Danger Unraveled: A Chat with Dennis Cooper

Dennis Cooper is, among other things, controversial. His work explores a perverse darkness, one lying latent in a society that is either too afraid or just not weird enough to recognize it. He was at Powerhouse Area on Tuesday for a brief reading and discussion with Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy regarding his new novel, The Marbled Swarm

The prolific author of the George Miles cycle, a ten-year project yielding five disturbing novels based on his obsession with a childhood friend and eventual lover, deals with an inextricable link between sex and violence. What some view as gratuitous gore, others understand as deep romance, an obsession so profound it can only be expressed in pain. Elegantly blurring the line that separates love from its potentially evil manifestations, Cooper isn’t afraid to take things further than you sometimes want to go. His prose has a frightening weight, piercing in its effortlessness when depicting the most gruesome and desperate of acts. This unabashed honesty, his willingness to explicate thoughts many spend their lives pretending to escape, has earned him an increasingly large cult following, as well as death threats. 

Dennis Cooper understands. He understands life’s terrible boredom, our undulating attempts at sincerity, and most of all, the impenetrable darkness that forces us towards some form of reconciliation or deceit.

So, you’re from California?
Yeah, LA. 

Where are you currently living?
Currently in Paris.

But you’ve lived in New York before?
Four years, twice for two years each.

You deal in extremes, your work is at times terrifyingly graphic, sexual, the most carnal of human desires, while at once reflecting the boredom and emptiness we hope to escape. This, to me, seems to fall in line with your interest in punk and its surrounding scene. Are these two linked? How does punk influence your work? Or does your subject matter come from somewhere else entirely?
I started writing about stuff even when I was a little kid, so that was already there. Do you mean punk like the original rising of punk?

I mean the whole concept of punk, the way it’s aggressive and it’s bored and it’s reactionary, wanting to escape from something out of your control, angry but fun.
Yeah, totally. You know I was really into the ’70s when it first rose up, and I continue to be interested in it. If anything, it made okay what I was doing, and helped me to figure out and organize it. I don’t know if I had a language figured out that would really reflect how exactly I felt about it, and I think that music, and the scene itself, and the look and everything…it gave me a texture. There’s this kind of anger but it’s countered by a sadness, but that sadness is really carefully organized. 

Your new book, The Marbled Swarm, seems to be indicative of the same themes found in the other books I’ve read of yours. What spawned this connection between sex, obsession, dominance, and violence?
It just seemed like it was always there. I don’t know where it came from. Whenever there’d be something that was kind of like that, that I’d see on television or whatever, I would always be very drawn to it. And then I read [Marquis] de Sade, and that always kind of legitimized it for me because I was like, OK…you know? I could let this leak out a little bit. But I honestly don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t like I was abused or anything, none of that stuff. I wasn’t ever violent as a kid or anything. I was just kind of a nerd I suppose. It’s almost like it’s just in my DNA or something. 
What is Squish?
Squish junkies?
What is it in terms of your novel? What’s a Squish junkie?
The narrator has a younger brother, and the younger brother is obsessed with manga, anime, all that stuff. His particular thing is that he’s obsessed with flatness. He has this idea that he wants to live inside the manga. He doesn’t like being three dimensional. He doesn’t like walking and sitting in chairs and things. He thinks his body’s too heavy. In manga, people transform from boys into girls, they can fly anywhere, and they have all this freedom. He wants to be flat. He wants to live inside a magazine. So there’s this group of kids in the book that are also obsessed with this. They call themselves Squish Junkies, and draw pictures of themselves flat, with steamrollers rolling over them, or things smashing them flat. That’s their dream and sexual fetish, their biggest desire. 

So the narrator’s brother is involved in this, in what way does that function?
Well, spoiler alert, he gets killed. His brother kills him because he wants to kill him, but he thinks he should show respect to him so he kills him by picking up this big metal thing and smashing him completely flat. 

A sort of poetic justice I suppose. 
Yeah, like with the rationalization of, well he wanted to be flat so I’m going to make him flat. 

You made an interesting point in your discussion when you said that the book is, in some ways, based on mixing music, how in certain songs you pull out the vocals, pull out the drums, guitar solos, whatever. Elaborate on that.
The trouble with writing novels is it’s a good thing but it’s a bad thing, because you have stories, and you have characters, and you have plots, and all these things. I don’t really like those things. I think they’re boring, and everybody always does them. For how many centuries have people been doing them they same way? It’s fine. It works and everything. It’s cool, but I’m not interested in it. So I was just trying to think of a different way to make it interesting, so people would keep reading it without me having to do that stuff. I was just thinking of it being a piece of music. If you were listening to noise music, you’re not listening to it because you’re waiting for the hook and the chorus and the melody, you actually get involved in how the noise is changing. In some of the more experimental metal, like Doom and that kind of stuff, it’s trancey. You’re listening for slight variations in the tones. I was basically just trying to do that, so that it would hold your attention the same way a Sunn O))) record would hold your attention. 

I love that. So, in your discussion you mentioned you’ve gotten death threats?
Yes, I did, yeah. 

Regarding what work in particular?
Frisk. It came out right after American Psycho came out. When American Psycho came out, there was this huge thing. [Frisk] also came out right at the time this very famous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, was arrested. Everybody was going crazy about this stuff. And the book is about this guy who kills, or supposedly kills, teenage boys in a brutal way. The queer activists decided that my book was dangerous, and that I was promoting the killing of teenage boys, which I wasn’t doing. I got a death treat, and was told I was going to be killed by this group of activists. They said since I was killing teenage boys in my books, they were going to kill me. 

Well, that obviously didn’t happen. 
They didn’t, no. But it was a little spooky. 

Did I hear that all the titles of the George Miles cycle form a pentagram, or something?
Oh, no. (Laughs) They don’t form a pentagram. But there is a thing with the titles, it’s this really complicated structure. If you put the titles together, they form this shape. So, you take Closer, which is six letters, two syllables. Then you take Frisk, which is five letters, one syllable. Then you have Try… you know what I mean? It makes a shape like an infinity sign: CloserFriskTryGuidePeriod.

Cool, I get it. I was wondering, do you have any favorite places to hang out in the city, or are you too removed at this point having lived elsewhere for so long?
Honestly, everything I used to like is gone. I don’t know it anymore, I really don’t. All the places I knew were like, in the East VIllage, or in the Meat Packing district. It’s all gone! 

Dennis Cooper on Kurt Cobain, Keanu Reeves, & Other Stuff From the 90s

In these trying times for literary literature (“lit-lit” anyone?), the commercial release of a new Dennis Cooper book is reason enough to celebrate. Cooper, a cultishly followed novelist dedicated to the difficult and the taboo, was dropped by his longtime publisher, Grove, a few years ago, forcing him to independently publish his Prix Sade-winning 2005 novel,The Sluts. He’s since been picked up by the cutting-edge, Cal Morgan-led PBO imprint Harper Perennial, which has just released Smothered In Hugs, a collection of Cooper’s non-fiction work spanning two decades.

It’d be easy to write off such a round-up as a plastic bone intended to placate rabid Cooper fans while drumming up interest for future novels. But Smothered In Hugs is more than marginalia. The pieces—originally published in ArtForum, Spin , and the Village Voice, among other publications—show facets of Cooper’s particular genius you don’t see in his formally and thematically controlled fiction. In Hugs, Cooper wears many hats: art critic, cultural sociologist, anti-PC queer thinker battling against a closed-minded mainstream culture and an equally closed-minded queer subculture. Mostly, though, we seem him wandering the pop cultural landscape of the ‘90s, struggling to understand a strange era in real time.

Just as this decade has ushered in a too-soon bloom of 90’s nostalgia (or maybe we’re just getting old), it’s interesting to look back at Cooper’s critiques and profiles of that era’s cultural icons. Particularly devastating is a Kurt Cobain obituary in which Cooper compares Cobain to “God with a dog’s mouth.” Another piece presciently predicts the fallout from Quentin Tarantino’s early success. Also included are early interviews with Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio (Cooper asks both about rumored homosexuality—Keanu: “No. But, you never know…”), a lost Stephen Malkmus interview, and what’s perhaps the most sympathetic profile of Courtney Love ever written. The Love piece is indicative of Cooper’s ultimate strength as a journalist—the rare ability to see celebrities for who they are, not what they seem to signify. More than anything, Smothered in Hugs will send you out into the world—to the bookstore, record store, art gallery, library—in search of the lost classics Cooper so excitedly introduces. Me, I went searching YouTube, looking for God with a dog’s mouth.

American Psycho: Author Dennis Cooper

Rape. Murder. Teens. Transgressive literary anti-star Dennis Cooper can be depended on for a few things—convention, however, certainly isn’t one of them. “I never learned how to write fiction, never even took a fiction writing class, so my books are sort of strangely shaped,” says the 56-year-old writer who unleashed a five book cycle of snuff, drugs and rock ’n’ roll on an unsuspecting literary world beginning with 1989’s brilliant shocker Closer, and then went on to win wide acclaim for 2005’s The Sluts, an ingenious novel told by way of Internet postings on a male escort site.

The latter was a critical success for Cooper, winning him France’s prestigious Prix Sade award, but it only made him want to push further from the mainstream. “In The Sluts,” says Cooper, “I was co-opting forms, which doesn’t interest me much. I want to invent the form.”

The erudite rebel, who now splits his time between Paris and Los Angeles, began his writing career imitating the French libertine Arthur Rimbaud. “He’s the ultimate rebel,” says Cooper. “No one can come close to him.” He adds, with a look of befuddlement in his deep-set eyes, “But in France, they grew up studying him in school, so he’s like the establishment or something.” For Cooper himself, the greatest act of creative rebellion is to break as many rules as possible, while still managing to connect with readers. “I’m always trying to go against the expectations of fiction, and somehow manage to care about the people who read my work.”

His recently released collection of short stories, Ugly Man, taps deeper into a rich vein of humor (see: “The Anal-Retentive Line Editor”). Next, he’ll pen the story of—what else—a fictional 22-year-old French cannibal. As for Cooper’s literary victims and his fascination with the dark side, he says, “I feel compelled to write about that material, to represent teenagers as complex people and give them respect by showing them being brutalized. It’s about conveying how terrible that age can be. It’s a pretty rich area for me.”

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews