JULY 29, 2020
DENNIS COOPER’S creative work, totaling several collections of poetry, numerous essays, multiple widely read and controversial novels, and more recently GIF novels and films, has been disturbing both gay and straight readers for some time now. At first glance, Cooper’s work seems most invested in celebrating antisocial and transgressive impulses, questioning “normality,” disturbing conventional notions of the relationship between sociality and sexuality, and shocking the reader with its intense intermingling of eroticism and violence. Edmund White, in “Out of the Closet, on to the Bookshelf,” says that Cooper is “[a]s obsessive as Sade and as far from ordinary morality as [Georges] Bataille” as he “meditates ceaselessly on violence and perversion.” His work seems “dedicated to drugs, kink, and a fragile sense of beauty fashioned out of the detritus of American suburbs.” Cooper’s creative output resists assimilation into “straight” culture — or even assimilative gay culture for that matter, what has recently been called homonormativity — and his work also unsettles the politics of representation by presenting images of desire that many, straights and gays alike, find upsetting, distasteful, and counterproductive to the cause of gay assimilation. Cooper himself has even been the recipient of death threats.
But Cooper’s work is not without a tradition, even a queer one. In an article/interview in The Advocate, provocatively titled “Hannibal Lecture,” Cooper once claimed affinity for the torture porn of the Marquis de Sade; the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century “bad boy” who wrote dizzyingly symbolic verse about assholes, among other topics; the writing of homosexual thief Jean Genet; and the hallucinatory and cut-up work of druggie William S. Burroughs — all of whom explored variations of queer transgression, of the tension between an “outlaw existence” versus the “prudent administration of desire.” With such material, a Freudian (or Lacanian) reading of Cooper’s work would seem appropriate. Indeed, in a review of Cooper’s book Period (2000), the last of the author’s famous five-novel sequence inspired by the death of his friend George Miles, one critic claims that Cooper’s novels “attempt to explain away his own childhood nightmares.” There are several nightmares to explain away, including early physical and psychological trauma, such as an incident with an axe that cracked open Cooper’s skull (more on this later) and the death of close friends, such as George Miles, the adolescent love interest about whom Cooper says he’s been writing for decades. Critic Earl Jackson Jr. takes the psychoanalytic approach in his famous essay, “Death Drives Across Pornotopia: Dennis Cooper on the Extremities of Being,” which focuses on some of Cooper’s early novels and poems. For Jackson, the combination of eroticism and violence in Cooper’s work offers us “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.” Using Bataille and Freud (among other more contemporary psychoanalytic critics), Jackson traces how Cooper’s fascination with the “similarities between orgasm and death as annihilations of the discrete self” actually “inform[s] the sense of erotic horror that permeates Cooper’s work.” Jackson reads Cooper’s representation of “erotic horror,” in part, as a “desire to know […] the essence of the person” — a desire that is “overliteralized in acts of mutilation and murder.” In this view, the primary violence depicted in Cooper’s work is the rending of the psyche in its fixation on an unobtainable ideal — the knowledge and possession of the beloved other — and the violence perpetrated on the body just externalizes an internal conflict.
Joining such earlier critical work this summer is Diarmuid Hester’s Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, one of the few book-length studies of the author. While Hester situates Cooper’s voluminous output in the context of the author’s life, including some of his early childhood trauma, he largely eschews psychoanalytic readings of the work, focusing instead on the literary traditions and historical contexts in which Cooper has written. For instance, Hester spends a great deal of time describing the Los Angeles poetry scene, centered in the Beyond Baroque group, which offered a stage for Cooper’s first major breakout into literary community-building and publishing, including the establishment of his Little Caesar Press, designed to publish the kinds of edgy work by younger writers that Cooper and others weren’t seeing in the ’70s and ’80s. Through the L.A. scene, Cooper met and worked with a range of writers, including poet Amy Gerstler and performance artist and “super masochist” Bob Flanagan. From here, Cooper experimented with the punk scene, eventually moving to New York and Europe for various stints to continue writing, but also to experience different “scenes,” including an ongoing engagement with anarchists and other groups valuing individualism and idiosyncrasy over community and collectivity.
Lurking in the background is the work of midcentury thinker, writer, poet, and radical Paul Goodman, and Hester is to be commended for positioning Cooper’s work as at least partially influenced by Goodman’s controversial anarchist legacy — a legacy that has valued the nonconformist and challenging energy of rebellious youth in revolt against an American upbringing that is more often than not an experience of (to borrow from Goodman’s most famous book) Growing Up Absurd. While Goodman may have influenced the hippie and counterculture movements of the ’60s, Cooper is more drawn to his anarchistic vibes. When he and others basically took over Los Angeles’s Beyond Baroque, for example, their attitude was far more post- and anti-hippie. As Hester puts it, “They accepted the isolation and solitude that defined the world around them” as opposed to attempting to counter it with feel-good vibes and a collective round of Kumbaya. Along these lines, and as with previous criticism on Cooper, Hester also traces the ongoing influence of some of the author’s most cherished models and beloved literary figures on Cooper’s work, such as the rebellious French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the Marquis de Sade — figures who rejected the mores and moralities of their time in the pursuit of radically iconoclastic thinking, being, and writing. Throughout, Hester rarely aims to psychoanalyze Cooper and his work but rather to trace these aesthetic lineages and formal genealogies.
What does such an approach offer? Let’s look at an example. The second novel in the George Miles cycle, Frisk (1991), has been perhaps the most controversial, particularly since it lures the reader into thinking that the narrator, provocatively called “Dennis,” murders young men as a form of erotic fulfillment. In a way, Frisk is a strange coming-out narrative in which the narrator traces the development of his fascination, since puberty, of seeing “snuff” pictures — several of which he saw as a young gay teen in a porn shop, perhaps inciting his desires and obsession. The result is a portrait of the artist as a young pervert. Fantasies of violence and murder abound, which Dennis relates in often chilling passages like this one:
It wasn’t that I didn’t fantasize murdering hustlers. It’s just that I tend to be too scared or shy the first few times I sleep with someone to do what I actually want. The worse that could, and did, happen was I’d get a little too rough. But the hustler would stop me, or I’d stop myself, before things became more than conventionally kinky, as far as he knew.
Readers of Cooper’s work will recognize this as familiar thematic territory: the conflict between imagining one’s desires and the inability to realize them. On one hand, Dennis seems shy about his particular kinks, fearing rejection. That’s easy enough to identify with. On the other hand, though, darker, murderous desires lurk beneath the surface, sometimes pushing their way through.
What is the content of such desire? Dennis’s drive as a character in Frisk is a desire to collapse completely the boundary between self and other — quite literally: he says, “I can actually imagine myself inside the skins I admire. I’m pretty sure if I tore some guy open I’d know him as well as anyone could, because I’d have what he consists of right there in my hands, mouth, wherever.” Such “knowing” of another person results in turning the object of affection into an actual object. But such passages, as brutal as they are, also beg for our identification, even our erotic understanding. Who doesn’t bemoan the separation of self and other? Who hasn’t tried drastic (if not murderous) ways to overcome the distance between one’s desire and its object? We may resist complete identification, but there is a strong romantic, even erotically playful sentiment at work here: as one of Cooper’s characters puts it in Frisk, “I want to know everything about you. But to really do that, I’d have to kill you, as bizarre as that sounds.”
One can readily understand why such work might draw the attention of psychoanalytically oriented critics. But, as Hester reminds us, Cooper self-consciously writes in specific literary and aesthetic traditions. His content, formally worked out over multiple poems, books, and now films, delights not only in detailing the antisocial perversities of his characters but also in forwarding anti-normativity, a particular kind of socially disruptive queerness as opposed to representing more easily assimilable forms of gay identity. As a “queer” writer, Cooper seems aligned with how Leo Bersani, in his book Homos, figures the homoerotic as an anti-relational movement or gesture; as Bersani puts it, “[t]here are some glorious precedents for thinking of homosexuality as truly disruptive — as a force not limited to the modest goals of tolerance for diverse lifestyles, but in fact mandating the politically unacceptable and politically indispensable choice of an outlaw existence.” In this view, Cooper’s work explores the antisociality of the homoerotic and the transgressive, and the characters of his novels seem akin to those of Jean Genet, another author whom Bersani greatly admires as a guru of queer disruption.
Such readings of Cooper’s work focus more on the structural rather than the psychoanalytic nature of desire, situating Cooper’s narratives within histories of queer transgression as opposed to seeing them as portraits of tortured (and torturing) subjectivities. Diarmuid Hester offers just such an approach, arguing at one point that Cooper
wants to show us that a society that produces heteronormative thinking that is predisposed to generating groupthink, that interferes with how all individuals concoct their lives — a society like that is itself the problem. In this way, the George Miles Cycle acts as a kind of diorama where we see free individuals competing with the influence of various invisible systems that stand for wider social constraints.
With that said, and for all of Hester’s careful placing of Cooper within larger literary contexts of influence and activity, Cooper’s work rarely links his anarchism, his iconoclasm, his transgressive aesthetics to a particular “issue” or politics. Explicit reference to larger sociopolitical or cultural issues is largely absent. Given the time in which Cooper’s first major works began appearing — the 1980s — one might imagine that the specter of AIDS, a real-life horror show, might figure prominently in Cooper’s work. But it doesn’t. In general, the politics of having a queer identity is largely absent; no one complains about not being able to get married. But neither are Cooper’s works case studies of the queer fringes; however obsessed Cooper might have been with serial killers as a younger man, his books are not portraits of them (as you get in Gary Indiana’s Three Month Fever about Andrew Cunanan). And, despite the large amount of intergenerational sexual activity in his books, they are hardly ever apologias for or investigations of pedophilic desire (as you get in the work of Matthew Stadler).
Instead, the “horror” of Cooper’s characters and narratives seems more, in a word, ontological, or at least something approaching a more fundamental sense of what it means to be human, of the form of our humanity. Hester argues, in a statement coming closest to his thesis about the totality of Cooper’s output, “Cooper continually negotiates between a desire for togetherness and an endorsement of individuality.” Granted, sometimes that desire is too intense, born out of the terrible aloneness of our individuality. As Hester puts it, “Can reaching for another turn into a murderous stranglehold?”
Such is Cooper’s primary thematic material. But what foregrounds the deep and at times horrifying aloneness of the individual is less the content of the books and poetry (and the films, see below) but their style and their form, which critic Dodie Bellamy has called an “aesthetics of distance,” an aesthetics that may be the single most important hallmark of Cooper’s writing. The tone of the narrator is often blank and flat, nearly deadpan (no pun intended). Here’s a typical passage from My Loose Thread (2002), a book putatively inspired by the mass of school shootings in the last few decades, but one that manages at the same time not to be about them:
I’ve dragged Tran off the road, and down a slope. I made him walk at first, but he fell down and started to yell, so I hit him again. He sounded more like a dog, so we’re safe. I took his pants off, and threw them as far away as I could. He’s where and how I laid him. This isn’t how I ever wanted to do it, or with whom, but I’m trying again. It still won’t work, but I hit him really hard in the head that last time. So I’m practically alone, and I don’t think it counts.
Granted, not all of Cooper’s work is like this; his most recent print novel, The Marbled Swarm (2011), offers a narrator whose voice is a byzantine miasma of indirection and obfuscation. But the predominant voice in Cooper’s writing comes in this flat tone, one step beyond objective reporting. It’s numb. The tension between the disturbing and horrifying content and the numbness of the voice that describes often forms the core of Cooper’s work, as though the narrators articulate in their affectless tones the futility of responding adequately to the horrors that surround them — even if they are participating or orchestrating them.
Experiencing such unsettling tension is one of the key reasons so many readers return again and again to Cooper’s work. It captures a fundamental quality of contemporary American life: a vacuity and blankness as a response to a culture of extraordinary violence, a numbness in the face of ongoing horror. Decoupling this numbness and horror from any particular political, social, or cultural trigger lends them a pervasiveness that implicates and perhaps condemns the entirety of our culture. For all of that implicit critique, though, a strange tenderness lurks throughout Cooper’s writing, manifest formally in the care with which he writes, with which he constructs his narratives. In paring away any easy hermeneutics, stripping away any clarifying lens through which we might understand the varied horrors he describes, Cooper articulates some simple if disturbing truths of what we are. Sometimes we are desperate to know another, to be known. And sometimes, we are desperate to cease knowing anything at all.
It’s this last bit — the desire to not be — that is among the most startling facets of Cooper’s work. For Cooper writes not just about those who eviscerate others in the frenzy of longed-for yet elusive connection, but also about those who, usually youth, want to die, to cease, to not be. Of his recent work, the second film he has made with Zac Farley, Permanent Green Light (2018), might be the most eloquent and unsettling of his variations on this theme. The film focuses on a group of young French friends living in the coastal city of Cherbourg, but we see next to nothing of the famous port; instead, as with Cooper’s written work, the aesthetic is spare, pared down, with lots of blank walls, simplified sets, minimal decor, and muted colors. The dialogue too is equally sparse. The action, such as it is, centers on a young man, Roman, who wants to cease being. He talks with his friends with increasing determination about his plan to explode himself with a suicide vest. Some of Roman’s friends are disturbed by Roman’s wish; they love him, are perhaps even in love with him, and don’t want to lose him. Others, though, are willing to help out, not out of any malice, but out of a seeming complicit understanding of the desire to not be.
For a moment, near the end of the film, Roman talks about a biking accident from his childhood, one that somehow changed him and that was so grisly (his head cracked open) that his friend, Charles, stopped talking to him as a result of being traumatized by the event. The story echoes with similar scenes throughout Cooper’s work, recalling one of Cooper’s early memories of a freak accident in which a friend sliced into his head with an axe. The friend was so traumatized by what he’d done that he was never able to talk to Cooper again. The original incident, retold decades later in yet another version of the story, is not offered as a “root,” a psychological explanation for Roman’s pursuit of his own extinction, even if viewers of the film might be tempted to take it as such. Instead, the story, as it is obsessively told by Cooper, indexes something fundamental — less explanatory of a death wish and more a state of being, one simultaneously full of violence, tenderness, and mystery. The refusal to explain permeates the film. In another scene, talking with his sister about his odd preoccupations, Roman is drawing pictures, some of which look like people exploding. We watch him glue two pages together, obscuring one of the images, the picture beneath becoming one that now won’t be seen, that will remain unknown. It is both there and not there — an arty but nonetheless powerful image of what remains mysterious in this film.
Permanent Green Light is not an explicit rewriting of Robert Bresson’s 1977 film The Devil, Probably, but Cooper and Farley’s film certainly gestures at Bresson’s work. The Devil, Probably is about another young Frenchman (interestingly named Charles) who wants to cease being. Unlike Roman, Charles can’t quite pull his own trigger, as it were, so he ultimately has a friend shoot him in Père Lachaise, a Parisian cemetery, so that he can avoid the sin of suicide but still cease to be. Cooper claims Bresson as one of his most cherished aesthetic inspirations, and one can easily see why: of all contemporary filmmakers, Bresson best captures, in his spare and pared-down dialogue, staging, and music, the isolation and essential aloneness of his characters. They stare blankly at the horrors around them, an affect enhanced by Bresson’s use of nonprofessionals who don’t “act” — a tactic Cooper and Farley have adopted for their films as well.
The crucial difference between Bresson and Cooper, however, is that The Devil, Probably interweaves images of nuclear explosions and environmental waste throughout the scenes depicting Charles and his friends as they wander listlessly around Paris. In Permanent Green Light, Cooper has, as with his other work, pared away even these handholds, these guides to understanding what might possibly motivate young people to want to cease being. In removing both political and psychological ways of approaching his characters, Cooper offers us the prospect of Roman’s self-explosion as an experience of form. It will not be “meaningful” or have a “content,” even though the use of a suicide bomber’s vest creates eerie resonances with contemporary forms of terrorism. But Cooper’s aim isn’t political. It’s formal. What happens when we become part of an explosion, and then when we become … nothing? The earlier murderous fantasies, the literal opening of flesh to “know everything about you,” have become refined into a pursuit of disappearance. There is no promise that the explosion will lead to knowledge — of self or other — but will instead be pure experience.
With that said, I have a hard time not seeing something fundamentally political, in the broadest sense, in Cooper’s careful and studied depiction of young people consumed — consumed at times by predatory adults, at other times allowing themselves to be consumed, and at other times even wanting to be consumed, wanting erasure. Cooper’s is the weirdest “young adult fiction,” but perhaps also the most attentive to what is only spectacle in The Hunger Games and its many dystopian spinoffs: ours is a culture that chews up its young people with a nearly prurient delight in savagery and brutality. Why wouldn’t some of those young people, at some point, want to opt out, to refuse the game, to cease being? Cooper obsessively cares for these young people, extending them a tenderness in his attention. Indeed, for all of the isolation and aloneness that characterizes Cooper’s young people, there’s something touching in Roman’s friends accompanying him to the woods where he will explode himself, listening to his final words, bearing witness to his extinction.
I’m reading too much into Cooper, though, trying to enact a hermeneutic where both his intense formalism and aesthetics of distance deflect politics. With that said, however, I agree with Diarmuid Hester, who, writing about Bresson and his influence on Cooper, might as well be writing about Cooper too: “An aesthetics of distance impedes our ability to identify with a character, but it does so in order to bring about the semblance of a higher understanding of the world as one populated by others who are not merely an extension of ourselves.”
No overt politics there, but definitely a possible ethics, one born out of our fundamental unknowability to each other and our unknowability to ourselves, however much we achingly yearn to know each other and to fulfill our culture’s imperative to know yourself, to grasp your “truth.” Cooper’s work shows us bodies torn apart, eviscerated, exploded — and one end result of experiencing the forms without content, with no mystery to be revealed, is that we realize we can’t use other people to know the mysteries of what we are, not even if we embrace our own becoming nothing. The care with which Cooper has traced the emptiness of our becoming nothing is the metonymic extension of the care with which we might begin to hold one another, mysteries intact, the forms of our being all the more precious for their unknowability.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 16 books, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2016) and a critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached through his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com/.