This is John Waters’ favorite line from Dennis Cooper’s George Miles Cycle, read in a surprise appearance at an event at NYU’s Fales Library and Special Collections in 2000 celebrating the publication of the final book of the Cycle, Period. Specifically deriving from the center of that five novel series, Try, it’s no wonder why that line–a pitch-perfect mix of shock value, humor, and tragedy–spoke to our preeminent filth elder.
Granted, though Waters’ is known for his expertise in inspiring pearl-clutching and dismayed gasps, that’s not nearly the most startling sentence Cooper ever penned in his extensive career of murder, mutilation, massacres, sadomasochism, and rimming. If I had to pick, I’d probably go with a line from Guide, the fourth of the George Miles Cycle and the first Dennis Cooper novel I ever read, taken from a scene of the torturous slaying of the willing victim Chris, a junkie obsessed with being killed:
“It was just a big, petrified turd, glazed a yellowy white by a hundred men’s undisturbed come.”
Paints quite a mental image doesn’t it.
Now, this isn’t to say this is my favorite passage by Dennis Cooper, but it happens to be one that lodged itself into my brain. For around seventeen years, it has never quite escaped my consciousness. Three years after that aforementioned event at Fales Library & Special Collections, I was introduced to Cooper’s writing by Marvin Taylor, then Director of Fales Library, during a seminar, Punk to Postmodernism: The Downtown New York Scene. Mid-semester, the class split off into groups with each presenting on one book. My group? Well, we had Guide. While I wasn’t aware I was ready for vivid descriptions of butchering a heroin-addicted twink’s butt and discovering some rock-hard dehydrated dookie, well, it was what I needed. I swear, it altered my brain chemistry.
And don’t think it was just Cooper’s willingness to dive deep into the most depraved aspects of our society–serial murder, pedophilia, snuff films, drug addiction, death wishes, hardcore fucking, all scored to heavy metal, punk, and post-punk, that sparked my interest. In addition to reveling in sheer degeneracy and immorality, I was floored by Cooper’s manipulation of literary style and form. While, on the surface, Cooper’s novels can appear quite simplistic, written in the lexicon of adolescents and overgrown adolescents, voiced by laconic, doomed, vacant characters, this is certainly anything but the case. From the ellipses that trailed off throughout the book to the flurry of unintelligible letters “xklijmpprtizk,” symbolizing a character existing beyond language, whether in death, unconsciousness, sleep, or otherwise altered and intoxicated states, Guide uses this experimentation with style to express moments of previously incommunicable inexpressibility–those rich yet ineffable gaps in communication.
Furthermore, the entire structure of Guide is–as Taylor taught us, culled from his own critical writing on the structure of the George Miles Cycle–in the shape of a six-pointed star. Not everything had to be that snooze-worthy narrative arc. Yawn! But why a six-pointed star, an obsessively strict structure for a writer bent on violating and toppling any and all universally accepted standards of literature? As cultural historian and writer Diarmuid Hester explains in Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, in which he examines the Georges Miles Cycle, in addition to the expanse of Cooper’s writing and other creative pursuits: “…the George Miles Cycle acts as a kind of diorama where we see free individuals competing with the influence of various invisible systems that stand for wider social constraints.” Exactly.
And through witnessing the possibility to go beyond the normative structure of language, narrative, decency, and morality in Guide, I saw freedom. I was hooked, dearest Filthy Dreams readers.
This is all to say, as a crazed Cooper fanatic, I’ve been waiting with baited breath for the publication of Hester’s Wrong, recently released by the University of Iowa Press, since its announcement. And it didn’t disappoint. Named after the John Baldessari piece of the same title that sparked Cooper’s connection with art as a teenager (which also inspired the title of Cooper’s first collection), depicting an awkward mid-century photograph of a man in front of a Southern Californian suburban home standing incorrectly (hence the label “WRONG”) so it appears that a palm tree is sprouting from his skull, Wrong is an absolutely necessary read and resource for anyone enamored with Dennis Cooper’s work, as well as really, well, anyone who flirts with transgression. The book expertly surveys wide-ranging aspects of Cooper’s oeuvre, from his early poetry publications like Idols to his recent GIF novels such as Zac’s Haunted House (or as Hester calls them, html novels), from his role as a publisher of Little Caesar Magazine to his nearly daily posts and ongoing support of the commenters on DC’s blog, from his films with Zac Farley to his performance productions with Gisèle Vienne (including a production Jerk, which ended with a ventriloquism act so horrifying it made audiences faint or flee. Sign me up!).
Before reading, I wondered what exactly a critical biography might mean in regards to Cooper’s lurid output? Would it be a juicy, gossipy tidbit-filled secondhand tell-all sifting through Cooper’s life? Would it pinpoint some childhood or adolescent experience as the source of his unwavering and unflinching depictions of the abject intersection of brutality and eroticism?
Now, there is certainly some of that, mostly in the first chapter entitled “The Adolescence of an Iconoclast.” Like Baldessari’s Wrong, which hints at, as Hester notes, “a wrongness or corruption underneath suburban America’s pleasant, conservative veneer,” the first chapter details a few formative moments in Cooper’s youth that would continue to influence his aesthetic fixation on violence, including his uncle’s suicide and his fascination with a news story about three adolescent boys found raped and murdered in the woods near his house (“A fascination that wasn’t shared by the friends he tried to confide in, who all thought ‘it was awful and gross and they had no interest in talking about it’”).
The most startling of these events perhaps is a head-cracking accident and moment of Athena’s birth-like inspiration when his head was split open by an axe when he was eleven (“I reached up and felt my brain. [laughs.] It was horrifying, I almost died.” Yikes.). Afterward, his friend who butchered him by accident sent copious letters wanting Cooper to torture and kill him for his crimes: “I didn’t, but I found these letters very erotic. It was the first time I had seen such things in written form, and I used to fantasize about hurting and torturing him, using the letters as pornography and justifying my fantasies to myself because he had issued the invitation.” Alarming, yes, but also unmistakably the genesis of Cooper’s literary path.
But, if we’re talking about youthful inspirations, no interpretation of the crossing between Cooper’s life and work would be complete without an analysis of the role of George Miles, the namesake of the eponymous Cycle and “a twelve-year-old boy who would become the single most important figure in his life.” Hester doesn’t spend too much time on the significance of Miles, admitting quite perceptively: “A whole book could be dedicated to their friendship, how Miles affected Cooper’s writing, his psychological makeup, his physical type–but any such work, as Cooper found out in 2012 when he tried in vain to write a memoir focused on Miles, would inevitably fail to capture the subtleties of their relationship and their complicated emotional dynamic.” But, he does insightfully reveal how Miles, who struggled with bipolar disorder and eventually committed suicide before Cooper’s Cycle was published, haunts Cooper’s fiction in various forms and permutations:
“Miles is a flickering presence in the Cycle: he’s the inscrutable George of Closer, whom everyone fucks but nobody knows; in Frisk he’s Kevin, spliced with a young Keanu Reeves; in Try his bipolar disorder animates the disturbed, adorable Ziggy; in Guide he’s refracted through the narrator’s memory and locked up in a psychiatric hospital. All of Period’s troubled teens are haunted by him. In these novels, Miles is apprehended only in fragments, and perhaps this is the reason why Cooper’s feelings for him are so readily apparent. He appears in the Cycle as he appears to Cooper: in fragments. The Cycle offers elusive glimpses of a beloved, goofy kid Cooper first met outside a school dance at Flintridge Prep, distorted through the prism of psychosis and separation.”
With the exception of the first chapter, though, Wrong is far more focused on providing renewed consideration to Cooper’s work than getting bogged down in personal details, unless it suits a larger critical goal. Take, for example, the chapter on Cooper’s stint running Venice’s poet mainstay Beyond Baroque, which also includes my favorite detail in the book: the organization of a birthday party event for Rimbaud in which a Rimbaud impersonator was hired to “ piss on people and spit on them.”
Beyond Cooper’s vast, prolific, and diverse creations itself, Hester also explores Cooper’s ongoing engagement with his idols and influences, from punk’s anarchy to Rimbaud’s exploration of adolescence to the Marquis De Sade’s relentless subversion and solitary individualism to the New York School of Poets. Who would have thought Dennis Cooper and Frank O’Hara could share a Coke with Cooper’s poem #19? As Hester writes, “It’s almost as if in this poem Cooper is trying to connect with O’Hara–as the image of the telephone box evokes–but his interest in death and the macabre shorts that connection.” Hester doesn’t just restrict these role models to the literary, though; he also shows how the films of Robert Bresson, with his blank characters, reflect the vapid slacker drifting of Cooper’s own.
In addition, Hester also delves into the different milieus in which Cooper has either belonged or been associated, including the Los Angeles poets surrounding Beyond Baroque like David Trinidad, Bob Flanagan, Amy Gerstler and Jack Skelley, Queercore zine publishers like Bruce LaBruce, G.B. Jones and Vaginal Davis, and the New Narrativists. To be honest, this substantial scope of the book means some of Wrong can drag and get a little wonky–at least for me–particularly in chapters in which I wasn’t as interested in the other writers (aka the New Narrativists). This isn’t that surprising. Wrong is, after all, an academic text published by a university press so some critical theory slog is to be expected. However, this just means some readers will gravitate naturally to some chapters more than others, depending on their taste.
Nevertheless, the best critical biographies can encourage readers to see something different in the author’s life and work, and Wrong does just that. The book’s enduring strength lies in Hester’s ability to link thematic strands across Cooper’s literary trajectory, including non-relationality, depictions of individuals within larger repressive systems, the (im)possibility of the intersubjective encounter, and how all this relates to Cooper’s admitted anarchism. And in this, Hester not only ties together Cooper’s considerable and varied production, but he even further illuminates Cooper’s career for avowed devotees like me.
Perhaps the most captivating thread that Hester exposes–and the one that materializes most prominently in Wrong–is an unresolved and continual push-pull between seeking some sort of “community (ugh!)” with maintaining individuality and a nagging belief that complete intersubjective attachment and understanding aren’t possible. Hester quotes an interview with Cooper and Steve Lafreniere several times in the book in which Cooper articulates: “My things are about this kind of weird detachment and longing for attachment and all that stuff.”
Hester evaluates all of this–the weird detachment, longing for attachment, and all that stuff–from the “aesthetics of distance” in early prose pieces like Safe (Hester cites Dodie Bellamy: “For [Cooper’s characters] all sex is essentially masturbatory. It takes the slapping sound of fucking to remind them they’re not alone”) to the community (ugh!)-building with zine publishers and on his DC’s blog (“the blog capitalized on some of the ideas discussed here, namely the capacity of desire and celebrity to join various individuals together in a supple, noncoercive social structure,” Hester explains). Not only is the blog possibly the closest to rectifying this career-long internal battle, but Hester ends the book on a surprisingly sweet note by showing how friendship emerges as an essential form of kinship in Cooper’s life and work:
“In friendship, the persistent, push-pull demands of independence and togetherness are in equilibrium; as both a creative practice and a subject of that practice, friendship is the provisional resolution to what Cooper has called ‘this kind of weird detachment and longing for attachment and all that stuff.'”
In so doing, Hester motivates readers to take a second, third, fourth, fifth…look at Cooper’s writing. After finishing Wrong, I reread both Guide and The Sluts, and found that I noticed new aspects of the texts based on Hester’s analysis. And if that’s not the marker of a perfect critical text, I don’t know what is.