By Diarmuid Hester.
Dennis Cooper, Gone: Scrapbooks 1980-1982 (Infinity Land Press)
It’s July and Lower Manhattan is stifling. In Washington Square Park overweight black men in stained beige shirts and flip-up sunglasses slouch on benches and perspire raising beat-up plastic water bottles to their lips. Latina child-minders pass by holding in their arms fat white toddlers whose inarticulate screams, like the 6pm bin wind that wafts up from Chinatown, momentarily distracts from the heat only to redouble its effect. Inside the windows of Starbucks, sucking on muddy buckets of iced coffee, sag tourists from Tennessee or Wyoming or one of the Dakotas draped in florals and peering through Ray Bans at a bunch of lackadaisical West 4th pigeons. Even the shade behind sun-drenched university buildings is sweltering, blasted by hot choking air from vents underfoot. I’m parched and irritable and sweating profusely down my back into the crack of my ass. I’m squinting, too, because I lost my shades I think in Think Coffee on Mercer Street, where the reception from fluorescent baseball-cap-clad baristas is colder than the air con.
I badly negotiate revolving door etiquette and briefly trap a sweary Asian-American student in the spin, but the cool, when it comes, of the interior of NYU’s Bobst Library is a welcome relief from the sun’s assault. Peering up from the atrium’s patterned marble floor to the gilded suicide cage that surrounds the upper levels, however, I’m hit by nauseating vertigo. I imagine the kid who pitched himself from the tenth floor looking down at the dizzying checkerboard beneath my feet; his plummeting descent punctuated by a brief thud and ripples of variegated screams. My ascent to the Fales Library and Special Collections, repository of Dennis Cooper’s personal papers, is stalked by this image in black and cornered white and splattered red.
It’s unfortunately apropos: poet, novelist, playwright, and blogger, Cooper is known for his detached accounts in poetry and prose of bloody death and adolescent anguish. Such concerns and his treatments of underage sex, adolescent drug-use, porn, and paedophilia in his five-book series called the George Miles cycle, earned his work the somewhat dubious status of “transgressive writing,” a term which would also be applied to writers like Kathy Acker and Bret Easton Ellis. This afternoon, I’ve made an appointment at the Fales to view Cooper’s so-called “Death and Sex” scrapbooks: a collage of clippings hundreds of pages long, compiled by the author during the 1980s which, I hope, will shed some light on the troubling intersection of the macabre and erotic that characterises his work.
The scrapbooks emerge in three fat folders, leaking their contents onto the marbled Formica tabletop. I pull on gloves, open the cover of the first file, and the onslaught begins: page after yellowing page of newspaper and magazine clippings whose headlines in the quiet of the reading room scream “Satan Killer Suspect Seized,” “John Gacy: The Queer ‘Clown’ With 33 Skeletons In His Closet,” “The Kidnapper Had a Lust for Little Boys,” “Grisly Hunt For Slain Boys Goes On.” And on, and on, and on, one death after another; one rape after another; one fuzzy black and white photograph of an unrepentant and expressionless white male serial killer after another. A procession of adolescent victims with bad haircuts, lost boys and kidnapped girls, missing teenaged hitchhikers, “cheerful and vivacious” children, bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, dragged from rivers, dug out of shallow graves, found in a copse, their sexual molestation pre- and post-mortem graphically described. A report from Florida reads: “The woman’s body, nude, swollen and discolored, lay on its back in the classic rape victim’s pose, legs spread, arms angled from the sides,” and I wonder in horror at the writer’s use of the word classic. Another ragged clipping describes in detail torture photos unearthed at a crime scene in Kansas City: “The Polaroid snapshot showed a nude man lying on a bed, his hands and legs secured by rope to the bed posts. Electric wires attached to his genitals were connected to a makeshift generator. Agony filled the man’s face.”
A catalogue of crimes spill into my notebook:
Robert Golliver (17) v Christopher Gruhn (newspaper boy, 14): murder; trial May 1983; from NY Post; NY daily news
Etan Patz (8): lost child; May 1979
Unknown man v Martin Butler (12): found dead in shallow grave; May 1987; from UK Daily express
Unknown v Frankie Barnes (9) and Jason Wolf (6): murdered in RI; Dec 1987; from unknown source
Edward Purdy (26) v 5 children: murdered in gun attack in a schoolyard, CA; Jan 1989; from NY Times
John Joubert v three boys: murder and sex (?), Portland, Maine; May-July 1987; from Inside Detective
Roger Dale Hayes (22) v Carrie Kendall (9): rape and murder, OA; December 1980; source unknown
I’m confronted by the cruelest and most prurient excesses of humanity, cut from the pages of New York Magazine, The Advocate, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, Inside Detective, The National Enquirer and I’m reading them all, one by one. Among these lurid accounts, I find grey-scale Xeroxed pages of what appears to be a German book on criminology. Its text is unintelligible to me but words like “Porno-Fotograf,” “paedophilen,” and “Kindesmord” appear amid diagrams of sadomasochistic murder and auto-asphyxiation and crime-scene photographs of naked young victims beaten brutally to death.
I press closed the beige cardboard cover of the last file and push it away from me. Gathering my notebook and pencil, I move, mumbling my thanks to the Fales archivist, out of the reading room, down the stairs, into the hot sun, following my feet to a barstool a few blocks east where cheap whiskey and cheaper lager fill in a familiar numbness.
Gone: Scrapbooks 1980-1982, recently published by Infinity Land Press, reproduces in a coffee-table book format a scrapbook held by the Fales Library, made up of a similar combination of sex and death as the ones I viewed last July – most of the content is torn from the pages of newspapers and magazines that recount in detail the murder and rape of boys and young men by serial killers in the 1980s. In this scrapbook there are more pictures clipped from porno-mags and teen magazines, however, and it features more scrawled notes written in Cooper’s childlike hand: this 170 page collage seems to have been undertaken with much more care and an almost obsessive regard for the arrangement of collaged details from one page to the next. A newspaper article that describes the crimes and subsequent trial of William Bonin, the so-called “Freeway Killer” who murdered 14 youths between May 1979 and June 1980, is followed on the facing page by a clipped headline which reads “Milk Run To the Heavens,” a close-up shot of a fair-haired youth tonguing a hairy anus, and a crime-scene photo whose caption reads: “After cops checked the furnace, they found the mutilated body of Horst Seidel in a trunk.” Taking up half the page beneath this strange triptych, Cooper has pasted a black and white picture of a shadowy tenement room: the back, buttocks, and thin precious thighs of a naked child photographed from behind, are silhouetted by the pale light of a window in the centre of the room. As my eye wanders from one image or piece of text to the next, I feel waves of outrage, disgust, tenderness, confusion, awe, and arousal, sometimes all at once.
How do we evaluate this kind of work? No doubt there will be as many responses to Gone as there are readers of it but I’d suggest that there might be three distinct (but by no means exclusive) ways to read Cooper’s scrapbooks, according to their private, aesthetic, and ethical functions. In his introduction, Martin Bladh favours the first of these: for him, the scrapbooks plot Cooper’s private voyage through the hell of his murderous imagination. “The Gone scrapbook,” he claims, “is a Tour de Force into Cooper’s most private obsessions and macabre fantasies. We’ve never seen him exposed like this before…” A modern-day Marquis de Sade, in his head Cooper’s a monster but, according to Bladh, a courageous one who sets out to imaginatively plumb the depths of his own depravity.
It’s not the most subtle or original take but, to be fair, Cooper’s made some remarks in the past that seem to corroborate this kind of interpretation. On many occasions he’s admitted that the axis of sex and violence has intrigued and horrified him since he was a teenager living in the suburbs of Los Angeles – then a hunting ground for a number of famous serial killers. At the Fales there are notes for a lecture he gave in San Francisco in 1985 where he’s written: “I’ve never understood why this struck a chord in me but, spurred on by de Sade’s accomplishment, my work attempts, more and more successfully I hope, to exploit the ideas which frighten and confuse me, as I too wish to master their effect and speak the truths I believe are held captive in horror’s throes.” The exploitation of these ideas is explicitly artistic and imaginative, however, and he continues: “In the world outside my work – meaning my life – cruelty is, of course, unacceptable and murder indefensible. In my writing they are devices made unrealistic by the artificial context and, therefore, opportunities to involve myself abstractly in the unthinkable, guarded from their evils by the scrims I apply to them.”
But this is hardly the whole story. The care and precision with which Cooper’s scrapbooked collages are arranged in Gone in particular attests to an artistic vision that is as much concerned with the form of presentation as imaginatively staring down the salacious and cruel content presented. Cooper’s scrapbooks are important because they’re what he calls, in a very early blog post on scrapbooking, “aesthetic contexts” – they’re not, pace Bladh, secret journals that threaten to expose the murderer within. (I’ve actually read some of Cooper’s diaries: there are plenty of lists of his favourite books, films, pornstars, etc, lots of anxious budgeting scrawled in the corners of pages, and the odd, tender account of a doomed romance; unless they are written in lemon juice like de Sade’s letters to his wife, his diaries contain no murderous fantasies.) Another hypothetical function then: the scrapbooks are exercises in form, style, flow, etc. apparently inspired by William S. Burroughs. In an interview which opens Gone, Cooper says that studying Burroughs’ rarely-seen scrapbooks encouraged him to “work out [his] ideas and sense of style and structure through that kind of multi-media approach without the pressure of having to start writing.” As a result, Gone is a fascinating glimpse of Cooper’s oeuvre-in-progress. Reading through Gone you get the sense that perhaps all of Cooper’s characters derive in some way from the scrapbooks’ cut-out and kept paper clippings.
Gone also reinforces the impression that Cooper’s stories aren’t so much written as curated and attest to his intimacy with LA’s visual art scene in the 1980s, which included luminaries like Mike Kelley, Jim Iserman, and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. Many of his narratives work like floor plans for a large exhibition space, broken into numerous small, three-walled rooms, inside which the reader observes impassive teenagers frozen on stagey beds or sprawled expiring on porno-sets. In Gone we can see Cooper working out the best way to stage these scenes in order to produce elaborate affective compositions, meticulously calibrating the transition from one set-piece to another, and fabricating a kind of affective texture or pattern. Gone is by turns beautiful, shocking, tragic, callous, stupid, aggressive, oppressive, titillating, and darkly funny – a sequence of effects that will be familiar to anyone who has read, say, Try. In one of that novel’s most memorable lines, which seems to encapsulate this delicate conjunction of horror, misery, sexual exploitation, and black humour, the teenage Ziggy complains to his father, “If you loved me you wouldn’t rim me while I’m crying.”
If you thought that last line was funny and now feel a little weird about your reaction, you’ll probably feel the same way flipping through certain parts of Gone. On one page, pasted underneath the headline “I had to see if I could kill a guy,” are photos of Matt Dillon holding a rifle and child star Rad Daly. In blue Biro, Cooper’s made a speech bubble for each: Dillon’s says “I read about what that Gacy guy was doing in the newspaper and it sounded pretty cool so I thought I’d kill Rad Daly”; Daly’s speech bubble reads “You’re supposed to rape me first, you jerk.” Why is this funny? Because such statements are unlikely to have come from the mouths of Daly and Dillon? Because Daly waxes pedantic about his death? Because a humourous dialogue about one movie star raping and killing another in the style of a contemporary rape and murder case is socially taboo? Do we laugh, then, at the glee of transgression: that apparent release from normative social constraints, which only makes us more conscious of them?
It’s kind of like what Cooper’s friend Lynne Tillman does in 1998’s No Lease On Life, when she drops a joke into the middle of a claustrophobic New York narrative: her jokes initially seem to offer a brief respite from the novel’s oppressive atmosphere of racial prejudice, exploitation, and social inequality, only to exacerbate its effect and draw it closer around the now-complicit reader.
They found a woman on Fourteenth Street in a bathtub full of milk.
With a banana jammed up her ass.
The cops are looking for a cereal killer.
Why are there so few black serial killers?
How do you know your dad is fucking your sister in the ass?
His dick tastes of shit.
In Gone as elsewhere in Cooper’s oeuvre, humour is a vector for his investigations into ethics and the societal expectations encoded in our consciousness. His jokes simultaneously expose our collective adherence to ethical norms and illustrate our (libidinal?) yearning to free ourselves – if momentarily – from them.
In “32 Cardinal Virtues of Dennis Cooper,” Wayne Koestenbaum remarks: “Cooper’s quest for the unseeable is virtually religious. I mean: sedulous, abstract, perpetual, unrewarded, unreasonable.” There’s much more to be said of Gone, its power, its pain, its odd intrigues, but perhaps it will suffice to say that it is revealing: unlike Burroughs’ scrapbooks hidden away by some private collector, never to see the light of day, Gone (and its sister texts at the Fales Library) illuminate in perpetuity Cooper’s obscure quest for the unseeable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diarmuid Hester is a doctoral researcher based in Brighton.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 30th, 2014.