Dennis Cooper: ‘I’m saddled with this cult writer thing’

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Dennis Cooper, 70, was born in Los Angeles and lives in Paris. His novels include The Sluts (2004) and the five-book George Miles cycle, an experimental tableau of disturbingly violent gay desire that began with 1989’s Closer, now reissued as a Serpent’s Tail classic. The New York Times called the series “high-risk literature” exploring “extreme boundaries of human behaviour and amorality”. For Irvine Welsh, it “pushes the limits of liberal tolerance as far as [they] can go”; for Bret Easton Ellis, it’s the work of a “supremely elegant stylist [who] might also be the last literary outlaw in mainstream American fiction”. The Mars Room author Rachel Kushner recently said: “My generation is very much marked by Dennis Cooper’s George Miles cycle: in the 1990s, everyone read these books; I was awed by them.”

How come Closer is being reissued now?
I don’t know! They just said: can we? And I said: sure! All my books are out of print in the UK. I haven’t been able to find a publisher there for a very long time.

Do you recall where the novel began?
I’d been trying for years to develop the whole five-book cycle before I started writing any of them, doing graphs, figuring it out, because it’s a complicated structure. In 1985, I was living in Amsterdam and I came down with this thing called rodehond – “red dog”, [German] measles – and I was really sick. A lot of my friends were dying at that point. I thought, this is it: Aids. That kicked my ass and I just buckled down: I started writing while I was recovering, unable to get out of bed.

Were you out to challenge readers?
Totally. I’ve always been drawn to the horrors and attractions of sex and death and objectification. That kind of subject matter had already been legitimised – Bret Easton Ellis had published Less Than Zero just before I published Closer – but I definitely felt that what I was doing was pretty strange. I like Bret’s work, but when Less Than Zero came out, all my friends said: “Don’t read this book! It’ll drive you crazy.” So I didn’t until I finished Closer, just to be safe, then I read it and was like: OK, this guy has the same background and interests but he’s doing it in a much more conventional way.Dennis Cooper

What fed your confrontational approach to sex and violence?
I was a fucked-up kid with a very weird imagination and I wanted to communicate with people I felt might be like me. It’s difficult to write about those things in a way that doesn’t just titillate or shock and makes readers actually think about the feelings of the person being victimised and the feelings of the victimiser – it’s not just an evil guy and a victim. It was reading Sade that made me want to try to work out how to use style to lure readers into being challenged to think about those dynamics..

How did you first come across Sade?
I was 15, volunteering for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign [in 1968] while staying with my parents’ friends in Washington DC. Their son had 120 Days of Sodom on his shelf and I was going through it, thinking: Jesus! I was helping organise a Simon and Garfunkel benefit gig for Eugene McCarthy and secretly reading Sade, astonished. I’d looked at pornography, but I’d never seen something like that.

How do you feel when your own fiction is described as sadistic?
I understand why that happens, because I understand that most people don’t want to deal with this stuff. They want it safely organised into a horror movie or porn novel, some place where it’s just a little titillating adventure. There’s nothing you can do: when I started out, I thought I’d find a way to get past all that and convince people my work is serious, but I realised I’ll never be one of literature’s grey eminences. I’m saddled with this “cult writer” thing: it’s a way to sort of show me respect, but at the same time it’s a way to marginalise me. People are like: “Yes, I understand he’s very serious, but it’s just weird, dark stuff, it’s not Cormac McCarthy.”

Does that bother you?
No. I’d been getting pressure for years to write a book that has no gay characters and no sex and violence. “Everybody thinks you’re a genius, the problem is your subject matter.” So I wrote my novel God Jr, which I’m actually really happy with, about a father mourning his kid by playing a video game. It did nothing! People just thought: “Oh, here’s a book that doesn’t have [gay sex] in it, by this guy who writes about that stuff.” Look, I’m lucky; there’s been three big academic books about my work [most recently Diarmuid Hester’s 2020 biography, Wrong]. So many people get Booker prizes or whatever and 10 years later nobody gives a shit.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m almost finished with So Beautiful and Elastic by Gary J Shipley. It’s good; it’s published by Apocalypse Party [a small press in Philadelphia]. In the US there’s this incredible renaissance of independent publishers. Books by those are basically all I read. The internet has decentralised everything; these really exciting presses are all over the country, not just in New York.

What did you read as a child?
Terrible novelisations of The Man from UNCLEI SpyBatman, garbage like that. The big thing for me was liking Bob Dylan. In the 60s, he was pretty cool. He mentioned Rimbaud in an interview, so I read Rimbaud when I was 15 and it was a huge wake-up. The idea that you could be 15 [when Rimbaud began publishing] and be a genius and explore hallucinatory states, all that stuff: it was gigantic for me.

Do you still go back to Rimbaud and Sade?
Not Sade. I read him so intensely when I was young, but I think I got what I might get out of Sade. An actor in a film I’m making recently discovered Rimbaud and was going on about him, so I ended up rereading him just to see: “Is this guy really as good as I remember?” He is! My favourite translations are by Enid Rhodes Peschel. I’m not someone who can say, oh, this is the most accurate text, because I don’t speak French – I should’ve learned, I’ve been here 19 years – but I really like her translations of A Season in Hell and Illuminations. Some versions feel a little fussy, kind of beautified. Hers feel more electric: more sharp, a little colder, more direct.

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