Solving The Puzzle of Sex and Violence With Dennis Cooper
It was a good friend of mine who introduced me to the work of Dennis Cooper.
"So-and-so lent me this book. I think you'd really like it, if you don't mind a little hardcore gay sex."
The book was Period. I didn't find it as graphic as described, or even remotely off-putting (and this was still the dark ages of the current gay rights movement, so tolerance points for young me!) I did find it to be the closest thing to a David Lynch film in book form that I'd ever read. It was like a satanic, heavy metal version of Lost Highway, with a bunch of hot young dudes killing each other. Even though I've read many of his books since, Period is still my favorite Cooper novel, although his latest does come close.
Like Period, The Marbled Swarm plays with time and structure and identity. It also exhibits a playful use of language, which serves to highlight Cooper's impressive abilities as a writer. The book is a puzzle box full of secrets that demands multiple readings. Lucky for you, despite it's maze-like structure and linguistic acrobatics, Swarm reads like a breeze.
I'm embarrassed to say, but I didn't even known Cooper had a new book coming out. Fortunately for him, he has a dutiful publisher. I was forwarded an email from Harper inquiring whether I'd like a review copy, which I most certainly did. So I pounced, and a week later I was on the phone with Cooper himself.
Joshua Chaplinsky: Let me just make sure this is recording. I get a little paranoid because I once lost an interview I did with Bret Easton Ellis.
Dennis Cooper: Oh man.
JC: He was nice enough to agree to a second interview, though.
DC: That happened to me when I interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio [HERE]. I sat down and tried to write it all from memory, and he was okay with it, so...
JC: Wow. I wouldn't trust myself to do that.
JC: Speaking of interviews, in an interview a few years ago, you said you were hoping to direct a porn film in the near future. You said, "It's been kind of a lifelong dream of mine to make a porn film. I've written it, and the producers are trying to arrange the financing right now, and hopefully that'll happen before the end of the year. It's tentatively called Nurse." What ever happened with that project?
DC: I've had such bad luck with that, because I've actually written or co-written four porn scripts in my life. A couple in the late 80's and early 90's. This well known porn director at the time named Jason Sato was involved. But those didn't get produced. Then I wrote a kind of pornographic feature length film for this director Carter Smith [The Ruins] and we couldn't get financing for that. Then these other guys got in contact with me and said, go ahead and write it, we can get it financed for sure. So I wrote it. And the thing is, I don't want to just be the eyes behind a normal porn film, I wanted to try and do something really interesting with the structure and stuff.
So I did write the script and, predictably, it was too weird and none of the companies who read it wanted to do it. They said there was too much dialogue and the ideas were too perverse, even though I felt it didn't have anything particularly unusual. So that was yet another failure and no, that film has not been made.
JC: Was it going to be strictly a gay porn? And was it going to contain your patented mixture of sex and violence?
DC: There wasn't really going to be violence in it, because I knew the rules. It was gonna be a gay porn film because these people were gay porn producers. But no, there really wasn't violence in it, because I did want to get it made. They said, you can't do this, you can't do that, so I said fine.
One of the problematic scenes concerned this goth boy who was an escort, and he sold himself as... you could have sex with him while he pretended he was dead. So this guy hired him, but before the boy went to do the job, his boyfriend was killed in a car accident, so he was really depressed. But he went over this guy's house, and the client wanted him to remove remove the goth makeup and goth clothes and then play dead. At first the boy refused, but eventually he did it because of the money. And when he took off his goth costume, I guess it all became too real for him, and- long story short- instead of pretending to kill himself he actually ends up killing himself. Then this guy goes in to have sex with someone who is pretending to be dead, but the kid is actually dead, although the guy doesn't know it.
DC: So that was, um... yeah. Later in the movie, it turns out that the kid wasn't really dead. So there were things like that, but there was nothing really violent in it. They were just conceptual ideas, but they were too bizarre for the people who make these movies.
JC: You've probably been asked this a million times, but for the sake of those not familiar, what is it that fascinates you about the combination of sex and violence?
DC: Well, I don't really know. That's why I write about it. It's been an interest of mine, some way or another, since I was a kid. It just seemed to appear in my head as a fascination; as dreams and nightmares and things. And I got very interested in why that was, and what my exact relationship to that stuff is. It always seemed so complicated to me when I was younger. I thought it was awful and terrible and terrifying, but at the same time I also found it very interesting and complex and erotic. I honestly don't know what triggered it off. It wasn't like I saw something or read something that made me "become" that. And when I write about it, I'm trying to figure that out, and present my relationship to it in the books. But if I knew the basis for it I probably wouldn't write about it.
JC: From what I've read, your civilian life skews way more vanilla. Have you ever encountered people who expect you to be some sort of monster because of the books you've written?
DC: Not so much any more, but yeah, in the early days, especially when Frisk came out, because that one was very controversial. There were people who would come up to me and ask me where they could find snuff movies, or offer to show me snuff movies, or ask me where they could find 12 year old boys who would have sex with them. All kinds of things. Or people who would come on to me and want me to do things from my books to them. But I think as time has gone on, I think people sort of realize I'm a serious writer and I'm not a sick pervert. I'll occasionally get that, people writing to me or something. It's more that people feel that they can talk to me about their extremes and fantasies and the things they do. Because they feel I'm not going to judge them, which I don't (unless, obviously, it's something that's really out there).
JC: You say some of them offered to show you snuff films. Have you ever seen a snuff film?
DC: No. I don't think they exist. You know, the "mythological" snuff film, where Jack Nicholson shows them to his buddies. I don't believe that really exists. Clearly murderers have filmed their murders, and those exist, and I suppose they could have leaked out at some point from the police archives or whatever. But no one has ever convincingly told me that they've seen a snuff film. People tell me, they're like, I saw... and I'm like- yeah. And people have tried to show me snuff films and they're obviously fakes, from Japan or something.
JC: Is there an element of sexual fantasy to the things you write about?
DC: Well yeah, it's all fantasy.
JC: I guess that goes back to what you were saying about writing about what fascinates you.
DC: Yeah. None of that stuff is based on real things. It's more about trying to take fantasy or imagination and kind of give it a realistic veneer so that people can connect with it. Trying to connect the fantasy with the real world and explore that. What's possible in fantasy versus what's possible in reality. That confusion there is very interesting to me. I mean, people who write about farmers, those are fantasies too.
JC: So it's not a case of you write about these things so you don't do them in real life.
DC: No, I'm pretty clear on that. I think there was probably some point when I was younger when I was very confused about that, but because I've concentrated on that material and worked on it and researched it and stuff... I've been pretty clear on what is is interesting or doable or fascinating when your imagination has free reign, and what in reality becomes ugly and nasty and banal.
JC: Aside from all the rape, incest and murder, do you ever worry about your work perpetuating negative gay stereotypes to the undiscerning reader?
DC: You know, I used to get attacked for that by gay activists back in the early 90's, but no, I've never heard of a single case where that was true. I mean, my work is pretty underground, it's not like Bret's work where people's moms are picking it up in Wallmart and stuff. My work has never had that level of success. There are people who find my books and don't like them, but I've never heard of that happening. Probably half of my readership is heterosexual, but they are interested in what's going on in the books and they don't see it that way.
JC: You said half your readership is heterosexual. Do you ever worry about alienating your straight readers?
DC: No, because my work isn't about "being" gay. I'm not interested in being gay at all. I use males because it conforms with my fantasies and because using two males creates this interesting conceptual complexity. They are both the same thing. They are like reflections of each other with slightly different bodies. You also get around issues of misogyny that way. I do it because it is true to my interests and I want to be honest and work from my own excitement and fear, but I don't think my work is about being gay at all. I don't think it's a problem for straight people anymore than it was for them to read Burroughs or Genet or people like that.
JC: I feel that a lot of your work, especially The Marbled Swarm, with its European setting and operatic language, is meant to be an exaggeration of reality. It's like an alternate universe where everyone is gay and/or some sort of sexual deviant or the victim of rape or violence. Do you view your books as being hyper-realistic?
DC: As you said, the books eliminate an enormous number of things in order to work. You rarely find women in my work, and people of other races are used very strategically. The books are written in a way that feels kind of real, but there's so much stuff removed from them. And if those things were introduced I don't think that those worlds could exist. They're kind of myopic and psychotic, but they have a kind of comforting real sense about them which lulls you in. But the realism is just a lure. The books are never based in the real world.
JC: You mentioned earlier about being a cult author. But your books have been translated into over a dozen languages and have garnered rave reviews. There are even a number of volumes of critical essays on the George Miles Cycle. How do you account for the popularity of your work and the longevity of your career despite the fact that you are still widely considered a "cult" or "niche" author?
DC: Well, I think the cult thing is exactly the reason why. My readership is big enough to be fine with me, and it is international, but my books are basically cult in all these other countries, too. I've had some bigger success in France and some other places occasionally, but I've been lucky to get people who are really, really into my work. And they're very excited about it. It's not a huge number of people, but they really really really like it, and they continue to support it.
In some ways I'll always be the underdog or the outsider, and I think that gives my work a cache. You know how it is, it's like that with bands and films as well. You can have an intense personal relationship with a band because other people don't like them and you kind of own that. My readers have this feeling that I'm their private special thing. So I think that's helped. Whereas with many writers, they publish a book that people want, and then they publish a few more and people stop- I mean, people like Bret and Chuck Palahniuk have a very devoted readership, but it's not that common, really.
JC: As a young man you were involved in the early punk scene and to this day your writing retains a sort of youthful rebelliousness. You've always been open about your sexuality and I imagine a lot of young, gay writers are influenced by your work and look up to you. Do you see yourself as a type of role model or literary activist?
DC: Hm... None of that is really interesting to me. I mean, people always say that stuff, and I suppose that makes me feel like I need to be responsible in some way. I do this blog [NSFW or prudes] where I interact with anyone who wants to interact with me, and I support their work and stuff. That's one way that I try to use whatever power I have to throw the light away from me and on to them. Otherwise, I don't know what to do with that. Maybe it makes me think that when someone comes up to me I should really pay attention to them and not hurt them.
JC: So it's more something that has been put on you than something you actively do.
DC: Right. It wasn't something I wanted or aimed for. It's just one of those things you read about. I never think about it even when people approach me and tell me I'm their hero. But people write that kind of stuff.
JC: You've also been active in the art world. When you were younger you curated an exhibit called AGAINST NATURE: A Group Show of Work By Homosexual Men. Was that strictly an artistic endeavor, or were you trying to promote awareness and say something socially?
DC: Well, I curate art shows all the time. I'm doing one right now, and they're just about art. Against Nature was a specific thing I did with this artist named Richard Hawkins. It was a reaction against... there was this kind of militant gay activism thing going on, and they were all into this idea that, because of the AIDS crisis and whatnot, that art should be subsumed and become agitprop and should support the cause. But I wasn't interested in that and really didn't believe it, and neither did Richard, so we deliberately did a show that was against that idea. It was artists working with perversion and decadence and intellectual ideas. Basically a show saying how art is art, and queers don't have to address larger issues other than their own interests. So in that sense it was a reaction against that prevailing idea. It was really controversial and it was attacked at the time. But that's a pretty unusual case for me.
JC: You've called the titular language of The Marbled Swarm a nod to your inability to understand people when you first moved to France. Can you expand on that?
DC: I really don't speak much French, but my comprehension of French has gotten a lot better. But basically, I live there and I don't understand what people are saying all the time. You kind of listen to the sound of it and you have to guess what's going on. You create a type of fantasy world about what living in France is like. I mean, I'm a big Francophile, and my friends are always telling me that I totally romanticize the French, because I think that they're saying things that Rimbaud would say, but they're just talking about the usual shit.
So I got interested in that idea of half understanding things; getting the basic point but not getting any of the details. And I thought it would be really interesting to write a novel where a character is saying something that has a real music and rhythm to it, but you don't really understand what he's saying. Or maybe he's telling you that you don't understand what he's saying- I have all these secrets, and you should be paying more attention because I'm playing this game with you. It kind of inspired the swarm in that sense.
JC: At one point in the book, the narrator explains the genesis of the linguistic affectation: "To originate the marbled swarm, [my father] traveled continents, retained selective habits from denominated countries' languages, then played with his infected voice for years. He'd blended half the world's linguistic greatest hits into the sinews of his French, adding octaves, subtracting clauses, until he could enunciate a fluent composition." So the swarm is spoken in French, even though the novel was written by you in English. How did you settle upon the style for your "translated" swarm? Did you lay out a set of grammatical rules for yourself?
DC: Yeah. Before I start a novel- and it takes me a long time- I create many rules and create drafts and all these structural things. And that book particularly, because it's so complicated, I had to really work out this system. Because I wanted there to be this possibly false story with multiple levels. The language has secret tunnels in it. It was very, very complicated to do. And I thought it would be funny to write it in English, because that would be the son's problem, because he would prioritize English. I wanted to have all these layers of confusion and facades and different things. I had to do a lot of experimenting to figure out how to do it.
JC: You currently still live in France, correct?
DC: I live there like 90% of the time, but I still have my place in LA. My boyfriend's Russian and he can't get a US visa, that's why I went over there. One of these days they will grant him a visa and we will probably move back, but for now I spend most of my time in France.
JC: So you moved to France for love, despite not being able to understand French, which is considered the language of love.
DC: [laughs] That's right.
JC: Parts of Swarm reminded me of Period, what with it's temporal trickery and Lynchian use of doppelgangers. Like that novel, there is plenty in Swarm that is open to interpretation. Is Swarm an actual puzzle to be solved, like its narrator implies? Do you yourself know the solution?
DC: Yes, it is a puzzle and it can be solved, and there is something in there waiting for those who do... but you don't have to. I made it so that it can be solved to various degrees. You don't have to solve it at all, but if you want you could start taking it apart. There's many, many, many clues- everything there is kind of a clue. You can believe the narrator when he says, I have an emotional problem and I've been lying to you- if you want. But it is solvable. I just don't know if anybody will ever do it, because it's pretty difficult. But if somebody really wanted to get into it and was really excited about the idea of solving it- you could.
JC: Oh man. I'm just gonna have to wait for somebody smarter to upload the answer to the internet.
DC: [laughs] I don't know if anyone's ever gonna be able to do it. We'll see.
JC: If you don't think anyone will be able to solve it, would you ever consider revealing the solution yourself?
DC: I hope not.
JC: I see.
DC: [laughs] That's not the point. It doesn't really matter. It means what you want it to mean, that's the whole point, right? You get to dig around in it. What it means to me... I have a structuring principle and basic idea going on there, but you don't have to know that to understand it completely.
JC: Except that it's maddening for people who really wanna know and like to solve things.
DC: But that's the fun of it. I hope. I hope that people will feel that way about it. I love the idea of there being some kind of cult of people trying to solve The Marbled Swarm.
JC: I could see it happening. Is it true that you've said you only have one more novel left in you?
DC: I have this idea that I'd like to do that. It's a wish, it's not a plan. I think you probably read that Paris Review interview. What I said there was I want to be really, really sure that I don't write a book that doesn't need to exist. Just another Dennis Cooper book, only slightly revised. So it's a cautionary measure.
Also, I'm really into structure, so I like the idea of there being five cycle novels and five non-cycle novels. I like the balance there. I like the idea of not finishing a novel and immediately the next big thing I do be a novel. Constantly thinking about novels so that all my ideas wind up being used for novels. I like the idea that, if I had the courage, I could just stop and kind of see what happens. There's every chance that I'll keep writing after I write one more novel, but my wish, my ideal is that I will only write one more.
JC: Just for your information, I got that directly from the Harper press release.
DC: They're saying that? Those devils.
JC: Yeah. Didn't know that, did ya?
DC: No, I didn't.
JC: Well if you're not gonna write any more, what do you plan to do with yourself after that?
DC: Oh, I would write, I just wouldn't write novels. I write a lot of theater and stuff over in Europe. I've been doing that a lot. They haven't been playing the United States too much, but they play all over the world. I do a lot of other stuff, so it's not like I need to write novels, I just love writing them the most. But I would write. That's all I can do. It's my only talent, so I'm not gonna stop doing it.
JC: Well I personally hope you don't stop at one more novel, but we'll see what happens.
DC: Thank you.
JC: Thank you, Dennis.
ATTENTION NEW YORKERS:
@ McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan
Vice Presents: Dennis Cooper and Eileen Myles
Monday, November 14th, 7pm
@ the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn
Book Launch: The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper
Tuesday, November 15, 7–9pm
The prolific author reads and discusses his newest book with Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy.
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