Creepy uncle psychotic

Novelist Dennis Cooper may have a ferocious literary reputation, but, as he reveals to Nick Taylor, he feels like turning to light comedy
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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLIC awareness of Dennis Cooper, a gay serial writer on perverse, violent sex and all-round fucked-up American guy, is highly polarised. Despite writing fiction for nearly a decade, he remains a cult author who inspires either fanatical devotion or censorial hysteria. His success is not Vanity Fair cover material, his stories are not the delectable literary ideals people are encouraged to respect or emulate. Instead his modern fairytales dissect the underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles, unearthing characters variously fascinated by the unspeakable, murderous ends of desire. Yet hunched into his jacket like a fortysomething still waiting to grow into the world, he looks about as capable of dispensing graphic descriptions of drug-fuelled sex and gore as Michael Parkinson.

When you are confronted with the paradox between the man and his words, it isn't hard to see how confusion, complication and dichotomy have become familiar moorings in Cooper's vocabulary. He grew up in a comfortably rich home, but recalls the way his mother took to furniture with an axe and the drives where he and his siblings wrestled the steering wheel from her to prevent driving into a brick wall. Then there was the time he took acid every day for a month, read de Sade and rewrote One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom with assembled cute boys from high school as his fictitious victims and perhaps obviously with hindsight became "more secretive, weird and terrifying".

As normality faded to a spot on the horizon, Cooper took to writing. In 1976 he launched the fanzine Little Caesar, in which the likes of Warhol, Nico and Lou Reed were persuaded to contribute. In 1989 his first work of fiction, Closer was published and caused a schism in the gay community that has lasted past a further two novels, Fisk and Try, a collection of stories. Wrong, right up to the publication of his latest book, Guide. Since his arrival on the American literary scene his writing has been variously described as "New American Gothic", "New Narrative", "Queercore" and "Transgressive". "I write for journals and I know they're just trying to place me. But I don't know what any of those descriptions mean." Comparisons with Bret Easton Ellis, on the basis of American Psycho, are "less common than they once were", but there is still the inevitable hype.

"I'm supposed to be the new Burroughs, or the new Genet. And, of course, there's Sade. I was actually attracted to Sade on both an intellectual and a sexual level; you see Sade and you see all this chaos be organised, and it's like `wow'. But despite what anyone writes, Rimbaud was the biggest influence on me."

What Cooper's work has suffered from more than market branding is misunderstanding. The mainstream US gay press has objected to the specific details of his books, arguing against Cooper being included in the official gay creativity archives. Readers have variously issued death threats, requested to be killed by the author or be sorted out with snuff videos and porn connections. Does he take responsibility for his readers? "I do what I can to avoid it. I've realised no matter how complex the work is, or how much I try to subvert it, there are people who see my material and find it either morally repugnant and dangerous, or erotic."

His playing with erotic language at such an extreme level has never been to advocate the described act, but to measure the degree to which eroticism affects his readers. "Frisk is the clearest example of where you build this thing up, and you think it's pornography and then you take it away from that. You take responsibility for it. What I'm trying to do is make people think about these things, because you can't take away the eroticism. That's the problem. That's why people write about these things, because you can't take their power away. You just can't reduce things to psychological explanation, I don't buy that at all. You have to physically feel the effects of those things and think about the material."

Cooper's work is obsessed with the erotic. It is an obsessiveness which the author directs at bodily functions, narcotics, sub-grunge indie music and, of course, a certain type of boy. The scrawny, dark-haired, lost teenager recurs by turns as muse, sex-object and buddy. Cooper admits that he once had a slight obsession with someone from school who inspired the role, maintaining that it was both "within limits" and "not like a school-boy obsession". His teenage characters tend to be fucked up and smart, and aesthetes just like Cooper. "Only they tend to be cuter than I was," he laughs deprecatingly. The desire to have sex with and slaughter these creations is matched by an empathy with their plight and a need to protect them. "That celibate paternalism has always been there, but different books bring out different aspects."

Although the sex that litters Cooper's work is intergenerational, mostly instigated by adults who dope children into states of acquiescence before meticulous implementing their grotesque fantasies, in Guide the moral superiority of platonic love is voiced more unequivocally by the Dennis character as an alternative to the attempted realisation of the sadistic fantasy. "I've been in a platonic relationship going on three years now. It's not romantic, but it is really intense. There can't be any sex. If there is, it's not going to work. Actually I have all these young friends who I take care of, talk to and help with their problems, but I would never fuck them. I'm very protective about young people."

In Guide a teenage prig called Drew is tied and bound on the Dennis's floor. Arrogant, ignorant and vacant, he is an object to be abused. But as with similar scenarios in his previous works, the Dennis character can't quite get there. For all the obvious desire there is a balancing incapacity. "It's the `almost' thing that really interests me. It's like that moment when you're alive but you know you're going to die. If you could actually have that and not die, then that would be pretty cool. What interests me in this book, in all my work, is trying to find that moment when you're just about to cross from one thing to another. It's like trying to find the edge."

Cooper is more than happy that every three years he applies another book to his repertoire, even if some critics find his subject "repetitive" and "boring". He knows there will be one more book before the cycle of his work is completed, something "more mysterious - like Closer", but feels satisfied with the penultimate instalment. "Guide to me is like all my books, that's really how I see it now. Before Guide I was trying to hide everything. I wouldn't explain anything because I wasn't interested in explanation. My writing has always been moral, but that was the secret of the work. Guide exposes that."

Less surprising is the legendary lackadaisical style: Cooper's well- crafted "careless teenage whine". Were it not for the subject matter his characters could easily be speaking straight from soapland. "The thing with all my books is that they're really straightforward in a funny way, even though structurally they're really complicated. It's about the architecture that surrounds something I can't really talk about. I have to use a pretty straightforward language to play off form that much, even though to me it's all really confused." What will he turn his pen towards once his oeuvre is complete? "Light comedies," he smiles. "That's if I find myself with anything else to say. I sometimes think I only write to get this shit out of my head."

In life Dennis Cooper is reasonable and responsible. But he's also a kid who wants to hang with his mates and whose commentary on life is ubiquitously accessorised with the drawling "whatever". He likes the roller-coasters at Disneyland for their controlled chaos and thinks that while Blur are "pretty cool", Pavement are "definitely aiming higher". At least half the time he's happy with his recently celibate, intoxicant-free lifestyle. There is scarcely a trace of "creepy uncle psychotic" about him, and he could easily pass as normal.

"I'm much less messed up now than I was before," he nods blandly. "I used to be really awful, crazy. Now I'm actually really good." Cooper is at once everything he has created in his books, and not a bit of it. It's a dichotomy I'm sure he's "totally into".

8 `Guide' is published by Serpent's Tail at pounds 8.99.