Dennis Cooper is a button-pushing novelist with a penchant for sadistic, horror-infused sexuality, but you could also argue that he’s a well-intentioned, if somewhat eerie, romantic. His first five novels (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period) construct hermetic, mostly male worlds in which gay desire is, like gravity, a given, and often gets acted out as a murderous obsession with physical beauty. At the same time, those books intercut the cruelty with a tangible sympathy for their teen characters, who fumble for friendship and love, even while those connections lie slightly beyond the grasp of their inarticulateness. The emotional digressions never escape the minatory framework, but they do build into the five novels a tricky self-consciousness that hints at the gulf between sadistic fantasies and the limitations of those fantasies in the real world.
Still keyed in on the lives of teenagers, Cooper’s latest, My Loose Thread, differs significantly from his previous work. The new book is broader in scope, giving voices to parents, teachers, a therapist. It throws sexuality, along with everything else that comes in its path, into flux. What distinguishes Thread most is that it shears off the earlier novels’ tendency toward self-critique, leaving readers entirely in the hands of its unraveling teen narrator, Larry. Thread doesn’t shift between violence and yearning so much as render them inextricable. Here’s Larry facing his girlfriend, Jude, and his frustratingly opaque partner in crime, Pete:
Then I can’t talk, and lose it, and start to cry, but she doesn’t come over and hug me. Pete doesn’t either, or even make one of his stupid ass jokes. So I pull out the gun and point it where it belongs. I just want them to know.
This is an early scene, but Larry has already killed two people he cares about: his best friend, Rand, and a sensitive, journal-carrying classmate named Bill. Or so we’re led to believe.
Though the book races toward the on-campus massacre it suggests from the starting line, Cooper grounds his horror-high-school plot with raw intelligence and narrative sleights of hand. Linear as the novel initially appears, it quickly becomes a tangled web of conflicting storylines, mendacity, and misreadings, which Cooper uses to make radical examples of how thorny the narrator-reader relationship can be. Larry puts his unreliability up-front early on: “If it wasn’t for words, I wouldn’t know how to put lies between me and everyone else.”
The novel is full of odd gaps and lacunae. Bill’s journal, which deeply affects Larry with its straightforwardness, doesn’t get quoted once—it’s entirely filtered through our laconic narrator. Descriptions of physical appearance are noticeably absent. Larry’s self-editing reveals someone desperately trying to manipulate the way the world sees him, but that control gets undermined, too. Drifting into shadowy scenes of questionable veracity, Thread suggests that Larry can’t distinguish between what’s real and imagined, or between his own and other people’s version of the story.
The event repeatedly raked over and revised is Rand’s death—the result, supposedly, of an aneurysm he suffered after Larry punched him in the face. At first, Larry claims he hit Rand for being a drugged-out mess. Later, we learn that Larry is having a sexual relationship with his younger brother, Jim, and that Rand had confronted him about it.
I hit Rand because of how he talked about Jim. It wasn’t what he accused me of doing. Maybe I thought that was it. Later I realized it was the words he had used. They made Jim into someone who couldn’t control what he felt, and made me into someone Rand didn’t know better than anyone else. . . . Then for a while after that, I saw Jim through Rand’s eyes, and decided I was sick. So I thought if I hit Rand hard enough, it would stop.
Is Larry gay? Does Jim love him, or vice versa? Most important, what does that mean? These questions are relentlessly brought to Thread‘s surface, pointing to the constraints and inadequacy of language—especially in the developing mind of a kid. As far as Larry can tell, the wrong meaning will always stick; in his gnarled logic, the only way to correct this is through violence.
Sexual confusion, love triangles, high school shootings—this is typical talk-show fodder, but it’s hard to imagine a novelist touching these topics without sensationalism or severe ironical distance. What’s interesting here is that, aside from a few slyly humorous moments, Cooper approaches them from a frontline, serious point of view—and pulls it off.
Emotionally anarchic as Larry is, you can boil his predicament down to short-circuited sincerity. Of his friends, he says, “People I know use sarcasm to hide around me. They’ve figured out that if they don’t act completely sincere, I won’t understand, and will get upset.” Or, if characters are concerned, they’re too distracted to notice his desperation. At the end of a session with his psychiatrist, Larry claims, “He’s so close to it. He could see it in my eyes if he looked, but he’s writing my prescription.” The difficulty of making sense of the world doesn’t justify brutality, and Cooper refuses to guide his book into easy, empathy-provoking resolutions. But in the end, Larry is too thoughtful to write off—mostly, he wants someone to try to understand his chaotic desires, to look at him. My Loose Thread‘s storyline is so immediate, inquisitive, and messed up, you can’t avert your eyes.
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