As a polarizing figure in gay fiction, Dennis Cooper seems to have learned that it’s best to focus on the work rather than the criticism — which is, primarily, that his work is pure smut. In an interview with The Paris Review, Cooper himself noted:
The most violent reactions to my work have always come from gay readers and critics, particularly at the beginning, because my novels started appearing at the time of the gay-fiction boom, and writers who happened to be gay were expected to present gay identity as a thoroughly positive and classical literary subject.
While some may believe Cooper produces literature akin to hardcore pornography, there is a method to his sexual madness. In each of his novels, he exhibits a landscape of lust, longing and obsession. His first book of poetry, Idols (1979), sets the tone for his more confident exploration of what “polite society” would deem sexual taboos. From The Sluts (2005):
I must have eaten out his hole for an hour. I got four fingers inside him. I couldn’t fuck him hard and deep enough. I spanked him, and not softly either. I pinched and twisted the hell out of his nipples. Nothing fazed him.
It’s as though Cooper wants his reader, too, to be unfazed by anything.
While some might dub his style puerile, base or, as Salon once put it, “dangerous ... both for the pedestrian reader unable to get beyond surface, and for those who like their homosexual literary aesthetics cozily free of anything resembling depth or complexity,” there is a certain genius to this candor and straightforwardness. By combining frank descriptions of his characters’ sexual experiences with a deadpan tone, Cooper identifies the malaise that pervades not only the gay community, but American culture at large.
Snuff movies, incest and unusual fetishes are standard fare in Cooper’s books, particularly the George Miles Cycle, an exploration of apathy and discontentment centered around the eponymous character and his trysts. The first book in the series, Closer (1989), introduces us to the shy, disaffected Miles and the strange power he has over those he encounters; it is perhaps his apathy and impenetrability (no innuendo intended) that makes him so desirable to those searching for meaning. The general motif in subsequent George Miles Cycle novels — Frisk (1991), Try (1994), Guide (1997) and Period (2000) — accents the numbness and detachment of the characters, all living in an ever-growing state of disconnect, rendering them incapable of love, but certainly not sex.
“High-brow” critics also take issue with Cooper’s lack of plot and liberal incorporation of the Internet, with The Sluts being the prime example this. Centered around a gay male escort service, Cooper unfolds his prose through emails and chat-room conversations from the perspectives of several fairly shoddy narrators. The novel launched Cooper into mainstream consciousness, earning him the Prix Sade in France in 2007, though he’s yet to be embraced by readers on a mass scale.
Even with his last novel, The Marbled Swarm (2011), Cooper faced the same criticism. “What the hell am I reading?” wrote a reviewer in Persephone Magazine, and Booklist cautioned, “Readers unfamiliar with transgressive fiction would do well to brace themselves for what will either be the shock of the unrelentingly different or, perhaps, the shock of recognizing writing that speaks to their souls.” That is the very crux of Cooper’s writing, though: polarization. He’ll either convert you or repel you — and if he repels you, might it be because he’s striking a nerve too resonant, too raw?
Cooper’s style has spawned myriad authors inspired to pursue a similar vein, including Matthew Stokoe, whose well-received novel High Life was published by Cooper’s own Little House on the Bowery imprint. Nonetheless, those inspired by Cooper’s distinctive voice are never quite able to fully capture his tone. What makes the author stand apart from his imitators is that Cooper frequently challenges his readers to question their own perception of morality, provoking questions they would never have considered without him as their sexually unrepressed guide.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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