The Most Dangerous Writer In America

Coming to Terms With the Art of Dennis Cooper

On a winter weekend in 1978, thousands of freaks filled an East Village theater to see artists and rockers such as Frank Zappa and Patti Smith salute William Burroughs. As the author of Naked Lunch looked quizzically on, John Cage played a coffeepot while Merce Cunningham twisted and twirled and Allen Ginsberg read an ode to punks. ("Louder! Viciouser! Fuck me in the ass! . . . ") This was the Nova Convention, the Woodstock of the avant-garde—an event that could never occur in New York today. The whole tradition of transgressive art has been main-streamed into a mall of sensate cruelty by everything from F/X to porn. And we don't live in an age when radical writers matter enough to be icons. There's no one to fill the Burroughs slot in American culture—or is there?

This week (March 2-3), New York University hosts a conference to celebrate Dennis Cooper, the 47-year-old writer who has come closer than anyone to reanimating the spirit of Burroughs. Though his readership is modest by standards, it is remarkably diverse for an author whose "two great themes are murder and rimming," as the novelist and critic Edmund White quips. A dedicated young following—of both sexes and all sexualities—has honed in on Cooper, and his name keeps popping up on the pomo pedagogy circuit. So it's fitting that the roster for the NYU conference should include Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho, as well as some of the city's finest explicators of radical art and sexuality. It's even possible that the culture police will jump on this event to create a sensation. After all, today's naked lunch is tomorrow's revolution.

Every work of Cooper's "produces a minor insurrection on several levels," says the critic Avital Ronell, who will speak at the NYU conference. "He goes to the limit of what can be exposed, described, represented, and shunned. And in that sense, his work is as dangerous and exhilarating as Madame Bovary." Of course, in Cooper's case, the object of forbidden desire is not a jeune naïve, but a drugged-out, dissociated boy—the kind of kid who could get picked up on the freeway, taken to some basement, raped, and disemboweled. Yet hovering over this horror is something all but missing in Burroughs, something that feels very much like the dark soup of longing. "I think he's thoroughly deconstructed love—made it a question of sudden attachments that can easily fade or be forgotten—and yet it lingers after it's been abandoned," notes Ronell. This issue of love persisting in an almost zombie state is what makes Cooper's books so moving, philosophically and otherwise.

Cooper's cycle of five slim novels (the latest, Period, has just hit the stores) can be read as a single book whose subject—because it's so obsessive—seems oddly timeless. His fixation is probably what has saved him from going the way of Lydia Lunch and other denizens of the Blank Generation. That and the special language some of Cooper's champions call "duh-speak." This halting, haunting style allows him to convey complex ideas in a voice that breathes with adolescent angst. Cooper's writing is as close as literature gets to the vacant shimmer of alternative rock.

True, it's not exactly a Pavement moment when Ziggy, the protagonist of Cooper's novel Try, attempts to extricate his foster father's face from his rectum. "If you loved me," Ziggy bleats, "you wouldn't rim me while I'm crying." It's this comedy of violation, along with a sense of sexuality so fluid as to be inchoate, that gives Cooper his place in the crypto-punk movement known as Queercore. "Of all the writers who deal with male/male desire, Dennis is the one who rises above the domestic," says archivist Marvin Taylor, the major organizer of the NYU conference. "His is the most important queer work in the last 50 years."

Though you're likely to find Cooper under the bookstore rubric gay, he has more in common with a writer like Kathy Acker, for whom the implacability of desire is far more important than the particulars of gender or sexual identity. Cooper has a small but fierce following among women—but maybe that's no surprise in an age of virtual identity, when the Internet is spawning a whole new genre, known as "slash fiction," in which women write (often violently) homoerotic stories using the male heroes of TV shows. "Every work of his scrambles the master codes of gender assignment, and I think that must be thrilling to women," says Ronell. "He really dephallicizes the male." It's true, if only because the locus of desire in his novels is usually the ass. Even as Cooper screws the tropes of porn by subjecting flesh to damage and decay, notes Ronell, he evokes "the experience women have of the body, which is one of extreme fragility and violability."

Still, it's hard to avoid the fact that this landscape of empathy is also a world of thrill-killing teens and predatory pedophiles. This is where dealing with Cooper's art gets tricky. There are scholars who maintain that the violence in his work—not to mention what Marvin Taylor calls "the problem of pederasty"—is there for purely representational reasons. "I think Dennis is primarily an aesthete," Taylor says. "He chooses young boys because, for one thing, they're at the moment of acquiring proficiency in language, so that allows him to explore his ideas about language as a system that can never adequately express reality or feelings. For another, there's a cultural obsession with the beautiful boy. If you examine the news coverage of these child killers, you can see how luridly their victims' bodies are described. It's lurking there, and Dennis makes it explicit."

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