Pop Fiction

The LA morning breaks, both overcast and balmy. Palm treestwitch beneath opaque December skies, as I head towardDennis Cooper's house. Cooper's neighborhood, Los Feliz, isa younger, laid-back brother to Boston's South End, withstucco bungalows painted pastel hues and surrounded bywillful foliage. Strains of Sebadoh greet me at the door,followed by Cooper himself. Tall and spare of frame, withelectric blue eyes set off by pixie-ish honey-brown bangsand sharply sculpted cheekbones, Cooper radiates a balleticintensity. His voice speeds and slows with the Valley-esquerhythms that one might associate more with his teenagedprotagonists than with a vanguard writer whose terrain isdesire, death, and language. Indeed, Cooper embodies thecomplexities of his own fictional narratives. Steeped in theether of arcane texts but also a navigator of pop-musicscenes, he is both uncompromisingly cerebral and affably,campily hip.The 41-year-old Cooper has produced several volumes of poetry; the novelsSafe (1983), Closer (1989), Frisk (1991),and Try (1994); the short-story collection Wrong(1992); a series of performance pieces with IshmaelHouston-Jones; and a demonic children's book, Jerk (1993, in collaboration with artist Nayland Blake). Thisbody of work puts him at the forefront of contemporary art.Yet because he transcends the categorizations of mainstreamaudiences and booksellers, he is still underrated in thiscountry.Populated almost exclusively by gay characters, his fiction is not about gay identity perse. The language in his books soars to a kind of epiphanicvision. Labyrinthinely layered, the narratives are akin tothose of experimental French writers Artaud, Genet,Robbe-Grillet, Duras, and Bataille, but they're alsointerlaced with references to punk/metal bands, Disneyland,and horror films. Perhaps most controversial, dark eroticismis omnipresent - but in discourses on violence andpornography that radically critique themselves, sketchingout secret affinities with the homespun American values thatthe status-quo media most idealize. In Try, forinstance, the Old West that is "romanticized and muted byHollywood" is shown to foster a hyper-macho violenceconducive to incest, rape, and child abuse. Martha Stewart'snightmares Cooper's abode would be the stuff of MarthaStewart's nightmares. The work area harbors totemically charged books, CDs (from the Jesus and MaryChain to Future Sound of London), photographs of artist andactor friends, and, gazing perversely from atop a computer,postcard sketches of the Marquis de Sade and Rimbaud."I'd offer you something, but I'm all out," says Cooper with a hapless shrug as we settle into a plaidsofa of distinctly Somervillian ilk. Asked what youthful experiences might have nourished hisvoice, Cooper tokes thoughtfully on a cigarette and mentionstwo likely suspects: attending a "bizarre and intense" boys'school in the LA area from ages 13 to 17, and discoveringthe Marquis de Sade's works in the house of a precociousschoolmate. As most Southern California teens busiedthemselves with surfboards, Cooper went on to imbibeLautreamont, and Baudelaire, and the starkly apocalypticfilms of Robert Bresson, all while writing his own poetry. Bacchanalian and hallucinogenic times followed. One day, as Cooper was attending Pitzer College(in Claremont, California), another decisive event occurred.A poetry teacher "grabbed me and threw me up against [a]locker and said, 'If you really want to be a writer, get thefuck out of this school, and have a life.' " Cooper followedthis advice and moved to West LA. He joined the experimentalwriting group Beyond Baroque, which included authorsBenjamin Weissman and David Trinidad (both published by HighRisk), poet Amy Gerstler, and "super masochist" performanceartist Bob Flanagan. He then spent time in Amsterdam and NewYork, where he became acquainted with the novelists KathyAcker, Gary Indiana, and Lynn Tillman, as well as EdmundWhite and John Ashbery. But, eventually, wide-open spacesand childhood roots drew him back to LA, where he has beenliving since 1989. Cooper says that he was fortunate to avoid the time-clock-punching world. From anearly age, he was a workaholic. He even founded a literarymagazine and press, the Little Caesar. Upon rising eachmorning, he heads straight for his laptop and revisesindividual sentences as many as 80 times in order to achievethe desired interplay of rhythm, sound, and meaning. Hismuses are not only French vanguard fiction and theory, butalso pop music, from early rock a la Donovan on acid topost-punk and techno-rave. "Bands are a great place to lookfor new ideas," he says, "because the pop-song structure isnot dissimilar to the experimental novel structure. You canstudy how they take a form that's really set, and manipulateit in a way that still maintains that structure."The body as topography Central to Cooper's fiction is arewriting of the male body as a topography to be idealized,fetishized, mined, and celebrated. That homoerotic desire isnot overtly politicized in these narratives is actually moresubversive of heterosexist Western culture than aprogrammatic focus on sexual-identity politics might be.Cooper's departure from heterosexist plots is radical in itsvery laconism. Try, for example, charts the passion ofthe abused teen Ziggy for his tormented junkie friendCalhoun with spooky, intense understatement: Luckily,Ziggy's half-learned how to sidestep hisfriend's generalized behavior, decode contracted eyes, siftthrough that fuzz, overvalue the warmth of their rareoutbound flickers. They've become the most beautiful thingsin the world, like the muffled cries of hikers trapped inlandslides in the middle of nowhere. He's learned to letthem spark his imagination. Still, pray and daydream asZiggy might, he can't quite reconfigure what's here. Here: askinny blond teenager pickled in heroin, slack-faced, fallenlimp as a corpse, brain discarding his lovers and friendsfor a half-life in decorous seclusion, unconcerned how itlooks, or who he's upset along the way, figuring nobody elsewill ever wander this far, check. Cooper's creates trulyavant-garde fiction, as opposed to experimental writing thatremains mired in sexism and homophobia. (One thinks of HenryMiller's genius spending itself on Playboy-typefantasies, or Bret Easton Ellis's linkage in AmericanPsycho of yuppie materialism and sexual cannibalism, adeconstruction that skewers itself on its own misogyny.) As in Jean Genet's all-male Parisian underworld, in Cooper's LA, desire's spectrum of intensitiesis experienced by many kinds of men: artistic, delusionalteens and self-destructive punks; middle-aged purveyors ofporn and heavy-metal kids; fragile, druggy high-schoolersand abusive parent figures. His protagonists' attempts toknow or aesthetically represent "otherness" -- theforeignness of the lover's body and psyche, the absolute oferotic epiphany or abjection -- are simultaneously thwartedand perpetuated by their own impossibility.The very title of Closer illustrates the paradoxof this approach toward an otherness that, like a patch ofskin or a screen image, only disintegrates the closer onegets. George, the protagonist, is an acid-dropping, troubledhigh-school student whose interior world is as sealed offfrom himself as it is from anyone else. He is a flawlesssurface onto which other characters project theirintertwined desire for beauty and search for self. John, anartist classmate, paints and has sex with George. David, adisturbed classmate who constructs a rock-star identity forhimself, considers being a boyfriend to George, "a new placeto check my appearance in." Philippe, an older Frenchman,fantasizes about dismembering George to decipher thecontents of his tauntingly seductive exterior. In Closer, Cooper explains: "The bodybecomes a source of information because there's nothingelse. The mind is so complex, you can never sort outsomebody else in terms of their emotional life orintelligence, so you end up settling for the body. There's adisappointment in it, but also a fervor because that'swhat's available and that's what becomes a kind of religiouspursuit, to deconstruct that thing that makes you feel sovulnerable."The passion of Huesker Due takesthese concerns to a more daring extreme. A man named Dennisis fascinated by a faux snuff shot and subsequentlymeets the photograph's subject. His disappointment that thestaged scenario's failed to render the absolute -- themysterious ways in which the boy's luminous beauty is morethan the .h)5 sum of its physical parts, as well asthe body's deathly metamorphosis from vibrant organism toinert object -- becomes an obsession. His fixationintensifies until, living in an abandoned windmill inAmsterdam, he sends a former lover a graphic text confessingto several murders. Appalled by Dennis's narrative, thelover flies to Amsterdam to discover the truth. Frisk has been criticized both for itsviolent content and for falling short of exploring theserial-killer mentality (since Dennis is not actually amurderer). But, as Cooper says, "I structured Frisklike a dismembered novel. That's why the configuration waslike pieces of things that had exploded, and there werethings missing, and things disrupted, and things in a holewith things that weren't supposed to be there." Closer, Frisk, and the stories inWrong are inhabited by necrophiliacs who search forabsolute sovereignty by preying upon others. Yet Cooper isless interested in the "Sadeian dichotomy ofmasochist-sadist" than in exploring all the differentconsciousnesses performing in psychosexuality's darkesttheaters. His work is thus far more dimensional and humanethan Sade's, and this is especially evident in his mostrecent novel, Try. Ziggy is the bisexual son of an abusivegay couple that is now separated. He creates a magazinecalled I Apologize, in which he meditates upon his ownexperience and interviews other traumatized teens, whilealso trying to save Calhoun, a straight novelist and junkie.Ziggy's submersion in his untenable past through hismagazine, and Calhoun's distancing of himself from theoutside world via heroin, are like two poignantly mismatchedmirror-image strategies for coping. Cooper weaves lyrics from the bands Husker Due andSlayer into key psychodramatic moments in his characters'lives. By revealing the disparities between these popularnarratives of passion and the more complicated ways inwhich emotional needs and desires are negotiated inreal life, Cooper forges fleeting but genuine connectionsfor his characters. "Love isn't about merging," he affirmsin winsome Valley tones, "it's about accepting confusion andchaos, and acknowledging the autonomy of other people, whichis a really difficult thing to do. . . . For Ziggy, the factthat there's a little bit of warmth in Calhoun's eyes, andhe can believe that it's directed at him, that's love.That's as much love as he can believe in." Cooper's new projects include a multimediacollaboration with novelist Casey McKinney and composer JohnZorn titled Prisons of the Flesh, a graphic novelbased on the story "Introducing Horror Hospital," a noveldealing with the contemporary rave scene, and a book onsensory overload in American culture from psychedelia torave. "Rave culture, and ecstasy, and the wholeaesthetics of disorientation interest me a great deal,"Cooper says, "because it's not a negative, self-destructivescene, like the heroin thing and the grunge thing. It'spositive and fascinating and hopeful. It's aboutcircumventing mainstream politics but not being afraid touse technology, to invent strategies to avoid what happenedto hippies and punks."Whether participating in the sonic/kinetic tableaux of a rave,or mentoring a network of budding Bukowskis,it's clear that Cooper continues to create through ano-holds-barred engagement with life.

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