Dennis Cooper: Florid Mysteries
Author: Bradford Nordeen
November 14, 2011
“I’m really afraid of repeating myself or writing a book that just doesn’t need to exist for me. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m just writing stuff, where everybody’s like, ‘here’s another one of these stupid books…'”
Dennis Cooper is best known for his stark and minimal novels set in the blanched cement climes of Los Angeles. From the late 80s into the mid-Naughts, he spun that SoCal drawl into poetry – honing a timbre somewhere between Joan Didion’s alacrity and a pothead’s neurotic torpor. His new novel, The Marbled Swarm (Harper Perennial, 2011), is a change of pace for the cult writer, who moved from Los Angeles to Paris in 2005. The prose is florid, sweeping and haughty, a point-of-view dictation of the twisted plight from our unnamed protagonist who happens to be a billionaire cannibal. This stylistic departure breathes great life into the new novel, with a labyrinthine language that mimics the narrative’s mysterious turns and baroque locales.
Let me start by saying I’ve never laughed this much through one of your novels. Did Dennis Cooper really write a comedy?
[laughs] Well, it’s more than that I hope, but yeah, I wanted the voice to be very, well… it’s a really complicated book, right, and it’s going all over the place and doing all sorts of tricks and being really complex. I was trying to use a lot of things to keep people on the ball and not just go “fuck this.” I made the voice really as clever as I could make it.
It reads, in the promotional materials provided with this book, that the language, a manner of speaking from which The Marbled Swarm takes its name, was a “nod to [your] inability to understand people when [you] first moved to Paris.” But you’ve really made a great farce in, not miscommunication, per se, but the ability of language to almost even elude subjects altogether.
Yeah yeah yeah. I’ve been living here over six years, and I still don’t speak French, although I understand a little bit and I get by. So it’s really an odd experience to basically live someplace and not really understand what everyone is saying all the time and guessing ‘cause you know certain words. That’s sort of what it started out. I really love the sound of the French.
I’ve always been totally [fascinated by] the inability of language to communicate things [I’ve always been interesting in writing ] about types of people who find it very difficult to communicate really deep things. That’s always been a really big interest of mine, so it was kind of exciting to find this really weird voice that I could really [explore] that more explicitly than I ever have before.
For the first 50 pages, I though you were writing a whimsical Gothic novel. I was shocked but kind of excited, beside myself.
Yeah. [Laughs] It’s supposed to make you think that is what’s going to happen and hopefully trap you, cause by the end of the first chapter I hope that people have kind of gotten used to the voice and they’re over how irritating the voice is.
Then, after that, the voice starts to become kind of psychedelic and turn in on itself. But the first part was just to pull you in and create this mystery. Then everything becomes quizzical afterwards. But, I wanted it to seem as if it was going to be a bit of entertainment at first.
It seems in recent novels that you’ve tried to dismantle the image that is “Dennis Cooper,” first through your heterosexual father in God Jr. and now as a loquacious billionaire with The Marbled Swarm. What inspired these figures and the manner in which you created them?
With God Jr. people had always said, “Well, gee, what would happen if you didn’t write about the stuff you always write about?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know!”
I thought it would be an interesting challenge. I was just basically trying to use myself and then have these rules where there could be no gay characters, no real violence and no sex and all that kind of stuff, and that was sort of like what was left.
With the new one… It all kind of comes out of Pierre Clementi. That’s what kind of started it, so I guess I used him as a muse or something. I am really interested in his work and in him. I wanted to use him, but I didn’t want to have him be a character. I just constructed this character that was sort of like my characters but who would be the son of Pierre Clementi and had that [legacy] handed down.
I don’t really think about characters so much, I just think about voice, so I get this voice and I start working with the voice and the voice makes the character. I kind of figured out the character as I was working on it, it’s not like I went in saying, “I want to have this snobby cute boy who wants to be a cannibal”… it was just I had the voice and found the right person who would fit the voice.
It’s funny with the voice. I mean, Sade has obviously been an influence on your work, tracing back to the beginning, it seems, but this is your first Sadean work with regards to language, where language spirals out on itself and becomes almost vertiginous, which is a real departure from the way you were originally constructing your prose. Was it your goal, at first, to sit down and write a Sadean book?
No, not at all. I was aware that that was going to happen because I was going to make everything French and everything set in France, but with a few American references to throw the thing off a little bit. It wasn’t that I went back and I studied Sade’s prose, cause it’s got Sade in it but it’s also got a lot of ideas I took from film, really.
I was thinking a lot about Alain Resnais’ Providence and things like that, and Robbe-Grillet’s films. It has as much [Ronald] Firbank in it as it has Sade, so, no it wasn’t deliberate. People say that and I understand. I guess whatever residue of his influence is in there came out and, because I was working in this more florid kind of Baroque voice. It wasn’t conscious or anything.
Yeah, I mean it seems a tendency to knee-jerk to Sade, I guess when… well, with the subject matter, but I also pulled out 120 Days of Sodom to read through it and see the structure, if it was similar… and it is quite similar in the way Sade structures his sentences.
It could well be. It’s just that that wasn’t something I studied. 120 Days of Sodom is so in my system that it wouldn’t surprise me.
But it also reads as this kind of hilarious pastiche of Frenchness, particularly because it still feels like a distinctly LA Dennis Cooper perspective, but looking through the eyes of this French billionaire.
Well, that’s good. I was kind of hoping it would be like that. [laughs]
Did you include a lot of the hip touch-stones like Clementi, I mean, it sounds like you really love Clementi, but Isabelle Adjani also stood out for me as a reference point.
[laughs] Yeah, I wanted to have a lot of French reference points and those were just based on…when you live here, you don’t actually see Isabelle Adjani that much at the moment, but there was a period when she was making this comeback over here and you were seeing her a lot and she made this film which was her “comeback film” and she was on television a lot. And she’s just so incredibly plastic surgeried and it was so disturbing in a certain way that I just wanted to work with that.
I also like the idea of these kids who would be the sons of Pierre Clementi and Isabelle Adjani. There was something about that combination that I really liked. I don’t think they ever worked together, but those references are just references I pick up from being over here.
It is really hilarious to have one illegitimate child with the mother be Clementi’s and the father’s be with Adjani. It’s a funny construct.
I say in the book, they look a lot like their parents, so it’s kind of like watching the young Pierre Clementi and the young Isabelle Adjani, do whatever they want… I guess they don’t really have sex so much, but… [laughs] they do something together.
It’s much, much worse than that.
Yes… I guess so.
You also chose to represent, sort of stereotypically, or realistically… Paris is such a luxury city and your protagonist is a billionaire who exploits all of the luxuries Paris offers. Does the scenery kind of rub off on you, or did you do a particular kind of research into that lifestyle in order to write the character?
I did a little bit of research but I have a lot of friends here who are like that and my boyfriend is really obsessed with fashion, so I hear all about that kind of stuff from him. And then I did some research, I know April 77 and all those [scenes] I am very aware of ‘cause there’s a lot of emos here and I’m interested in emos.
The most research was on culinary stuff, which I didn’t end up using. I was initially going to have all of these elaborate recipes for cooking human meat and I did a lot of research on French cuisine and French chefs, but no one ends up getting eaten in the book, so…
Ironically, for a book about cannibals.
I was thrilled to see that you included Pasolini’s [cannibal film starring Pierre Clementi] Porcile as a turning point for your young protagonist. Do you want to talk a little about your interest in Clementi. I mean, he’s a really interesting figure: whether it was the acting, his own cinema, the looks, or just a combination of everything that inspired you to build this book around him?
It was just a combination of things. Before I moved here, I always liked his acting and I thought he was really attractive and all that, but I didn’t know very much about him.
When I got here I had a friend who just completely worshiped him and he just was constantly telling me about him, and he lent me the DVD of Clementi’s films. I didn’t know that he’d actually directed films. They’re actually fantastic. They’re just incredible and that kind of cemented it. I started basically just researching him a lot and trying to talk to people who know him.
He’s very singular in France. He’s very much a cult figure here, as well; he’s not someone you hear about all the time. There are people who are really into him because he was such an idiosyncrat. He just never played the game. He would go on television on LSD all the time and do all these crazy things. He completely gave up mainstream film and just did all these bizarre films and stuff.
It’s the combination of his just being so heroic in his choices as an actor and as a director, and then his beauty and his performances, as well. He’s just a great figure, a real role model.
And also very visual. I think of him so baroquely in the film with Nico [La cicatrice intérieure] in the desert and Ari [Nico’s son] on the horse, or whatever.
Yeah yeah yeah… Well his films with Garrel are amazing and his own films were clearly influenced by Garrel but they’re much more psychedelic and crazy. Yeah, it’s the Garrel films where you really get… to me that’s the him that interests me the most, is that period and that kind of work that he was doing.
There’re so many locales in the book that drift from perhaps existing to perhaps not existing and they’re very intricately staged. There’re also a lot of descriptions of characters who feel very material and inert that reminded me a lot of your recent theatrical works with Gisele Vienne. Can you talk about how this recent, lengthy preoccupation with minimalist theater influenced your first, should we say, maximalist novel?
I don’t know that it did. Actually… most of her pieces are not minimalist at all. It’s just that the only one that’s come over there has been minimalist. But most of them are these huge spectacles. No, actually, because with Gisele I write the structures and the narratives of the pieces, but I mostly write dialogues and monologues and voice-overs and things. I think I wanted to go against that and have as little dialogue as possible, cause I’ve been doing a lot of dialogue. I mean, The Sluts is all dialogue and a bunch of the stuff in Ugly Man is all dialogue and I got so interested in dialogue – and using it so much –I think that it was a reaction against that. And also because I do this blog and there’s so much interacting with people and talking and stuff. I think it was more against what I’m doing with Gisele in that sense.
Also when you collaborate with somebody, I write these texts but I don’t really illustrate them. They’re bare-boned, right? They’re skeletal and they’re illustrated in the pieces. I was interested in doing something that like, so completely illustrated by itself. It’s a really a closed system and really hermetic. I think that, like I said, it was kind of a reaction against work, maybe, I was doing with her.
And well, you mentioned the blog. How do you manage to get any work done with that blog, you write on it every day!
Yeah, it’s insane.
It’s pretty amazing.
I don’t know, it’s incredibly time consuming. I mean, making the posts is time consuming. It’s like a full time job, really.
I have really good discipline. I guess I’m good at compartmentalizing stuff. I’m just always really busy, but I try not to think about it too much, because it would be very easy for me to go like, “What the fuck am I doing?” I mean, everybody loves [the blog] and it’s really popular– and that’s awesome – but it’s so much work.
The cool thing about it is I get to discover stuff all the time, cause when I make a post, I go online and search for everything possible about whatever artist or whatever book or whatever I’m doing and I get to learn all this stuff, so that’s like an education… but I don’t know how I do it.
Perhaps part of the research and the intricate, open-ended structure on doing that blog everyday rubbed off on the free-form prose that you use in The Marbled Swarm?
[laughs] Yeah, it’s possible. It’s possible… I kind of just write off the top of my head to everybody, every day. And so it made me really want to start really chiseling. The Marbled Swarm is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I mean, it was unbelievably difficult to do, ‘cause it’s really hard to be clever all the time and it takes a lot of time and a lot of editing. I really wanted to have this incredibly difficult project to work on that was nothing like the blog.
And how long did it take to write?
About 2 ½ years. I was working on notes and figuring it out since I moved here, but then the actual writing was about 2 ½ years.
And now I’m a bad interviewer because I didn’t go do my back research, but someone just told me that you just told Paris Review that this is your last novel. Is that right?
No, okay. [laughs]
No, what I said in the Paris Review was that I had this wish that I would only write one more after this one.
Oh, I see.
Yeah. I don’t know if I’m going to do it or not. You get in these routines and I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist. You finish a novel and you’re waiting for the next novel to sort of come to you. Part of me just wants to see what happens if I don’t have the novel, what would happen if I’m not waiting to do the next novel. ‘Cause I always write about kind of the same things, I’m really afraid of repeating myself or writing a book that just doesn’t need to exist for me. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m just writing stuff, where everybody’s like, “here’s another one of these stupid books.” It’s just a combination of things that makes me think it would be a really interesting challenge if I did one more and then quit. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.
I wonder if it’s also a reaction to current publishing trends? You’ve been so prolific with a lot of collaborative projects – the editing, the visual books, the theater work… I mean, is it sort of a reaction to that as well?
No, I don’t think so. No. No. My novels are always the most important thing to me in the world, that’s probably why I want to challenge myself, because it’s just so important. I mean, this isn’t a boyfriend, this isn’t [laughs] it’s not real… I don’t have to worry about [A novel] being upset if I dump it? It’s just the idea of like… not having something that’s so important to me, there. It just seems like an interesting idea.
You were so steeped in LA art culture through your criticism and zines. Is there a Paris art culture that is similar to the LA scene and are you steeped in it or are you using the blog and the Akashic books imprint as a way of reaching out in a different capacity?
I see what you’re saying. Well, the blog’s readership is really all over the place, like all over Europe and stuff. There’s no question that the blog is me staying connected, in some way, to the United States. Even though I still live there, I just spend most of my time here. And Akashic books, I was doing that before I moved so it was just an ongoing thing. There is an art scene here, yeah. I’m actually curating – with Gisele – this huge festival at the Centre de Pompidou right now, which is a huge, giant headache… But the Pompidou asked us to curate this festival next February for them, of like art and films and performances. I am actually really involved in that kind of stuff here.
That sounds thrilling. When is that?
It’s February 22nd to March 12th. It’s going to be really great. Five exhibitions and then a big installation of artwork and then one of our pieces and lectures and performances and… you know… all this stuff every night and films and then we’re doing Them, this performance piece I did in the 1980s, which we’ve been reviving… A big huge music festival… It’s going to be totally amazing. I’ve never had to work like that. I’ve curated shows, a bunch of times, but I’ve never had to work at this level – of curating an entire festival and also dealing with the bureaucracy of a huge museum [laughs]. It’s crazy. But yeah, it’s going to be cool.
In the last couple books, there’s a lot of interactive fan, youth culture that has been popping up through video games, but also in The Marbled Swarm in the form of the Manga convention. What attracts you to these forms of… it’s kind of like identity construction for youth culture, in a way, or fan engagement at large, I guess?
Oh, I’ve always been totally into youth culture. I’m just like this weird, old teenager guy. Actually, most of my books are pretty connected with it. It’s just that the Manga thing is really big here and I got really interested. I was investigating these tiny subgroups of people who are interested in anime online, like Guro, which is like a really violent form of Japanese anime. And then I got that idea about the Flatsos and all that stuff.
And video games… I’ve always been a huge video game guy. It’s really influential in my writing, actually, because the structures. I don’t like to write usual kinds of novels and I don’t like them to be narrative and plotty and all that crap, so I’m always looking for other forms to use and video games were a really useful way to think about structuring narrative. The [youth culture thing] is just a natural. I’m still obsessed with new music and all that stuff – I always have been. I just never stopped being interested in it. It’s not something I consciously do.
One other thing I’ve really noticed in your last couple books you’ve had these interesting playland structures, where the father’s building the monument out back in God Jr. and there’s the bizarre plastic surgeon child building in this. What brought those playland structures into it? I mean they’re kind of these interesting physical manifestations of youth ideals, I guess – or a nostalgia for them.
A lot of that is just residue from being obsessed with Disneyland when I was a kid. That’s been in my work forever and sometimes I just indulge it. It’s really just that. It’s like trying to make Disneyland or something… well, the way Disneyland felt to me when I was a kid. And with videogames, if you get really immersive with video games, they’re like that. So in this case, with God Jr., it was just a matter of playing games and then having this part that had a glitch and you couldn’t open the door and you’d get obsessed with what was inside the door. It’s just the kind of stuff you get from playing games.
And then with the new one…I love haunted houses and secret passages – there’s ALL these secret passages, obviously, and trap doors and all that kind of stuff. The whole thing with that house, the chateau that turns into this indescribable Disney crazy psychedelic thing [laughs] – I mention Disney cause that’s really just where that comes from – it’s just like the idea of building some kind of Disneyland that would work on me as Disneyland worked on me when I was eight years old.
But there’s also plenty of violence to be had in this book. How has it been working with Harper Perennial, in lieu of Grove, I mean there’s a couple of really graphically violent passages in this. How has it been working them and putting this work out in a slightly more mainstream, I guess, distribution level?
You know, it’s been amazing. They knew who I was. They knew what I did. They haven’t put any kind of restrictions on me, cause I’d just put The Sluts out and they knew it [when they signed me]. The woman who ran it was like a fan and she just invited me in cause she really liked my work. They’re absolutely great. I’ve been giving them the books and they barely touch them. They seem completely supportive. I think they’re kind of realistic. That’s the thing that’s weird with me – publishers always think they can break me into a larger audience, cause they really like what I do and they’re like, “yeah, we can be the ones to really break you out.” [laughs] And it never happens!
Yeah there’s a really hilarious bit on the press release that suggest that I ask you “what it’s like to be such an acclaimed author and still be deemed ‘cult’?”
Yeah yeah, it’s really cool ‘cause they think they can do it, but its just impossible. I’ve been writing these books forever and I know it’s never going to happen; if God Jr. didn’t break me out, nothing’s ever going to break me out. But if they wanna try, that’s cool. I mean, I gave them The Marbled Swarm and I was afraid they were going to reject it, because it’s not the most commercial book ever. I was really worried that they would just think, like, “What the fuck is this, yo? What are we supposed to do with this book?” But they were great! They were just like, “We love it! It’s great. Don’t worry about it.” It’s been surprising. You know, Rupert Murdoch owns that company. So it’s been strange.
It’s weird for a weird writer like me to actually move up to a really huge house. Usually, as a writer, you get some big house and then they drop you and you end up publishing with tiny presses for the rest of your life. I’ve been kind of climbing up here, and it’s really weird cause it’s not like my books sell any more than they ever did.
How do you see people approaching this more florid prose, as apposed to the more terse, older work? You’ve probably talked to quite a few people at this point who’ve read it. How are people responding to it? Are they diving into it or are there trepidations that you’re finding?
There haven’t been trepidations yet. I’ve gotten a really fantastic response to it so far, but most of it’s from writers and artists and they’re not going to have a problem with it. [laughs] But, Publishers Weekly and stuff hated it.
All the books I’ve written since the George Myles cycle, they’re always really different from one another, that’s sort of my goal. I would hope that people would be like, “oh, this is completely different! How exciting,” and they would get into it. I think the book is really kind of fun and kind of beautiful to read if you surrender to it – it’s actually pretty fun. I’m hoping people will be surprised in a good way and not be like, “this isn’t like his usual stuff!” I would think people would be kind of tired of reading my terse, blank [laughs], minimalist voice by this point. I hope that this would be very refreshing for them.
Oh certainly – I think it’s thrillingly frustrating and it is a space you have to give yourself over to. I mean frustrating in a really good way…
Oh, no it’s supposed to be totally frustrating, but you’re supposed to really enjoy it. That’s kind of the key to it. That’s what I want. I wanted the Marbled Swarm to be this totally frustrating thing that doesn’t give you any answers and you would enjoy it and that would be such a strange experience. [laughs]
I read the little bit of the Paris Review that was online where you were talking, I believe, about pornography and one of the things that is interesting in the book is your frustration of that form. You’ve got so many scenes where you’re staging the expectation of a sex scene, but then the language diverts it, and you’re constantly of working with this excitation and deferment. It makes for a very interesting read.
[laughs] Yeah, thanks.
Can you tell me a little bit about the accompanying chapbook, French Hole? I saw that there were only 70 copies produced, so is that completely swallowed up by the 70 buyers or will there be life outside of those 70 copies?
No, at the moment there won’t. It was just this fun little secret thing, these outtakes from the novel. I liked the idea… it just seemed to suit the novel in some way to have these secrets and different kinds of clues. You can sort of see it as clues to what the book’s about, if you wanted to know what the book is really about. So no, it was really to do something kind of weird and secretive and fun. But there are people asking us to reprint it now, so I’ll have to think about that, but I don’t want to do it for a while. I suppose it will probably end up somewhere. After the book’s come out maybe I’ll put it somewhere or let somebody do something with it.
Well, to play Devil’s advocate on what you just said, presuming that French Hole provides more keys to the puzzle that is The Marbled Swarm… what is the book really about?
[laughs] I’m not going to tell you that!
[laughs] That’s a horrible question.
I like the idea of the book you can just read and go, “okay, I don’t get it but that was really interesting.” Or you can try to take it apart and say, “okay, maybe it’s about…this or maybe it’s about that, and there are actually many, many layers of that. And if you want – and not that anybody’s ever going to do this – but you can really get into it and start taking it apart cause it’s very much a puzzle. And maybe you could get to the bottom of it if you go through it and take all the clues. I don’t want to say what its’ about. Sometimes people will guess and I’ll say, “okay… yeah… that’s… that’s kind… you’re getting there.” [laughs] But I don’t want to say.
I’m just being a prat.