The cult writer and artist Dennis Cooper has straddled the axis of sex, death and adolescence since the publication of his transgressive first novel Closer in 1989, wherein a Middle American teenager gets used and abused by his peers and parental figures. It’s the first of five entries into his famed George Miles Cycle, all of which investigate the mercurial interior lives of lonely, disillusioned – and occasionally malevolent – youth.
In Cooper’s fiction and other artistic endeavours, the 67-year-old’s continuing incursions into the psyches of the young and the young at heart (as well as those who eat both the young and their hearts) make a case for his being the oldest living teenager in the world. In fact, he had plans to go to Disneyland Paris days after our recent chat, but was thwarted by another Parisian lockdown.
I came to Cooper’s work in the library of my high school as a teen myself, when a crusted, dog-eared copy of Frisk, the second entry in the George Miles Cycle – and the novel for which he received death threats when its publication coincided with Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest – seemed to lunge at me from the shelves. It beckoned me into its pages of adolescent psychosis, warped desire and carnal mutilation, like a blubbery Jerry O’Connell from Stand By Me inviting his friends to see a dead body.
Cooper’s varied career has included stints reporting for SPIN Magazine (he interviewed Courtney Love and eulogised Kurt Cobain within the same month) and editing for Artforum. He’s curated exhibitions for museums across Los Angeles, and otherwise collaborated with a motley of composers, painters, sculptors and, most recently, a filmmaker: he’s co-directed two films with Zac Farley, and mentioned preparations for a third, to be set in a haunted house. Whatever the medium, Cooper’s thematic fixations have remained largely the same, resulting in a body of work that is as varied as it is cohesive.
In contrast to other writers of his age or stature, it’s quite easy to get into contact with Dennis Cooper. All you have to do is leave a comment on his blog, the magnum opus that he updates almost daily with novella-length posts, so image-laden that readers can’t help but wonder if their 5G systems have suddenly regressed to dial-up. A cursory scroll through recent postings left me befuddled as to whether I was reading original prose for one of Cooper’s many ongoing projects (he wrote a full-length GIF novel) or select clippings and regurgitations from what could be the Twink classifieds. His celebrity profile climaxed, briefly, in 2014, when his blog was shut down for seemingly arbitrary reasons by Google, and the internet brokered a successful collective petition to relinquish it back to its owner.
It was via this blog that Diarmuid Hester, a Cambridge-based writer and self-professed radical cultural historian, began corresponding with Cooper. It resulted in the first definitive account of the artist’s complicated life, work and legacy (which is still very much in the making). WRONG: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper weaves together engrossing biography with literary and cultural context that aids in making sense of Cooper’s mystifying work. Hester’s meticulous research is intermixed with input from Cooper himself.
A few days before Halloween, I spoke with both biographer and subject via Zoom from their respective apartments in London and Paris.
Hester: I started writing about Dennis’s work shortly after reading Frisk in 2005 or 2006, and then I went onto his blog and we corresponded through that.. Then I decided I would do my PhD, which was a study of his work, and the book emerges out of that doctorate research. Dennis, is [Frisk] a good entry point?
Cooper: Not really! [Laughs] I guess it’s going into the deep end, so that’s good. I like the post-Cycle books better myself.
Hester: At various turns, I dropped Dennis an email to be like, “I’m writing about you again, that cool?” And Dennis was always very supportive. He’s a wonderful person to work with because he’s very hands-off, and he kind of gives over the responsibility of the work to you, regardless of the fact that it’s on him.
Cooper: It’s a super huge honour to have a book written about [you]. I already knew Diarmuid, and he wrote me some questions, and then he was in Paris for 10 days or something, and we would meet fairly regularly. I really wanted to say something about George Miles [Cooper’s childhood friend, brief lover and lifetime muse], so I made him sort of sit down and let me rant about George Miles for like an hour.
Hester: And it was a huge honour to hear Dennis talk about George Miles, who was this muse and sort of central figure in his work, and hear that story from A to Z.
Cooper: I don’t know what gave it to me, that’s for sure. When I was really young, I would turn our attic into a playhouse and put on plays and have our neighbours perform in them. I turned our backyard into a carnival every year with rides and I organised the whole thing. I wrote and did drawings and [always] believed in what I was doing, and my parents were not into me being a writer, but I was like, “That’s just the way it is.” I’m also a busy, driven person: I’m always making things, I’m always working on something, so part of it’s just that. I’m so relentless and that’s why I’m confident.
Hester: Just for context, the person that really brought that out was [the poet] Amy Gerstler. The first time that she met Dennis, she saw this sureness of what his contribution would be. Talking to her really brought that home for me.
Cooper: I didn’t really seek people out. I did write [the French filmmaker] Robert Bresson letters and tell him that I would sweep the floors of his sets or something, and he never responded because he didn’t speak English. People liked what I did and when I would do readings, people were very encouraging. [The writer and editor] Ian Young got my very first, horrible book, called The Terror of Earrings that was unbelievably bad, but he liked it and helped me get my first publisher. There’s always been people like that who’ve been kind. I’ve been really lucky. I don’t like Allen Ginsberg, but Allen Ginsberg was very supportive, and at one point, Edmund White [too]… I was such a fireball, there was a point when I was doing this wild little magazine called Little Caesar that everybody really liked, and I was doing this reading series and I was doing so much stuff with so much energy and I think people liked how dedicated I was. And because my work is “edgy” they were like, “He’s really pushing it” or something. They liked that about me.
Hester: Would it be true to say that your support systems, instead of a mentor-mentee [dynamic], were a distributed network of friends?
Cooper: I was always more of a mentor, even when I was a kid, I mentored other kids. I’ve always concentrated on helping people, it’s never been me asking for help.
On still writing about teenagers
Cooper: My explanation is that I decided that I was going to be a serious writer when I was 15. And I worked really hard as a teenager. Even though I was terrible, I was really into trying to be a good writer: studying, practicing, experimenting. I think partly that those concerns remained, as those were my concerns at the time when I was young, and it became really so ingrained in me, those issues, and getting older… I hate the way adults treat younger people, it drives me crazy. It’s demeaning and disrespectful and we objectify [teenagers] and romanticise them and it’s all nostalgia and hostility. It really bothered me then and it continues to bother me,. I still have this urge or need to legitimise this and make it a serious area, that young people stuff is easily as important as what adults are going through, and it deserves to be treated really seriously. It’s just where I go. I’m not like a writer who goes, “I’m going to write a historical novel now.” It’s like a well, and I always seem to go back there.
On staying young (at heart)
Cooper: It’s easy as long as you stay interested in stuff. Most people my age or younger, they get stuck on their youth, on records they liked then and end up thinking they’re better than stuff now. They’ll decry, like, Miley Cyrus and say it’s all junk. It’s not junk! I resist that idea that [someone would] promote to all these “stupid young kids” how great The Who are or how great punk is or something. I find that appalling.
Hester: What I’m really interested in is the kind of state of adolescence. It’s a fluidity, right, where things haven’t really started to settle, and there’s this vast amount of potential, because you don’t see why they can’t be. But then as we get older and more integrated into society we take on more responsibility and that [potential] becomes weighed down and calcified. Last year, I taught The Sluts [Cooper’s 2004 novel set in AOL chat rooms], and we talked about his other works and his focus on adolescence, and they really responded to the energy of his work and that pursuit of novelty. It’s interesting that there seems to be a whole new generation of people that are coming to Dennis’s work and – it seems to be that because Dennis is always at the cutting edge – it takes a little while for culture to catch up. When people do come to it a bit late, it still has so much to offer.
On writing obituaries for River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain and buying into the mythologisation of young, hot dead guys
Cooper: I’m really interested in it and understand it. I suppose I’m susceptible to it, and am also really suspicious of it. It’s a combination of things. There’s this charisma about the youth and about death – you combine the two and it’s pretty nuclear. At the same time, it’s the whole James Dean thing – it’s so boring. But with Cobain and Phoenix, it’s like, in the moment it was really powerful because they were such a presence and they were active and at the peaks of their respective talents, but the whole, “Oh, he was so great and there’s nobody like him anymore,” that doesn’t interest me, because there’s plenty of things going on now that are just as interesting.
Clemens: I was listening to your episode of Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast and you said that to get into the right headspace to write Closer, you holed up and were taking meth.
Cooper: Uh, it was actually called Pep, which was the Dutch name for it because I was in Holland. But yes, it was meth.
Clemens: It would make you horny but prevent you from being able to have sex. And then in WRONG, Diarmuid writes that your drug-taking when you lived in New York wore you out, so I’m wondering which drugs you think are conducive to writing and which aren’t.
Cooper: Well, the most valuable, but you can’t write on it, are psychedelics. I took a lot of psychedelics when I was a teenager and it made it a bit impossible for me to be a conventional writer because it makes everything so complicated and unique. You learn that, you know, on these trips or whatever, you look at a leaf and you’re like, “This leaf is so complicated.” You pay attention to all these details, so in that sense, psychedelics were extremely important to me. The rest of it was coke and speed. All they do is give you a lot of energy. The interesting thing about crystal meth was that it made me very oriented towards lust, but at the same time it would make you impotent, so you’re kinda stuck, and that was actually very fruitful for writing because I just have to use that energy to write because – not that I wanted to go have a lot of sex, but if I did, I would be embarrassed. Other than that, I don’t like pot. I’ve never liked pot, but I know that people find a lot of value in that. Ecstasy was pretty good, but I haven’t taken drugs in a really long time. I’ve never taken ketamine or anything like that, or MDMA, but I’m sure they’re great for writing.
On the “New York is dead” discourse
Cooper: No, it’s not. I feel sad that the Ukranian restaurant or whatever closed. But I’m really not nostalgic. New York looks really different than it did – it’s not as grungy anymore and it’s not as affordable anymore, but it’s still a fantastic place. People my age or younger were afraid of getting beaten up when they walked on Avenue A It’s like, if you don’t feel like you’re not gonna get beaten up on Avenue A, you’re not really on Avenue A! But you know, people your age – this is the New York you’re growing up in and it’ll be incredibly potent. All these stupid stores are your memories. And the pandemic, we’ve had the pandemic really bad over here and we’re about to go into lockdown again tonight, but Paris is still Paris and New York is still New York. I don’t buy into that stuff, maybe because I’m older or something [and] I’ve been through a lot of shit. People thought the war was going to end everything. It doesn’t work that way. There’s just these slight shifts and eventually you go back to what was happening before these slight shifts.
On Covid-19’s effect on shared public spaces within marginalised communities
Hester: Something that came up in writing WRONG was how certain spaces can allow for or encourage or inhibit even the way a community is formed and [the] art, film, writing that’s produced out of it. One of the most positive responses to gentrification, which is going to hit queer spaces really hard after the pandemic is over, will be creating online spaces and even hacking commercial spaces like Amazon or Instagram to create a sense of community and build art that way.
On haunted houses
Cooper: I think that’s a really beautiful art form. I used to make haunted houses when I was a kid in our basement and charge people in our neighbourhood to go through them. I like three-dimensional art and visual art and installations. I’m interested in the home haunts, like this idea that you take this house and turn it into a public space and you have your kids dress up as monsters, and you go through them and they’re not scary but they have all this intention of being scary and they’re so sincere. I find them very moving. They’re so American. They’re a really beautiful folk art form, and I don’t think people recognise them as such.
On his next novel
Cooper: I have a new novel coming out next September called I Wish. It’s different than my other books, in a way. It’s extremely personal and very emotional and very revealing. It’s about George Miles, my real relationship with George Miles, and [it’s] very plain and very emotional, and so different from my work in that sense. It’s very fragile and strange and hardly a novel at all. It’s a weird book.