you don't already know.” Those lyrics are vitally true and Cooper believes them, but he also, with this novel, refutes them.
SOURCE: Roberson, Matthew. Review of Guide, by Dennis Cooper. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1998): 230.
[In the following review, Roberson comments on the metafictional aspects of Guide.]
In Guide, the fourth book of his five-novel cycle, Dennis Cooper charts passage between a variety of seeming oppositions: desire and its fulfillment, reality and fiction, life and death, bodily knowledge and the language with which we express it. This middle-space seems to be Cooper's preferred subject because, as his character Chris puts it, it is only there that one can truly achieve a simultaneous understanding of both a thing and its opposite; “drugging himself in death's general direction,” so as to move between existence and its extinguishing, Chris believes that only in such a location can we hope to grasp briefly what might be “everything there is to know about human existence.”
Cooper's novel is itself a performance of this general idea. It is narrated by Dennis, who is self-consciously “writing a novel” about his friends; of Guide, he says, “This is it.” Like Cooper, a writer for Spin magazine, and like Cooper, the author of a Spin article on homeless teens (which is included, and is significantly similar yet different from Cooper's), Dennis is both Cooper and a self-consciously fictional projection. This metafictional turn nicely illustrates Guide as a medium between the “real” world and the kinds of fiction we use to describe it. The novel's characters are effective mediums for the music lyrics, movie plots, and pervasive, seemingly communal fantasies of sex and violence that flood the Los Angeles setting. Absorbing and enacting and reshaping this pop culture, they come alive in often disturbing but always strikingly contemporary ways, functionaries of the fin-de-millennium hyperreal.
Guide is not for the (even remotely) squeamish. Although Dennis refuses to indulge his own murderous homosexual fantasies, his friends/characters/creations are not so restricted. It is not without reason that Cooper has been called a postmodern disciple of Sade and Genet.
SOURCE: Beckett, Andy. “Whatever.” London Review of Books (21 May 1998): 34-5.
[In the following review, Beckett provides a favorable assessment of Guide, but expresses reservations over Cooper's indefinite morality.]
Reading Dennis Cooper can make you queasy. This short novel is the fourth in a five-volume cycle concerned almost exclusively, so far, with sexual violence. Closer (1989) subjected an American teenager to anal mutilation; Frisk (1991) concerned the butchery of young Dutch boys; and Try (1994) in which one critic detected ‘a gentler maturity’, saw an adopted son greedily penetrated by his father. In each book, and here, too, such episodes are not just a quick splatter on the page, or the stuff of hints and ambiguity, but drawn-out, physical descriptions. And, all the while, amid the broken bottles and bruised buttocks and the entire ‘fireworks display of blood’, as one of his murderers puts it, Cooper feels no need to emote.
The gaze of his sentences is quite blank. This is from a section in Frisk called ‘Numb’:
I think I was fucking him dog-style. He was stunning. I think he was moaning. I was about to come. I picked up an empty beer bottle without even thinking and hit the guy over the head. I don't know why. The thing broke. He fell off the futon. My cock slid out. He shit all over my legs … which made me weirdly furious. I grabbed hold of his neck and ground the broken bottle into his face, really twisting and shoving it in. Then I crawled across the room and sat cross-legged, watching him bleed to death.
Bret Easton Ellis tried the same kind of scenes in American Psycho. Yet Ellis's protagonist killed with glee, and thrilled at getting away with it. He was a wealthy and successful New Yorker; his crimes were acts of self-regard. Cooper's men of violence are close to anonymous; they are not proud of, nor even stirred by, their actions. They live in barely-described suburbs, and rarely eat or leave or have a long conversation. They just pursue their obsession, which is always the same: the violation of thin young men. The victims are never hard to come by. There is no chase, no tense entrapment, and no rescue. There isn't really a plot at all. Appetites and sustenance simply drift into alignment for fifty pages or so, then they get together in some empty living room, then the novel stops. After three years, another volume takes off from Cooper's small publisher, flies under the Daily Mail's radar and flashes past his persistent admirers—Irvine Welsh and, inevitably, Ellis, who calls Cooper ‘the last literary outlaw in mainstream American fiction’.
Increasingly, under variations of this billing, interviews with and reviews of Cooper are slipping into magazines and news. But this small fame—like most cult reputations—can seem opaque: only converts write about him. For non-believers, there are consolations, though. The strongest is the writing. Guide is so spare and conversational that, at first, it looks like carelessness. Someone's hair is ‘chocolatey’; a spoon of heroin over a flame ‘blackened, crusted up, et cetera’. When Cooper can't find the right word, he doesn't bother: ‘As Luke drove, the freeway lost … something.’ Such omissions and limitations come to seem suggestive. Luke is vacant, unable to concentrate, and views a blurry Los Angeles through a screen of drugs. He is 25, but his moral sense is as fogged and sluggish as his conversational skills. And his attractiveness to Cooper's older narrator, Dennis, flows from precisely these attributes. Luke's reply to any request is always: ‘Whatever.’
Cooper has learnt from Joan Didion, the great flat-toned chronicler of California, that there is menace in repetition and restriction, in leaving out. By dispensing with the palm trees and the traffic snarl and all the state's surface noise and danger, he depicts a private, indoor California: low-lit, pale rooms with the blinds tight shut, the blue sky forgotten outside and the neighbours too busy with the television to notice anything. And in the quiet, Cooper's occasional efforts at imagery—‘a beer bottle gasp’, a dollar bill ‘smashed’ into a pocket—are amplified, and linger. When Luke sneaks into Dennis's study to look at his pin-ups, Dennis notices immediately: ‘I heard his T-shirt brush over my can of pens and pencils.’
Such an ear can catch whispery social nuance, too. Dennis is not just interested in Luke; there is Chris—‘slight, androgynous … drugging himself in death's general direction for years’. Dennis goes to the record shop where Chris works, offers him money for heroin, and takes him home. Early the next day, Luke comes round to Dennis's bungalow and finds them—they have taken acid. All three flop onto the couch; Dennis flicks glances between his lovers:
I'm watching Luke, who is clearly alarmed. When he's tense, his eyes enlarge, and his lips stabilise … He probably hopes this expression is sturdy enough to read as cool and detached. But he's too pure a person, so it doesn't read as anything but self-protective and scared, at least to someone as thrilled by his every emotional minutia as I am.
Here and elsewhere, Cooper comes close to soap opera. Each character is a first name and a jumble of jealousies. Everybody keeps running into everyone else. But there is a relentlessness about the descriptions of faces, the mesh of anodyne phone calls, the paragraphs of gossip. Dennis and Chris and Luke; Mason, who lusts after English rock musicians; Pam, who makes ‘pornos’, and Goof, who's ‘12 and a half’ and stars in them, all live in each other's bedrooms and fantasies—nowhere else. Their one remaining interest in the outside world is shared and cultish, too. Dennis and his friends love rock bands; in particular, bands on little-known labels—most of all, one called Guided By Voices—which are so esoteric and erratic in their output that even the NME barely covers them. Cooper drops lyrics by Guided By Voices into his dialogue like Shakespeare quotations. Their wisdom seems limited to a laid-back nihilism—‘Everything fades from sight / because that's all right with me’—but his characters revere the words, like the posters and CDs that fill their bedrooms, with the ardour of sixth-formers.
Cooper, who is 45, is a rock critic in his spare time. He writes for Spin, a glossy American version of the NME, and all his years scrutinising the sleeve notes of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Pavement and the like have generated a dark thought: this kind of fandom, with its closed-off codes, its quests for perfect rarities, and its overwhelming maleness, makes a good metaphor for a kind of predatory sexuality. Halfway through Guide, Dennis comes across the perfect quarry.
Luke and Chris are not quite enough for him; on his pin-up board, Dennis has stuck up a picture of Alex, the bass player for an English band called Smear. Alex is 28, ‘an insecure, self-involved, artsy borderline alcoholic’ and ‘cute beyond belief’. His band are playing in Los Angeles. One bleary morning, he shuffles out of his hotel to get some cigarettes. As he lollops along the sun-struck sidewalk in his stained T-shirt and baggy jeans—Alex is the only character whose clothes are described—he is recognised by the worst possible person: Mason. None of the shops sells cigarettes, but Mason has some. He lives nearby. Alex makes the mistake. While he stands around in Mason's living room, Mason gets two cans of Pepsi, drops ‘several’ tranquillisers in one of them, and gives Dennis a call. He comes straight round. Alex is unconscious on Mason's floor; Mason has flopped him onto his stomach, loosened his jeans a little. Back in their hotel, the rest of Smear are starting to wonder why Alex is taking so long. The next dozen pages are creepily amusing. The band stand around, waist-deep in the rooftop pool, talking to MTV (‘It's meant to make them look Beatlesesque, probably’). Dennis has ten minutes alone with Alex, but is so awestruck he doesn't dare touch him. Then it's Mason's turn: ‘He fucked Alex harder than he'd fucked anyone in his life.’
When Alex wakes up, ‘His ass feels too … there. Normally, it's just unassumedly doing its job.’ He tells Smear's singer, his best friend, ‘something rather … untoward has happened.’ There is only so long, though, that the surprise and the novelty of the situation can keep at bay what has actually occurred. And Alex's rape is just the start. The rest of the book is a long corridor of horrors. Chris decides he wants to die during sex. Dennis is too squeamish to oblige him, so Chris contacts a porn-film veteran, who happens to be a dwarf, to do the job. It takes some determination to follow the knife-work closely. Then Goof dies, too, during one of Pam's ‘pornos’. A pair of policemen find the body on some waste ground; one of them recognises it from a video he rented. By now, the couplings and disembowellings are coming as fast as in a cartoon or video game. Cooper has stopped bothering with calm scenes; the effect is numbing, almost absurd.
In all his novels, death is presented as a surprise. One minute, the victims are writhing, or mute but quite alive, the next their bodies have given up, leaked their contents away. Cooper's killers reel back in surprise, like children with broken toys. Their desires so possess them that other considerations—getting caught, extending the moment, let alone morality—are obliterated. The narrator of Frisk knows the feeling:
I've got this long-standing urge to really open up someone I'm hot for. The Dutch boy in this case, because he's the latest example. The thought has me sweating and shaking right now … If he were locked in this toilet with me, and if I had a knife, I guess, or claws would be better, I'd shut up that minuscule part of my brain that thinks murder is evil, whatever that means … Inside my head the most spectacular violence is happening. A boy's exploding, caving in.
Cooper's killers, predictably, find the body both endlessly appealing and shiveringly grotesque. In Closer, a victim's skin is ‘like plastic or candy’, then, a few moments later, his flesh is ‘just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper’. In Frisk, ‘human bodies are such garbage bags.’ In Guide, ‘their bodies are gross to one degree or another.’ They can't be blank and perfect once they have been opened up. But the people here keep probing and peering inside, as if each ‘wrapper’ might contain some untasted delight. Cooper has a sly phrase for this: ‘same old apocalyptic porno’.
His books are nimble with such self-mockery, and internal jokes and references, and get-out clauses from accusations of brutality. The butchery scenes are often sliced up into pieces, and scattered with blander chunks of relationship talk and domesticity. Cooper draws attention to the artificiality of his stories. At the same time, he likes to hint at the presence of a certain amount of autobiography—a frisson, as one of his porn connoisseurs might put it, of ‘snuff’ quality. Guide has a character called Dennis, so does Frisk. And Cooper, in interviews, admits he finds an English rock star called Alex attractive: Alex James, bass player of Blur, turns out to be the inspiration for Alex Johns, bass player of Smear. The bands are meant to be the same—and Cooper quotes Blur lyrics as Smear lyrics. Alex's few stunned words in the novel exactly mimic Alex James's contributions to music paper interviews.
Two months ago, the Idler magazine arranged for Alex James to interview Cooper. James didn't turn up. ‘I don't want to hurt Alex,’ Cooper insisted afterwards. There was satisfaction to be had in the episode, though—in a rock star embarrassed, and, more lastingly, in the sight of a would-be bohemian terrified by the possibility of actual depravity. Cooper in person would probably worry most of his fans. His justifications of his subject-matter are not terribly reassuring. ‘When I saw kiddie porn in Amsterdam,’ he said in Melody Maker recently, ‘I didn't know what I thought.’
That, in a sentence, is how his books operate. They speak of the barely speakable, and conclude, ‘whatever.’ There is plenty in them to damn Cooper: the relish of the charnel-house chapters, the preying on the under-age and vulnerable, the extreme rarity with which the word ‘paedophile’ appears. At times, these novels work purely as reminders of the randomness of censorship laws—the same stuff published in sex magazines would have the policemen stamping round. Yet Cooper's novels are brave. To portray cruelty and extremity so plainly, without a justifying backdrop of general degradation or poverty, is a difficult and esoteric task. Like Irvine Welsh's recent writing, it can feel airless and pointless. So far, though, Cooper remains compelling.
SOURCE: Ford, Michael Thomas. “Brilliantly Psychotic?” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 6 (January 2000): 24.
[In the following review, Ford comments on Cooper's blurring of the lines between fiction and reality as expressed in his novel Period.]
Sometimes it's difficult to tell if an artist's success is really deserved or if he's simply developed a dedicated following because his work is so peculiar that people can't decide if it's brilliance or pretension. Dennis Cooper's success has certainly been accused of being both things. To some he is a master stylist, exploring the worlds of violence, sex, and desire in shocking ways that challenge readers to re-evaluate their views of morality and to confront their own, perhaps frightening, obsessions. To others his work seems nothing more than the psychotic visions of a mind fixated on young men, murder, gratuitous sex, and violence just for the sake of getting himself and readers off and/or shocking them.
Cooper's latest will undoubtedly add fuel to the debate. Period is the fifth, and last, book in the cycle he started with his novel Closer and continued in Frisk,Try, and Guide. Like the book's predecessors, Period centers on a tale of sex, murder, and obsession. This time, though, Cooper has also thrown Satanism, the Internet, and goth subculture into the mix. The end result is a story that takes readers into a world in which reality and imagination are blurred and where truth is a slippery figure darting through the shadows—there one moment and gone the next.
Initially, the story seems straightforward. Nate and Leon, two teenage boys obsessed with Satanism and a goth rock band called The Omen, decide to make a deal with the devil so that one of them can have sex with a deaf-mute boy who spends his days observing life and writing about it in a notebook. It works, but the object of desire ends up dead when the boys decide that sacrificing him to their dark master will make them immortal. A fight ensues between Leon and Nate, and Nate ends up bloodied and confused at the shack of Bob, an eccentric Outsider artist (an artistic movement in which art is created by people who have no formal artistic training and who are, generally, outsiders because they live in non-urban areas or are mentally ill, prisoners, or otherwise removed from mainstream society) with whom he sometimes has sex. Shortly after, he improbably finds himself traveling on a bizarre road trip with the members of The Omen, who spend as much time murdering young male fans as they do seducing them with their music.
On the surface, things are not so different here than they are in many Cooper books. People are killed to get other people off. Boys are used for sex and use one another in turn. Everyone is obsessed with everyone else. But there's more to this book. Much more. The house in which Leon and Nate kill the deaf-mute boy is one of Bob's art projects—a series of black-painted rooms behind a perfectly-realized facade of a typical American home. After his supposed death, the deaf-mute continues to “speak” to readers in a series of minute-by-minute diaries detailing his thoughts as he wanders through the black rooms of the house. He is, in effect, a disembodied consciousness roaming through Bob's Outsider art project and reporting what he finds.
So, too, is Cooper's novel a wandering through the rooms of the mind, through the imagination of Outsiders/outsiders everywhere. His story, which at first seems deceptively like the most overdone and infantile of Goth rock fantasies, is really an intricate musing on the nature of reality, dreams, and obsession. As the story, such as it is, unfolds, we find that Nate and Leon are (maybe) characters in a book (called Period) written by one Walker Crane. A cult following has sprung up around the book; and various young men are desperately trying to figure out what it means and who the real people are who inspired it.
Among the players are George (Crane's ex-lover who may or may not have killed himself), Nate (a young man who has become Walker's new lover), Leon (who has named himself after a character in Walker's book and who was also George's lover), Bob (who has created a web site devoted to Crane's work), and various online personalities (including two boys who form a band called The Omen after reading Period) who interact with one another via e-mail and chat rooms as they try to unravel the mystery of Period, its creator, and its subjects.
No one in the book ever really does find out what's true and what isn't, which is exactly Cooper's point. Period is a novel about the realities we create when we become totally obsessed with someone or something. The characters take on various identities depending upon who they're interacting with and which story they're a part of at any given moment. They tell different versions of the truth, all or none of which may be accurate. Maybe the book is the fevered dream of one or more teenage boys high on drugs and bad rock music. Maybe it's the work of a writer obsessed with these same boys and the things they love. Or maybe it's equal parts all of these things. The work is a comment on the nature of art and its effects on both the creator and the audience, and in creating this ever-shifting world, Cooper questions whether life creates art or vice versa, and whether it matters in the end anyway.
Period is not an easy read, nor is it meant to be. The publisher classifies the book as poetry but refers to it as a novel in the jacket copy. Both are correct. Cooper's prose in this book is his most lyrical. Like the deaf-mute boy scribbling his vision of the world in his notebook, Cooper weaves a tangle of truth and lies. There's no lifeline to keep you tethered to reality as you stumble through his funhouse maze of words and ideas. In the end, he leaves you back where you began, with two boys observing a third and thinking up a way to have him sexually. Only instead of being Nate and Leon, they're Etan and Noel. Like Alice stepping into the looking glass, they've passed through the mirror in which Cooper's world is reflected and come out the other side. Or maybe that other side was the real one all along. Cooper leaves it up to the reader to decide.
SOURCE: Howard, Gregory. Review of Period, by Dennis Cooper. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 147.
[In the following breif review, Howard offers the opinion that Period is a “deeper and darker” work than its predecessors, and that the book contains a complex structure and extensive vision.]
Period explores themes and motifs familiar to Cooper's readers. Here again is a world of boys bored with everyday life, stimulating themselves with drugs, sex, and violence; here again is sexual confusion, thwarted desire, and misdirected affection. This book, however, is a deeper and darker work than its predecessors, more complex in its structure and more expansive in its vision. Gone is any locational detail, replaced by stark and desolate landscapes—an unnamed, rural town, the highway, an unnamed city. Much of the “action” takes place in virtual spaces like the Internet, the telephone, and radio. Gone, too, is any sense of linear narrative; this book bends back on itself, fragments, and puts itself back together.
The novel begins with two teens, Nate and Leon, sacrificing a cat to Satan so that Leon, who is infatuated with Nate, can instead have Dagger, a mute who looks exactly like Nate. The boys then decide to sacrifice Dagger inside of a “hellmouth,” built by a local artist in memory of his boyfriend George, another Nate doppelgänger. Later, Nate is picked up by a Goth band driving around the country, picking up look-alike boys and killing them in an attempt to revisit their first kill. Cut to a city and a group of men whose lives revolve around Walker Crane's book Period, a tribute to his lover George, who was raped and beaten, a book which may be the book we have been reading. Unless the entire book is the fantasy of Etan, a Nate doppelgänger introduced at the end of the book, itself a revision of the beginning, in which Etan, infatuated with Noel, tries his luck with a Noel replica named George. In Period's circular, looking-glass structure replete with multiple doppelgängers, Dennis Cooper has finally found a form to suit his content. Period is a startling work of fiction.
SOURCE: Hitchings, Henry. “Perverts and Their Prey.” Times Literary Supplement (27 October 2000): 23.
[In the following review, Hitchings alleges that Period fails to take a clear stand, and that Cooper's intentions are obscure and “illegible.”]
For twenty years, Dennis Cooper cultivated a reputation as a subversive, stylish, gay poet. Then, in 1994, he published Closer, the first in a series of loosely connected novels. His new book, Period, concludes this quintet of edgy, risk-taking volumes. As the title suggests, it is intended to bring the sequence to a definitive close; but Cooper, who is seldom content with the standard formulae of narrative fiction—its tired resolutions and coy denouements—chooses to complicate this composed but malignant last installment with self-reflexive ironies and technical sleight of hand. The implicit aim is to show the reader that the idea of closure is merely a construct; there can be no such thing as a final, decisive, determined ending.
The novel's dramas are psychological. Its opening paragraph suggests a precise geographical setting—“A little town made up of rickety shacks largely hidden away in some humongous oak trees that this thick fog enclosed”—but it is the fog, not the little town, that persists during what follows. The deliberately murky story concerns the efforts of a cultish goth band to secure human victims for its wayward creative project, an essay in the poetry of death. Rather than being shown events, we pick up tremors of forewarning and inklings of appetite; events consist of a series of conversations and musings, played out on the Internet, and in the form of disembodied dialogues, befuddled diary entries and cinematic vignettes.
Cooper's is a world instantly recognizable to any aficionado of online dalliance. Perverts and their prey hide behind assumed identities, explore their cravings with inarticulate candour, and feast on prospects and memories of transgression. The young male characters are interchangeable; they have no personality, existing merely in order to be the props of violence and fantasy. Cooper unflinchingly depicts a blandly hedonistic underworld, and evokes with skill the intellectual and emotional emptiness of chat-room dialogue, the dissolute vagueness of pornographic fanzines, and the tawdry sexuality around which so much cyber-fantasy revolves.
Contrary to what his fans might have one believe, Cooper's feel for the subtleties on English prose is only modest. Occasionally he musters an ingenious image—one character has “a malignant brain tumour the size of an alarm clock”—but for the most part the semi-literate vacuity of his characters serves as a convenient excuse to employ a muckily colloquial style. His writing thrives on stagy inverted commas, phrases such as. “Long story short” (as in “to cut a long story short”), and words like “scaredy-cat”, “creepy”, “nondesigned” and the necessary but overused “weird” and “strange”.
With its numbly violent prose and moral opacity, Period is the quintessential “blank” novel. It avoids committing itself to any explicit standpoint; the narrator covers his tracks at every turn, and Cooper's own intentions are illegible to the last. Sickness and depravity are portrayed in a casual fashion, and though the characters who perpetrate the novel's evils are by any conventional standard unsympathetic, it remains unclear whether the reader is supposed to recoil in shock from the dystopian spectacle or enjoy its brutality.
There is a craven tendency to describe writing of this kind as “courageous”, on the grounds that it knows no boundaries. We are supposed, it seems, to nod and reflect that “this is how things are”. But Cooper's corner of the world, though larger than one might wish, remains obscure. Fans of his work scarcely need critics to switch them on to its macabre delights; such is its samizdat appeal, they no doubt commune with his ideas at source, online, rather than after they have been mediated by formal publication. And, for the rest of us, Dennis Cooper's writing constitutes the sort of wake-up call that our beleaguered modern conscience barely needs.
SOURCE: Young, Elizabeth. “On the Buttocks.” New Statesman (20 November 2000): 52.
[In the following review, Young discusses Cooper's series of five novels, offering a positive evaluation of Period. Young acknowledges the base and sordid elements, but lauds the “grace and elegance” and “ethical torment” within the works.]
When Dennis Cooper began his quintuplet of novels in 1989, of which Period is the last, he was no more than a minor poet on the Los Angeles avant-garde gay scene. But as the novels appeared with relentless regularity, and Cooper became more widely known, critics competed to garnish his work with ever more elaborate encomia: the novelist Edmund White wrote that Cooper was “reciting Aeschylus with a mouthful of bubblegum”; Bret Easton Ellis called him the “last literary outlaw in mainstream American fiction”; the New York Times opined that “this is high-risk literature. It takes enormous courage for a writer to explore the extreme boundaries of human behaviour and amorality.” Even I contributed my two cents worth, writing in the Guardian: “If Georges Bataille had been stranded in Disneyland, he might have written like Dennis Cooper.” At the same time, the extreme sexual nature of Cooper's fiction resulted in his receiving death threats and being attacked by literal gay activists.
So what is the big deal about Dennis Cooper? In person, he seems to be anything but the heir to a great Continental tradition of licence and abandon. He may be aware of the transgressive tradition in which his work is located—de Sade, Poe—but he speaks (and often writes) in a deliberately dumbed-down Californian teen demotic. This is informed not only by the time he spends among deviant teens, but also by the compassion he feels for abused kids and, through association, by memories of his own unhappy childhood. Reading him is a bit like eating an apple full of razor blades.
The five novels in this series—Closer,Frisk,Try,Guide, and now Period (all published by Serpent's Tail)—concentrate on Cooper's own sexual fantasies. Each novel is a nightmarishly complex knot of predatory homosexual desire, murderous longing and rampant pedophilia. These are shot through with shards of romanticism, nurturance and moments of tenderness. Cooper is obsessed with a certain type of passive, abused, drugged teenage boy. The novels depict grotesque scenes of murder and mayhem.
Central to Cooper's fantasies is a compulsive buttock worship: “Goof's ass is this splayed, perfect, shimmering, televised orb”; “Junkies' asses are perfect, so constipated, such weird treasure chests”; “One of my fingers was up Chris's ass. There was this hard rock of shit stuck in there like a horrid antique.”
Should people doubt that this is serious art, let me direct them to three books published recently by imprisoned US serial killers, one of whom was trained in creative writing and was quite talented. These books, with their endless, thudding scenes of sadistic torture, are utterly devoid of the grace and elegance of Cooper's work, his empathy and longing, his ethical torment.
Cooper is tormented, pre-eminently, by the inadequacy of language as a medium through which to express extreme emotions. “Words have this awful, downsizing effect on your thoughts”; “Luke's eyes are greenish … no, hazel—no, aquamarine with a spray of brown speckles and kind of, uh, yellowy smears.”
In terms of animating one's deepest sexual fantasies, Cooper has something in common with William Burroughs. Burroughs wrote of the “courage” required of an author—“the courage of the inner exploration, the cosmonaut of inner space. The writer cannot pull back from what he finds because it shocks or upsets him, or because he fears the disapproval of the reader.” Cooper has certainly felt very frustrated by those who (unfamiliar with the sentiments expressed here by Burroughs and similarly elsewhere) persist in misreading him. “I'm seen as this person who wants to kill boys and I'm NOT. They think I'm a monster.” In Period, the narrator explicitly rejects any idea that he wishes to embrace his fantasies in real time: “I'm a wuss”; “I'm not an evil man”; “I'm sick. But I'm doing my very best, really.”
Cooper has said that he detests the sexual exploitation of children; and yet he can “understand the impulse—the horror of it is very sexy or something”. This presumably accounts for his wilful flouting of strong taboos: all the novels feature pornography, kiddie porn, child sexual abuse and snuff films.
The first book in the series, Closer (1989), supports a Lacanian pre-Oedipal reading with its creation of George Miles, beautiful and benumbed. Scared, self-destructive, he is Cooper's archetypal teenage muse. In Frisk (1991), a doomed flirtation with the reader, the narrator claims actually to have enacted his most extreme murderous impulses. Try (1994) is less solipsistic and, mercifully, more plot-driven. In it, Cooper describes the damage sustained by Ziggy, the adopted son of an abusive gay male couple. After the publication of this book, Cooper went into therapy.
By the time Guide was published in 1997, I found that, with the best will in the world, I could read no more novels about boys' bottoms. In any event, they weren't a particular interest of mine. Yet I have since returned to Guide, and have found, as in Period, a deeper, more mature work. Both novels, unlike their predecessors, focus on other forms of love and tenderness; they are not simply cruel, exploitative depictions of extreme sexuality.
Elliptical and strange, Period is a worthy finale. George Miles reappears, providing a unity of thematic purpose. All the current appurtenances of Californian teendom are here: drugs, Goths, death metal, Satanism, the net, disturbed psychic states. And Cooper has at last achieved a certain distance from his implacable, airless fantasies. The prose is gentler, sadder and more resigned than in the earlier, sexually frenetic books. It is far more stylistically complex, too. Identities dissolve—and meld.
For Cooper, the body is itself a “text”, something to be “read”. He speaks of reading the body “like braille”. Roland Barthes has written of how the “text can reveal itself in the form of a body, split into fetish objects”; that texts arise out of our history, “leaving the trace of a cut”. Barthes calls them “texts of bliss”—or jouissance.
Cooper's texts are unequivocally part of this tradition. In this sense, his concentration on the buttocks is crucially important, signifying as it does all the divisions in his own nature. His achievement, in the end, is to illuminate ways in which we are all at psychic odds with ourselves, but remain trapped within the inescapable contours of our own hard corporeality.
SOURCE: McCarron, Kevin. “‘The Crack-House Flicker’: The Sacred and the Absurd in the Short Stories of Dennis Cooper, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 50-61.
[In the following excerpt, McCarron examines Cooper's depiction of existential angst, irreligion, and the impossibility of transcendence in his short fiction and series of novels, offering comparison to the work of the Marquis de Sade.]
Even an image he'd thought religious this morning is just a snap of some junkie on hands and knees, beckoning over one shoulder, eyes drugged to pitch-black, asshole fucked so many times it resembles an empty eye socket.
—Safe, Dennis Cooper
His chest was like Christ's. That's probably who he was.
—‘Dirty Wedding’, Denis Johnson
‘You heard a voice from God?’ ‘Seemed like I did’, Ad Magic said.
—‘Quicksand’, Thom Jones
In his essay ‘The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction’, Charles E. May cites Lionel Trilling to draw a useful distinction between the novel and the short story:
Whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual. While the novel is primarily structured on a conceptual and philosophic framework, the short story is intuitive and lyrical. The novel exists to reaffirm the world of ‘everyday’ reality; the short story exists to ‘defamiliarize’ the everyday. Storytelling does not spring from one's confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one's encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity).1
In Robert Stone's ‘Miserere’, from his collection of stories Bear & His Daughter, the alcoholic protagonist lays the bodies of several aborted children on the floor before the altar of a Catholic church:
Finally, she was alone with the ancient Thing before whose will she stood amazed, whose shadow and line and light they all were; the bad priest and the questionable young man and Camille Innaurato, she herself and the unleavened flesh fouling the floor. Adoring, defiant, in the crack-house flicker of the hideous, consecrated half-darkness, she offered It Its due, by old command.2
The memorable phrase ‘crack-house flicker’ here links religion with narcotics, and the encounters with the sacred and the absurd in the short stories of Dennis Cooper, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones are invariably associated with the heavy usage of various drugs; indeed, the actual conflation of drug abuse and religion provides a crucial dynamic to the work of all three writers.
The short story is particularly well-suited to an interrogation of religious presence or absence, in large part because of its form. Although much contemporary critical thought accounts for the development of literary forms materially,3 it can also be suggested that the form of the short story is the primary narrative form. May writes: ‘The short story from its beginning is primarily a literary mode which has remained closer to the primal narrative form that embodies and recapitulates mythic perception’ (p. 139). May cites Frank O'Connor to suggest: ‘The short story has always been detached from any concept of a normal society, remaining by its very nature remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent; consequently, always in the short story there is a sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society’ (p. xxv). The alienation Cooper's characters experience, in particular, can also be seen formally represented in his work. It can be argued that all that separates Cooper's novels from his short stories is marketing: all his writing is episodic and fragmented. As with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Cooper's novels can be read as groups of short stories, even sketches or vignettes, thereby formally representing the alienation and estrangement experienced by the characters. Cooper, in effect, has only ever written short stories. Cooper's characters, as well as those of Jones and Johnson, move through a fragmented America presumably unrecognizable to the majority of their readers. Andrew Levy writes:
From the 1830s and 1840s, when Eastern magazines and newspapers published anecdotes of frontier life gathered from papers and readers in the South and Southwest, the short story has always been a site of discourse in which a comparatively well-educated, middle-class audience could read about the fictionalized lives of the more marginal participants in the American political project. (pp. 108-09)
Strikingly, the characters in the stories of Cooper, Jones and Johnson are unconcerned at their lack of integration into the ‘American political project’; their desires lie elsewhere.
In a review of Cooper's books Wrong and Closer, Elizabeth Young wrote: ‘Cooper's writing spirals as tightly as DNA around death, perversity, tenderness and desire. Its intensity and excess stem from his attempts to find language that will encompass perverse eroticism and transcendence within a world in which feelings has [sic] been numbed’.4 That Cooper's work is ‘excessive’ few readers would contest, but its ‘intensity’ is considerably less easy to evaluate. Young's attribution of a literary motive to Cooper, her suggestion that she understands him and his work, is characteristic of her appraisals of him. In her comprehensive book Shopping in Space she writes: ‘Cooper […] is transcendent, timeless. He has extraordinarily clear unconscious drives and these tend to animate and energize every aspect of his text whether he wishes them to or not.’5 Significantly, however, she quotes from Cooper's work very infrequently. Even a claim such as the following is unsubstantiated by any textual evidence: ‘For all the extremes and grotesqueries of his content, Cooper is a tender, lyrical and very romantic writer’ (Shopping, p. 257). This may be true, but it must also be taken on trust by the reader unfamiliar with Cooper's work. Still without quotation, Young places Cooper in a tradition: ‘His works cannot be described as pornographic in that they are not intended to excite the reader to orgasm, but he certainly has affinities with the French erotic tradition represented by, among others, de Sade, Lautreamont and Bataille.’
James Annesley, in his valuable book Blank Fictions, also links Cooper, among other contemporary American writers, with de Sade and Bataille: ‘This familial resemblance is strengthened by a common interest in the kinds of subjects that obsessed William Burroughs, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade.’6 However, while the work of Bataille does provide a useful perspective from which to consider Cooper's writing, the comparison with de Sade is less easily maintained. Certainly it is not difficult to envisage a phrase such as the following, from a critique of de Sade's Justine, published in Petites-Affiches in 1792, being applied to Cooper's work in the 1990s: ‘If the imagination that produced such a monstrous work is indeed deranged, it must be conceded that it is rich and brilliant of its kind.’7 Less ambivalently, however, a journalist called Villeterque commented upon de Sade's Les Crimes de l'amour in phrases that could also equally be applied to Cooper's writing: ‘A detestable book […]. What possible utility is there in these portraits of crime triumphant? They stimulate the wicked man's maleficent inclinations, they elicit cries of indignation from the virtuous man who is firm in his principles, and in the weak man they provoke tears of discouragement.’8 A similar reception, however, does not necessarily demonstrate a useful connection. Cooper's writing differs from de Sade's in far more ways than it is like it, and the most crucial difference occurs in their different representations of religion.
Simone de Beauvoir, in her introduction to The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, writes of Sade: ‘His nature was thoroughly irreligious.’9 De Beauvoir reads de Sade's work from a Marxist perspective, seeing it as exemplary of materialist philosophy, and in particular of Hobbes's views on nature. Angela Carter, like de Beauvoir, is interested in assessing the principles of exchange that underline de Sade's writing: ‘Pleasure is a hard task-master. The Hundred and Twenty Days at Sodom offers a black version of the Protestant ethic but the profit, the orgasm obtained with so much effort, the product of so much pain and endeavor—the pursuit of the profit leads directly to hell. To a perfectly material hell.’10 Although de Beauvoir refers to de Sade as ‘thoroughly irreligious’ there is too much sacrilege and blasphemy in his work for this to be the case. Maurice Lever writes of de Sade's fascination with sacrilege that it is rather surprising and more than a little odd in a man who throughout his life denied the existence of God. Blasphemy makes sense only as transgression of a recognized value. The true atheist is not the person who combats God by denying that he exists but the one that never thinks about his existence. Such a contradiction raises doubts about the reality of Sade's atheism. (p. 121)
De Sade's characters are haunted by the loss of God. The scenes of unspeakable degradation, the episodes depicting sequences of escalating atrocities, all point to an absence—the absence of God. By performing the most abominable acts imaginable, de Sade's characters seem to wish to attract the attention and the intervention of a divine agency, to finally provoke Him to show Himself, but all that looks back at them is the impassive face of a totally indifferent universe. It is rage at this absence that animates de Sade's work, but, crucially, the same cannot be said of Cooper's writing.
Cooper never has his characters speak of ‘God’ in anything but the most sceptical and vague terms. In ‘Spaced’, the narrator says: ‘I mean, I know there's no God. People are only their bodies, and sex is the ultimate intimacy, etc., but it's not enough.’11 In the first story, ‘A Herd’, from his first collection of stories, Wrong, which features a child rapist and serial killer, the narrator notes: ‘If there was a God …’12 In the final story in the collection, ‘Epilogue’, the narrator informs us: ‘“God” is the adjective I like to use when describing Joe, as it implies beliefs in the years since’ (p. 160). In Frisk, the narrator, who is describing in graphic detail the abduction, rape, murder, and disembowelment of a succession of young boys, says of his partners in crime: ‘They kills guys for a kick, while for me it's religious or something’ (p. 94). The assumption here that religion has an equivalent, ‘or something’, is a characteristic belief of Cooper's characters, most of whom speak in a similarly vague and imprecise manner. Cooper's characters' attitude to religion is thoroughly contemporary: ‘God’, ‘spiritual’, ‘religious’, and similarly oriented words are just that in Cooper's work—words. They possess no stable, historical, or theological meaning; they are just nouns and adjectives that can be used as validly in one context as in another. This is not the case in de Sade's writing. De Sade's universe is one in which ‘God’ is a stable signifier, and transgression has a purpose.
Cooper's work articulates the end of the humanist ideal, the post-Enlightenment drive to place all meaning and all value in the human. In an essay on Bataille, Julia Kristeva writes: ‘It is clear today, at a time when our culture is no longer the only center of the world, that since the bourgeois Revolution, the essential adventure of literature has been to take up again, dissolve, and displace Christian ideology and the art that is inseparable from it’.13 Cooper's work is in the vanguard of this ‘project’:
Mike dragged Keith down the hall by his hair. He shit in Keith's mouth. He laid a whip on Keith's ass. It was a grass skirt once Mike dropped the belt. Mike kicked Keith's skull in before he came to. Brains or whatever it was gushed out. ‘That's that’. […] He thought of offing himself. ‘After death, what's left?’ he mumbled. He meant ‘to do’. Once you've killed someone, life's shit. It's a few rules and you've already broken the best. […] He stared out at the Hudson. He put a handgun to his head. ‘Fuck this shit.’ His body splashed in the river, drifted off. (Wrong, pp. 63-65)
The authorial intrusion ‘He meant “to do”’ in this passage emphasizes Mike's lack of belief in an afterlife, while it is also clearly implied that ‘the rules’ are nothing but cultural constructions and that, therefore, there is absolutely no reason to obey them.
Sex and drugs fuel the lives of even Cooper's most amiable characters. Drugs, usually heroin, but often cocaine, LSD, and amphetamines, are a presence in virtually everything Cooper has written. It is the triviality of life, the encounter with the absurd, that Cooper's characters use drugs to avoid confronting. While amphetamines produce cranked-up sexual extravaganzas, which are never depicted joyously or sensually, LSD is capable of imparting a significance to incidents which they do not actually possess: ‘George liked how acid could blow up the flimsiest topic.’14 Heroin, the most ubiquitous narcotic in Cooper's writing, offers a blissful abdication from the pointlessness of existence: ‘Across town, Calhoun sits in his fake-antique desk chair injecting a huge dose of heroin. […] He unties his arm, blinks, and a subsequent rush, though it's more like an ease—warm, slightly sensual, trancy—cross-fades the world around him into a vague, distant backdrop as well as it can, for a minute anyway.’15 However, this ease is purchased at considerable cost: indeed, when humanity has been placed at the centre of existence, the ultimate cost. Cooper's work is actually anti-drug; the absence of sensuous description is reinforced by numerous characters' absolutely unequivocal condemnations of drugs. In Closer, the first-person narrator says: ‘We decide to have sex again. As we do, I take occasional snorts from Keith's cocaine supply. Coke creates distances between its users and others, especially other users' (p. 130). In Try, Calhoun, high on heroin, wishes Annie to stay in his room but is unable to communicate this desire: ‘Calhoun wants to say, Stay, or something to that effect. Instead, his mouth just sort of falls open, hangs there, a reddish black, roughly triangular slot, at the far back of which are some inventive emotions that don't have a chance against the shit heroin throws over everything in the world except its own … whatever. Slam’ (p. 70). Later, Calhoun meditates on what heroin has done to him: ‘God, things used to seem so potentially amazing re: Josie and love and all that before heroin moved in. […] According to books he'd admired, heroin was supposed to make certain outdated necessities like love, friendship, sex obsolete, and it works in a way. Josie abandoned him, thanks to it’ (p. 150).
With the absence of God, humanity is now at the centre of existence, but drugs, often taken to avoid confronting the pointlessness of an absurd world, create an inability in the user to form relationships with other human beings, leaving nothing but the drugs. This cruel circle of despair is central to Cooper's writing and lies behind many of the more bizarre and horrifying incidents in his books. In Frisk, the narrator, Dennis, writes a letter to his old friend, Julian, describing in horrifying detail his abduction, rape, and killing of a number of young boys, some as young as ten or eleven:
I pressed the point of the blade into the base of his throat and made a long, straight slit all the way down his chest, stomach. […] It opened up. I pulled back the halves of white stomach flesh and saw his jumbled yellow guts, which had a weird strong stench. […] I wiped the blood off his ass as best I could, grabbed the calf of his one intact leg and bent it way forward, opening the ass-crack. I licked it out for a long time. […] His hole tasted metallic. I stretched it open and sniffed. The bowels reeked as harshly as I've ever known. I spat on the hole and fucked it brutally, which wasn't easy […]. Stomp the kid's head, I said. Jorg jumped up, did. It was really horrific. The back of the head just caved in. The hair got all goopy with blood and brain tissue or something. Jorg pulled down his pants and dropped some shit on the crushed head. […] God human beings are such garbage bags.
Later in the book it is made clear that this sequence of killings is a fiction, and Young draws a connection between Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho and Frisk: ‘Descriptions of murder have exactly the same effect linguistically, whether the murders are “realities” or “fantasies” in the book. They cannot be more or less real according to the plot. It is only fictional convention that makes them seem so. They are all just words' (Shopping, p. 257). Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of Cooper's work is precisely this sense that there is nothing left but words. Annesley, who also stresses that these horrifying descriptions are ‘fictions’, writes of this particular incident: ‘There is no sense here that the corpse is any way connected to human life. It is just a thing to be mutilated’ (p. 30). However, it could equally be argued that it is precisely because the boy is human that he is a ‘thing to be mutilated’. Annesley suggests, with a particular focus on Cooper's fascination with excrement in his work: ‘The casual brutality described in Frisk is thus linked to a dehumanizing transaction that generates “dead matter” in economic terms (the commodity), in psychological terms (excrement) and in real terms (murder)’ (p. 32). Certainly, ‘rimming’, homosexual anal sex, and coprophilia are all portrayed as routinely in Cooper's writing as is drug abuse, but as Geoffrey Hartman observes of Walter Benjamin's analysis of Baudelaire: ‘Benjamin was tempted to give his analysis at the price of occluding a radically religious perspective. The socioeconomic interpretation is not so much wrong as incomplete.’16
Intimations of something mysterious occasionally flicker through the minds of Cooper's characters, as occurs in a coprophiliac incident in Closer, for example, in what is possibly the most memorable image in all of Cooper's writing: ‘He did a sharp nosedive and smelled something rancid but rich, like the trace of perfume in a king's tomb. He flattened his face on the butt, sucked and chewed at the hole, but his treasure was stuck in its vault’ (p. 80). Bataille writes: ‘It is clear, in any event, that the nature of excrement is analogous to that of corpses and that the places of its emission are close to the sexual parts. […] Moreover, life is a product of putrefecation, and it depends on both death and the dungheap.’17 Specific religious imagery is actually pervasive throughout incidents that focus on the anus. In Try, Ziggy reads a letter Roger has sent him, in which Roger details his fascination with young boys: ‘As for what I like to do with them, rimming's the technical term for it. “Eating ass” is a lowlier synonym. Don't think for a moment that this brand of sex has any relationship at all to the “sex” Brice imposes on you. It's far more like worship, if anything’ (p. 19). In Safe, from Wrong, Mark examines himself: ‘God knows his ass pays back all eye contact in spades—creamy white, small and firm, almost no hair in the crack. […] Mark thinks his own even slightly resembles the Shroud of Turin’ (p. 122). In Try, Ziggy's gay foster-father, who has been having sex with Ziggy since he was eight years old, says in a list he is compiling of Ziggy's physical attributes: ‘Ass: In short, it emitted a stench I'd best leave in absentia, or at least to the discretion of listeners, as you would recognize this smell to which I obliquely refer from your own, well, experiences. Yet I'm positive you would agree that within its rottenness was a flowering so sweet and spicy […] a secret, addictive ingredient that made one inevitably return’ (pp. 160-61). What is being ‘worshipped’, what is ‘addictive’, is confirmation of humanity's eventual carrion status. In Cooper's world, human beings, who are no longer even connected to one another, who have no spiritual, moral, or intellectual value for one another, are nothing but sacks of blood and shit. In Closer, John is having sex with George and thinks: ‘That was the weirdest part, feeling how warm and familiar George was and at the same time realizing the kid was just skin wrapped around some grotesque-looking stuff’ (Closer, p. 7). In ‘David’, the narrator says: ‘That's why I'm happy I'm famous for what I'm so famous for. Being gorgeous, I mean. It helps me believe in myself and not worry that I'm just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper, which is what everyone actually is’ (Closer, p. 22).
Cooper is by no means, however, a completely pessimistic writer and the salvation he does, guardedly, offer is both thoroughly contemporary and almost certainly the reason he is very highly regarded by critics such as Young and Annesley. Young wrote of Closer in her review, for example: ‘Like all serious art, Closer falls exquisitely, effortlessly, into the little we know about art, language and the unconscious’ (p. 42). Charles E. May writes: ‘The short story as a genre has always been more apt to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up. Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable cover-up assumption that what is depicted is real; instead the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself—the fiction-making process, the language act.’18 Cooper often draws attention to the fiction-making process. In ‘My Secret Diary’, from Wrong, the narrator notes of a character called Kenny who is dying in hospital: ‘No one bothers to visit him, not even me and I made him up’ (p. 96). In Safe, from the same collection, Rob tries to account for the necrophilia fantasies his gay lover has discovered written down and hidden in his pornography collection: ‘He claims it's research for his novel. He says his sentences are like bars on a cage that holds dangerous animals’ (p. 109). Later in the same story, the narrator says of his own face: ‘It had two poorly made, gentle, and endlessly flickering eyes that would scare me when I was innocent, although I'd carved them myself’ (p. 133). He also writes of another character: ‘Mark sleeps his way through the rest of this story’ (p. 129). In a writer with Cooper's reputation for violence and nihilism there is something curiously old-fashioned, as well as élitist and disingenuous, in his faith in the importance of art, although it is, of course, the inevitable result of his creation of a thoroughly desacralized world: all we have left is the ability to describe the horrors. The perspective offered by Cooper throughout his work is that of those great brooding eyes in The Great Gatsby; it is as though those eyes were capable of detachedly recording the death throes of a degenerate and rapidly decaying culture. …
In a review of Tobias Wolff's collection of stories, The Night in Question, Robert Stone argues that Wolff's writing is ‘fundamentally religious [in] nature.’19 Stone further suggests that, in addition to the presence of redemption as a motif in Wolff's work: ‘Another element that decisively demonstrates the religious element in Wolff's work is the repeated rendering of his characters' pathetic attempts to act morally.’ Morality and religion, however, are not synonyms, although Cooper and Jones, particularly, often construct an equivalence between the two words. Both Cooper and Jones create a range of characters who seem able to envisage God only as a prescriptive presence, or absence, not as a supernatural or numinous force. They are contemporary writers not just in their graphic depictions of sexuality and drug abuse, but also in their belief that the most important, indeed the only, element of religion is the moral. Both writers also consistently imply that while transcendence is desirable it is unattainable without narcotics, and equally impossible to recapture without them. Only Johnson's characters have retained a sense of the centrality of the irrational or supernatural to religion, and they are often able to integrate a sacred experience into their predominantly secular lives.
The New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles E. May (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), p. 133.
Robert Stone, Bear & His Daughter (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 24.
See, with specific reference to the American short story, Andrew Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
‘The King of Cool’, Guardian, 12 April 1994, p. 42.
Shopping in Space: Essays On American ‘Blank Generation’ Fiction (London: Serpent's Tail, 1992), p. 240.
James Annesley, Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel (London: Pluto Press, 1998) p. 2.
Cited in Maurice Lever, Sade: A Biography, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994) p. 384.
Lever, Sade: A Biography, p. 510.
‘Must We Burn Sade?’, introduction to the Marquis de Sade, The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, trans. by A. Wainhouse and R. Seaver (London: Arrow, 1991), p. 42.
The Sadeian Woman (London: Virago, 1979) p. 148.
Dennis Cooper, Frisk (London: Serpent's Tail, 1991), pp. 69-70.
Wrong (London: Serpent's Tail, 1992) p. 8.
‘Bataille, Experience and Practice’, in On Bataille, ed. by Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons (Albany: State University of New York, 1995), p. 237.
Dennis Cooper, Closer (London: Serpent's Tail, 1989), p. 47.
Dennis Cooper, Try (London: Serpent's Tail, 1994), p. 2.
Cited in Douglas Tallack, The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, >From and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 158.
George Bataille, ‘Death’, in The Bataille Reader, ed. by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 242.
‘Chekhov and the Modern Short Story’, in The New Short Story Theories, p. 216.
Robert Stone, ‘Finding Mercy in a God-Forsaken World’, TLS, 15 November 1996, p. 23.