Dennis Cooper is one of the most generous and humble art icons currently roaming the earth. His novels, stories, and essays have placed him at the heady teetering tip of what’s supremely kickbutt in contemporary American writing. His intricate, mindblowing examinations of sex and violence are a freaky mix of what it’s like to be inventively cruel, monstrously in love, stoned out of your gourd, and lonely. He’s the coolest guy a person could ever encounter and he writes the scariest, most perfect books. After reading one of his novels you are buzzed beyond belief, discombobulated, and happy, oh . . . and tingling all over with an eerie inner peace. His new book is Try (Grove Atlantic).
Benjamin Weissman You’re the funniest writer I’ve ever read, and that never seems to be mentioned. Occasionally someone will admit there’s a comic moment. But I’m blown away. I mean, people sticking their fingers in other’s body parts and talking about the temperature.
Dennis Cooper Obviously no one has sex like that. Maybe if you were a bona fide psychotic. Who’s that guy, Robert Berdella? He would kill boys and keep journals during the murders like… 8:02 p.m.—Coughed, 8:04 p.m.—Moved his hand.
BW You lift material from these kinds of guys?
DC I’m fascinated by people who can depersonalize fellow human beings to that degree and decide they’re just sources of information. When a surgeon’s operating on you, you’re just a soft machine, like Burroughs said. The idea of combining that kind of exploration of the body with sex seems useful somehow. Blurring together sex, an art that’s passionate and mindless with an act that’s completely clinical; it’s a way to talk about something that is neither clinical nor sexual. It’s sex that’s not about sex, if you know what I mean.
BW I think it’s funny. It’s weird.
DC It’s weird but it’s not surprising.
BW I mean, you’re not a comical writer like Mark Leyner (My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist).
DC In my work comedy’s like a sedative. It helps readers ease into the material. It’s a standard trick, but . . . Well, people don’t think the Friday the 13th movies are comedies either.
BW Everyone always feels like they have to deal with your subject matter.
DC I hardly think about the material, or not in that way. I write about things that scare the shit out of me, that determines what I write. I feel like I’m a formalist. I think if my work has a problem, it’s that it risks being a bit mannered. My books are so constructed. It’s odd to me that I’m attacked for my content. How can you attack someone for what they write about? People write about what they write about, and the chips fall where they may.
BW As tight as Try is, there are parts where it goes loose in a way, where nothing’s happening, it’s almost disappearing.
DC Yeah. My books always begin with this mulch. I start writing, and I start to get formal ideas, and eventually this skin forms on the writing, and I fork with it until it’s as intricate as I can get it. Sometimes I have elaborate structural plans. Frisk was supposed to resemble a dismembered body.
BW What do you mean, a dismembered body?
DC I wanted to write a book in which the body of the text would be dismembered, as though the writer had dismembered a novel the way a murderer might dismember a body. That’s why it’s in those weird, formally dissimilar but linked pieces. Parts where it almost resembles a conventional novel, parts where the book’s internal workings and the writer’s ideas are sticking out. Altogether it formed a dead, open body ready to be explored by a reader curious about how it came to be. Try’s different. It came into focus more gradually. I wanted to write about this real kid I knew named Ziggy. And I wanted to write a novel that would in some way include the energy and formalities of the “queer zines” I was so interested in. I wanted to talk about emotion the way I’d talked about the body. And I was in the middle of worrying terribly about a friend who was very addicted to heroin. So I also wanted to reflect that struggle, how people on heroin become blanks, objects on which to project your fears and interests. And finally, I wanted to write a book that would prove in a complicated way that I’m not an amoral fuck who wants to kill boys. Because I’m not. Anyway, all that might explain why it seems out of control at times. In fact, it’s extremely controlled but it obsesses on certain things in a relentless way, which gives it a weird, spaced out quality that I hope is of interest.
BW So your books are just love stories.
DC Well, I wanted Try to propose a love that had nothing to do with romance or sex. A love that was about friendship. That’s an important distinction.
BW Your books parallel real life. They’re dedicated to people who they’re partly about.
DC Right. Even Frisk is about my boyfriend of the time, Mark. Or about the relationship between Kevin, who’s sort of based on Mark, and Dennis who’s based on me, and how the former’s interest in Tolkien and sci-fi/fantasy is the same as the latter’s interest in murder. They cancel each other out. Kevin’s ability to be close to Dennis proves that his horrific fantasies are really benign, like all fantasies. So . . . yeah, I have to write about what I’m going through and who interests me. I know there are writers who pick out plots in advance and then fill in the blanks. I can’t imagine what that’s like.
BW Writers whose response to a writing “career” is: “I did this coming of age book, and now for my career I have to do that historical hook . . .” And end up wearing a clown outfit when they’re not even going to the circus. (laughter)
DC Nailed it.
BW Why do you think it’s important to write about violence?
DC I write about it as a way to decide not to be violent, as a decision to be a good person, hopefully. Because I do think that killing another person is probably the most profound thing you can do, since people are the only really meaningful things in the world. To stop another person has to be an amazing, overwhelming experience. That’s why serial murderers are interesting, because they do that in a methodical, thoughtful way. They hone their craft.
BW Most murderers aren’t very analytical.
DC Occasionally you get someone like Dennis Nielsen who’s analyzed his acts, but . . . yeah. Why do they do it? The popular explanation that they were abused is so lame and simplistic. That’s just solving a riddle to solve a riddle.
BW In the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago, someone said certain readers of Frisk would enjoy it as pornography.
DC If you were to just read the letter section of Frisk, where the character is describing his supposed murders, yeah, you could call it porn, because I was mimicking the style of porn. But the novel is structured such that when you reach that section, you’re prepared, hopefully, to question your ability to be aroused. Every section bounces off every other section; they infect each other.
BW People could flip to a sex scene in The Godfather and say, “You could read this as porn.”
DC Yeah, well, there you go. (laughter)
BW How do you find the language for your books? Everything echoes everything else in a particular way. You’re able to make the most intense things happen in a single, seemingly nondescript sentence.
DC It’s a combination of things. The writing has a very strong rhythm. It seems half of what I do is maintain rhythms and fuck with them. I choose words partially based on syllable count and on sound. You don’t notice all this reading it necessarily, but it’s structured like music. Every sentence length, the way it moves, sounds . . . it’s all calculated to create an effect. In Try, I was working with a hyper-real version of how I talk or the way inarticulate Californian kids speak. The way you might start to say something clearly then wander, confused, and you’ll stall, then you’ll take it back and rush forward in a different direction, then step back, and try to sum up your thought . . . all that movement is so beautiful. I try to mimic that a lot, make it recognizable, but brewing it up with a kind of poetry.
BW You talk about California speak, critics have this thing about a “California book.” Or an “LA book.” It’s bullshit.
DC Yeah, John Rechy, T. Corghessan Boyle, Charles Bukowski, Kate Braverman, Steve Erickson, Wanda Coleman, Brian Moore . . . what’s the commonality? To me one of the strengths of Los Angeles is that it’s such a total nothing. Maybe writers out here share a certain kind of odd comedy, but even that’s questionable.
BW What about contemporary fiction?
DC It’s in a good state. There’s a lot of energy in these pockets, like the Fiction Collective Two scene, where highly experimental writing is going on, then there are great new presses like High Risk. There are some real talented, odd people getting mainstream success: Stephen Wright, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, and so on. And I see tons of brand new, really brilliant writers coming up.
BW So you want to talk about some of your influences?
DC Robert Bresson is the biggest one. His films deal with extreme isolation and pain and emotion, but they’re so rigorously stylized and composed that they’re almost invisible, they’re my ideal. Otherwise, you know, Rimbaud, Sade, Blanchot, rock music. Recently, I went back and reread a bunch of psychedelicky books from the late ’60s and early ’70s by, like, Tom Wolfe, McGuane, Ishmael Reed, Hunter Thompson, and they’re terrific. Where for years I’d been thinking they’d be dated and dumb, they’re actually really lively and crazed.
BW In your writing, you use a lot of different voices. That kind of thing in another writer’s hands could just bomb, but you handle it really well.
DC Well, all the voices are mine. All the characters are just shards of the fractured me. That’s why I sympathize with them all, even the monsters.
BW There’s this odd humility in your writing.
DC Everybody has equal weight. There’s a balance of perspectives. They all get their . . . space? Is that what you mean?
BW There’s an equality to the agony the characters go through.
DC To understand something, you have to listen, right? You have to study it clinically. If you reject things as gross, or people as horrible, you’ll never understand them. I really want to understand why horrible things happen. And I don’t think people are at fault. I think it’s something else, I’m not sure why. But everyone in my books gets a chance to gain sympathizers, as far as I can control such things. It’s up to the reader. You know . . . what’s that saying . . . “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.” Let the reader sort them out.