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Dennis Cooper's Monster In The Margins

There are no simple answers, and that is the core of the problem, especially in a politicized community which professes to have clearly-defined answers.
Kim Nicolini

Issue #5, March/April 1993

What happens when the "outsider" becomes the norm? When the "bad subject" becomes just another "subject" in yet another structured and politicized community's mainstream where the rules and definitions are as narrow as those of the society from which the "outcasts" were thrown? What happens when a culture of sexual rebels becomes even more repressive than that of the heterosexual "norm" and the already marginalized are pushed outside its margins? What happens is Dennis Cooper and other homosexual/sexually-deviant writers and artists who do not feel the least bit "gay" (in both senses of the word), do not want to be gay and feel estranged from and leery of the gay community in general. Cooper's emphasis is on being "queer", as in different, abnormal and "outside". He has no interest in a collective identity whatsoever. Who says you need a politicized community to protect your freedom? Indeed, you need freedom from the political community to protect your individual and ever-coveted perversions of mind and body.

Dennis Cooper has been called the voice of the Blank Generation and the "new gothic". He has been compared to de Sade and Genet. He has been defined as the backbone of "queercore". While at one reading in Berkeley, a nineteen-year-old girl anxiously waited for Cooper's autograph with her Oreo-encrusted copy of Frisk; at another reading in San Francisco's Castro he received death threats over the same book. He has been likened to such writers as Patrick McGrath, John Banville, Ian Banks and Ian McEwen — all British and all heterosexual. Needless to say, he is a tough guy to pin down and presumably he likes it that way.

Although Cooper's protagonists are homosexual men, "sexual orientation" is not the issue. Sexual orientation, like so many other "P.C." phrases and concepts, has become a separate religion unto itself, with its own definition of what constitutes normality, especially here in the Bay Area. Take a look at your local bookstores which now all have Gay and Lesbian fiction sections chock-full of the latest, hottest bestsellers including works by Tom Spanbower and David Leavitt — virtual Sidney Sheldons of Gay fiction. Much of mainstream gay literature has to a great extent become propaganda for the politicized gay community. It has become a testament to those inside and outside the community that the "gay lifestyle" is emotionally healthy, that the "gay community" is out and ready to support its comrades, and that the gay micro-world is brimful of happy, healthy, love-filled relationships. Between the "coming out" stories, the recovery texts and the mainstream erotica, there is little room for anything "other" than homo-normal literature.

Enter Dennis Cooper. He has been accused of threatening our ideas of what's acceptable in literature as he moves in and out of the literary fringes, exploring the nature of sexual obsession, alienation, violence and ultimately death. Indeed to some members of the gay community, his work seems to threaten more than traditional definitions of literature as Cooper shows the monstrous capability of sexual obsession through the minds of his homosexual male protagonists. However, what these readers fail to see is that although his work is centered on homosexual men, it transcends the constraining definitions of "sexual orientation".

Cooper takes us into the fragmented, obsessed and scattered minds of the truly sexually and psychologically alienated. His message seems to be that all people are sexually, emotionally and socially alienated at the core despite sexual orientation. Pure sexual/emotional connection between people is impossible since all a body can offer is fragmented information. Sexuality is individually and uniquely obsessive and dark, and it is only when we are free from the confines of collective identity that we can even begin to understand this. It is only when succumbing to the politicized community's definitions of sexuality, gay or otherwise, that we mask our natural "freakishness" and pretend to be "normal". Needless to say, this isn't the most palatable point of view for most readers of contemporary fiction.

However, palatable is not what Cooper wants to be. You can find plenty of palatable gay fiction lining the tables of your local bookstore. Cooper rejects the tasteful and digestible aesthetic of gay literature, and carves his own unique genre into the underbelly of "queer" art. The sexual obsessions which Cooper writes about are so disturbingly violent and repulsive that it seems he intentionally severs himself form his readers and the gay community and affirms his "queerness" or "otherness". He defines his writing as part of a "growing anti-assimilationist queer movement", and when asked how he sees himself in the community of homosexual art and literature, Cooper states: "To use a cliche, I guess you could say a thorn in its side."

So why is this thorn so important? Because it rebukes the thought prison of homo-normal art. In a way, the gay artist is facing even more suffocating constraints than the hetero-artist. According to the unspoken bylaws of the politicized gay community, if you are an artist you are obligated to be a spokesperson for the community. Hence, all your art becomes predestined to deliver the community's message. It is no longer art. It is propaganda. Well, some artists are most comfortable being "freaks" (or, as Cooper says, "weirdos") and do not want to be boxed in by any political or communal ties. Snobbish politics kill talent and stifle good art.

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Dennis Cooper after his recent reading at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The following are excerpts of the interview in which Cooper addresses some of these issues.

Kim Nicolini: How do you see your work in the community of homosexual art and literature?

Dennis Cooper: I guess to put it in a cliche, it's kind of a thorn in its side or something. Personally, I never even really felt, like even since I decided that I was gay when I was, whatever, thirteen or something, really comfortable in the gay community. Even before liberation made everybody "out" and more able to have conventional lives and stuff, I never liked the rituals and the collective thing. I am not into collective identity at all. It just doesn't interest me at all. I mean, I think I have the same relationship to homosexuality as any kind of transgressive artist that is a heterosexual has to heterosexuality...I feel alienated from it.

[Sexual orientation] never really defined me. There was a time when I went to bars and bath houses and stuff, but I never liked it, and I never felt at all comfortable. I was into the punk scene and that was a scene that was totally not about sexuality. People knew who was gay, like Harvey Crash or whatever, but it wasn't an issue. I've always felt like that, and I've always had lots of straight friends...and it's never been a problem or an issue. I totally support gay rights and all that stuff as much as I can, but at the same time I feel like, being gay, you're on the outside and you don't have to participate and it's stupid to think that you're ever going to be allowed into the main structure of anything. So there is a kind of freedom there...I don't do it consciously but I do end up like [separating myself]. Like this new book I read from [Try], every gay character in there is a monster and all the good characters are straight. I didn't do it on purpose. It just came out that way because there's things about the behavior of gay men that's just as odious as any straight guy objectifying women. It's just the same fucking problem.

KN: What about alternative communities like 'zines?

DC: 'Zines totally excite me. When the whole 'zine culture like Fact Sheet Five and that stuff happened, I felt really excited for the first time in a long time because you were able to find other people, like weirdos and recluses and weird brainy people. All of them had a lot in common, but is wasn't like you had to go down to some place and hang out there, whether it was a coffee house or a disco or anything. So that really interested me. And also even within the gay thing. This queer 'zine thing was interesting because most of those people in the 'zines are pretty alienated people. There is this kind of weird, I hate the word community, but there's a kind of connection between people who have an interest in fucking with things a nd being defiant. They're scattered all over the place and you don't have to [talk or see each other]. That interests me a lot because one really doesn't want to feel like one is totally alone in the world.

KN: How do you feel about the recent trend of "outing" and particularly the pressure to out Bob Mould? [Bob Mould is an alternative rock musician. He is the lead singer and guitarist for alternative chart-buster band Sugar and one-time member of Husker Du. His hard-edged, guitar-based music is not the sort of music which would normally be perceived as "gay" within heterosexual America. In fact, he has a very strong following among young heterosexual males.]

DC: I am anti-outing. I guess ultimately I just don't care if it happens. There is something that really bugs me about it. But again it's because I just don't think this collective identity thing is that interesting. I love Bob Mould more than anything. I feel that his work has homosexuality in it about as much as anything else, but I think he should have the right to do what he fucking wants. Eventually he'll probably come out and it might help a lot of weird gay kids feel better about themselves or whatever but it's his decision and he's making great work. He's not skirting the issue in his work. He's always written ambiguously about love and stuff, and I think he is probably someone whose homosexuality is not a big deal to him either. Why should he suddenly have to become a spokesperson?

I know Gus Van Sant, and he's obviously out, but he's really fed up with being considered a spokesperson when he's like a weirdo and doesn't have any interest in the gay community at all. I think if Bob Mould or Michael Stipe came out they'd be in the same position. Although I wish Michael Stipe would come out just because he is so famous and it would make such a big difference. But Bob Mould, I don't know. I think just leave him alone. He's great. He'll come out at some point.

In the complexity and ambiguity of Cooper's last answer, we can see that he is a person who is constantly struggling with his own ideas and with his own position on such subjects as sexual orientation, community and the artist. There are no simple answers, and that is the core of the problem, especially in a politicized community which professes to have clearly-defined answers. However, it is clear that the issue on all sides is freedom — the freedom to live, write and fuck how and who we want. When the so-called protectors of that freedom start becoming the jailers then it is time to move on.

Dennis Cooper is the author of two books of poetry, Idols and The Tenderness of Wolves, two novels, Closer and Frisk, and one collection of prose, Wrong. He is the editor of the recent anthology Discontents: New Queer Writers. Look for his upcoming novel Try in the fall.

Kim Nicolini is a poet and artist. She has published her work in various bars and cafes and has self-published a number of books of poetry, including Black Drum, Dirt, and Bad. She is Dennis Cooper's number one fan. She would love to hear from you:

Copyright © Kim Nicolini. All rights reserved.