An Elusive Wish: A Conversation with Dennis Cooper




IN HIS FIRST NOVEL in over a decade, underground icon Dennis Cooper revisits the childhood friend, George Miles, the namesake and inspiration for a quintet of novels published between 1989 and 2000. The George Miles Cycle novels — Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period — feature a mosaic of broken characters engaging in drug abuse, adolescent sex, and violent exploitation. Fearlessly honest and unconventional, the series is considered a landmark of experimental fiction and has accrued both acclaim and moralistic scorn. Though technically not a new installment, I Wished excavates the cycle’s source material while paying tribute to its subversive ethos.

Cooper was born and raised in the suburbs of Southern California and later devoted his literary career to lambasting cookie-cutter conformity. He founded Litter Caesar Magazine, a punk anarchist zine which ran from 1976 to 1982 and featured work by Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and Brian Eno. During that time, Cooper also launched his own press, publishing titles by poets including Eileen Myles and Amy Gerstler. In the early 1980s, he served as the director of programming of Beyond Baroque — an institution in Venice, California, that gave space to the avant-garde — until he moved to downtown Manhattan to immerse himself in its thriving art scene. After making the switch from poetry to fiction and relocating to Amsterdam, Cooper started exploring his teenage infatuation with George Miles, a troubled friend who, the author would eventually learn, committed suicide when he was 30. Cooper published the first installment of the cycle, Closer, in 1989.

Now living in Paris, France, Cooper has spent the last few years experimenting with narrative forms ranging from GIF novels to film and video games. Notably, he’s chronicled his idiosyncratic interests on a popular blog that, in 2016, was briefly taken down by Google due to a content moderation dispute.

In the majority of Cooper’s work, characters are driven to find and secure control, often achieved in twisted, lurid ways. This desire for control is often explored literally with depictions of sadomasochism, snuff films, deranged online forum posts, and serial killers who enact their most grotesque fantasies on the most vulnerable of bodies. In I Wished, however, Cooper’s approach and subject matter is more subtle, restrained. Weaving together a tapestry of pop culture references with heartfelt retellings of George Miles’s life — the real George Miles, not the fictional iterations of him that inflect the Cycle — Cooper tests art’s representational limits in the expression of longing and grief. He presents a disorienting meditation on how adolescent infatuation can mutate into an all-consuming desire for possession. Despite its short length, the novel covers much ground. Cooper calls upon Santa Claus, Nick Drake, James Turrell, and John Wayne Gacy to convey the different dimensions of his obsession, entrapping each figure in George Miles’s captivating orbit. The provocateur gets vulnerable on his own terms — irreverent, perplexing, and darkly funny.

I recently caught up with Cooper via Zoom to talk about George Miles, making art on the internet, and what it means to live and write against the forces of normalization.

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DANIEL SPIELBERGER: Why did you decide to return to the George Miles Cycle?

DENNIS COOPER: It wasn’t my intention because I don’t think of it as being part of the cycle. I had wanted to write for a long time a book about my friend George because he’s really fundamental to me and in my work. Also, the character of the George in that cycle is not at all like the real George except kind of physically and psychologically a little bit. So, I thought it’d be a good idea to write a book about the real George and my real friendship with him.

I ended up referencing the cycle in the book because I wrote those books about him and that was kind of a big thing, so I had to write about that since it’s about me representing him, and I represented him in those books. Mostly, I really just wanted to write about George because it’s a very heavy thing for me and it’s really hard for me to think about him, so I thought I’d just wanted to challenge myself. I hadn’t written a novel that was so personal before and it seemed like a good way to push myself.

In the closing chapter, you write: “I’ve never written fiction, like, I think and talk and feel before.” What was it like to write from a more vulnerable place?

It was certainly very interesting. It presented a challenge that I had never had before because I’m very carefully thought out. My work is very constructed and very structured. It’s not like I don’t write from emotion, but there’s a kind of explosive emotion that comes up in me when I think about him and I talk about that in the book and represent it to some degree.

To be able to do that, and then also try to make it as meticulous and carefully made and complicated as I really want my work to be, was pretty difficult. I found a way to do it. As I say, in the book, I wrote a whole novel that I threw away, because it didn’t work. When I started this one, I was a little bit more in control of what I can and can’t do. And so when I wrote this, I had a sense of how I might be able to do my aesthetics and also let myself be really vulnerable and honest.

Do you feel like you got a sense of closure from writing this book?

No. I’ve now written a book about George, and I don’t really know that I would ever have anything more to say. So in that sense, I’m not going to write another book about George. But it doesn’t make him go away. He’s still a really important part of my brain and my emotions and psychology and so he’ll probably still influence what I do. I was very happy to have finally been able to do it and to do it in a way that was satisfactory to me. But it doesn’t feel like the end of anything.

Amorphous myths often appear at the center of your stories — something to be discovered or understood, but which never resolves or reveals itself in a clear, satisfying way. Your work has this recurring theme of showing how these alluring myths are often collective constructs that implicate anyone who participates. For instance, in The Sluts (2004), there’s Brad, a sex worker who becomes an urban legend on a male escort site. In I Wished, you unravel the myth of Georgia Miles through rendering him literal and you devote a whole chapter to Santa Claus — a figure that reflects society’s desire for immediate gratification. What draws you to deconstructing myths?

I never think about it that way. I’m very instinctual about what I write about. I’m very crafty when I write. I don’t like sit down and go, “Oh, I should deconstruct this, or I should try to take this apart, or I should address this thing.” I just have something I need to do and then I do it. So, I never really think about that because I’m really interested in confusion. I like the amorphous. For instance, in The Sluts, there’s this idea that there’s these people online who construct these fantasies and they think it’s real and confuse reality and start to really care about this Brad — who doesn’t exist — and project onto him. I’m interested in trying to get into what causes people to do that. I suppose the whole conspiracy thing going on right now is something like that but that’s so incredibly boring. But with Santa Claus, I don’t know. I was writing about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter because that was important to me [as a kid] and then I thought, “Oh, he’s kind of like Santa Claus.” It was just like, “Oh, he should become Santa Claus now,” and then it was just a natural shift.

Santa Claus bleeds into James Turrell and his ambitious project at the Roden Crater that’s something of an obsession for him. There’s this absurd dialogue between George Miles and the crater; it’s these two conceptual abstractions going head to head, contemplating what it means to be the object of an artist’s desire. Why did you include Turrell’s work in I Wished?

I wanted the book to be about the futility of art. I’m making this book with George and I made those books for George, and he never saw them and he died before I published them. I wanted to do a fairy tale and set it at this super ambitious artwork. Plus, I also wanted to set up this whole thing with the crater in his head and the Roden Crater and do this kind of super fantastical thing and then be able to reduce it to what it really was, which was what was left in his head when he blew his brains out.

I’m interested in James Turrell because his stuff is all about the amorphous and the ephemeral, and all that stuff really keys into what I what the book is about. Like I said, a lot of it is just instinctual, but the rhyming with the crater was pretty important so that I could create that terrible dichotomy between those two things.

Try, the third book in the George Miles Cycle, is about Ziggy — an adopted bisexual teenager who’s sexually abused by two gay dads. He’s lost and searching for any semblance of guidance. Since its publication in 1994, queer people have become more assimilated into mainstream culture. Does that trajectory make you view your earlier work differently?

No. I always was against that stuff and I’m still against it. I mean, I am not against it. I think people should do whatever they want and whatever makes them happy. I think everybody should have the right to do anything they want and so on and so forth. At the time, that normalizing thing bothered me. Also, because at that point, my work was really being attacked a lot by gays for being bad representations of gay [life and culture] so probably there was a little bit of that going on with me when I wrote it. But no, I don’t think things have changed that much. Yeah, it’s a different world. Now people who are gay aren’t as into books, so that’s really different. But I don’t think [the mainstream normalization of gayness] makes any difference. I don’t think it changes the work. I think it’s fine that people want to adopt kids, obviously; I have friends who have adopted kids, or had biological kids with women. So, [Try] is not an indictment. I don’t write indictments of anything. It’s all just really about what it’s about and very particular to the book.

Can you elaborate on that notion of writing against normalization?

On a fundamental level, I have no interest in conventional fiction. I never learned how to write it and I never read it. When I was 15 and I started to be a writer, I was reading all this avant-garde experimental literature, looking at experimental films, and listening to experimental music. It’s a fundamental thing. I try to write novels that are not novels and are against the idea of the novel.

I’m not hostile toward anything. It’s just I don’t live a normal life. I’ve always been this weird artist, and I’ve never participated in kind of mainstream life or culture — queer or otherwise. I don’t relate to wanting to find a life partner and get married and all that stuff. I don’t relate to that kind of work of fiction or books. I have no interest in conventional fiction. It’s just not my world.

Your 2004 novel The Sluts captured a moment in internet history in which there was less regulation. Twelve years later, in 2016, Google took down your blog for two months due to a misunderstanding. Do you think it’s still possible to foster a sense of transgressive anarchism online? Where are people finding refuge to experiment?

Yeah, it’s totally possible. I have this blog that’s mostly about art and stuff. But it’s full of people looking at experimental things and I present stuff there. I had that problem with Google but it was just this algorithm and they refused to admit it. They ended up saying that it was a censorship issue because they said there was child pornography on my blog, which wasn’t true and it was just kind of an ugly incident. But they didn’t censor me because of what I was doing, there was some algorithm that fucked up and they didn’t care and then when people started writing articles about it, they kind of lied to cover their ass.

On my blog, I do these posts once or twice a month where I present escort posts that I find. And another one where I find these guys who are slaves and are looking for masters. There’s crazy stuff going on those sites, and they exist, and no one seems to take them down. Yeah, I think it’s totally possible. You just try to get away from social media because if you start dipping into social media with that stuff, then you’re going to get in trouble. There are plenty of outposts on the internet that are free places to talk — it’s just you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

In I Wished, you articulate a desire for this book to be “more public” in the hopes that it could find people who knew Georgia Miles. Have you succeeded? Has anyone who knew George contacted you?

Well it just came out, so I don’t know yet. Nobody who knew George has contacted me — yet. I wish there was someone I could talk to about George. I have one old friend who knew him, but he just thinks that it’s weird that I’m so interested in him. He doesn’t really get it. So, I don’t know. It’s not a blockbuster book, so I don’t think it’s going to break out and suddenly be on the best-seller list or anything. But yeah, maybe. I’ve been writing about George for a long time and so you would think that by now that if someone was a friend of George’s or knew him they would have contacted me to say, “Hey, how crazy that you wrote this thing about George.” But no one ever has.

I don’t know if this book is going to make any difference, but that’s my wish.

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