by Alex Ross
Published in Slate, 1997
You’re supposed to make a stab at plot summary when you review a novel, but in the case of Dennis Cooper's grisly, charming new novel Guide, I’m not sure where to start. It's not clear what is actually happening in this book — what's real, who's real, how much of the story can be separated from the private fantasies of the author. And to the extent I can speculate about the plot, I am not sure how to present it to you, dear reader, who may be revolted by even the most euphemistic wrap-up. How to explain that a novel containing scenes of man-boy sex, snuff cinema, and pop-star rape is, in some weird way, lyrical and sweet? I'm in an acute version of the usual reviewer's dilemma: I like this book, I fear you will loathe it.
Cooper's previous novels are Closer (1989), Frisk (1991), and Try (1994). He also has a short-story collection, Wrong. In fiction circles, he is known, at least by name, as an extremist gay author, a practitioner of “new Gothic” or “slasher lit.” The milieu looks tiresome at first glance. Voyages inside the minds of serial killers, tableaux of suburban brutality, and nihilistic adventures of American youth have become cliches of 90's fiction, to say nothing of 90's news. From Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) to A. M. Homes (The End of Alice), younger writers have tried each year to go a little farther beyond the pale. Cooper, however, was cruising this terrain well before it became crowded with hipsters; he is in his mid-40s and wrote tales of perversity to no wide acclaim throughout the 80’s. He is also a more assured stylist than any of the authors listed above. His prose has the punch of the best old punk bands, who unfurled terse, thuggish tunes with fanatical precision. And what’s most striking in his new novel is not its images of violence but its meditation on fantasy, its teasing self-dialogue, its secret celebration of innocence.
Characters in a Cooper novel are always more or less the same: young-male sex objects, ranging from the untouchable to the available to the suicidal; lustful older men, ranging from arch writer-types to serial-killers; a few confused girlfriends of confused boys. All the above appear in Guide, with names like Luke, Scott, Chris, and Mason. They have no surnames and no histories. They hang out in each others' homes or in clubs until something happens to them, usually bad. Despite the druggy haze, the writing is rife with detail. Cooper is an acute observer of his native California, playing off Gen-X speak, verbal shorthand and shrugs, the whole Keanu Reeves way of talking. Here is a description of a 25-year-old male Mona Lisa: “Luke's eyes are the immediate clue to his greatness. Without them, he'd just be a sweet-looking raver — on first glance, at least. They're large, multicolored, and often glazed over in serious thought. That's a guess. Anyway, they seem complicatedly weird.” The writing may seem naive, but on close inspection no word is extraneous, and the tone unerringly veers from the deadpan to the gnawingly intense. “Greatness” is the word that chimes the eerie chord here.
There is also a first-person narrator named Dennis who is indistinguishable from Cooper himself. “I'm home playing records and writing a novel,” he announces in the first paragraph. In the first pages you begin to feel the disorienting effects of metafiction: Dennis is not just consorting with the characters but also controlling them, selecting their destinies. Luke is put side by side with a second enticing young male, a junkie porn star named Chris. Cooper decides he has to “make a choice” between them, and this turns out to be not just a choice of boyfriend but a judgment of life and death. A hundred pages later, Luke is still sweetly, complicatedly staring into space, while Chris is being cut to pieces by a psychotic dwarf. The murder is described with Cooper's usual flatness — “The dwarf stabbed Chris' thigh. He was trying to grasp death's complexity or something” — but there's also antic commentary from the sidelines. “This part's almost over,” he says reassuringly, before the dismemberment begins. He writes of his violent imaginings, “I can't keep them out ... I've tried. What I want here is nothing but Luke and me lost in mutual affection. That's what you'd be reading if I wasn't so deeply fucked up.”
Why should we be interested in Cooper's obsessions? Because he manages to give them at least two powerful symbolic functions. First, violence is so intertwined with sexuality that it becomes a metaphor for sex. The ostensibly decadent Cooper may really be saying, with Platonic restraint, that sex does violence to a purer, non-physical love. Second, because violence is so tied into the novelist's own imaginative processes, it becomes a means to an end, which is psychological revelation. What happens when we fantasize about someone? Doesn't the mind always make changes as it longs for another, attempt improvements, indulge in scarier manipulations? Guide has an arty, neurotic character named Scott who does nothing but fantasize about Luke and get him wrong. “Scott's mental image of Luke is almost unrecognizable,” Cooper writes, with amused disdain. “On the surface, yeah, that's basically Luke. Activity-wise, though, he might as well be some bimboesque slut. Granted, I don't know how Luke acts in bed. But I'm positive this isn't it. Luke's too deep, tense, reserved. Scott's spent too much time watching porn videos. Luke can't be reduced to the facts of his physical makeup. He's too avant-garde, multilayered. That's why Scott's crazed ravishing of the Luke look-alike doesn't bother me. It's not even close.”
The novel culminates in a delirious chapter entitled “Blur” — a reference to the smart, edgy Britpop band of that name. Cooper sidelines as a rock critic for *Spin* and likes to decorate his books with musical references. Here he goes a little further and writes up members of Blur as characters, although they appear in the text mostly under the name Smear, presumably to avoid legal problems. A rabid fan named Mason runs into the band's hot bass-player, Alex, with whom he's obsessed on various levels. At first Alex moves like a figure in a jerk-off daydream; he magically appears in Mason's apartment on the inane pretext of looking for cigarettes. But then he just stands there. He doesn't want sex, just cigarettes. Mason, desperate to finish the dream, drugs him and rapes him. Alex runs back to his band, who send a roadie to beat the shit out of Mason. Dennis is on the scene for much of this fiasco; he could have had his way with Alex, but he does nothing. He goes back home and lies in bed next to Luke, who has moved in with him but whom he never touches. Drunk and desolate inside his own novel, he plots the perfect suicide in his head: “Tell you're friends you're going to Europe, hike into some forest, dig a grave, lie down in it, put a gun in your mouth, and blow your brains out, simultaneously triggering a small avalanche that will fill in the grave.”
The Blur episode is one that students of Italo Calvino might have trouble diagramming. Whose fantasy is it? If it's Dennis', why does he do nothing? If it's Mason's, why doesn't Alex comply, and why does Mason punish himself for his thoughts? On first glance, it might seem that Cooper's books, like most self-consciously “radical” art, observe some universal First Amendment right for the mind to do as it pleases. In fact, Cooper feels great unease with his thoughts, if these confessions are to be believed. It's as if he never got over some moment in childhood when he discovered all the uncanny things the mind can do. He is striving toward something outside the mind, something both beautiful and real, something undamaged by his swirling thoughts. That something turns out to be Luke, with whom Dennis conducts a Platonic relationship that would have pleased the author of Death of Venice. You keep waiting for something awful to happen to Luke, but it doesn’t. He becomes, in this hallucinated world, the one fully human character.
“Luke will always be tantalizingly separate from me,” Cooper writes toward the end. “He'll never dissolve into all my imaginative bullshit. Whatever happens to me from now on, good or bad, he'll be safe. That's love, right? Anyway, that's love to me.” Guide ends on this shockingly gentle note, as Luke, Dennis, and the rest fade away into a late-night crowd at a bar. Most of Cooper's novels close with open-ended scenes, fraught with unfulfilled longings. Violence is secretly used as a foil for romance; mayhem is piled high to put a few moments of heartbreak into bold relief. His books are all sweetness and night.