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Dennis Cooper’s Wrong

September 27, 2007

Reading Dennis Cooper after the emotional exhaustion of marathon hours driving cross-country hit me in the psychological gut. I’m vulnerable, unanchored to my life as I give up career, home, and social connections. I am feeling emotionally empty and poured out, and these stories leave me feeling emotionally empty and poured out. The stories in Wrong are packed with emotion, or devoid depending on your perspective. Relocation is my fantasy for better things like affordable living and the time that that potentially creates for writing and graduate studies. That’s why Dennis Cooper’s collection Wrong snuck in and hit me. This discrepancy in my life and a discrepancy between the youthfulness of Cooper’s characters pitted against forces seeking to exploit and disfigure them. Okay, maybe I’m being melodramatic about my life, but not Cooper’s characters. It’s just that the writing hurts.

I’ve been teaching high school lately and it’s hard not to picture some of my students finding themselves ensnared in similar situations. Art kids virtually define themselves by their alienation and willingness to jump into extreme circumstances. Maybe the stories strikes me because I was one of those kids who got kicked out in high school and spent a portion of my teen years homeless and couch surfing. In a different life I could’ve easily been a Dennis Cooper character. Compound this with the fact that I was basically the same age as many of his Cooper’s characters at the time these books were coming out. Maybe the mystery is solved of why Cooper’s writing effects me. This could have been me, although I was never middle class enough, and I came of age in the heroin infused grunge/indie punk scene of Seattle and not Cooper’s coke, pot, and poppers infused LA. I was a young bad news teen in the early nineties.

At odds with this visceral gut reaction to the collection is a more filmic response, or not exactly film but an adaptation of film. For some reason portions of the writing in Wrong remind me of an adaptation of a film, like there is some movie out there and this is the book version. I’ve noticed this in other of his writing. For some reason it brings to mind books that come out after a movie like when they make a book of Karate Kid. Book adaptations are usually abbreviated version like cliff notes of movies. They transcribe great ideas into cookbook quality prose. This style is not desirable, but then why does it remind me of this? Cooper’s writing is clean, sparse, evocative, hardly the stuff of ghost written rewrites.

My initial response was that maybe I was picking up on the “pop-ness” of the style and subject matter in his writing. There’s a deliberate flatness to portions and a predisposition towards popular culture in general that contrasts effectively with the heavier and more unseemly elements of the subject matter. Sometimes the writing takes on the lightness and one dimensionality of a pop song or a drive in movie. It’s infused with references like when a father reads the lyrics to an old song at his son’s funeral in A Herd after the boy’s brutal rape and murder. “When I was seventeen, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for…” (32). At other times characters describe sections of movies without giving the original context or title, like catching portions of old movies late at night on television. Am I just noticing the writing mimicking the content?

In an online forum I happened stumbled across an off hand comment by the author about how he likes to think through his work and structure before he starts writing. Maybe what I’m noticing in his writing isn’t off base? Another way of approaching it is that he actually is almost writing the book version of his internal film of the story or structure. Is this a remnant of Cooper’s process? Is he transcribing a fully formed idea that already exists like watching an idea and taking notes? This could explain the lack of tentativeness in his writing. Maybe I am noticing an absence of writing the work as he goes. This is different from my process. I get the impression that Cooper is documenting something that he has already created, like one who writes the book after the movie.

In the story Square One the storyteller talks about how he realized he liked a particular porn star named Jeff Hunter because he reminds him of a teenage boyfriend he had named George. He begins to realize that George is the original and the Jeff Hunter is just the stand-in. “They’re distinct. George is the beauty. Jeff’s the statue erected of him in a public place so he’ll remain aloft. We are the passerby marveling at it. It’s the exquisiteness trying to touch something nearly eclipsed by art” (86). Maybe the books are the transcription of some greater thought like books written from movies, like an Aristotelian earthly work striving towards its idealized original.

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