Dennis Cooper, 1997


Since about '78 I've been nursing on the supremely styled heady death trips written by Dennis Cooper. Funnily, it took me almost ten years to recognize that all the rock 'n roll excitment of the hunt and ransacking of these mostly youthful, beautiful and drugged boy bodies for their conetnts slash meaning was in the spooky name of Love - in the form of action adventure gore love stories. Guide, Dennis Cooper's new acid test is no exception. Published by Grove Press, it's out right about now.

Hudson: Hi Dennis.
Dennis Cooper:
Hey Hudson.

H: So who did you just interview?
Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. For Spin.

H: How’d that go?
Well, the Spin piece is only a thousand words, and we talked for a long time, so it’s essentially a textbite. It’s odd writing for magazines where I basically perpetuate the cult of personality. It’s fascinating to meet people like Courtney Love or Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever on that turf ... the power struggle there, trying to decode them in this unusual situation, in an allotted amount of time, and then write something that essentially just creates a new facet of their image. Because unless you’re an asshole, or they’re assholes, you end up wanting to help them, and the only way you can do that is by respectfully refining their image.

H: Didn’t you and Stephen Malkmus already know each other?
No. I’m horribly shy with people I admire. It turns out that he likes my novels, so if I’d known that I might have approached him before, but even then it would have been nervewracking. But I liked talking to him. He’s sort of everything you’d hope and assume, knowing Pavement’s work — really smart, open, funny, unpredictable, gentle, reads books, knows art — altogether an inspiring guy.

H: Pretty great new release. I love all the flimsy, jangly smart stuff.
Stephen said something really interesting that got cut from the interview. He said when he sang the new songs he tried to think in the fourth dimension, so that the voice was on a different plane than the lyrics and melody. The album has a lot of careful, explorative thinking like that. I feel like I’m learning from it. That’s always the best.

H: Let’s talk about Guide.
To me, it’s a kind of transcript of the war between a guy and his imagination, the novel being the battleground. The book is a series of skirmishes, all these things sort of fighting it out... reality, drug reality, lust reality, memory reality, non-fiction versus fiction, kiddie porn versus fairytales, pop song lyrics versus dialogue, love versus lust. The narrative is overloaded with these struggles, and the language keeps breaking down, regrouping from the effort of trying to make everything cohere. I suppose this sounds sort of pretentious, but that’s the way I think about the novel. I don’t know how to write a proper novel, really. I never learned how, and I have no particular loyalty to the form. I think about novels more the way, say, Charlie Ray thinks about art materials, or the way Stephen Malkmus thinks about the pop song, than the way most novelists think about the novel. I don’t think my work’s in a class with Ray’s or Malkmus’s, I just mean that I’m sort of a lucky freak.

H: Freak, maybe, but your consistent managing of form is way beyond luck. The three of you concentrate on formal decision, pushing it around, handcrafting it, though eventually dropping it behind everything else. When I wonder through my idea of any of your books I’m intoxicated by the form. It’s always so decidedly perfected, architected maybe is the word, though unexpected, yet with hindsight, obviously logical. Guide’s constantly shifting shards. Did using that arrive with your idea of the story or was it honed?
It’s hard to sort out what came when because I work in such an obsessive bubble, but initially I had a few things in mind. I wanted to write about what I remembered of being on acid, and use that somehow to create the novel’s form. I wanted to write about kiddie porn because when I lived in Amsterdam in the late ‘80s I saw a lot of it, and it made a huge impression on me. I’d written this long article about a man I met there who had an eleven year old boyfriend, which was never published, for obvious reasons, and I wanted to use some of that. I wanted to involve the things and people I was into culturally or had an esthetic/erotic crush on at that point — raves, Guided By Voices, Silverchair, Blur’s bass player... And I wanted to reflect the fucked-up way my mind works, and how split I am — internally chaotic but externally together. I hadn’t really done that before. From writing a lot of journalism in the last few years I’d figured out how I might do that and, at the same time, retain the precise, tricky formal things I like to do. And my novels are always grounded in my love for a specific person, and that was there. Anyway, I experimented for about a year until I had a form I thought could work, and then I wrote the novel from various angles. The story and formal stuff sort of sculpted each other into something workable. Then I toyed with it until I thought it was physically beautiful. Something like that.

H: Something like a jewel? All those facets. Like what David Lynch is doing with his material for Lost Highway.
That was an amazing film, glitches and all. Lynch used the medium in such a deep, intuitive way. Seeing something like that makes you realize how formally standardized even the more intelligent indie films tend to be. Its critical reception has been very interesting. The TV critics think it’s garbage — no surprise. Even the supposedly high brow film critics, with a few exceptions, have been utterly lazy. You know, “Here’s that strange David Lynch guy doing his thing again.” They won’t or can’t engage with it in a complex way. Whatever. You watch a film like that and you have the old fantasy that some kid in the middle of nowhere could see it and have his or her idea of art really altered, and then you realize that the way things work, Lost Highway will never make it past the art house circuit in a few big cities. That’s sad. You’d think that the popularity of the X Files, with its beginner interest in meta-realities would give a seriously spooky film like Lost Highway a leg up. Whatever its flaws, the fact that something that radical was made, and is available in theaters right next to garbage like Jerry Maguire and Liar Liar should galvanize critics to at least say, “This is more like it.” The situation is just as bad or worse in the literary world. What about in the art world?

H: Ditto. A bit more latitude maybe, enhanced however with significant lip service. But that fear-of-complexity thing goes across the board.
Then there’s the problem of contemporary art’s inaccessibility, unless you live in New York or L.A. Being an art lover is funnily like being an archaeologist. I do like the frustration of knowing that buried in some building in New York is this maybe incredible group of things. It has a King Tut’s tomb mystique about it. There should be a cable TV channel like the Discovery Channel that’s all about contemporary art, and uses a similar approach — The Mysterious Treasures of the New York Art World. That would be really great.

H: That’s a curious way around that part of the problem. My m.o. has been to mind my own business and pit my attention to the art. Probably like that bubble you said you worked in.
That’s probably why you’re such a hero to a lot of people, myself included, if you don’t mind my saying so.

H: Appreciated, of course. You know, sometimes I catch a glimpse of something going on in the younger generations, something distinctly about the almost happyish antagonism of their clothes, attitude, music, whatever, which gives me hope, but...
It’s important to think younger people know better than those of us who are older do or did. Otherwise you get bitter. But yeah, at the moment it looks hopeful. Psychedelics are popular again, and that has to be a good sign. Rock or pop music or whatever you want to call it is in a kind of draggy, artsy state, and that traditionally means that something really interesting is about to counteract in youth culture. The Star Wars retro mania is depressing, but you can see it as a kind of collective wake, closure. From what I can tell, there’s been a lot of excitement around esthetically charged-up “youth” movies like Trainspotting, Romeo and Juliet, Mars Attacks, the Lynch film. And as hokey as they are, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Prodigy, and Chemical Brothers being popular are probably signs of an openness to strange ideas, and that could lead somewhere. A couple of years ago it seemed like the so-called Rave Culture might develop into something fantastic, but it doesn’t seem to be happening, just developing into another albeit very interesting club scene, trippy but static. But who knows what will happen? It’ll always be a minority of kids who are intelligent, driven and innovative enough to cause productive trouble. Once upon a time lesbians and gays helped lead the way, but now gay culture is so fucking boring and self-satisfied and comfortably pseudo-daring with its tired modern primitivisms and drag queen cavalcades. I think a lot of interesting kids are settling into the job-bar/AA-sex grind because it’s easy, rather than using their disenfranchisement to fuck with culture.

H: While this may seem like quite a jump, what do you think of the form and function of the fairy tale in all this?
If you mean in Guide, I liked the idea that the Chris character, who starred in kiddie porn films as a child and is now a suicidal junkie starring in adult porn videos, would collect children’s fairy tale books as a hobby, and that he is obsessed with the idea of dying like a character in a fairy tale. Chris is sort of an overgrown child, in body and mind. Fairy tales and kiddie porn would seem to be opposites — the fantastical versus the exploitational — but in the novel, where everything’s fiction, they’re actually the same thing: little stories based on adult fantasies of children’s lives. Anyway, Chris ends up making a porn video with a dwarf co-star — which is kind of a porn-fairy tale hybrid, as well as a reversal of kiddie porn, with a child-sized adult fucking an adult-sized child — and his life becomes hallucinatory after that, real and not real. So introducing the fairy tale into the novel destabilizes the narrative. It effects the narrative like a hit of acid.

H: What I had been flashing on were more general or sociological connections between the lack of productive trouble and new techno forms of fairy tales, but let’s stay with this drug thing, say, a productive use of drugs — drugs as a guide.
Well, drugs are what you bring to them, no? If you take drugs wanting to learn, you can. That’s all drugs are — guides. Everything specific about drug states — pleasure, paranoia, relaxation, horniness, whatever — that’s your own body chemistry doing that work. I haven’t used drugs in a few years, and I enjoy being not stoned, but it’s just a different way to be. NA has been productive for some people I know, but the way NA equates getting high with self-destruction, and posits sobriety as reality just seems like self-control as mania. I mean, sobriety is a launching pad, nothing more, nothing less, don’t you think?

H: Sure, and it’s important to recognize that sobriety isn’t static or homogenous or boring. That chemistry’s already in place. With drugs or drink it’s merely been enhanced. Actually, everyone is blasting off all the time. It’s the brain. Amazing organ.
We’re nothing but a bunch of brain containers trying to signal each other. I guess that’s why physical beauty and/or ugliness is so amazing. It complicates the process. When people or things are exceedingly beautiful or shockingly ugly, you have to solve the puzzle of their appearance before you can access their meaning. It’s fascinating to be friends with people who are really beautiful. I love the challenge of overcoming my attraction to them, and getting to know some semblance of who they are in there. Same goes for horrific things, the things I write about. People are so unwilling to decloak the things that frighten them or turn them on — sexy things are porn, scary things are shocking. Period. A huge majority of people just don’t want to go there. They want a psychologically-based explanation, or they want a stylish cheap thrill.

H: When you mentioned LSD words as reps for thoughts in your head, I was wondering about the power of words, words as drugs, words as a launching pad, especially with regard to your magic spell in Guide, a circle of words forming a love spell. Odd how spell describes a construct of magic and the construction of a word. A spell is like inserting a hole in reality.
In a way, Guide is a kind of love letter — “This is how my mind works as best and as completely as I can describe it, and now that you know this about me, can you love me?” That’s my/the narrator’s version of a magic spell, incorporating my/his skepticism, romanticism, and so on. The novel is all about the power and/or lack thereof of words. Chris wants a fairy tale-like death, the writer gives it to him as best he can. Dennis wants Robert and Tracy out of Luke’s life, the writer makes them die. Dennis wants to believe he’s had sex with Leonardo DiCaprio, the writer decides he did. Et cetera. But then there are things that seem to outweigh the power of the writer’s words, or which are too complicated for words to control. Dennis wants to ravage Blur’s bass player, he’s given the opportunity, but his morality won’t let him. Even the novel’s central wish, that Luke fall in love with Dennis, is eventually revised to accomodate the reality of who Luke is, to acknowledge his autonomy.

H: Seems to be a cartooned soap opera.
Guide is about finding an acceptable compromise between your wishes and what could be called collective reality, for lack of a better term. It posits the power of belief in words to alter reality in an almost Rimbaudian, alchemical sense, but it also acknowledges their weakness, too. Unless you accept that everything is too complicated for words, you’ll go “insane,” you’ll live in a permanent acid trip, omniscient, but alone. Ultimately, Dennis decides he’d rather connect with another person, as powerless as that may leave him.

H: A powerlessness of devotion or love as being an opportunity to learn and get outside of yourself — as in how your novels are each grounded in your relationship with a specific person?
Well, devotion’s as much a way to drug yourself with feeling or focus your thoughts as it is a kind of surrender or gift to someone else. I don’t think it’s a getting past the limitations of the self, maybe pushing them, maybe going to the cliff. I guess devotion’s the best way to learn from someone, and in Guide that’s Dennis’s thinking re Luke, though I’m not sure he can help himself, as much as he or I might rationalize the choice.

H: As to sex?
Devotion’s his way into love. It’s a choice for love over sex, for the abstract and indefinable over the finite and immediate. It’s interesting that sex can be described, and love can’t be, you know? Good porn’s an adequate description of hot sex. It gives you all the information you need to simulate the experience, and your imagination can fill in the details. The imagination feels comfortable in that design. But if you watch some couple share a loving moment, in person or on film or whatever, you’re basically lost. You can be touched or envious or you can imagine them having sex and turn yourself on, but your imagination can’t fake a simulation of what they’re experiencing.

H: Your books often drop us on cusps like that.
My novels always seem to end with me/the characters entertaining the possibility of love. That’s the last point at which love is describable. When you feel love, you’re too loose and contaminated to self-analyze. In terms of learning, though, I guess love may be the one thing you can’t learn anything from. Well, that and death. Your imagination gets outweighed by the bliss of the real. That’s why they’re the fucking scariest and best things to write towards, because they’re impossible to write about. No matter how you describe them, you always just end up describing the limits of your imagination.

H: Like words, maybe?

H: I’d thought you had sworn off poetry and then at the end of Dream Police you gave us ten grisly poems from staring too hard at Sharon Lockhart’s photo, Thomas.
That was strange, yeah. A fluke. I hadn’t written a poem since 1985, and I haven’t written one since that Thomas sequence in 1993. To be honest, a few of them were unfinished oldies that I dug out and polished up. But I do think those ten are my best. I was really fucked up at the time, doing a lot of drugs and suicidally depressed, very emotional and lost. My boyfriend had dumped me. My best friend at the time wouldn’t speak to me. River Phoenix’s death hit me really hard, I think because a lot of my closest friends were strung out on heroin. I didn’t have the energy or brians to write at length, so poetry made sense.

H: Your books read like children’s primers. Each word so precise and clear, incremental, so not possibly to be misunderstood. All the while you’re leading us down the garden path into some horror show. You seem to like that.
It’s as much for my own sake as it is for effect. I think it’s my attempt to sound reasonable and sane. If it comes from anywhere, it’s probably from the filmaker Robert Bresson, who’s always been my favorite artist/god. His work’s deceptively simple and mechanical, but extremely deep and .. well, spiritual, for lack of a better term.

H: Do you use this child-like language purposefully to confuse the reader’s own identity? Am I, the reader, an adult reading some weird kid’s book; a perverted adult reading to an innocent child; or a precocious kid reading to an unsuspecting one? It’s not quite j.o. material, but not quite not.
It’s just a stylization of who I am. I really am kind of innocently interested in the things I write about. One of the reasons I let myself write such manipulative, superficially creepy prose is that I know my intentions are pure, for better or worse.

H: Do you more and more experience observing a sinking into examination — voyeur, doctor, scientist, murderer?
Yeah, but I’m getting more interested in fighting with that approach. Try, specifically, was a battle with my tendency to poeticize the clinical, and an attempt to outweigh studiousness with emotion. Again, Bresson’s style is sort of my ideal, especially in The Devil Probably and Four Nights of a Dreamer.

H: And mind-fucking — as a final frontier or love song, maybe. Your last few books have messed with this confusion/fusion of reality, thought, memory, belief, fantasy and now magic while fussing with moral boundaries. Any plans to push that further? And do you see this having any relationship to what maturity brings?
Right now I’m concentrating on finishing the fifth novel in my five novel cycle — Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and whatever the last one will be called. Then I hope to change my work drastically. I want this last novel to be very erotic, or at least to be in cahoots with the erotic aspect of the stuff I always write about. I think that’s an interesting challenge — to write something where eroticism is turned up high in the mix, but where the result isn’t embarassing or superficial. I want to let the sex appeal of my subject matter run the show rather than doing what I usually do, which is caging it very carefully in the prose structures. The danger is that it will give readers an immediate reason to reject the novel as sick porn. You see that happening with Cronenberg’s Crash right now. But people do that with my work already, so what the fuck. As far as maturity goes, I don’t know. It’s a weird word, maturity. I’m not sure if I know what it means.

H: And finally, what is it you love in inarticulate beauty?
I trust it.

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