Dennis Cooper and I have never met, but our paths have crossed on numerous occasions for well over a decade, both of us being long haulers of the small press world and literary blogs. He is the author of many novels—most relevant to this discussion is The George Myles Cycle, which comprise of five novels about his first, great love, George Myles. I Wished is about many things, but lands centered on the suicide of George, and Cooper’s anguish over his first love’s suicide. My father’s suicide greatly informs who I am, and something I also write about, so this subject matter is close to my heart. Cooper also is a performance artist, a critic, a filmmaker, a trail blazer, and a poet, among other things. During the time I ran a kitchen press called Sententia, I published a book of his poetry, The Weaklings. From that standpoint, he was the most gracious and wonderful writer to work with. Now, we both share a press in Soho. It was an honor and a profound pleasure to write back and forth with him about his new novel.
In this interview, we discuss love, loneliness, Santa Claus and altruism, our non-alliance with certain strictures of the American MFA programs, mental illness, the crater motif in this novel, how funny he is, love, and love, and more.
Paula Bomer: Kathy Acker once wrote of her fiction; “I just write the truth. I don’t write fiction.” In I Wished, I was also stuck by the idea of “breaking the 3rd wall” in theater (and film), where the actor, due the written words of the playwright, speaks directly to the audience.
In “Overture”, the first chapter of your novel, the narrator Dennis laments how he has no one to talk to about his terrible grief over finding out about the death of George, his friend and first love. Your narrator laments: “Why hasn’t anyone who knew him ever tried to contact me to say, ‘I knew him too’, or ‘Thank you for devoting so much writing to him’. And, “is what I’ve done that obscure?” And later still: “I want this book to be more public than my others…it’s very hard for me to even do this.”
This novel covers all the widely felt emotions and experiences of love, heartbreak, longing, pain, repression, fear. Life! But this novel is yours uniquely, a beautifully hardened thing, because you have used language for a long time now, and made it your own thing. Also, while not entirely new or unique—Greek tragedy! Primal art shit in caves! and on and on—the subject matter about homosexual desire and frankness about violence all blobbed together, real or imagined, are still “taboo” for some stupid reason and they’ve become something you are known for.
Dennis Cooper: First, thank you, Paula. I wrote I Wished as a kind of supreme challenge to myself. I’ve used myself emotionally in my novels before, of course, but mostly as a kind of resource material. The emotions in my fiction are always sincere, but I thought of them as no different than the other effects I was working with and hoped to achieve, although I did think of emotion as the strongest effect, which I needed to parse out carefully and sparingly. To decide to surrender my fiction to my own emotions to this degree was something I always thought I should do, and that, if I did, I would need to go deep into an area that I have a very hard time controlling. I didn’t want to just tackle the expected go-to personal reservoirs like childhood trauma or failed romantic love. And my friendship with George and his suicide have been a roiling area of thought and memory and confusion that I always have a very time dealing with. My feelings about him don’t sort out, especially into words, so the idea of building some kind of vehicle out of language that would force me to organize and represent those depths accurately while making sense to strangers, i.e. a reader, and that would fulfill my interest in building complicated novelistic structures seemed impossible to me at first but necessary.
Once I had recognized that I would be chickening out if I went personal but stayed away from ‘the George thing’, I kind of felt like I had no choice but to either rupture myself to that degree or just not bother really. So I experimented a lot until I found a way to explode what George made me feel and be a meticulous guide at the same time. Sometimes I could barely aestheticize what I wanted to communicate, say in that opening Overture and in the concluding Finale where I had to let myself plead and just try to stay judicious. Sometimes thinking about George made me fantasize, and it took a fairytale or imagining I was Santa Claus to stay with my thoughts and literalize them. Sometimes I wound up needing to write little essays to keep sufficient distance from the reader. That’s what it took, and I just tried to create coherence between the differing sequences via the particulars of my writing style and via enough internal rhyming throughout of preset recurring/mutating ideas and motifs and so forth to create something that was whole and possessed sufficient forward momentum. Something like that?
What a great way of explaining what it meant to write this novel. “The vehicle out of language” is a perfect way of leading into my next thought.
We learn in the 2nd chapter, “Torn From Something”, a lot about George’s father, his family background, his friends, and the POV switches from the narrator to George’s father, and, well, you are very loose with POV. I love this—it is antithetical to what all writers are taught to do. “Show don’t tell”! You do a lot of telling. The one time I gave a lecture on fiction writing at an MFA program, I read a long passage by Carson McCullers from The Ballad of the Sad Café, where the narrator basically goes on a long diatribe on the difference between the lover and the beloved. It’s all telling. It’s a fantastic book, and my message was, fuck the rules. Describing his bandmate, you write: “He’s a skinny 16 year old prodigy from Brixton drinking gin and watching dead guitarists play the blues with old acoustic instruments on some TV thing.” “Some TV thing”! Ha. You write in a wonderfully general, familiar, often funny, manner—the tight weave of structure, the wrenching examination of self and other. It’s a balancing act, as if you were on a tightrope, and by you I mean both you and the inverse of “I”, the reader. In that way, it mimics what it means to be alive—of being a singular human and being a part of the world.
I’ve always thought the ‘showing not telling’ dictate was a forced division exclusive to the United States, although that may not be true. It seems like a stance against ambition, and like one of the supposedly unspoken rules of fiction writing that maybe helps explain why so many writing school graduate novelists and short story writers wind up becoming pack animals, with a certain flair if they’re lucky, and even contentedly so as far as I can tell. I grew up mostly reading European fiction where showing and telling were equally valid approaches and often interchangeable. In Europe, one has the sense that fiction writers are allowed, even encouraged to use whatever approach and style and formal interventions they feel are necessary to write a potentially great story or novel. The common criticism within US fiction that telling is an act of laziness or cheating just seems like verbally gussied up conservatism to me. It’s like a prettified effort to enforce passivity. A novel isn’t a painting, it’s language that’s been organized until it has the power to bombard pleasurably. The premise that ‘showing’ is somehow more respectful to a reader than ‘telling’ is illogical nonsense. It treats fiction like it’s some kind of corner where writers must sit and work almost as a form of punishment to prevent possible rebelliousness. I don’t understand why that restriction is so widely perpetrated and accepted.
All that said, I’ve always used telling in my fiction sparingly. I don’t think I have any particular insights worth acting persuasive about. I used to write a fair amount of nonfiction and journalism, but I quit doing that partly because I felt uncomfortable creating thrones for my opinions. Maybe it’s my anarchism, but I’m really wary of writing from ‘on high’ as though I’m more knowledgeable about something than the reader may be, even when it’s fiction—something I made up. In the section of I Wished you mentioned, I felt confused about what I was telling the reader. I hoped it would seem like I’d had to stop writing decorously because I didn’t feel I had another choice. Which is the truth.
If I were a young person who could do such a thing, I would do a search in your document on the computer and find out how many times you use the word “love”. This novel is about love. It’s just as much about love as everything on the New York Times bestseller list that is classified about being about love–Romance!—or any self-help book that purports to teach one about love. It’s as much about love and repression as anything written by Tolstoy or—well on and on on that point. I hope you get what your narrator “wishes”. I wish for this book to be more public and break the “cult writer” thing. Which would bring me to all the rule breaking “problems”, the graphic sexual fantasies, the tight structure but loose POV, the violence, children exploring sex, (I played “doctor” in closets as a kid, now that would be—I don’t know what it would be), and such an honest yet sideways examination of repressed homosexuality and the consequences of the demonization of homosexuality, which was once thought to be a mental illness, at other times a stage of development for boys. The reality of George’s mental illness seems depicted in this novel as the result of many things. His mental illness is who he is, not just what he has, and it’s woven into him as much as it is into his life.
Ha ha, I did actually pay close attention to my overuse of the word love, and I did try to make sure that every time I employed it, there was at least a slightly different inference and manner of usage.
When I was writing I Wished, I really did hope that the novel’s emotional openness and relative, for me, plain spokenness might cause it to find its way to people who either don’t know my work or find it theoretically too daunting. It was important to believe that at the time, but, in the ‘clear light of day’, I accepted years ago that the material I work with and my relentless experimenting with form will forever prevent that kind of breakthrough. The literary powers-that-be decided early on that what I write is not worth their time, and no matter how hard or seriously I work, it makes no difference to them, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I think it’s unfair, but I’m powerless. And unfortunately, given that novels have virtually no societal cache these days, the only way to broaden your readership is to get that kind of support from the top down or to do something extracurricular and controversial that draws TMZ and click bait-oriented venues like that to you. Otherwise, it’s word of mouth, and that’s the most important response anyway. And ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the self-appointed bosses think. I’ve never taken my reading cues from the NYT or the NYRB or The New Yorker or wherever, so maybe it’s only fair.
What you say about the all-encompassing nature of George’s condition is really true. As I say in the novel, after he grew out of childhood and became so deeply bipolar, he was never a complete person again. He was a concoction created by his medications that glued his warring parts together into someone who could only hope to function at best. It was a terrible thing. One of the reasons why he and I remained so close was that we bonded tightly before his condition fully manifested itself. I knew him when he was who he really was, even if he was only 12 years old at the time. I was always looking for the adult version of that kid somewhere in him, imagining who that adult would have been, and I think George, when he wasn’t feeling hopeless, was looking for that imaginary person in himself too.
In Ian Hackings’s book Mad Travelers, he theorizes that mental illness isn’t real, but transient, changing with societies’ changes. I agree with the change part, but that doesn’t make it not real.
I’m not sure about that. George’s illness was entirely chemical. It wasn’t brought on by anything in his external life. The goings-on in his life were like the mobile hanging over a baby’s crib that he/she/they stare at. I don’t think society had an impact on him other than to change the manifestations of his alienation over time. So, I don’t know if I agree, I mean.
That makes sense, but let me try to explain what I find interesting about the idea of “transient” in regard to the language used to explain mental illness over time and the way it expresses itself that I like about Hacking’s book, although the main thrust that therefore it’s not real, even if it’s transient in name and expression and treatment, I disagree with. To an extent the way we diagnose and treat and name a thing is ever changing. There are no longer “mad travelers”. Anorexia, which exists and spreads in some cultures but not in others, has a strange connection and history to all kinds of fasting and self-denial. Doctors no longer hand out dildos to women who have “hysteria”. Homosexuality is no longer an illness. People don’t get lobotomies. And then the language of things—what now is PTSD in war veterans was called Shell Shock, and my favorite earlier version, Soldier’s Heart. I love Soldier’s Heart. In constantly rephrasing, it’s as if the entire medical establishment is also grappling with how to explain “lunacy”, a word no longer used.
Soldier’s Heart is a beaut, yeah. In ancient Greece, what we now know as bipolar disorder—what George suffered from—was known as ‘black bile’, of all things. And in the late 18th century, a French academician renamed it ‘folie circulaire’ (circular insanity), which it was popularly known as for a number of years until a German psychiatrist came up with the much less exciting sounding term ‘manic depressive psychosis’, which stuck around for a long time.
Exactly. Language trying to explain something more or less inexplicable, but changing the language to understand, describe it better. I like “black bile” a lot. But then again, I like Ayurvedic and Chinese medical terms, which are thousands of years old. My acupuncturist explained that I have too much heat and dampness when I’m unwell.
Back to Carson McCullers, whose book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter earns its own chapter heading, and lots of other consideration throughout the novel. Another word I’d do the how many times thing search in the novel is the word “lonely”, and its friends. Someone young helped me google search the short story “Free” by Theodore Dreiser, as to how often he uses the word free for an essay I wrote about the story. It was almost 70 times. I love that story—I wrote about it out my love for it. That is not to say that writing from a place of hate or pain or loneliness or all messily combined isn’t also satisfying.
Yeah, it’s strange because I’m not person who feels lonely. I find most social situations very stressful, and I’m happy to sequester myself and just make things. And it’s strange too that thinking about George and missing him makes me feel lonely because, when we were friends, he was depressed so often that being in his company was frequently like being technically in his company while wishing I could actually be in his company, if that makes any sense.
Yes, it does make sense.
I loved reading this novel so much but it also was like being stabbed, as it seemed to point directly to all my loneliness, and also felt like a hug in its acknowledgment that I am not the only alienated fucked up person on the planet. The stab/hug feel. Nice. I always fought to be less alone, but I lost that fight. Now the best I have is a friend who promises he’ll try to find me before the dogs eat me. I told that to my shrink and he said, “the smell will alert the neighbors sooner than that.” Gotta love those people.
I guess the ideal hug would also be a stab. And it would be a book at the same time. A very tall order there.
The arc of this novel is more like a circle to me. I briefly taught writing at Fordham and I nerded out on structure with the 18 year olds—talking about linear versus circular, in only that sometimes—after much else, the piece turns its head back to the beginning. I’ll elaborate and say your structure feels like an ouroboros, an eternal thing, the serpent of loneliness and love feeding off of each other. (I have a ring that is of T-Rex eating a fried chicken leg, a take on the common symbol of ouroboros.) Which brings me to metaphor, the chapters “The Crater”, the cover art, and the end of the novel.
Here the mouth of the story is also a crater. I googled the crap out of the specific crater in the chapter “the Crater”, called Roden, that your narrator talks about George visiting. The crater is owned by and messed with by the artist, James Turrell. My first thought was, how can someone own a piece of the earth this sacred?
The structuring crater motif kind of came out of nowhere. Well, not nowhere, I guess. I really did get struck on the top of my head with an axe by a friend when I was a kid, and that wound’s extreme pain really did feel like it was talking to me and telling me I should be dead. And it did leave a crater in my head. If I went totally bald, the top of my head would look like a stripe of the moon. From what people have told me, George put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Logic says that the top or back of his head would have looked like what the axe blade made of mine, but much, much worse. I don’t know why I wanted that wound to talk, or why I thought what it said if it could talk would be the voice of truth. As I say in the novel, I decided the pain I was in from the axe wound was a voice enunciating a truth about myself that I couldn’t speak with my mouth. And I guess I wanted George’s wound to tell me, and the reader too, what he couldn’t. I don’t know why that lead me to choose Turrell’s crater as the corresponding setting for a fairytale starring George, or why I made it talk and so honestly when it did. I guess all of that collectively was a way to for me to imply that art, and mine especially, isn’t enough, but it’s the only premise whose material I feel comfortable enough to speak with and through. It was a way for me to write about something so painful with total honesty but complete insufficiency.
The narrator says Turrell “loves and disrespects” the crater, and devotes his life to it. Oh how we ruin those we love, and are shat on by those who claim to love us. The crater is literally a hole,—a toilet just came to mind— and is on the cover of I Wished as a hole in George’s face which is the beginning of the book (the cover). It is everything George and Dennis think is missing in their lives. Literal, metaphorical, real, everywhere, a dark hole that never ends, but then ends the life of George, and also spread out, bleeding all over everything.
I can only say I couldn’t have described it that way, and you put it very beautifully.
My last rumination on I Wished , is on the belly of the book, the chapter, “Christmas, 1970”. Smack in the middle of the book, it felt like the womb of the book to me. (I just discovered rumination is a mental health term! “Rumination is a form of preservative cognition that focuses on negative content, generally past and present, and results in emotional distress.”)
What the fuck. It’s so beautiful, I basically underlined the entire chapter. Also, throughout the novel, I was struck by how funny you are and don’t want to fail to mention how many HAHAs I wrote in the margins.
“Altruists (Santa! The lover! (not the beloved)), are self-destructive”, the narrator says. “No one cares if he’s as happy as his features look, or if he’s sick or mentally ill just so long as he’s dependable. He’s not even a he. He’s an it.” Two things came to mind.
One, an essay written by a woman who was one of 5 kids, in a traditional family in the suburbs, who wrote how her mother always seemed jolly, and as they all grew up, the children still descended on the family home, where she cooked, cleaned and made wonderful holidays for all, including her manchild of a useless husband. And then, one Christmas, they woke up and she had—out of the blue!—hung herself in the garage. The writer was like, I guess we all took her for granted.
Two, a line from Dennis Lehane’s “Animal Rescue”. “Once someone takes something from you and you let them? They don’t feel gratitude, they just feel like you owe them more.” And yet the devouring arc of the novel lands gently on tenderness, love love love, the opposite of the bitterness or despair, all confused with loneliness and misery and connection.
I always layer a lot of humor into my work, sometimes just linguistic things, sometimes scenarios or depictions of scenarios that angle at them comically. Not totally unlike your paragraph about the secretly miserable jolly mom. I’m always happy when people get that aspect of my work. I think it’s kind of key.
It’s funny, when I first read what you wrote, I mistook the word ‘womb’ for ‘bomb’, which also works.
I do agree that the Santa section is the novel’s crossroads. I think it’s my favorite section. Or, well, it and the second section titled ‘The Crater’ near the end. I suppose I do see altruism, which Santa Claus was seemingly invented to represent in its ultimate form—he being a kind of Christ-like construct without the guilt tripping baggage that makes ‘Christ’ such a passive aggressive dictator—as a kind of byword for loneliness in its most productive state, but then I think loneliness is the truth, or is truth’s parameters, I guess. Again, maybe it’s my anarchism, but I always feel like when you give with the expectation of reciprocation you’re just poisoning yourself. Maybe I think that my love for George was not enough because it was poisoned by my wish that he would love me back in some way that his condition’s theatricality made undetectable. When I became Santa Claus in the middle of I Wished, I was trying to become that most artificial and content free altruist possible as a way to manifest a love for George that was as pure and selfless as I thought he maybe needed and certainly deserved, and I couldn’t do it. I poisoned Santa Claus too. I tried, I wished, I went as far into my imagination on his behalf as I could manage. I think that section is where the novel’s overall futility becomes plain. It’s where my head hits the wall.
Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Tante Eva, a novel set in post-Cold War Berlin. Her other works include the novel Nine Months, two short story collections, Inside Madeleine and Baby and Other Stories, as well as the essay collection Mystery and Mortality.