by Dennis Cooper
(Canongate ) $18.00
First a little background. From 1984 to 2000, Dennis Cooper published five novels known as the George Myles cycle. They all focused in one way or another on men enacting a fascination with teenage boys through violence, either real or imagined. Oddly (in light of the subject matter), these books managed to create a radically liberating politics. They did not discuss politics, per se; instead, Cooper made the page itself into a political space.
In Cooper's novels the page is not just a secondary record of thoughts, but a primary realm of action. It may be the only place his ideals can get worked out--the last shared space not delimited by laws and habits hostile to anarchism. Cooper is an anarchist. He is terminally suspicious of power. But he lives--we live--in a world so deeply matrixed by struggle and hierarchy that even something as simple as a dinner conversation inevitably sinks down the toilet of power and conflict. Hemmed in by this reality, an anarchist can either become a total asshole, or he can look for social spaces in which that dynamic is undone. Cooper finds his on the written page.
While reading--silent, solitary--we become available for ideal politics. Specifically, we allow a dissolution of authority (as meanings are generated by both reader and writer) and enter relationships that dismantle our ability to simply dominate or submit. The conventions of fiction--that the author is not the sole agent of this world; that this space is independent of subjectivity even as it makes a home for our own; that the author is both present and absent at once--abet this transformation. The potential for ideal politics exists on any page, but few writers make it happen.
Paradoxically, Cooper does so by configuring a rigorously structured narrative, one that neither "triumphs" over conventions (as I believe the fictions of John Barth or Kathy Acker do--let it be said that Dennis Cooper doesn't share my view of Barth or Acker) nor uncritically enacts them. He does not fight battles: Pressures and expectations are accommodated, and an exacting laxness prevails. His language is common, the stuff of the world outside the book, and never saddled with the surging ambition of lyricism. At the crucial level of the sentence, Cooper's language constructs--over and over--an attenuated space in which the author never entirely succeeds nor completely fails to master meaning. Freed of mastery, readers relax into compromised positions. Cooper shows us the shapes that love takes when it forsakes power.
Seen in this light, the dynamics of Cooper's central drama--passive boys getting axed by inquisitive men--must be reconsidered. Typically, critics have identified Cooper with the murderous men (whom Cooper sometimes perversely names "Dennis"), thus objectifying the aimless teens. But that name--"Dennis"--is hung on the jerry-rigged frames of these characters: like Buster Keaton's expressionless face, it is a screen that will not speak. Behind it lies a vacancy, or some profound kind of terror, but never a dwelling place for the author. Cooper is elsewhere, with the boys. I don't mean he's an eternal adolescent or wants to figure boys out; I mean he's interested in the risks and intimacies of yielding, of passivity amid violence. His texts recline before the reader, splayed by our prying eyes, so that the author stands on the same verge as those boys, able to see and possibly understand forces that would pinion and eviscerate him, yet unwilling to take up weapons or struggle. What is real anarchism like in a world of power--that is, in the world where we live? It's like being a boy in a Dennis Cooper novel.
And now comes My Loose Thread, Cooper's first novel that's actually about kids. There is no "Dennis." The teens are positioned in relation to each other, not to a Godlike power. The speaker is a boy, Larry, in love with his own younger brother, Jim, and a lot of confusion and violence radiates out from this central engine. Adults, more numerous than in the George Myles cycle, occupy a kind of mute horizon, surrounding the circumscribed space of Larry's actions like the padding that lines a mental patient's cell.
Power here is muffled and pervasive--smeared around--not neatly located in a murderous man. It bursts out at the most inopportune times, in flurries of violence or humiliation sometimes abetted by talk, sometimes defused by it. For Larry, neither the potential collectivity of talk nor the brutality inherent in love and family ever thoroughly obviates the other; both simply spiral forward, unceasing. The swarming multivalance of My Loose Thread has the interesting retroactive effect of exposing the strict, nearly geometric organization of power in Cooper's earlier books.
The George Myles cycle showed us a man, an artist, alone with himself, arranging power and its renunciation on the written page. My Loose Thread immerses us in a social world--it is the ocean to Cooper's earlier fishtank. Same water, same fish, but now no scientist.
Cooper's masterful command of conversation gives this book the sumptuous density and pleasure of a Jane Austen novel. Like Austen, Cooper has chosen a narrow social stratum and mastered its speech. He's able to map the vast canvas of his characters' ambitions and frustrations simply through talk and its failure. He also shares Austen's gift for narrative elegance and concision.
This echo of Austen amplifies Cooper's unlikely similarity to one of his contemporaries, Alan Hollinghurst. In The Spell, Hollinghurst examined the privileged men of London's gay nightclubs through the nuances of their speech in an elegant narrative (like My Loose Thread, organized around the pastoral duality of town and country); his novel's ending is as surpassingly ambivalent as Cooper's. Both writers dwell on people too often dismissed as dumb or inarticulate and reveal their rich particularity. They humanize those we would dismiss, pursuing what is ultimately a radical political agenda.