Some weeks ago, a journalist from El Mundo, a famous Spanish newspaper, defined the characters of Dennis Cooper’s novels as “depraved or bored little Americans that have a go to gay life between whiskey, money, drugs and multiple forms of hardcore sex”. Given the fact that this critic is a professional reviewer of Oscar Wilde, we are quite sorry to say that his point of view doesn’t match at all with the true essence of the work of this North American writer, born in Pasadena in 1953.
Richard Hell (left), Dennis Cooper (center) and friend in the 80’s.
His last novel published in Spain by El Tercer Nombre –called originally The Sluts (Void Books, 2004 / Carroll & Graf, 2005)– is nothing of what you would expect from its cover: a product for consumers of soft gay literature, David Leavitt-style. It doesn’t display good taste or bourgeois eroticism with a decadent tone. Cooper, let’s get this straight, writes from his obsessions, that are neither comfortable nor digestive. Not for us and not even for himself. The Sluts has been renamed for its Spanish edition Chaperos (Rent Boys), the only mistake of a otherwise fairly good translation by Juan Bonilla. This new title is quite wrong because the novel is not about a group of male prostitutes, but just one: a ghostly teenager. He is the center point, the sun of a constellation of avid clients that get in touch by means of faxes, SMS, e-mails and Internet forums to satisfy their dark needs. To all those new to Cooper’s work and circumstances we should note that he is one of the highest priests of the digital revolution applied to culture (from the web world to video-games) and that he has spread writings and poems through his two blogs –www.denniscooper.blogspot.com (already closed) and www.denniscoopertheweaklings.blogspot.com (in active) – where the author unveils himself as a rather nice and considerate host. To them and to his official website (www.denniscooper.net) we relocate people that wants to know a bit more about his new book and all these obsessions than we mentioned before, that range from curious and nice to dreadful.
Dream Police, poetry compilation and The Sluts, his last novel.
From this and other sources we know that Cooper lived an unhappy childhood as the son of a millionaire California couple, described on his first poems with a mix of sarcasm and shame. The young Dennis relieved the resentment produced by this environement training to become a sort of hippie and diving into pornography, music, drugs and books. Infatuated by French culture since an early age, his first steps into literature were taken in the shadow of Sade, Rimbaud and the Surrealists. Input he completed with trash culture in the shape of rock & roll and that so very North American cult to the psychokiller as the ultimate expression of social alarm. He then went to University but never completed any degree. In 1973 he published his first book of poems and three years later he founded a poetry magazine called Little Caesar (that you can download on www.denniscooper.net/littlecaesar/lcmagazine.htm), followed by a small publishing group that released his own work and fellow’s Tim Dlugos.
Portraits of a young Dennis Cooper.
At 23 he listened to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK and began his first European pilgrimage (soon to be followed by many others, all marked by excess). Between addictions, psychosexual torments and creative lows he arrived to 1983, when he reunited with George Miles, a former high school friend with severe mental problems and “the most important person I have known all my life”, as he described him. This relationship pushed him to narrative prose at last. Cooper had been in love with Miles for years and the consummation of that love, followed by the desertion of his partner and the fear of Cooper “to hurt someone” guided by his ghosts, led him to organize a plan: he would win back his loved one if he made him the star (a weak, beautiful, fragile and drugged up star) of all his stories and tales. In his own words “every young character in every piece of fiction I have written is George, whether by name or not”. George Miles killed himself in 1987 but Cooper didn’t find out until ten years later.
The cycle of 5 novels published between 1989 and 2000 are the result of this obsession. The ones we mostly recommend are Frisk (1991), Try (1994) and Period (2000). All of them can de defined like black comedies or twisted versions of the 80’s teen comedies. But in Cooper’s universe the main characters are young or even younger and are facing adults that most of the time are rapist and psycopaths at their best. One of the adults of Frisk is called Dennis and shares many biographical facts with the own writer. That might be te key to understand many things about him. Cooper shows on these books his grasp on slang and witty dialogs as well as being able to make interesting and hooking books based on schematic and sometimes even weak plots. We should not ignore his sense of humor: he didn’t hesitate in using the music band Blur (without any previous consent) as the stars of his novel Guide (1997), focused especially on bassist player Alex James. The British band, after reading the book, declined the invitation to meet him. Frisk became a film in 1995, and even though the soundtrack was composed by Bob Mould, of his adored band Hüsker Dü, Cooper was not satisfied at all with the result and that was the begginning and the end of his collaboration with the world of cinema.
Closer, Try and Period, three of the five novels that form the Miles Cycle.
The novels of the Miles Cycle took Cooper out of the “highbrow” circuit into the center of the mass culture. The erotic and violent essence of his books turned him into the favorite target of the conservatory sectors but also of some gay groups that didn’t get his point, so to speak. The Queer Nation association accused him of encouraging homophobia and the writer David Leavitt makes outraged critics whenever he has the chance. On the other hand William S. Burroughs and Edmund White have always praised his frankness and talent.
Hüsker Dü, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth… Friends and references.
The teenager aesthetic of his novels and his use of musical references (My Bloody Valentine, Hüsker Dü, Joy Division, Slayer…) turned the author into an unexpected common ground for youngsters of both genders, straight and homo, identified with the inner void and teenage angst expressed in his novels. The involuntary involvement of Dennis Cooper in the literature mega-fraud of JT Leroy sadly averted the attention of the public away of his two following novels My Loose Thread (Cannongate Books, 2002) and the unorthodox detective store God Jr. (Grove Press, 2005), both highly recommended.
In 2004 the friendship between Cooper and Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices and Xiu Xiu among many other bands lead to the tribute record Dennis, released also by Void Books. His latest bet has been to jump on the theatre scene: his plays I Apologize (2004), Un Belle Enfant Blonde (2005) and Kindertotenlieder (2007)– written in collaboration with Giselle Vienne– had been performed in Paris, London and several USA cities. All his friends and acquaintances have described him as a nice but shy person, always willing to help or contribute with ideas. Sheltered under a barrier of video-games, music and literary erudition he continues to explore his dark side. And ours.
Dennis Cooper these days. Portrait by Jean-Luc Bertini.
Thanks to Yago Garcia Salmeron for his contribution