Is This Text Fucking With My Brain
By Matt Thorne.
Paul Hegarty and Danny Kennedy (eds), Dennis Cooper Writing at the Edge, Sussex Academic Press, 2008
No disrespect to my colleagues at the university where I teach Creative Writing, but Paul Hegarty, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at University College Cork is fast becoming my favourite academic. How can you not admire someone who follows up a book on noise music by co-editing a collection of essays on Dennis Cooper? Parties at his house must be a gas: slam-dancing to Merzbow followed by hardcore gay snuff movies.
In the introduction to Dennis Cooper Writing at the Edge Hegarty’s co-editor Danny Kennedy argues that “the significance of [Cooper’s] oeuvre to American letters [is becoming] ever more evident and recognised.” I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly as far as mainstream publishing is concerned, Cooper seems to be drifting off into the wilderness. His last two books failed to find publishers in England, his recent work has largely been confined to limited editions in America, and although he has been involved in a number of theatrical productions and has a collection of short fiction due to be published by Harper Perennial in America in 2009, his current main concern seems to be his blog. I appreciate that Cooper’s blog is far more sophisticated than most author’s sites, that he can reach a far bigger audience through this than through his novels (80,000 hits a day, he claims) and even that publishing on the internet might be the future for all but the most popular authors, but I can’t help wondering whether a constant direct interaction with readers is healthy for any novelist. (Cooper himself notes in an interview at the end of the book, “in the some ways the blog is a problem in that sense, ‘cause it’s like I’m getting all this fucking feedback all the time…the people who read my books are like every single day talking to me. And it’s a lot of stuff that’s really hard for me to understand.” He also describes the blog as a ‘limited’ and ‘degraded’ form.)
The deliberately rag-bag nature of this volume—which begins with new short fiction from Cooper, and includes alongside the academic essays on Cooper’s work poetry from Nick Hudson and Jean-Paul Cauvin and colour plates from Alex Rose, CL Martin and Aspen Michael Taylor—is also disappointing. Cooper is a generous man (in 98, I emailed him to ask him to contribute to an article I was writing about the Joel Schumacher film 8MM and he responded almost immediately with funny and intelligent comments, including a suggestion that the director he’d most like to see make a snuff movie would be Steven Spielberg), and runs his own publishing imprint dedicated to writers who would otherwise struggle to find print, but the poetry and pictures feel like an unnecessary distraction from the meat of the book.
Maybe I’m too old-fashioned. Leora Lev, author of one of the essays here, ‘Next: Vampiric Epistolarity, Haunted Cyberspace and Dennis Cooper’s Positively Mutant Multimedia Offspring,’ suggests that (in Kennedy’s summary) Cooper’s “real life anarchic patronage of young artists and writers on his blog and his commitment to independent publishing, combined with the epistemological uncertainties evident in his novels, creates a sensibility that acts as a virulent deterrent to the determinants of power in society, the family, and the academy. In this way Cooper’s work engenders a monstrous futurity that invites invention into the often staid genealogy of culture.”
Well, maybe, but this raises three objections. First, it’s not that unusual for novelists to champion other young writers. Most authors (aside from dedicated isolationists such as Nicholson Baker) have a small group of writers to whom they give patronage, whether through cover-quotes or review. Second, while Cooper has published unknown and difficult young writers on his Little House on the Bowery/Akashic Press, he also published the relatively well-known “inventor of punk” Richard Hell, a cultural figure who may be relatively quiet now but is an important part of 20th Century music history. And thirdly, while Cooper started his literary career with an independent publisher and has returned to smaller presses throughout his career, he has also been published by major houses.
I’m not questioning Cooper’s credentials as an outsider figure. But by playing up this angle, the editors of Writing at the Edge occasionally lose sight of just how close Cooper has come to the mainstream at times, and how much his writing embraces popular culture. Kennedy notes that Cooper’s “enthusiasms shine out from his work, from contemporary art and rock music to the pleasurable simulations of popular culture”, pointing out that he has been a regular contributor to the magazines ArtForum and Spin, but there is no mention in this volume of what I consider to be one of Cooper’s most significant and interesting books All Ears: Cultural Criticism, Essays and Obituaries, which was published by Soft Skull Press in 1999. In this book Cooper describes himself upfront as “a novelist who writes journalism”, but the collection includes in-depth interviews with Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom reveal themselves in the book to be evident admirers of Cooper’s work. The latter, Cooper says, considered starring in the film version of his novel Frisk. If he had done so, Cooper might now be a household name.
My point is that it is not really the content of Cooper’s work that makes him an outsider, but instead bad luck. He came very close to crossing over and if he had done we would be considering him as a writer who fits neatly alongside Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh (Ellis and Welsh are, of course, both big fans of Cooper’s work.) There is no reason why at least two of Cooper’s novels, My Loose Thread (which addressed the subject of high school shootings years before Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin or DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and could’ve have been just as popular if published with similar enthusiasm) and God Jr could have been mainstream successes, and the latter seems (from interviews Cooper has given) to have been written with that desire and intention.
Kennedy concludes his essay by hoping that “the essays are collected here in the hope that they will incite further interest in and debate on Cooper’s formidable literary legacy and encourage others to sincerely enter into relation with his work, persuaded by his influences to write and write always at the edge.” This is in keeping with his stated agenda of rescuing what he believes to be a critical marginalisation of the “presence of a distinctly European idiom in his writing, coming from literature and philosophy alike”, reminding the reader that Cooper consistently sites as his greatest influences “such figures as Bataille, de Sade, Rimbaud, Blanchot, and Bresson.” For Kennedy, Cooper’s move from L.A. to Paris should invite critics to make the same leap.
Kennedy may be right that this side of Cooper’s work has been underrepresented in previous criticism (I haven’t read the last collection of critical essays on his work, Enter at Your Own Risk: The Dangerous Art of Dennis Cooper, but note that it’s edited by Leora Lev, who also has an essay in this book), but at the same time an awareness of the work of Blanchot and Bresson is not a crucial requirement to the understanding of Cooper’s novels in the same way as a knowledge of the band Blur or the career path of Leonardo DiCaprio is essential to getting anything from his novel Guide. This is not a criticism of the project itself, merely a suggestion that in stating this upfront the authors limit themselves and potentially skewer their project. Also, the first essay in the collection, Martin Dines’s ‘Wasteland of the Free: Suburbia and Autonomy in Dennis Cooper’s Try connects Cooper’s work to American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Married…with Children and Desperate Housewives.
But enough of my reservations. What do we actually have here? The stories, which begin with what appears to be the title story from his forthcoming collection Ugly Man, are five pieces of what’s essentially flash fiction and one longer piece (oddly, Kennedy claims there are seven pieces in his introduction, so maybe one was removed before publication), all of which are neat distillations of Cooper’s usual concerns. Damon Young’s essay on My Loose Thread, ‘Skin Deep, or Getting Inside (Your Head) analyses the novel via Baudrillard and Kristeva, but achieves more from making a connection with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film that also addressed the subject of high school shootings a year after Cooper’s novel. Timothy C. Baker uses Adorno and Derrida to look at Cooper’s The Sluts, arguably his most accomplished and entertaining novel to date, correctly observing that in this novel “Cooper eradicates the notion of an empirically observable truth almost entirely,” but avoiding addressing the question of whether the novel as a whole has any connection to Cooper’s patronage of J.T. LeRoy, potentially one of the most interesting questions about the book.
In ‘The Immature Narrative: Ferdydurkism in Closer’, Danny Kennedy, not particularly convincingly attempts to make connections between Cooper and the Polish master Witold Gombrowicz, introducing his arguments with subtitles taken from the lyrics of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy (Kennedy is Hegarty’s colleague at University College Cork; he seems to prefer his noise poppy). Leora Lev’s aforementioned ‘Next’ essay is among the most sophisticated in the book, demonstrating an enviably thorough knowledge of Cooper’s work in all media. Her reading of The Sluts is more sophisticated than Baker’s, pointing out the links between Cooper’s novel and Pamela, Dracula and L’anarquista nu, but she also considers Cooper as an author more inspired by American culture than European, writing that ‘engaging with the representational field that is Cooper’s literary aesthetic illuminates the repressed extremities of contemporary American culture, its libidinal and social economies, and the status of contemporary gender politics/poetics.’
Matias Viegener’s ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom: Pornography and Philosophy in Dennis Cooper’s Writing’ is equally good, largely because unlike many essays in the collection it focuses on Cooper’s own adolescent reading of De Sade and takes its critical reading from there rather than trying to examine his work through theory. Viegener notes that while Cooper talks about reading Genet and Bataille in his adolescence, Sade is always the key figure and then examines how Sade has influenced Cooper as a philosopher and a pornographer. As Cooper wrote his own version of 120 Days of Sodom featuring people from his high school when he was a teenager, this is a useful and illuminating connection. Viegener moves from what people find troubling in de Sade (‘the inexorable narrative movement from sex as a leisurely preoccupation to a vision of radical sex that is often violent rape’) to Cooper’s similar narrative interests (‘no character is without some complicity or relation to the obsession with sexual murder.’) Pierre-Louis Patoine’s ‘Is This Text Fucking With My Brain: A Neuroaesthetic Reading of Dennis Cooper’s Guide also examines his work in the context of sexual horror, through the film theorist Linda Williams’ work analysing pornography and horror as ‘body genres’. (Williams’s work was arguably the start of the thriving academic interest in ‘body horror’.) But his pursuit of whether reading Cooper’s work, as film scholar Michele Aaron has suggested, elicits involuntary sexual responses provoked only involuntary amusement from this reader, although he is good on Cooper’s interest in indie music.
Diarmiud E. Hester’s ‘Plus d’un Georges: Dennis Cooper and the Work of Mourning’ takes on the entirety of Cooper’s ‘George Miles Cycle’ through the academically beloved concept of mourning as defined by Derrida, a reading that is more rewarding than some of the other theory-driven pieces in the book, partly because of the breath of the study. Paul Hegarty explores Cooper’s threats to ‘heteronormativity’ in his ‘The Self Contained’ as well as how “the rectum and/or the grave holds out the promise of truth, or of some kind of reality, only to offer nothing at the end, not even mystery” (poor rectum!), while Wayne Kostenbaum’s ’32 Cardinal Virtues of Dennis Cooper’ range from ‘Cooper uses the anus as a jam session, a baptistery, a viewfinder, a witness box’ to ‘Dennis ‘coopers’ language, shines it, coins it, co-opts it, operates on it, cops it. He opts out and opts for. Opts for what? Opts for the factual mark, his. My mark, as he puts it.’
After all this, it’s a relief to get to the other highlight of the book, a long interview with Dennis Cooper from 12th July 2007 by Danny Kennedy, in which Cooper says that it was his boyfriend’s inability to get an American visa that brought him to Paris, talks about his problems with starting a new novel, discusses how My Loose Thread was poorly published, how The Sluts, which was meant to be a small book published by a small publisher eclipsed his more mainstream book, God Jr, and how Bret Easton Ellis thinks The Sluts is Cooper’s Star Wars (a comparison that can’t please the book’s editors). He also compares himself to Bob Dylan, talks about the importance of popular culture to his work, and not just in a referencing way but a true engagement with the structures and forms of TV or videogames, for example, explains his enthusiasm for Battlestar Galactica, Lost and 24 and manages to perform a last minute Houdini act and wriggle free of the prison his champions have created for him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Thorne has published six novels and teaches creative writing at Brunel University. He also founded the New Puritans literary movement alongside Nicholas Blincoe.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 14th, 2008.