A dizzying pileup of bareback breeding, castration procedures, master-slave mind games, boyband necrophilia fantasies, and consensual snuff sex, The Sluts is—this will sound strange—the most enjoyable of Dennis Cooper’s novels to date. It’s a guilty pleasure, not in the middlebrow conception of the term, but in a radical, almost interactive sense: The reader, assuming the implicated vantage of the avid voyeur, cannot help suffering a twinge of complicity. The ghastly addictiveness of its own unstable narrative is, in large part, the very point of this ingeniously devious metafiction.
Echoing the loose palindromic structure of Cooper’s George Miles cycle, The Sluts begins and ends on a gay-escort review website, where the focus of masturbatory—and possibly murderous—attention is a barely legal total bottom whose salient assets are a raging death wish and a “baby soft ass with a talented hole.” (The middle sections consist of conversations between personal-ad posters and respondents, e-mails and faxes, and an online message board.) Cooper has ventured into cyberspace before (notably in Period), but The Sluts is more rigorous in its hypertextual disguise. Simulating both the thrill and fatigue of Web prowling, it’s as perceptive and profound an analysis of the Internet’s philosophical dimensions as any fiction writer has yet produced.
This is a world Cooperites will recognize, even those without firsthand knowledge of destinations like asscult.com or oldonboy.com (among the resource links on the author’s website). The Sluts may be immersed in the virtual, but it actually locates a tangible corollary to the claustrophobic headspace that Cooper’s work has typically inhabited. To be horny and online is not that different from being horny and in a Dennis Cooper novel, where selves are invented, identities merged, and desires appropriated as a matter of course. Even in his real-world scenarios, sex is less often enacted than it is extravagantly anticipated or capriciously recounted, as in the Internet playrooms of The Sluts. Like Cooper’s tensile narratives, these are forums built to accommodate the extremes of erotic fantasy—albeit not always safely, given how the distinctions between real and imagined are continually eroded and reinforced.
Totalizing Cooper’s long-standing fondness for the unreliable narrator, The Sluts congregates an orgy’s worth of them. The initial drooling reports of hookups with anything-goes Brad inspire a rabid cult, but each new review questions the veracity of the previous ones, and despite the webmaster’s doomed attempts at verification, the thread devolves into a snarl of contradictory and very nasty scenarios, choked with competing theories and exposed lies, and eventually intersecting with an actual murder. The only constant, and the only relevant truth, is the miasma of desire.
As the demonloving mystery distends to mythological proportions, encompassing rival hustlers, underworld porn stars, and ultraviolent johns skilled in the bedroom uses of a blowtorch, the hot passive twink at its center remains as shadowy as the aroused sadists who want to fuck and maim and kill him. While Brad’s reviewers don’t stint on description, and some are even morbidly witty, their repertoire is mostly limited to pungent porn clichés (“sweetest little ass,” “delicious load”); the detailed consumer-guide questionnaire preceding each write-up only adds to the confusion. Is Brad’s hair brown or dishwater blond? More pressingly, does he really have an inoperable brain tumor and a pimp boyfriend, Brian, whose “all time fantasy is to murder a boy during the sex act”? An archetype and a cipher, Brad is the ne plus ultra of Cooper’s mutable, all too erasable beauties—wholly absent and somewhat occluded, truly the obscure object of desire. (For those in need of visual cues, someone suggests Taylor Hanson could play him in the movie.)
Positively blabbermouthed by Cooper’s curt standards, The Sluts, no less than his portraits of inexpressive jailbait, masters the syntax of a circumscribed language (or two)—the breezy, flattened affect of cyberchat, as it overlaps with the grinding hyperbole of pornography (the review site is modeled on the popular male4maleescorts.com). It also nails the more abstract aspects of virtual interaction and self-presentation—the heady paradox of distance and intimacy, the limitless and possibly liberating potential for confusion. Cooper calls The Sluts, which Brooklyn-based Void Books is publishing in a numbered edition of 550, a “black sheep cousin” to the George Miles daisy chain; the forthcoming God Jr. will be his first PG-13 novel. The concluding chapter in a two-decade-long obsession with violence and sex, The Sluts doesn’t exactly suggest resolution, but with its anarchic denial of absolute truth, this is as good a place as any to leave off. By turns courageous and spent, it’s everything a last gasp should be.