Dennis Cooper’s hallucinatory blankness seems immune to context. When you read the best of his work, it clears your mind of everything else as completely as a dose of anesthesia or a brick to the head. Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper doesn't give you a good sense of what his books are like. The prose is dry and full of academic t-crossing, and it rarely deals with the emotional intensity that draws readers to the author. But the valuable idea behind Wrong is that, despite its visceral impact, the context of a number of subcultures is essential to understanding Cooper’s work.
Alternating distinctly between biography and criticism, Hester runs through concise introductions to art cliques and movements such as New Narrative and Queercore, outlining the author’s adjacent relationship to them. The impatient reader might be put off by Cooper’s prolonged absences from Wrong early on and many of his fans are probably informed enough to not need the 101. Still, these passages give convincing evidence for Hester’s focus on community and communities, yielding insights, for example, on the difference between the punk meritocracy of the Los Angeles scene Cooper came up in and the peace-and-love inclusivity of the earlier generation. Wrong doesn’t forget that Cooper’s books are full of outcasts and aliens though. It simultaneously traces the author’s commitment to listening to the inarticulate and staring long and hard at the overlooked—an attribute of his which tends to get lost in the uproar over the contentious subjects he writes about.
Accordingly, Hester’s overarching theme becomes the conflict between the individual and the communal. But he regularly sidesteps the art itself to muse instead on his personal sense of what community should look like, invariably based on anarchist theory. Late in the book, Hester argues for a kind of reading that prefers “acts of noticing” over “grand reductions” that readers use to confirm the ideological assumptions they had going in. Unfortunately, Hester’s criticism consists of the latter. He’s less interested in how Cooper’s art actually works—formally, politically, or experientially—than in how it fits into his ideal of the anarchist artist. A quote from Cooper says his GIF novels are about “emotion and sensation.” Instead of using that as the jumping-off point for a set of close readings, Hester asks if the GIF itself is a “by-product of the temporality of global capitalism” or a subversive expression of “asignifying desire”. Cooper writes that he wants to emulate how the filmmaker Robert Bresson makes “immediacy and gesture significant in themselves,” but Hester ties Bresson’s influence back to a pet theory of “relationality” in Cooper’s work. Hester chides other academics for reading the George Miles cycle through a haze of psychoanalytic theory, but he only touches on the novels’ complex structures briefly before turning to social theory, neutering the cycle’s form into a political symbol.
That’s not to say these passages are poorly argued or make for uninteresting reading. But Wrong’s smattering of concrete commentary on the level of words and punctuation, a writer’s only instruments, is vastly overshadowed by Hester’s dogged pursuit of anarchist politics on the nebulous level of theme. For this purpose, he spends most chapters setting up and solving problems created by his impulse to synthesize contradictory theoretical frameworks. Soon, it sounds like a theorists’ cocktail party that Cooper left an hour before.
This critical tunnel vision extends to Hester’s choice of reference points. Whether theorists or artists, they almost exclusively consist of outlaws and anarchists. This isn’t as much of a concern for Cooper himself, who’s obsessed by Disney theme parks, for example, naming them as one of his biggest artistic influences. As a result, you would think that Disney deserves at least as much space in Wrong as film provocateur Gaspar Noé, who, despite being a more minor figure in the Cooper mythos, is the focus of the last two pages of Wrong's final chapter.
A narrow-mindedness about the author’s literary heritage also leads to some of Wrong’s most labored arguments. Chapter four’s attempt to connect a poem cycle about serial killers to the theories of anarchist art critic Paul Goodman by way of his friendship with Frank O’Hara is a total reach, backed up by the bizarre misreadings of poems in this chapter (for instance, in the phrase “a boy’s lips…leak their tongue,” Hester claims the pronoun “their” refers to the boy when it unambiguously refers to his lips). He also declares that “in the US in the 1800s same-sex intimacy was a topic that only anarchists would dare to broach,” when Melville and Whitman, two of the most prominent American writers of the era, wrote on the subject at length. For that matter, in the American canon Melville’s Billy Bud, Sailor—a homoerotic web of rumors and violence spun around a void of male youth and beauty—is a clear ancestor to Cooper’s Closer and The Sluts. If Hester had moved beyond biographer-approved points of comparison, his critical field would’ve opened up considerably.
Aside from its unevenness as criticism, Wrong has its merits as an attempt to unravel a vast body of multimedia work. Which can be a difficult thing to do soberly while the artist is still alive, the dust not yet settled from their personal allegiances and professional controversies.
Maybe as a consequence, Wrong rarely takes a stance on the relative success or failure of different works. On the other hand, Hester is clearly a Cooper aficionado and his all-encompassing enthusiasm, as a fan and a scholar, is one of the book’s constant virtues. The biography side of Wrong is, as a rule, exhaustively researched and compelling. Biographical passages in the first and eighth chapters are especially revealing in how they pinpoint the personal obsessions that lie beneath the seemingly impersonal quality of Cooper’s ice-cold authorial voice and structure-first approach. The chapter on The Marbled Swarm is also notably effective, linking Cooper’s uncharacteristically ornate prose style in the novel to the history of clandestine language in queer culture.
Maybe most importantly, Wrong is useful. Many will be glad to have its extensive research on hand after an encounter with Cooper’s more challenging works. Or, in the case of his theatrical collaborations with Gisèle Vienne, its riveting descriptions of their performances are the closest most of us will ever get to seeing them. Its usefulness is anchored throughout by quotes from Cooper, often the best critic of his own work. That’s one of Wrong’s more subtle throughlines, in fact: an appreciation of the author as a critic and curator, from a story about him posting poems with homemade commentary around his college campus to an extended analysis of his blog, which is largely dedicated to entries about other artists.
Hester thankfully spends little time on the continued moral outcry against Cooper’s work. Presumably, anyone reading his book is no longer scratching their chin over the question of banning The Sluts for obscenity. But his insistence on connecting Cooper’s artistic decisions to “appropriately anarchistic” intentions is the flip side of such pious anti-art thinking. It assumes that intricate forms and heightened experiences can’t be an end in themselves, but must have an aim politically radical enough to be worthwhile. It’s an inescapable irony that, for a book that does a lot of hand-wringing over the sanitation of art’s revolutionary potential, Wrong assimilates Cooper’s volatile art not only to the glass menagerie of academia, but to the safety of correct politics as well.
Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper
by Diarmuid Hester
University of Iowa Press, June 2020
$39.95, ISBN13: 978-1-60938-691-7
Nate Kouri is a writer and filmmaker in Iowa City, IA.