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 amazon.com 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.”
True enough, but that begs the question academics are loath to ask of transgressive writers: What are their intentions? Take Burroughs. His aesthetic dimension notwithstanding, he believed love was an invention of women imposed on men, and he accidentally killed his wife. Big Bill would pore over scrapbooks of images from child porn before writing. Cooper, too, has made scrapbooks (they’re on exhibition at NYU’s Fales Library as part of the conference), and they bear an uncanny resemblance to the material Burroughs used as inspiration. But along with these images that date back to his adolescence are passages in which Cooper describes their impact. He still finds these kids and their killers “sexually devastating”—and that admission makes all the difference. If Burroughs was a master of the paranoid defense, Cooper breaks through that ruse to the psychotic core of human consciousness, with its endless, helpless need. It’s not an easy place to live.
His fate is to deal with a reputation so extreme that people approach him looking for snuff films, and his friends won’t read his books. He finds it necessary to explain that the activities in his novels aren’t real. “My life isn’t like that,” Cooper says. “But emotionally, it’s very real, because I’ve been haunted by this stuff ever since I was a kid.”
He grew up prosperous in the Valley, in a family that split up when he was 14, leaving him to deal with a dramatically unstable mother. “Honestly it was pretty heavy,” he confides. “It wasn’t, like, physical abuse, but she was out of control. Yeah, it was pretty bad.”
But that was only the setting for a series of events that galvanized Cooper’s imagination. There was the “freeway killer” whose victims were young hitchhikers, including several boys raped and murdered in the mountains behind Cooper’s house. He hiked to what he thought was the site of the killings and had “almost a religious experience. I didn’t know what it was about, but I did notice it was incredibly exciting and that no one else shared this feeling.” Clippings from this case figure prominently in Cooper’s scrapbook.
Where did these powerful feelings come from? “I really don’t have a clue,” he says. But one possibility occurs to him. About a year before the freeway killings, when he was 11, Cooper was the victim of a nearly fatal injury. His best friend, “who I had this big crush on,” accidentally split his head open with an ax. Cooper was knocked unconscious and woke up covered in blood. “I reached up and my head was split open,” he recalls. “I still have this big old ugly dent in my skull.” Did the injury alter his emotions? “It may have had some effect on me,” he says. “Having been victimized by that act of violence, maybe it de-shocked me.”
Or maybe it placed him in a certain relationship to the murderous side of his budding sexuality, the stuff most kids are only aware of in gothic moments. In any event, his moral sense remained intact, leaving him caught between profound feelings of desire and powerful fantasies of destruction. Murder was never an option, but suicide was. He used to imagine shooting himself in the woods “and having this contraption that would make the dirt cover me” so that he simply disappeared.
At 15, Cooper began to put it all down on paper. “I wrote a thousand-page novel—120 Days of Sodom set in my high school—but I burned it because I was afraid my mother would discover it.” In the meantime, he had met the love of his life, George Miles. That name is familiar to readers of Cooper because it figures centrally in his books. “He sort of determined everybody I’m attracted to. We met when I was in the ninth grade and he was in the sixth. He had taken acid and was having this freakout, so I took him onto the football field and we stood there for hours. He became my closest friend. Whether we were in love or not, nothing came of it because he was so young, and when I got interested he began having extreme psychological problems.” Through nervous breakdowns on both sides, the two friends stayed in touch, and when Cooper was 30 and Miles 27, they had a real love affair. It didn’t last.
“I started this cycle of books to work it all out,” Cooper says. “I thought, ‘Well, he’ll read these and think of me.’ ” But when the fourth installment, Guide, appeared in 1997, Cooper found out that Miles had killed himself 10 years earlier. He was devastated. All the energy he had poured into his writing, all his determination to sustain the beloved in art, had been for naught. Looking back on his struggle, Cooper now believes the whole cycle has been about failure. “I really thought, when I was working on this, that I would come to grips with my interest in these things and get to the bottom of my relationship with George. But I can’t.” Which is why Period is a book that unravels, so that in the end, “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 specter of the dead lover is why Cooper reminds his most astute critics of that great American necrophiliac, Edgar Allan Poe. “Poe said that the most beautiful subject, the most fit for literature, is the most melancholy—the death of the maiden,” writes the poet Robert Glück. “Cooper’s drugged-out, murdered teenage boys are our Annabel Lees in their beauty and their inability to survive, in the intensity of love’s failure. In fact, they don’t have to die to be dead.”
Just as Poe created worlds that were hermetically his own yet essentially ours, Cooper’s teenage wasteland—with its majestic duh-speak that, he says, “reveals while it hides, so it gets at what’s going on more clearly”—leaves us wondering about the present and the future. It’s an issue that was raised in regard to Burroughs, too. At the Nova Convention, this reporter asked Burroughs if he worried about whether people might form societies based on his books. “Well, that could happen with any writer,” he drawled. “You could have a universe of Graham Greene Catholics or a Max Ernst universe. In actual practice, the influence of fiction is not direct. It creates new possibilities and new ways.”
What are the possibilities in Cooper’s world? The answer is suggested by the project he is contemplating now that his George Miles cycle is complete. It’s about Kip Kinkel, the kid who shot up his high school in Oregon after killing his parents. He told police that he had done the deed because he loved them too much to bear their disappointment in him. Hearing Kip’s confession on TV, Cooper was as mesmerized as he had been years before by the dead boys in the mountains behind his house. “This kid was completely alone,” he says. “I felt a strong need to be with him.”
Dennis Cooper will read from Period at Barnes & Noble, 675 Sixth Avenue, on March 1 at 7:30 p.m. For information about the Cooper conference at NYU call 212-998-2596.