Reading Dennis Cooper can make you queasy. This short novel is the fourth in a five-volume cycle concerned almost exclusively, so far, with sexual violence. Closer (1989) subjected an American teenager to anal mutilation; Frisk (1991) concerned the butchery of young Dutch boys; and Try (1994) in which one critic detected ‘a gentler maturity’, saw an adopted son greedily penetrated by his father. In each book, and here, too, such episodes are not just a quick splatter on the page, or the stuff of hints and ambiguity, but drawn-out, physical descriptions. And, all the while, amid the broken bottles and bruised buttocks and the entire ‘fireworks display of blood’, as one of his murderers puts it, Cooper feels no need to emote.
The gaze of his sentences is quite blank. This is from a section in Frisk called ‘Numb’:
I think I was fucking him dog-style. He was stunning. I think he was moaning. I was about to come. I picked up an empty beer bottle without even thinking and hit the guy over the head. I don’t know why. The thing broke. He fell off the futon. My cock slid out. He shit all over my legs ... which made me weirdly furious. I grabbed hold of his neck and ground the broken bottle into his face, really twisting and shoving it in. Then I crawled across the room and sat cross-legged, watching him bleed to death.
Bret Easton Ellis tried the same kind of scenes in American Psycho. Yet Ellis’s protagonist killed with glee, and thrilled at getting away with it. He was a wealthy and successful New Yorker; his crimes were acts of self-regard. Cooper’s men of violence are close to anonymous; they are not proud of, nor even stirred by, their actions. They live in barely-described suburbs, and rarely eat or leave or have a long conversation. They just pursue their obsession, which is always the same: the violation of thin young men. The victims are never hard to come by. There is no chase, no tense entrapment, and no rescue. There isn’t really a plot at all. Appetites and sustenance simply drift into alignment for fifty pages or so, then they get together in some empty living room, then the novel stops. After three years, another volume takes off from Cooper’s small publisher, flies under the Daily Mail’s radar and flashes past his persistent admirers – Irvine Welsh and, inevitably, Ellis, who calls Cooper ‘the last literary outlaw in mainstream American fiction’.
Increasingly, under variations of this billing, interviews with and reviews of Cooper are slipping into magazines and news. But this small fame – like most cult reputations – can seem opaque: only converts write about him. For non-believers, there are consolations, though. The strongest is the writing. Guide is so spare and conversational that, at first, it looks like carelessness. Someone’s hair is ‘chocolatey’; a spoon of heroin over a flame ‘blackened, crusted up, et cetera’. When Cooper can’t find the right word, he doesn’t bother: ‘As Luke drove, the freeway lost ... something.’ Such omissions and limitations come to seem suggestive. Luke is vacant, unable to concentrate, and views a blurry Los Angeles through a screen of drugs. He is 25, but his moral sense is as fogged and sluggish as his conversational skills. And his attractiveness to Cooper’s older narrator, Dennis, flows from precisely these attributes. Luke’s reply to any request is always: ‘Whatever.’
Cooper has learnt from Joan Didion, the great flat-toned chronicler of California, that there is menace in repetition and restriction, in leaving out. By dispensing with the palm trees and the traffic snarl and all the state’s surface noise and danger, he depicts a private, indoor California: low-lit, pale rooms with the blinds tight shut, the blue sky forgotten outside and the neighbours too busy with the television to notice anything. And in the quiet, Cooper’s occasional efforts at imagery – ‘a beer bottle gasp’, a dollar bill ‘smashed’ into a pocket – are amplified, and linger. When Luke sneaks into Dennis’s study to look at his pin-ups, Dennis notices immediately: ‘I heard his T-shirt brush over my can of pens and pencils.’
Such an ear can catch whispery social nuance, too. Dennis is not just interested in Luke; there is Chris – ‘slight, androgynous ... drugging himself in death’s general direction for years’. Dennis goes to the record shop where Chris works, offers him money for heroin, and takes him home. Early the next day, Luke comes round to Dennis’s bungalow and finds them – they have taken acid. All three flop onto the couch; Dennis flicks glances between his lovers:
I’m watching Luke, who is clearly alarmed. When he’s tense, his eyes enlarge, and his lips stabilise ... He probably hopes this expression is sturdy enough to read as cool and detached. But he’s too pure a person, so it doesn’t read as anything but self-protective and scared, at least to someone as thrilled by his every emotional minutia as I am.
Here and elsewhere, Cooper comes close to soap opera. Each character is a first name and a jumble of jealousies. Everybody keeps running into everyone else. But there is a relentlessness about the descriptions of faces, the mesh of anodyne phone calls, the paragraphs of gossip. Dennis and Chris and Luke; Mason, who lusts after English rock musicians; Pam, who makes ‘pornos’, and Goof, who’s ‘12 and a half’ and stars in them, all live in each other’s bedrooms and fantasies – nowhere else. Their one remaining interest in the outside world is shared and cultish, too. Dennis and his friends love rock bands; in particular, bands on little-known labels – most of all, one called Guided By Voices – which are so esoteric and erratic in their output that even the NME barely covers them. Cooper drops lyrics by Guided By Voices into his dialogue like Shakespeare quotations. Their wisdom seems limited to a laid-back nihilism – ‘Everything fades from sight/because that’s all right with me’ – but his characters revere the words, like the posters and CDs that fill their bedrooms, with the ardour of sixth-formers.
Cooper, who is 45, is a rock critic in his spare time. He writes for Spin, a glossy American version of the NME, and all his years scrutinising the sleeve notes of Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Pavement and the like have generated a dark thought: this kind of fandom, with its closed-off codes, its quests for perfect rarities, and its overwhelming maleness, makes a good metaphor for a kind of predatory sexuality. Halfway through Guide, Dennis comes across the perfect quarry.
Luke and Chris are not quite enough for him; on his pin-up board, Dennis has stuck up a picture of Alex, the bass player for an English band called Smear. Alex is 28, ‘an insecure, self-involved, artsy borderline alcoholic’ and ‘cute beyond belief’. His band are playing in Los Angeles. One bleary morning, he shuffles out of his hotel to get some cigarettes. As he lollops along the sun-struck sidewalk in his stained T-shirt and baggy jeans – Alex is the only character whose clothes are described – he is recognized by the worst possible person: Mason. None of the shops sells cigarettes, but Mason has some. He lives nearby. Alex makes the mistake. While he stands around in Mason’s living room, Mason gets two cans of Pepsi, drops ‘several’ tranquillisers in one of them, and gives Dennis a call. He comes straight round. Alex is unconscious on Mason’s floor; Mason has flopped him onto his stomach, loosened his jeans a little. Back in their hotel, the rest of Smear are starting to wonder why Alex is taking so long. The next dozen pages are creepily amusing. The band stand around, waist-deep in the rooftop pool, talking to MTV (‘It’s meant to make them look Beatlesesque, probably’). Dennis has ten minutes alone with Alex, but is so awestruck he doesn’t dare touch him. Then it’s Mason’s turn: ‘He fucked Alex harder than he’d fucked anyone in his life.’
When Alex wakes up, ‘His ass feels too ... there. Normally, it’s just unassumedly doing its job.’ He tells Smear’s singer, his best friend, ‘something rather ... untoward has happened.’ There is only so long, though, that the surprise and the novelty of the situation can keep at bay what has actually occurred. And Alex’s rape is just the start. The rest of the book is a long corridor of horrors. Chris decides he wants to die during sex. Dennis is too squeamish to oblige him, so Chris contacts a porn-film veteran, who happens to be a dwarf, to do the job. It takes some determination to follow the knife-work closely. Then Goof dies, too, during one of Pam’s ‘pornos’. A pair of policemen find the body on some waste ground; one of them recognises it from a video he rented. By now, the couplings and disembowellings are coming as fast as in a cartoon or video game. Cooper has stopped bothering with calm scenes; the effect is numbing, almost absurd.
In all his novels, death is presented as a surprise. One minute, the victims are writhing, or mute but quite alive, the next their bodies have given up, leaked their contents away. Cooper’s killers reel back in surprise, like children with broken toys. Their desires so possess them that other considerations – getting caught, extending the moment, let alone morality – are obliterated. The narrator of Frisk knows the feeling:
I’ve got this long-standing urge to really open up someone I’m hot for. The Dutch boy in this case, because he’s the latest example. The thought has me sweating and shaking right now ... If he were locked in this toilet with me, and if I had a knife, I guess, or claws would be better, I’d shut up that minuscule part of my brain that thinks murder is evil, whatever that means ... Inside my head the most spectacular violence is happening. A boy’s exploding, caving in.
Cooper’s killers, predictably, find the body both endlessly appealing and shiveringly grotesque. In Closer, a victim’s skin is ‘like plastic or candy’, then, a few moments later, his flesh is ‘just a bunch of blue tubes inside a skin wrapper’. In Frisk, ‘human bodies are such garbage bags.’ In Guide, ‘their bodies are gross to one degree or another.’ They can’t be blank and perfect once they have been opened up. But the people here keep probing and peering inside, as if each ‘wrapper’ might contain some untested delight. Cooper has a sly phrase for this: ‘same old apocalyptic porno’.
His books are nimble with such self-mockery, and internal jokes and references, and get-out clauses from accusations of brutality. The butchery scenes are often sliced up into pieces, and scattered with blander chunks of relationship talk and domesticity. Cooper draws attention to the artificiality of his stories. At the same time, he likes to hint at the presence of a certain amount of autobiography – a frisson, as one of his porn connoisseurs might put it, of ‘snuff’ quality. Guide has a character called Dennis, so does Frisk. And Cooper, in interviews, admits he finds an English rock star called Alex attractive: Alex James, bass player of Blur, turns out to be the inspiration for Alex Johns, bass player of Smear. The bands are meant to be the same – and Cooper quotes Blur lyrics as Smear lyrics. Alex’s few stunned words in the novel exactly mimic Alex James’s contributions to music paper interviews.
Two months ago, the Idler magazine arranged for Alex James to interview Cooper. James didn’t turn up. ‘I don’t want to hurt Alex,’ Cooper insisted afterwards. There was satisfaction to be had in the episode, though – in a rock star embarrassed, and, more lastingly, in the sight of a would-be bohemian terrified by the possibility of actual depravity. Cooper in person would probably worry most of his fans. His justifications of his subject-matter are not terribly reassuring. ‘When I saw kiddie porn in Amsterdam,’ he said in Melody Maker recently, ‘I didn’t know what I thought.’
That, in a sentence, is how his books operate. They speak of the barely speakable, and conclude, ‘whatever.’ There is plenty in them to damn Cooper: the relish of the charnel-house chapters, the preying on the under-age and vulnerable, the extreme rarity with which the word ‘paedophile’ appears. At times, these novels work purely as reminders of the randomness of censorship laws – the same stuff published in sex magazines would have the policemen stamping round. Yet Cooper’s novels are brave. To portray cruelty and extremity so plainly, without a justifying backdrop of general degradation or poverty, is a difficult and esoteric task. Like Irvine Welsh’s recent writing, it can feel airless and pointless. So far, though, Cooper remains compelling.