In his five-novel George Miles Cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period), Dennis Cooper dismembers and resuscitates the figure of his dead childhood muse through a series of identities, narrative tricks and syntactical eviscerations. A single enigma haunts each of the Cycle's funhouse structures: Cooper's "unqualified love and support for George Miles and unqualified fascination with the sexual fantasy of possessing, exploring, and destroying young men like him." The boys that inhabit the painstakingly exhausted prose of Cooper's work bear inarticulate, stammering witness to their own beautiful inability to survive.
While the publication of the Cycle's second installment, Frisk, resulted in death threats from Queer Nation in 1992, this high-risk literature has also won its author great critical acclaim, with novelist Edmund White writing that Cooper "(recites) Aeschylus with a mouthful of bubblegum," and many artists, writers, and musicians citing him as an unmistakable influence in their own work. In addition to the five-novel Cycle, Cooper has published My Loose Thread, a novel originally conceived as a nonfiction work about school shooter Kip Kinkel, books of poetry, short stories and journalistic pieces. PAPERMAG was able to talk to Cooper about his two recently released novels God Jr. (Grove/Black Cat) and The Sluts (Carroll and Graf) and his upcoming CD/novella project Dennis.
PAPERMAG: This seems to have been a very busy year for you, as you've released two new novels. I'd imagine that God Jr. was considered a departure from the thematic content of your work, while The Sluts was seen as more classic Cooper?
DENNIS COOPER: Weirdly, they've both been received really well for the most part. I think their proximity in time wound up being mutually beneficial. Those who've wanted something really different from me got that, and those who might have otherwise announced that I'd gone soft had evidence that I hadn't. The success of The Sluts has been the real mind-boggler to me. I didn't expect that at all. I thought The Sluts would get a 'No, not again' reaction from most critics and people. But what's curious is that there's this large wing of the so-called "gay readership" that lost interest in my work after Try, and they've really cottoned to The Sluts, I guess because its complicatedness is more subterranean than in my usual novels and maybe because they get the comedy I tried to create around the weird bait and switch language of online sex prowling. Anyway, yeah, it's been an excellent year for the reception of my work, and I'm really happy about that.
PM: Does this influence what you're writing now? Are you working on another novel?
DC: It's actually kind of confusing. With The Sluts, I
intended it to be the end of my working with the subject matter that
everybody associates with me. But the fact that people are so into
The Sluts has given me pause. Ultimately, I'm going to write
whatever excites me next, of course. But I guess I've unslammed the door
on the sex/violence axis. The fact that the reaction to both novels has
been equally good is ideal, but at the moment it's kind of fucking me up
because of my earlier resolve. I'm really early on whatever will
constitute my next novel. I mean assuming I write one. You never know.
Nothing has really stuck yet, but I suppose it will. Still, ever since I
finished the George Miles Cycle, there's a new, big question I have to
answer every time I face a fresh project -- why write another novel? But
I have this idea in my head that I'd like to write two more novels, if I
can manage that, and then quit. The idea of writing the five
interrelated novels and five unconnected novels appeals to my interest
in symmetry. But who knows?
PM: Your new novel God Jr. notably lacks the gay teenagers and Sadean pedophiles that populate most of your writing. However, in presenting the story of a heterosexual couple mourning the loss of their dead son, it very directly engages with the question of the witnessing of a traumatic event, a question that recurs throughout your writing.
DC: I have to refer to George Miles here because if I'm dealing with trauma in my work -- and I suppose it's there, although I never consciously think about myself as writing overtly about trauma -- then my approach reflects the evolution of my emotional life around George, and not just around his death, as my friendship with George involved a lot of traumatic stuff too. When I finished God Jr., I realized it was another novel about George, which, though not part of the cycle, is almost like a p.s. to those five books in some ways. Even though God Jr. is in no way a conventional novel and is built around the same kind of complicated sets of associations and tricky architecture that holds all my novels together, it uses a more conventional -- if subversive -- style of representation for emotions and states of minds that I've explored more abstractly and/or viscerally in the past, and grief is centralized in a way it hasn't been before. I suppose that's a graph of my feelings of loss around George, and my sense that as time passes, my grief becomes increasingly subterranean and takes on a more familiar and traditional form of communication, which kind of horrifies me and is why in God Jr. grief is forced to exist in a world that has no understanding of or language for it, namely the videogame. In that sense, God Jr. is partly about the terrible inconsequence of personal grief and the determination to make that grief original and important outside my internal world. In that sense, it's also about failure, just as the cycle was. I guess I'm saying God Jr.is simultaneously an evolution and devolution, the result of a struggle against repetition.
PM: You've often cited music, visual art, videogames, and porn as points of reference that inform your writing. If I remember correctly Closer was inspired by a postcard featuring a photograph of a boy with a Mickey Mouse portrait carved into his back. What influenced your writing The Sluts and God Jr.?
DC: For The Sluts, the scrapbook was the Internet. I normally make physical scrapbooks while I work on novels, but because The Sluts mostly takes place online, my scrapbook was basically a huge set of bookmarks to sites and pages. Some sites I studied a lot to get the modes of communication and styles and terminology right were: male4malescorts.com, which is the site whose review and message board form I co-opted to make the escort review site in my novel; slave4master.com; several bareback sex hook up sites; Yahoo fan groups; and some others. For God Jr., I created a kind of storehouse of videogame-related materials, especially the walkthrough/solution books that are published for almost every video game and the 'cheat' web pages created by players for players who are having trouble figuring out a game's puzzles and battle strategies. There's one company called Rare that produces games and has a particular style and sensibility that interests me, so I researched them. And I particularly studied two of their Nintendo 64 games 'Banjo Kazooie' and 'Banjo Tooie,' which were the biggest inspiration on the actual look and geography and characters in my imaginary videogame. I also had some materials relating to children's clothing design and folk art monuments and medical books about people who are paralyzed and/or suffering from phantom paralysis. Things like that.
PM: You're releasing a CD/novella project entitled Dennis this spring. How did the idea for that project come up?
DC: The project was proposed to me by Don Waters who, at that time, ran an independent publishing house called Versus. Basically, it's a booklet containing a new novella by me packaged with a CD of songs and music by bands and solo artists who've been inspired by my work. The project has been through hell; Versus folded and so did the record company that was co-producing it. So it's finally coming out about two years late.
PM: What can we expect from the novella?
DC: It's called The Ash Gray Proclamation. It's sort of
a post-9/11 'transgressive' comedy in the semi-form of an un-producible
avant-garde play. I wrote it in 2002. It features a 13-year-old kid in
Arkansas who wants to die of a heroin overdose, an Al Qaeda operative
who's also a cannibal masquerading as a psychic, a gay gym queen in his
late forties, his heterosexual prostitute boyfriend and every pedophile
PM: And who appears on the CD?
DC: I'm not exactly sure who all is on the CD. Because of the delay, I think some tracks got pulled and different ones added. I know there are songs on there by Robert Pollard, Richard Hell, Xiu Xiu and about 12 others, I think. Obviously, it's just a crazy thrill and honor for me, being a huge music devotee. Just the fact that Robert Pollard, who's my musical hero, contributed something is unbelievable to me.
PM: What would be your ideal collaboration?
DC: That choice would change constantly. I love collaborating, and I work with other artists on projects as often as I can. I'm doing three collaborations right now. I'm working on a third theater work with the director Gisele Vienne and the musicians Steven O'Malley (of the band Sunn0)))) and Peter Rehberg/Pita. And I'm in the early stages of collaborations with the band Pig Destroyer and the Detroit composer Perspects. But my ideal collaborator at the moment... Well, one of my dreams is that Terrence Malick would make a film of my novel My Loose Thread, but there couldn't be a more unlikely possibility. Otherwise, I have a decades-long dream of making a porn film, so finding a good collaborator or two for that would probably be my choice.
PM: Pornography obviously has a huge influence on your fiction [deceased '80s porn actor] Pierre Buisson even appears as a character in your novel Frisk. How would you work within the medium itself?
DC: I think porn is a pretty strict form. Directors have tried to reinvent it and introduce avant-garde elements into it, and it never quite works. I think it has to be centrally about producing eroticism and desire, but I think it would be very easy to introduce into it emotional depth, drama, psychological complexity, motivation, intelligence, cleverness, etc. without destroying its purpose and actually only enhancing the sexiness. I have a notebook full of theories and plans and sketches, but that's it in a nutshell. I think it's a matter of leaving porn that way it is formally and giving its insides an internal life.
PM: Is there any porn work of particular interest to you?
DC: There have been some interesting directors. I like the early work Jean Danel Cadinot. I like some of the elaborate period costume epics starring street prostitutes by the Czech director Rolf Hammerschmidt. I like some of the very early Falcon short films. I like Jason Sato's Douglas Sirkian porn melodramas from the late '70s and the work he did for Matt Sterling in the early '80s.
PM: Your blog apparently draws 1,500 hits a day, and just this week you've announced that you're going to try to anthologize the works of the fans that post there as the next title in your Little House on the Bowery book series. What has been your experience of doing the blog? As so many of your novels' characters are fanboys, I would guess that your fans are quite important to you?
DC: The blog has been a big surprise. I was kind of tricked into doing it by the people who do the Dennis Cooper website, but it's been an amazing experience -- both doing it, which really feels like working in a new artistic medium, and all the interest in it. Obviously, the people who are drawn to the blog and those who've wound up forming a kind of posting community around it were attracted by my books, but I don't really think of them as fans, more as kind of comrades. The blog form naturally creates a hierarchy, but I'm interested in fighting with that set-up as much as I can, or at least using the power that bestows creatively. Many of the people posting are really talented artists in various mediums, and their interrelations and support for one another has been the best thing about doing the blog -- so in part I feel like I'm the facilitator of that. But it's astonishing to have the kind of connection the blog provides with my readers all over the world. Every writer cherishes their readers, and of course I do, and it's really mind-boggling and moving me to how passionate my readers can be about my work. Considering the kind of writer I am, that's the ideal. I just feel very lucky. It's as simple as that.