:: Article

On Wrong: A critical Biography of Dennis Cooper

By Evan Isoline.

Diarmuid Hester, Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper (University of Iowa Press, 2020).

Regarding the field of literary biography, I’ve often shared what I presume to be a quite popular (if not prurient) intrigue in the extraordinary or scandalous details of certain writers’ lives. However, my reading experience is admittedly limited within this genre, as I’ve preferred books like The Diary of Anaïs Nin, The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959, Bataille’s The Trial of Gilles De Rais, or Sartre’s Saint Genet to what I’d perceived to be objective, scholarly tomes. Regardless, the subjects of the biographical and autobiographical books I’ve read are for the most part deceased, and their lifetimes relegated to varying levels of myth.

Reading Diarmuid Hester’s Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper has been a very different experience altogether. The reading was more akin to the works mentioned above than what I had perceived to be a traditional literary biography. By this I mean the book is aglow with the spirit of its subject, coupled with the book’s release occurring in a period of widespread injustice and revolution. In Wrong, we find a biography ten years+ in the making, on a writer who is still very much alive, and whose work is still a fresh and shapeshifting influence on contemporary global subculture. As equally fresh is Cooper’s intellectual vandalism on the homogenizing control mechanisms of America in particular.

Out of immense archival research and a prodigious control of language, Hester patiently assembles what amounts to be a cosmography of the fifty-year career of the multimedia artist and author. Though remarkably ambitious in scope and conducted with vigor, Hester’s large-scale arch unfolds with a surprising elegance that relationally considers Dennis Cooper’s work simultaneously as an oeuvre and as discrete, individual pieces. Hester goes further, and where I believe he undoubtedly succeeds is his positioning of Cooper’s work against historical backdrops of aesthetic, political, and critical theories.

While this successfully constructs the temporal foundation all biographies are built upon, it does not go so far however as to diminish or dilute the transgressive mystique that has drawn many to read Cooper in the first place. On the contrary, the nuance and sensitivity given to the evolution of Cooper’s thinking, and its manifestation into myriad aesthetic forms and subcultural movements across the world is quite profound. It lends dimension to a writer that is already noteworthy for his abstractions, formal experimentation, dangerous subjects, and political volition. From the founding of the punk poetry magazine Little Caesar and early works such as Idols, to the highly encrypted, Robbe-Grillet inspired The Marbled Swarm and “HTML books”, Hester gives Wrong’s readers (both superfan and novitiate) a unique opportunity: understanding Dennis Cooper’s work in relation to the particular social environments and conditions within which he found himself and his art. 

John Baldassari, the Marquis De Sade, and Bikini Kill walk into a bar. No, Rimbaud pissing on attendees at his own birthday party. Or Frank O’Hara’s politics of community or contemporary celebrity culture or both. No, ventriloquism, the aesthetics of distance in the films of Robert Bresson, and the bodies of three murdered boys found behind your house. Maybe JT Leroy and Laura Albert as a shameful testament of white America’s cultural amnesia around the AIDS epidemic and programmed homophobia. Or perhaps a sacred geometrical algorithm for writing a ‘cycle’ of novels, or gay serial killers, or maybe all this and school shootings and the paradox of the social nature of desire, irresolvably and perpetually colliding with the innate anarchy of the spirit of the individual. 

Wrong is a book about all these things. It is a book of many astounding subjects and ideas. It accommodates this by locating its central subject, Cooper himself, at the nexus of such miscellaneous figures, concepts, timelines and events. It is important because of how it documents the artist’s status as something of a bridge between the old and the new. The sense is that there will always be a new avant-garde, new schools of thought and new transformative political activisms. Perhaps subcultures of the past are so often proclaimed “dead” because ultimately they belonged to those who initiated them as necessary vehicles of revolt. Whatever the new form, technology or condition, artists like Cooper will be there, innovating and disrupting, highlighting the tensions between individual and communal relations. All of this said, through such a genuine study of Dennis Cooper’s life and work, Diarmuid Hester’s Wrong feels like an ever-urgent message of the importance of a queer commons; or an acephalic, heterogeneous network of individuals undertaking a collective dismantling of control mechanisms. Finally, I believe Wrong is a necessary and timely rallying cry for the long overdue recognition of the importance of today’s youth, their agency and culture. Wrong will rightfully affirm these critical issues concerning the individual and the community at the heart of Dennis Cooper’s singular life and work.

Read our 2001 interview with Dennis Cooper here.


Evan Isoline is a writer and artist living on the Oregon coast. He is the founder/editor of a conceptual publishing project called SELFFUCK and his full-length debut is forthcoming from 11:11 Press. He tweets at @evan_isoline.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 22nd, 2020.