Eating People is Wrong
By Aaron Hicklin
It's a fine September afternoon in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, and author Dennis Cooper has invited me to meet him at a café beneath his apartment in a converted monastery to talk about cannibalism. “I’ve actually been wanting to do something with cannibalism for a long time,” says the celebrated (and demonized) chronicler of youth culture and psychosexual obsession in novels such as Frisk, Closer, The Sluts, and the just-published The Marbled Swarm.
Cooper, it’s worth noting, is a vegetarian, although The Marbled Swarm, his ninth novel, has its genesis in a very carnivorous impulse. "I was really interested in Russian pornography for a while. It's very dark and strange and just depressing — I mean, Russia is a depressing place; the people just aren’t very happy there," he explains. "There was this one model I was really interested in, and I had this revelation where I was like, If I did have sex with him, what would I want to do? I realized I wanted to eat him.”
We are sitting outside, and this matter-of-fact admission melts into the reassuring sounds of traffic and passersby. "That’s what started it," Cooper clarifies. "I just thought, What a strange thing to want to do to someone."
Cooper has made a living from such conjectures, and his books are shot through by a rigorous conviction that no subject is off-limits, giving him a reputation as some kind of literary heretic. The fact that he lives in a monastery is an impish touch, but it’s also a nice allegory for the compassion that illuminates even his most butt-clenching novels. "People always say I'm trying to shock, and actually it's the opposite," says Cooper, who chain-smokes through our conversation like the committed existentialist he is. "I'm not a sadist. I don't want to torture people, and I don't want to torture the reader. I want to seduce them into dealing with stuff I'm presenting." In other words, though he might want to eat the Russian porn star, he is much more interested in finding out why.
The Marbled Swarm is concerned as much with language as it is with relationships and power. The unnamed narrator uses words to disarm and persuade, deceive and evade. His fantastical story of everyday cannibalism is told in such finely chiseled yet disorienting prose that you suspect you’re being led into a maze.
Cooper's relationship with his readers is nurtured on his meticulously maintained blog, in which he corresponds with them and publicizes their literary and artistic projects. To some of his loyal fans, he is a source of encouragement and mentorship they can't find elsewhere. A few days trawling the site is also something of a cultural primer -- the movies of Tuesday Weld, the work of Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, a gallery of latex Halloween masks from the legendary Shock Monster line. "The blog is about creating community and giving support to these artists," he says. "When I was young, people helped me, and I just have a natural inclination to do that." His interest in people is also what makes him a compelling writer of nonfiction and an impressively bold interviewer (profiling Keanu Reeves in 1990 for Interview, he asked, "Are you gay, or what?" The actor gamely responded, "No. But ya never know.")
Cooper was inspired to begin writing during a tumultuous childhood in L.A. Born into wealth (his father was good friends with Richard Nixon, after whom Cooper's brother was named), he was 13 when his parents separated, leaving him in the care of his unstable mother. He found an escape in writing satires at school, and later poetry and fiction -- published in zines -- inspired in part by Arthur Rimbaud and the Marquis de Sade. "I've always had pretty perverse fantasies, and when I read Sade, I just felt, Oh my God, I can write about this stuff, it’s legitimate," he recalls.