[Soho Press; 2021]
Dedicated readers of Dennis Cooper’s fiction — and the audience for his new novel would seem to consist primarily of such readers— expecting to find I Wished to resemble the earlier books in Cooper’s “George Miles Cycle” such as Closer and Frisk are likely to be quite disappointed. Almost entirely free of Cooper’s signature depictions of addiction, sadomasochistic sex, and the constant threat of violence, I Wished is for the most part a relatively quiet, contemplative hybrid of fiction, memoir, and fable in which Cooper alternately muses metafictionally on his own life and career and projects George Miles into several fantasia-like episodes, only some of which, mostly in the first chapter, actually portray George Miles’s life circumstances as Cooper imagines them. Other sections of the novel focus on other characters: Santa Claus, the landscape artist James Turrell, one of the victims of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Cooper is no doubt one of the most prominent (or notorious) and influential writers of “transgressive” fiction, fiction that deliberately repudiates decorum and restraint in the treatment of subject in fiction. Much transgressive fiction seems to delight in flaunting good taste (or perceived good taste) in its depictions of extreme sexual situations and incipient or actual violence (frequently brutal). In many cases, the transgressions in fiction are entirely transgressions of content, challenges to reigning assumptions about the acceptable boundaries of a properly “literary” representation of subject. Cooper is somewhat atypical among the current contingent of transgressive writers (putting aside such figures as William Burroughs and Kathy Acker as precursors rather than certified participants in the genre) in that his defiance of the norms of propriety are often accompanied by deviations from conventional form as well. Perhaps the most formally audacious of Cooper’s novels is The Sluts (2004), which is composed as a series of exchanges on a website’s comments section. But many of Cooper’s novels invoke various metafictional devices, and even those employing something closer to conventional narrative are highly fragmentary and digressive.
Few of these formal variations could be called particularly avant-garde — although The Sluts enacts its perverse version of the epistolary novel with sufficient ingenuity that it produces a truly disturbing spectacle of sadistic excess, and mostly explodes the line between fantasy and reality — but clearly enough Cooper is interested not just in the shock value of his stories but also in the aesthetic effects of his fiction’s design and execution, although the relative dearth of mainstream review coverage of most of his novels suggests that editors and critics, at least, can’t get beyond the unsettling situations and often unpleasant characters. Cooper’s current and future status as a serious writer — not just a transgressor of cultural propriety — would surely be enhanced if more critical attention was given to the aesthetic qualities of his fiction. Transgressive fiction intended mostly as an outrage against respectability will likely fade from memory once those outrages no longer seem so outrageous. Cooper’s work will attract readers in the long run if there is critical recognition that extreme representations of sadistic and depraved behavior can plausibly serve as a vehicle for aesthetic invention, just like any less controversial subject the literary artist might take up.
Certainly not all of Cooper’s chosen methods have worked equally well. The Marbled Swarm, published in 2012 but Cooper’s most recent novel before I Wished, is an exercise in style, its first-person protagonist an expert, he tells us, in verbal indirection and obfuscation (what he calls his “marbled swarm”), which he offers up in lieu of a reliable story. Unfortunately, the result is not an intriguing exploration of unreliable narration but an extended indulgence in almost unrelieved tedium. My Loose Thread wanders in familiar Cooper territory — teenage boys burdened by addiction, sexual confusion, and suicidal depression (with some excursions into violent Nazism for good measure) — in its attempt to chronicle the development of a Columbine-style high school shooter, but it offers more sensationalism than it does insight into the social and psychological circumstances that contributed to the outbreak of high school shootings.
The George Miles cycle remains (and probably will remain) Cooper’s most influential and lasting effort as a writer of fiction. These novels only nominally involve George Miles himself — only Closer is really “about” this character. Indeed, the novels often seem more about Dennis Cooper than George Miles (“Dennis” is a frequent character), although they are not memories disguised as fiction. Cooper invokes the “real” George Miles, a figure from Cooper’s youth who Cooper later discovered had committed suicide, as a kind of invisible presence, a ghost whose life experience (as Cooper understands it) obliquely haunts the narratives in their obsessions with anomie, sexual abuse, antisocial behavior, and runaway desire among the changing casts of teenage boys and the adults who exploit them. It seems relatively certain that Cooper intends through these exhibitions of often pornographic and distasteful behavior among mostly gay male characters to portray the corruption of innocence, for the infliction of which no category of humans has an exemption. Apparently, many readers have taken exception to Cooper’s allegedly harmful depictions of his gay characters, which on the one hand is a typical enough response among parties claiming to be offended by an artist’s supposedly damaging misrepresentations of a particular group’s habits of mind and behavior, but on the other actually reinforces Cooper’s credibility as a writer more interested in the integrity of his aesthetic vision than in shoring up his political standing.
It’s unlikely many readers would object to the representations in I Wished, and finally that is probably the most immediate indicator of this novel’s limitations as both a coda of sorts to the Miles cycle and as a work of fiction considered on its own. The novel’s first chapter — following an “Overture” addressed directly to the reader by, presumably, Dennis Cooper — actually does begin with the sort of thing we might expect from a Cooper novel. George Miles’s father kills his mother, “scrubbing their bedroom furniture and walls with her fighting, flopping body for a long time.” The father then comes into the living room where 12-year-old George is watching a cartoon, and contemplates raping and killing him, but finally settles for punching him in the chest. This episode perhaps serves, both for this novel and the Miles cycle as a whole, as a sort of emblematic scene that epitomizes the role George Miles has played in Dennis Cooper’s imagination — as an exemplar of the confused, preyed-upon youth, the sensitive and guileless boy for whom the world as it is has no use but to demean and debase him. (That the mayhem performed on George’s mother seems rather incidental, an ancillary part of the background against which we are brought into George’s world, is notable but not surprising: Women play a minor and mostly insignificant role in Cooper’s fiction.) George is the prototype, although other characters assume the part as well, in effect standing in for George.
In I Wished, George ostensibly appears throughout, but in most of the chapters after the first the emphasis is on “Dennis” rather that George. The novel is ultimately about the use to which Dennis the writer has put George Miles in the novel cycle bearing his name, an endeavor which seems to have had a profound effect on “Dennis” as well, who professes his love for George in direct and surprisingly earnest language. So earnest, in fact, are the narrator’s expressions of devotion to George Miles that when we get to the “Finale” of the book we might begin to harbor some skepticism about the motives behind this language:
I worship the ground he walks on. I wish there was a way for me to let you know that cliché was blurted into language, that an impulse I could not control just grabbed those words to get it out.
I wish I could type something that would immediately detail my love’s massive extent and indicate what love’s crippling effect on language has reduced or enlarged me to.
The sentiment is laid on pretty thick here, more thickly perhaps than one would expect from such a consistently transgressive writer. But then we might be led to ask one of the basic questions debated in Criticism 101: Is “Dennis” the author, the biographical Dennis Cooper, or is this an invented narrator, a persona taken on in this novel whose words have more to do with the created “George Miles” than with the memory of the actual George, now fully idealized by the actual Dennis Cooper? That writer is known, after all, for novels that deliberately obscure the distinction between reality and fantasy, so if we don’t want to think of Dennis Cooper as a sentimental writer, maybe we can think of the narrator’s emotional outpourings as just an elaborate exercise in metafiction.
If we regard it as such, I Wished is then a mildly interesting variation on the postmodern mode of self-reflexive fiction, noteworthy for the way the self-reflexive narrator makes his story more about his own circumstances than the invented characters and scenes he presents. If we want to regard it as a supplementary installment in the George Miles cycle, surely it does little to either burnish or detract from the achievement of the original series. If we accept the account offered by Cooper’s narrator for what it professes itself to be, the confession of Dennis Cooper’s true feelings about the now martyred George Miles, we might have to acknowledge that the result is not very convincing, and verges on the maudlin.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His book of essays, Beyond the Blurb, has been published by Cow Eye Press and his website can be found at: http://noggs.typepad.com.