Dennis Cooper, Probably

Serious Literature, Joy Division, Francophilia, Models, Zombies, Drugs, Slayer, Ontological Inquiry, Le Diable, Probablement, Juvenile Hit Men, Unreliable Narrators, Frontline, Columbine, Philip Roth, Speech Impediments, Chat Rooms, Magic Tricks, Metafiction, George Miles, Amsterdam, Proust, Science Fiction, Guide, Silverchair, Magic Sigils, Nostalgia for the Present, Banjo-Kazooie, Sentient Bears, Talking Plants, The Death of Love

Dennis Cooper, Probably

Jason McBride
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“Literature is preferable to experience, since it is for the most part the closest one can get to nothing.”

—Laura Riding, Anarchism Is Not Enough

It’s an infantile and homophobic belief that the obsessions fuelling the quintessential Dennis Cooper novel—pedophilia, violent murder (and mutilation, dismemberment, etc.), kiddie porn, sexual abuse, unrepentant drug use—do not constitute serious literature. Cooper himself precisely counters such sentiment in “Container”: “I shove the knot of my feelings as deep as they’ll go into as compact and smoothed-out a prose style as I can build out of what I know. But they don’t belong here, any more than a man’s fist belongs in a boy’s ass.”

This month, however, Grove/�Atlantic publishes Cooper’s eighth novel, God Jr., presumably the kind of book that Cooper’s myopic critical enemies have beseeched him to write since day one. God Jr. is the first of his books to be set in a world populated by adults. It’s the first to be virtually devoid of sex and violence. It’s the first whose primary character is heterosexual. And it’s the first that traffics in the book club, Booker-­friendly subject matter of a father’s grief over the death of his son. Time will tell whether or not these characteristics will appease the aforementioned critics who have demanded that Cooper grow up. It also remains to be seen if such a dramatic sea change will alienate the legions of admirers who have devoured his visionary, elaborate, intensely personal tales of teenaged lust. I suspect that the answer will be “no” to both questions. God Jr. is one of the most enigmatic, troubling, and strange books of the year. It’s also beautiful and profound and deeply serious. In short: typical Cooper.

But typical Cooper means probably zip to the typical reader. While Cooper has consistently produced some of the most astonishing American literature of the last thirty years, his work is still, to mainstream tastemakers, a well-kept, even dirty, secret. He has been relentlessly misread and misunderstood. His outré subject matter has repeatedly blinded readers and reviewers1 (straight and gay) to its complexities and originality, leading to a frustrating dismissal of the author as a wholly evil and ex­ploitative provocateur whose talents, if any, have been squandered in the production of increasingly thin, dissolute narratives.2 In fact, Cooper’s writings “comprise a sparse canon of daunting beauty and difficulty,” as James Quandt has said of Robert Bresson’s films. With the publication of God Jr. he will have in print eight novels: the so-called George Miles cycle which includes Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997), Period (2000); My Loose Thread (2002) and The Sluts (2004)—released in a limited hardcover edition by Void Books and out this fall in paper by Carroll & Graf; and a collection each of short stories, poetry, and essays: Wrong (1992), The Dream Police (1995) and All Ears (1999). (This tally doesn’t include Cooper’s many assorted collaborations with artists and musicians.) This is a sizeable body of work, to be sure (though the novels tend to be on the slim side, page count–wise), but it has far-­reaching significance. Despite the mad­dening lack of official recog­nition, Cooper has had an overt, singular effect on a generation or two of cooler-than-thou writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, and acted as an improbable father figure, nurturing and mentoring some of these, even publishing a few either in anthologies, through his now defunct Little Caesar Press, or via his recently launched Ak­ashic Books imprint, Little House on the Bowery.3

But Cooper’s work is just as impastoed with his own diverse multimedia influences; a partial list would include Sade, Joy Division, David Lynch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vincent Fecteau, Joan Didion, Guided By Voices, Banjo-Kazooie, Carson McCullers, Dis­ney­­land, and Terrence Malick. The epigraphs that accompany each book in his novel cycle (Pinget, Genet, Bresson, Rimbaud, Blanchot) obviously signal Cooper’s thematic intentions and Francophilia, but they also herald a certain artistic banner under which each novel was written. Try, for example, opens with an aphorism from Bresson’s Notes on Cinema­tography: “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” Bresson is referring to his actors, whom he famously and controversially regarded as “models,” in­structing these nonprofessionals to perform with as little affect as possible, eliminating conventional dramatic effects (of voice, expression, gesture) in favor of a flattened, deadpan, often inscrutable automatism. The result, in such renowned films as Au Hasard Balthazar, Pickpocket, Mouchette, and L’Argent, is sui generis behavior unknown elsewhere in cinema or in everyday life, the generation of a wholly hermetic universe. Such a performance style is oddly exclusionary; it maintains a circuit of secrecy be­tween filmmaker and subject, a strin­gent privacy completely contrary to the always legible, flagrant (but no more “natural”) behavior on display in most films. Bresson: “Models. It is to you, not the ­public, that they give those things which it, perhaps, would not see (which you glimpse only). A secret and sacred trust.”

Try’s protagonist—if such a confused, tentative character could be called that—is seventeen-year-old Ziggy McCauley, the adopted son of two gay men who have routinely brutalized him. His mon­strous Uncle Ken produces child pornography. And Ziggy’s best friend, Calhoun, whom the teen desperately loves, is an emotionally distant writer zombified by drugs. In between creating is­sues of his zine, I Apologize (“A ma­gazine for the sexually abused”) and cranking his beloved Hüsker Dü cassettes,4 Ziggy ping-pongs among his dads, Ken, and Calhoun, trying to comprehend his own wildly oscillating affections. The narrative speeds along three intersecting tracks: the overwrought Ziggy ne­gotiating with both a would-be girlfriend and his increasingly pre­datory father, with whom Ziggy believes a sexual tryst might somehow resolve his own fucked-up identity; Ken’s seduction and murder of a thirteen-year-old Slayer fan; and Calhoun’s dreamy reveries as he sits at his desk, contemplating his novel-in-progress, his heroin habit, and the demands the world places on his own fragile psyche. It’s difficult to imagine a character as specific as Ziggy—the name echoes both the character’s frenzied search for some sort of emotional footing and his generally goofy de­meanor—adrift in a Bressonian uni­­verse, but Cooper’s relationship to him is exactly akin to the filmmaker’s furtive alliance with his models. Try’s pornographic scen­arios and lurid tableaux form a spiky shell that at once embodies, protects, and camouflages an intricate—genuinely redemptive, tender—ontological inquiry common to all of Cooper’s work. Ziggy’s pitiless introspection reduces the world to apparently simple questions—Am I gay or straight? What is friendship and how does it differ from love?—which, under such pres­sure, erupt in several directions:

It’s weird, he decides after a second, how the girl experience is almost, like, oppositional to the man experience, at least based on going to bed with Brice, with Uncle Ken that one time, and from watching porn videos, plus gay scenes in novels he’s skim­med, uh… And sort of how passionate he feels about Calhoun, if that counts. Whereas with Ni­cole, make that with every girl so far, sex ends up being so… planned in advance, not by him obviously, but by history or whatever. So no matter how wild sex gets, he’s still following this preset, like, outline, point by point, and when an experience is over, such as now with Nicole, it sort of gradually dilutes into a zillion other people’s experiences, until Ziggy feels… used in a way?

Ziggy strains against such programmatic sexuality but willingly, in a spirit of quixotic, pseudo-Sadean self-sacrifice and understanding, submits himself to his father’s violations, a defiant (and, for many readers, outrageous) up­ending of the sacrosanct platitudes of most abuse lit. Try’s most infamous moment—a snuffling Ziggy telling dad Roger: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t rim me while I’m crying.”—would be horrific if it weren’t so simultaneously funny and mixed-up, each beat in the sen­tence exposing Ziggy’s confusion about sex, family, and himself. It’s this fragile empathy that is Cooper’s true métier, a compulsive excavation of his characters’ un­bearable loneliness and their in­choate, often ruinous, strategies for assuaging such. For Cooper, all the denizens of Try (including the savage adults) are appealing in their bewilderment, this secret that we all share. As a result, it’s a weirdly heartwarming book, and undeniably erotic.

Cooper’s favorite Bresson film is Le Diable, Probablement (The Devil, Probably), a late work that depicts a group of grubby twentysomethings struggling to negate the nihilism they feel doomed to but nonetheless slouching to­ward… whatever. Religion, psy­cho­logy, and art are dead ends. Dialogue is clipped and inadequate. Suicide is less a solution than a question without an an­swer. All of Cooper’s writing em­bodies a similarly disquiet inarticulation, but it’s My Loose Thread that best reifies the particular despair that muffles Bresson’s characters. In Cooper’s book,5 a teen named Larry drifts through his suburban world trying to decipher his own disaffection, perpetually confounded, enraged, by his in­ability to communicate with his family and friends. At the book’s opening, Larry has been paid $500 by an older student to kill a fellow classmate, an event that begets even more close-to-home violence. Larry’s a more malevolent version of Ziggy, likewise disturbed by his apparent homosexuality—Larry’s slept with his younger brother, Jim—but, contrary to Ziggy, Larry’s confusion leads only to intense anger, derangement, and inevitable im­plosion. Larry narrates the book, and his prose, impossibly tortured, produces the book’s stifled syntax and disjunctive, lurching narrative. He can barely keep his pronouns and prepositions straight; modifiers are misplaced; inconsequential details are overfreighted with importance and more significant events take place “offstage”; statements turn on themselves, becoming questions:

If it wasn’t for words, I wouldn’t know how to put lies between me and everyone else, just by how I use them. I used to talk a lot, but now it’s sparse. Jude says you can feel me in there, but it doesn’t add up to that much, even when you know me. I guess she’s the only one who still wonders why not.

An unreliable narrator nonpareil, the psychotic Larry can’t even recognize the truth, let alone tell it. Much of Cooper’s fiction demonstrates how imagination disfigures reality and vice versa, but Larry’s anguished, heartbreaking fantasies misshape the entire book. Cooper has said that he delib­erately tried to drain the book of any humor, but it’s really only Larry who’s lacking this sense, resulting in passages of grotesque, inadvertent (for Larry anyway) comedy. Here, he’s trying to frame a Vietnamese kid who he had previously assaulted:

“How can I help you?” says a man’s voice. It’s maybe Texan. I’ve been transferred to him. So I had time to work on perfecting a stupid high voice, if I have.

“I know who killed that missing boy.”

“Okay, hold on for one moment,” his voice says, and maybe writes something down.

“I can’t.” My voice feels incredibly fragile.

“What’s your name?” his voice says.

“Tran. I don’t know my last name. I’m too upset. I was raped. I’m Oriental.” That takes him a second. “Do you know your as­sailant?” his voice says.

“He’s a Nazi. It doesn’t matter. I know who killed that boy.”

“So you know your as­sailant?” his voice says again.

“Yeah. I mean no. I mean what do you mean?” I just lost the stupid voice, and it’s mine. So I’m punching the phone.

My Loose Thread began life as a nonfiction book about Oregon fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel, who murdered his parents before opening fire on a high school cafeteria. Cooper’s inspiration for the cadence of Larry’s speech in fact came from hearing Kinkel’s confession on an episode of Frontline. It’s not surprising, then, that the book, despite the idiosyncrasies of Larry’s narration, veers closer to reportage than any of Cooper’s other work, which is typically terse, even austere. But reportage is an inadequate and misleading term; Cooper, at least in the context of the novel, doesn’t seek reasons for Kinkel’s death-instinct, nor does he seek to unpack the rash of teen shootings in the late ’90s or elucidate their societal impact. (Larry, for his part, describes Columbine killers Harris and Klebold thusly: “Of all the guys who shot other guys at their high schools back then, they’re so boring.”) Larry’s feral fury is a pure effect of a consciousness with zero understanding of causality. Motivation is moot. Just as his narration is a disoriented, propulsive collection of non se­quiturs, Larry doesn’t know why he does what he does, doesn’t get what his actions entail. The imprecision of Larry’s language is wholly the product, and obverse, of the precision of Cooper’s. And, like Bresson’s characters, the boy can’t articulate his own despair but gives himself up to it entirely.

Cooper’s speaks incessantly about the necessity of influence, how different generations and art forms intersect and inform each other. And he is especially attuned to how this influence must constantly be renewed, updated, refreshed. It’s a position that most writers outgrow, or pretend to outgrow, a fanboy stance that is one of the charms of Cooper’s writing and personality and contributes largely, I think, to his connection with younger scribes. I don’t know many authors Cooper’s age (he’s now fifty-two) who press their fingers so tightly to the jittery pulse of youth culture, who understand it so well or who care to understand it so well. One of the clichéd criticisms of Cooper’s fiction is that he writes only about teenagers (or adults’ relationship to teenagers), but this is like saying Philip Roth only writes about getting laid or J. M. Coetzee writes merely about South Africa. Cooper’s attraction to kids these age, and their mercurial obsessions, is endlessly complicated. An erotic fascination is undeniable, sure (Matthew Stadler: “Our culture… completely eroticizes children while treating any adult with a sexual interest in them as monsters”), but just as important to Cooper is the mutability of adolescence, its sublime aesthetic charge, and, most keenly, how language operates and doesn’t operate in that realm. As Cooper puts it in an interview with Robert Glück: “My goal was to find a language that was native to the world of teenagers and therefore paid them unremitting and unwavering respect yet was si­multaneously involved in a sophisticated, erotically charged invest­igation of them, so that the work seemed to mediate between the two worlds in an evenhanded way.” I’ve read most of Cooper’s books pretty much as they’ve come out, but reviewing them for this article it became shockingly apparent how Cooper manages to produce an entirely new dialect of this language in each book. Like a figurative painter or filmmaker who ar­ranges subjects in space, then de­cides from what distance and angle to attack them, Cooper maps a specific compositional and syntactical field and then, increasingly with each book, hollows it out, empties the frame. The stammering of his characters takes subtly but wholly distinct forms; the possibility, even desirability, of expression becoming even more elusive. Frisk: “‘Gee, you don’t seem like you’d know anybody this nutsy,’ Warren mumbles.” Try: “‘Anyway, uh… yeah, my uncle’s, like, totally psycho, but I happen to dig him. He teaches me stuff. Oh yeah, such as what she asks? Ha ha ha. Well, about… uh, well…’ A headache’s sort of eating his train of thought.” Guide: “That’s where the truth is, Scott thought. In that whiteness the sky keeps away from our knowledge. What if a 747 were flown into one of those specks? Wouldn’t… that…?”

This radical sort of subtraction reaches an apotheosis in Period, the final book in the novel cycle, and Cooper’s most abstract creation. Some critics bemoan the “duh-speak” that is intrinsic to Cooper’s characters, but it’s this very speech that his work seeks to embody: each book in the cycle builds itself out of the previous one by removing the very elements (recognizable settings, physical description, backstory, psychology) that commonly articulate and animate a novel. Pe­riod follows this experiment to its in­escapable, self-annihilating conclusion. In just over a hundred pages, Cooper conjures a pair of baffling, parallel netherworlds built of chat rooms, websites, and outsider art, in which interchangeable, glyph-like young men (and their dop­pelgangers) fuck and are fucked, murder and are murdered. Character names are palindromic and reflective, their own erasure built into them. One figure, a deaf-mute boy named George, chronicles his “life” (at times he writes from beyond the grave) in a notebook, his “speech” contracted to a catalogue of physical responses, emotions, and observations, calibrated to a secret clock:

9:42: Dead.

9:44: It’s like nothing.

9:45: Scared to move at all.

9:47: My leg hurts.

9:48: Gonna shake it a little.

9:48: Okay.

9:53: Nothing to say.

9:59: Can’t see what I’m writing.

9:59: Excuse this.

10:01: Gonna walk some.

10:03: Fell.

10:06: Lying here.

10:10: Wood floor.

10:12: Don’t understand.

10:14: It just is?

10:15: Nothing to say.

10:18: Bored.

Cooper’s always secreted tricky structures within his novels (again, masked by an often scandalous surface noise), but Period’s structure is on constant display. Throughout Period, Cooper’s entire oeuvre—and his reasons for writing in such a way—is exposed: a warm, dark heart revealed as the skin of the novel is peeled away. Period, page 50:

Long story short, Period is about a mysterious house, set in some sketchily rural locale. It’s the work of an artist, “Bob,” coincidentally. He’s obsessed with a younger guy, “George,” who’d killed himself years before in an identical building. “Bob” hopes that by replicating the context where “George” died, the guy might return to the world in some fashion. It’s an ickily heart-tugging quest that defies nature’s laws and conventional logic, but it does end up serving a purpose. Thanks to him, “George” re­emerges, better than new. The only question is whether the ar­tist’s success is an example of love co-opting form, as some would have it, or the complete opposite.

Book-as-magic-trick, Period dis­appears in a puff of smoke (and a hall of mirrors), taking all of the authors’ obsessions, his work, with it. Cooper’s always engaged in certain metafictional mystifications, but here the worlds-within-worlds, fiction-within-fictions entirely collapse, the purposeful confusions of the book a reflection of an author less lost in the funhouse than trying to destroy it. Though, of course, these obsessions are by no means extinguished, just as the book itself still exists as object and record and Cooper continues to live and write. As Cooper said to Richard Goldstein in an astute Village Voice piece: “All there is is me and this kid I’m haunted by, this boy who killed himself. The work is done and I’m still where I was.”

This boy who killed himself is the George in the passage above, George Miles, a childhood friend of Cooper’s who famously inspired the novel quintet and determined, in large part, the entire trajectory of Cooper’s career.6 He is, was, Cooper’s biggest influence, his muse in much the way, as Glück has pointed out, the dead Annabel Lee served as Poe’s. Cooper met Miles when he was fifteen. The pair did a lot of drugs, hung out, and were lovers for a spell when they were adults. Miles was profoundly troubled, and Cooper’s fondness for him was certainly protective and paternal; the younger boy’s looks and psychological makeup set the standard for many of Cooper’s future romantic and emotional entanglements. When Cooper moved from L.A. to Amsterdam in the late ’80s, his writing be­came an effort to decode and defuse this relationship. This seems to me a singular project, much more ec­centric than merely the literary ex­humation of a ruined romance. It’s a rationale for writing for which I can think of few antecedents. (Coop­er cites Claude Simon’s Triptych.) The initial result was Closer, a novel that “starred” a boy named George Miles and the various teenagers and men who literally and figuratively tear him apart, trying to grasp the hold that George has on them. The rest of the cycle unfolds from that particular book in which the viscera, if you will, of all the future books are contained. This is a Proustian notion, the novel cycle, but it also has a certain sci-fi or fantasy element, genres in which multiple book series are the norm. All the books, in fact, are thick with fairy-tale imagery: strange fog-enclosed towns, spooky windmills, debauched dwarves, hal­lucinogenic trips, ghosts. And how fantastic are the fantasies that fuel and fuck up Cooper’s characters? The novels, Cooper acknowledges, were written in an effort to somehow rescue Miles, but it wasn’t until the completion of Guide—the two had lost touch throughout the writing of the books—that Cooper learned Miles had actually committed suicide ten years prior. It was a devastating shock, and Cooper claims that he still thinks about Miles every day. He realized then that his project had been pitifully inadequate, and that all of his writing was, in a certain way, about failure and exhaustion. A Tiger Beat Beckett. Cooper’s relationship with Miles was doomed from the beginning, as are so many of the relationships in Cooper’s books. The impossibilities of language find their counterpart in the impossibilities of love.

Guide is the most blatantly autobiographical of Cooper’s novels. Or not. It very distinctly en­gages the truths that fiction can in­carnate and reality cannot, and the book is filled with real events that read as fiction and vice-versa. In Guide, “Dennis,” a novelist and journalist, is writing a novel about the boys who occupy his life and memory (Chris, an addict en­thralled with the idea of his own death; the beatific Luke, with whom Dennis enjoys a frustrat­ingly platonic relationship; kiddie porn–star Goof; and punky hustler Sniffles) while also trying to represent and reimagine the uncanny acid-induced clarity that he experienced when he was himself a teenaged stoner. The book is a series of delays, in gratification and in narrative, as story lines are interwoven, postponed, introduced, then suspended. Violence—a dwarf dismembering a kid or Blur’s bass player being drugged and raped—is repeatedly halted, as if each scene were a slide in a very slow-moving carousel. It’s an almost psychedelic structure—“trippy” to use a fa­vorite Cooperism—that duplicates Dennis’s drug-addled attention span, as well as the boys’ relationships to him and/or vice versa: seduced then abandoned. Throughout the book, music takes on a life of its own: in addition to the Blur-inspired characters, members of Silver­chair have salacious walk-ons. There are riffs on Donovan; GBV and Sebadoh lyrics vein the narrative. An article that Cooper wrote for Spin, a sort of gonzo piece on HIV-positive street kids, is incorporated into the novel, interpolated now with sexual di­gressions that certainly didn’t exist in the original (which appears in All Ears): a suggestion perhaps of the predatory, exploitative nature of all journalism.

A quarter of the way through the book, Dennis describes the novel he’s writing as a sigil, a ma­gical emblem composed of the words of one’s ultimate wish. It’s a half-baked idea, this made-up Dennis acknowledges, but not dis­similar to the work that consumes him: “Then I remember what I do when I’m not stoned. You know, write novels that are essentially long, involved wishes for offbeat utopian worlds that I can’t realistically enter.” The novelized Dennis in Guide is a bundle of neuroses, as vulnerable, conflicted, and self-conscious as his characters tend to be:

I spend easily half of my life in my head, imagining impossibilities. When I’m not lost in daydreams, I’m just sort of clumsily negotiating whatever the world puts in front of me. I wish the real me and the secretive me were united. I wish I could speak in one adequate, coherent voice and make sense. Or should I say, if I were a sane person that’s what I’d wish for. But divided in two as I am, everything’s subject to compromise. The only wish that both parts of my psyche have ever agreed on is this: I wish that whenever I saw someone I wan­ted badly enough to befriend, fuck, romance, murder, have a great conversation with, or whatever else, that I could mutter some word and, magically, there’d be an exact replicant of that person whose purpose in life was to accommodate my fascination. Once I’d exhausted my replicant, I’d say another magic word and it would vanish. That way I’d fulfill every fantasy, evil and/or benign, and never impose my fucked-up self on anyone else in the world.

This is also another way of describing his novelistic technique, the impulse behind his reanimation of the dead George Miles. It’s nostalgia for the present. But this creation of a Dennis double is also a way for the author to entomb himself, a gesture of complicit self-preservation that forever maintains his connection to Miles and all the other loves he’s known and lost.

Being buried by grief, by the desire to reclaim or reunite oneself with dead, is also the subject of God Jr. The book’s narrator is a middle-aged former real estate agent named Jim. He’s also a pothead and wheelchair-bound, the result of a car crash that also killed his teen­aged son, Tommy. He works for The Little Evening Out, a com­pany that employs only the disabled and makes children’s clothing for special occasions. Jim is completely consumed by the loss of his son, and this obsession has led him to build on his front lawn a replica of a building that Tommy had drawn in a notebook before he died. The construction of this mo­nument—an embarrassment to his wife and neighbors—does nothing to assuage his guilt or bring him any closer to his dead child. The only thing that seems to do that, and this takes up half of the novel, is playing a video game that also preoccupied Tommy. The unnamed game (loosely inspired, according to Cooper, by Banjo-Kazooie and The Legend of Zelda, games I’ve never played), as it turns out, is where Tommy got the idea for the building that Jim built. Other complications arise—like, for instance, the revelation that Jim’s not really para­lyzed—but the novel swells with complexity once Jim enters the game. The third and final chapter (“The Childish Scrawl”) is an ad­venture of sorts, in which Jim be­comes a sentient, split-personality bear within the game: “He’s a figurative shot glass, and I’m the whiskey of his consciousness.”
Pi­cking up from where Tommy’s sa­ved game left off, Jim journeys through its various levels, communing or communicating, quite literally, with the other animals (ferrets, snakes, rabbits) and objects (plants, avalanches, snowmen) that “live” there. There is confusion among these sad, lost creatures—Tommy has effectively been overwritten by Jim and vice versa—but Jim desperately interrogates them for clues to his son’s existence. Cooper’s rendering of the game’s electronic universe is both a knot of misplaced signification and ruthlessly precise. Each sentence an­swers the question: how does one describe something exactly, a video game per se, whose objects are not exact or real but based on “real” things? The laws of physics are interchangeable with those of chance, and movement is another word for emotion: “The bear felt incredibly relieved, and even did one of his patented two-steps, but I knew better.” Cooper’s descriptions would be weird to anyone who hasn’t read a gaming magazine or manual—Jim’s erratic, stoned narration falls somewhere between Period and My Loose Thread—but the book’s slippery subjectivity and impossible anthropomorphisms be­come both vertigo-inducing and hilarious:

“I’m a logical sort,” says the plant. “What nags me is not what’s inside. But why the balcony? What’s the point? This is not a scenic place, as you can see. Those are my brain twisters. And before you ask, yes, like many here I get these mental pictures, very faint and suspicious, of somewhere uglier. Sometimes when we’re paused, I’ll have a vision. We all do. I’m here and I’m me, but the level… it’s indescribable. A number of us think that’s death. When we’re paused, we’re half-dead, we’re death looky-loos. If the bear ever wins the game, that’s where we’ll go.”

This video game Virgil, the plant, abandons Jim the bear, but Jim continues, travelling deeper into the bowels of the game, en­countering more petulant and malicious entities. Their cruelty is borne out of fear: fear that Jim, the gamer, can start and stop their lives, that they don’t exist without him. That they are beings who have been designed simply for the pleasure of a human to destroy. That their puzzle-solving consciousness is produced and magnified or masked by his druggie’s brain. He’s their god and they need him, but they don’t like it. But Jim has no interest in being a deity. As he feigned paralysis to deal with a crippling grief, Jim gradually forfeits his own corporeal existence for a virtual, made-up one: “All I’m thinking is this looping, violent game seems like a hell I would have loved.”

Gamer also equals writer, and Tommy is, on one hand, another incarnation of George Miles with Jim a sort of Cooper stand-in. But now Miles is dead from the outset, and all Cooper can do is try to puzzle out his disappearance and his responsibility for it. Limiting a reading of the book to this biographical essence might seem too tidy, and it doesn’t hint at the drastically different domestic milieu Cooper has concocted in this book. But it illustrates again how thoroughly he has transmuted the idea of lost love into the most urgent, pure epistemology. “Love’s this thing you’d call the biggest prize in life,” Jim tells a threatening snowman. This is the Cooper paradigm and paradox—the death of love and the love of death—as painful and terrifying and seductive as that may be.

1. I hesitate to cop to my own mild disgust upon first encountering Cooper (I think I was nineteen) in Between C & D: New Writings from the Lower East Side Fiction Magazine. The anthology contained an excerpt from his novel, Closer, in which a character named George is nearly eviscerated. I wince now when recalling my own neurotic, juvenile reading habits; I had, after all, somehow revered William Burroughs throughout high school despite skipping over all the “dirty bits” in his books.
2. One major instance of this can be found in a February 2001 Harper’s review of Cooper’s novel Period, an exemplary instance of the fatuous condescension Cooper often receives from the press: “Call me old-fashioned,” novelist Wilton Barnhardt writes, “but if I’m going to read fantasies of sex, murder, and children, then only the highest, most rigorous art will do.” Who or what is producing such worthy objets Barnhardt doesn’t get around to saying. In a more recent issue of the same magazine, Jonathan Dee, in a review of Neil LaBute’s Seconds of Pleasure, takes a gratuitous, and weirdly outdated, shot at Frisk.
3. Interestingly, for someone so seemingly solitary, Cooper has been an inadvertent ringleader for many different groups of authors. Or, at least, they have informally adopted him as such. In addition to his affiliation with the New Narrative group (which included Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Steve Abbott, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and others), Cooper was instrumental in the formation of Beyond Baroque, a Venice, California–based poetry center that was also home to Amy Gerstler, David Trinidad, Bob Flanagan, Tim Dlugos, and Benjamin Weissman. More recently, Michael Silverblatt, of KCRW’s indispensable Bookworm show, has identified Cooper as the forebear of a very loosely knit band of “outsiders”: David Foster Wallace, ­Donald Antrim, Mark Z. Danielewski, and George Saunders. This seems to me debatable. Though there are, to be sure, certain affinities between Cooper and these authors, Cooper’s writing is always grounded in a rawer, more contagious and deeply sensuous physicality. Cooper has, however, in an interview with Silverblatt, called Wallace his favorite contemporary novelist.
4. Ziggy’s musical taste is also his creator’s. In fact, Cooper’s own record library can be reasonably pieced together by analyzing his work. Closer takes its title from the Joy Division album. The Dream Police clocks Cheap Trick. Guide references numerous bands, including now-defunct indie rockers GBV (the best rock band in the world, according to Cooper) and Sebadoh, Donovan, Menswear, Blur, and Silverchair. Pe­riod’s characters include a fictional Goth band named the Omen. Cooper’s an omnivorous music fan, but he also uses these bands, their lyrics and postures, as subcultural shorthand, easy entry into off-limit worlds. One of Ziggy’s dads, Roger, is a music critic, prone to pronouncements like: “Throughout this conversation, Ziggy mumbled agreeably in stops and starts­—rushed, inarticulate, vague, loosely poetic—a ‘music’ I cherish in all teens, particularly, in this case, emitted by such an impeccable face, which I could even then picture—sleepy-eyed, cute, crowned with filthy brown hair, big lips moving a little too rapidly at the opposite extreme of the continent.” Famously, Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor have refused to have Cooper profile them.
5. Cooper’s books, like Sonic Youth albums, frequently possess intriguing covers by art-world luminaries. Guide’s plum-colored jacket bears, broochlike, a menacing, Blair Witch–y sculptural image by Joel Westendorf, and a Nayland Blake puppet diptych graces The Dream Police. But the hardcover edition of My Loose Thread features the most evocative and frightening of Cooper dust jackets: a Sue De Beer photograph depicting two young boys in clown makeup, their shirts blood-spattered, kissing. De Beer’s art has, in turn, been deeply affected by Cooper’s writing; Travis Jeppesen (whose Victims was an early ­Little House on the Bowery title) appears in her Hans and Grete, and her recent Whitney instal­lation, Black Sun, contained texts taken from Closer. (It’s inexplicable why Canongate didn’t use the De Beer art for the paperback edition of My Loose Thread.)
6. Cooper’s never made a secret of this, speaking quite candidly about this fact in interviews, particularly around the publication of Period. The book jacket itself features a photograph of Miles, pace JT Leroy, who has insisted in his own interviews that the cover boy was him.
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