Dennis Cooper's scandalous punk fictions delivered postcards from the edge. Now he has found Love. Guy Mannes-Abbott on a decadent's growing pains
Dennis Cooper is an American original, like Kathy Acker or William Burroughs. Yet he's an American original whose writing virtually illustrates the thinking of the French author of The Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille, who developed theories of erotic transgression. Cooper, whose books Wrong, Closer, Frisk, Try and now Guide (Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99) sound like London restaurants, is also an American decadent. He is as bewilderingly contemporary as the Website created to disseminate pirated photographs of women flashing breasts on the log flume, a roller-coaster attraction at Disneyland in California. His work exemplifies America's end-of-the-century, just as those Web images from Disney's operating systems do.

Cooper's writing, in short stories and now four novels, reverberates with hard-core, mostly gay, sex. Yet it is as little reducible to sex as that pirate Website. This is writing like little else, which contains subject-matter so extreme as to provoke ambivalence even in his fondest readers. His work is singular, too, because it's exquisite stuff, combining prose of freeze-dried elegance with well-tuned cultural antennae. Most importantly, it embodies the economy and pace of the technologies that structure our perceptions. So it generates an exhilarating sensation of being on the chaotic cusp of things. As such, it would give any legislative body a heart attack, but it reads like "now" in the way that drum-and- bass music sounds like now.

There's no doubt that Cooper's books resemble most people's nightmares. He has a loyal cult readership and one novel, Frisk, has become a film. Yet Cooper remains relatively unknown. His work is partly about sensory and cognitive thresholds, but that's not all. It also contains a constant stream of integral pop-cultural reference, to movies, fashion, music and drugs; but that doesn't help. No: Cooper very deliberately occupies a domain that fascinates him but which he is unable to resist; a domain right on the boundaries of most people's experience.

It's difficult to give a taste of those limits without myself inducing heart attacks or nightmares. Their flavour can be gauged from his chapter headings from Frisk: Wild, Tense, Torn, Spaced, Numb and Wilder. They signpost a world populated by characters such as Luke, who is "sweet, deep, a little paranoid, and perpetually on", or Chris, a disturbed 22- year-old "junkie/porn star who looks like an elongated child" and wants to be killed.

Luke and Chris form the cast of the new novel Guide, along with 12-year- old Goof, and assorted exploitative adults. They're all invariably "shooting dope" or "jerking off", relaying or indulging murderous sexual fantasies, making, watching or appearing in porn films, beating or drugging flaccid youths (or pop stars such as Alex James from Blur) unconscious, before exploring their bodies or horrifically killing them.

Yet Cooper's writing is not merely this list of its contents; this is why he is not only a very good writer but also, I think, an important one. Now in his mid-forties, he has filled his books over the past decade with material from his own conscious and unconscious life. They're filled, too, with music from punk to thrash metal, with fanzines and contemporary art: all the things he has been involved in, professionally or critically. Finally, they overflow with drugs.

In Guide, Cooper employs his experience of having taken LSD since his teens to rehearse his principal obsession: how to communicate experiences that exceed language. So, rather than rhapsodising about drugs, Cooper's peculiarly ethical project works away at drawing fantasies out, and so defusing them. More than that, his writing articulates desire in general. In an early story called "Epilogue" he wrote about the way that love eludes language, while in Guide his experiments with drugs represent something larger: a quest for words to convey extreme or impossible things. This is the most substantial strand in the new novel, which reflects on what he's doing, what his fantasies are or mean, and on what place they should occupy in his life.

Guide is a novel narrated by a novelist called Dennis, who tells the story of his life in Los Angeles. It is so explicitly self-referential as to be deeply unnerving as well as brave. Dennis has dropped acid in the hope of recovering the magical insight gained as a teenager when he took LSD continuously for a month until collapsing, but this time he wants to represent it in language. Guide splices that teenage experience with Dennis's attempts to write this book, and the life around him, which is a continuation of Cooper's other novels. But it is also about something else: the attempt to shift from the outpourings of predatory desire to the notional stability of love.

The object of Dennis's love is Luke, whom he invites to move in with him. Through Luke, Dennis discovers a ritualised form of wishing. The novel becomes exactly that: a story that he says would be about "Luke and me lost in mutual affection". But "Dennis", as Luke says, is "someone who lives in his head" where, for the most part, he admits to being "deeply fucked up". There, amid his furiously blurred fantasies, he can't resist Chris, who is his sexual type, with "every enterable point on his body wide open". The problem, according to Dennis, is that given the right drugs and "the wrong boy, the wrong mood, et cetera, I'm perfectly capable of evil, if such a thing exists".

Guide is caught between these two desires, while the "Dennis" character tries to synthesise them. Cooper expressly intends to contain his wilder fantasies within his books, but argues here that "people's lives aren't just indistinguishable examples of some overriding, concrete, correct way of thinking". In Guide, he has found a way to represent this transgressive abyss while also reflecting on it. It's a book of astonishing power, developing out of earlier novels which have gnawed away at these limits.

In his previous novel Try he wrote about an exploited teenage world set against a corrupt adult one, but entirely from the victims' viewpoint. In Guide he remains abject: a fan of various musicians, or enslaved to various desires. Yet he has for the first time achieved an adult vision. Guide, which constantly flashes between narrative strands, also contains a series of aphoristic essays on beauty and art. They suggest a trajectory of new life for Cooper's fiction.

For the uninitiated, this novel is the best place to start. Yet it still requires an imaginative leap to deal with his affirmation of things habitually treated as maladies. Cooper's books exist in a world entrapped by the evergreen present and its attendant tragic messiness. But his fictions inhabit a place of synaptic impulse and electronic space, of DNA and ecstasy, of nanoseconds and the infinitely expanding universe. It's your world and mine: catch it while you can.

Comments