Updated: Nov 24, 2020
By Chris Kelso
We come to life in a cold open. We get no initial preparation before the freight-train of self-awareness comes hurtling by to drag our new-found consciousness through the common quagmires of loneliness, criticality, and overwhelming emotional turmoil. It can take us a long time to work out our own motivations, never mind those of the other sentient body sitting across from us. Diarmuid Hester’s critical biography of Dennis Cooper made me realise something I’ve been wrestling with for over a decade - why do books like Frisk, Closer and The Sluts appeal to me so much? I’ve always wondered what the appeal was (beyond great writing) – and as a straight man from the West of Scotland it might not be immediately clear why these specific narratives resonate with me in such a wholly profound way. Things feel a little clearer after reading Wrong.
I realise that Dennis Cooper is on a similar quest for safe fraternity. Another soul aimlessly pawing through the social-night for a stray lantern of genuine friendship and finding mostly teeth and automata. And it’s this doomed pursuit of reciprocity that resonates.
Hester does a masterful job of merging academic analysis with succinct biographical detail. He is an accomplished writer in his own right who we should be hearing more from in the very near future. And he starts at the beginning, detailing Coopers affluent but fractured family theater of alcoholism, tragedy and even DC’s own dark thoughts linked with lust and violence throughout early childhood. It’s funny, DC never discusses any of these topics with shame or unease. He understands them completely, pragmatically. Finding artistic kinship in DeSade and Rimbaud we find a man who has gone searching for his tribe early on. Yet he still gets burned.
Hester’s book also gives us a crucial insight into the central figure of George Miles, the preoccupation of DC’s career-long thesis. Wrong charts Miles’ tragic death in 1987 and the development from burgeoning friendship to romantic dependant. This focal point is where all these ideas of fraternity and loneliness come together. George Miles becomes a Bressonian mannequin through which Cooper can communicate important and rarely-discussed universal facts. That true friendship is rare and complicated.
Cooper’s characters are always moving monochromatically – vacant, distracted, detached or in philosophical meditation with their own individuality. He frequently explores a common intrasubjectve masculine fantasy that eludes many of us – connection with other people. And connection is something DC’s characters can rarely achieve, except through sex and violence. Cooper gives us a blank slate while consciously dismantling the binary logic of narrativity. This is an extraordinary gift. Like therapy.
Wrong also shows us the countless attempts at connection Cooper has made throughout his life – from his relationship with Amy Gerstler, to embracing the New York Romantic aesthetic and even a stint on college radio. I’m reminded of another fantastic book that came out this year in Thomas Moore’s, Alone. It is impossible to chronicle any journey into adulthood or loss of innocence without probing violence. Violence is, after all, a contact sport - flesh on flesh. It comes at us suddenly during the cold open, before eventually destroying the corporeal form and distorting into something unique. If you let it. Like Rimbaud, Cooper and Moore are desperate to grab, articulate and preserve that lost seed of bygone youth when friendship and connection seemed a simpler more achievable deed. Where once it could be defined by a simple school seating charts or a love of morning cartoons, as adult men, connection becomes an intensely challenging feat.
It is the desire of most cognisant beings to achieve meaningful connection, yet many of us settle in secret sadness for surface-level interactions. Why do we do this? Reading Dennis Cooper will help you through this depressing reality. Art as experience is destined to be filtered through a mediative process of subjectivity. It is posited by Hester that these Bressonian mannequins (also see DC’s work of Gisele Vienne) are a deliberate extension of Cooper’s distancing aesthetic, allowing the reader to project their own traits, like a first-person video game. But I would actually argue that the inner lives are articulated well. These distant, jaded boys are exhausted and “deep”. We just never “know” it. As no one could ever “know” it. The harsh reality that we can never really “know” anyone. Another depressing reality.
There is an interesting study of the mathematical approach to the Cycle, again highlighting the supposed robotic surface methodology of probing the suradolescent idol. But one thing is clear - Cooper has been concerned with the individual and community building from the beginning of his career. He knows what he’s talking about. By honing an aesthetic of distance in his work Cooper expresses the great battle between man’s universal goal of solitude and his desire for community. He hopes that we might seek union through mental and physical exploration after accepting the depressing realities of our mental and physical distance. People argue that Coopers books are amoral but they explore ideas of connection with such fervour – and are honest in the portrayal of its failure.
Cooper eventually finds his modern community, his tribe, via his blog (something he can control and interface with on his own terms). DC has suffered some intense betrayals – JT Leroy (aka, “Terminator”), the rise and heartbreak of Little Caesar Press, and his general disenchantment with New York – but he is a man who does not give up on people. Ever. He teaches us, and actively encourages us, to keep believing in the goodness and potential of people – while forcing us to look at the harsh reality of its intrinsic complexity. He is the ultimate rarity in any lit circle – an established writer who is a natural care-giver. So, let’s not let him down. He’s doing all of this for us. Scrapbooking us all into obscurity. Together in the only real way he knows how. This is our collective marbled swarm.
Chris Kelso is a multi-translated British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, editor, and illustrator from Scotland. His work has appeared in Evergreen Review, The Scottish Poetry Library, Sensitive Skin, Locus, Dennis Cooper's blog, Black Static, 3AM, and many more.
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