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.
He describes the act of writing as wish fulfillment. "I was never really that wild," he says, although he admits spending much of his late teens and 20s hanging out with and procuring hustlers, partly as an exercise in role-playing. "I would make up a character to see how they interacted with me when I was that kind of person, but it's always been a fantasy thing for me. I don’t want to do these things, but writing is a way to experiment and test myself." Maybe a little too much at times. In an essay on Nan Goldin for Spin in 1996, Cooper wrote frankly of a sojourn in Amsterdam that was largely defined by crystal meth and promiscuous sex. "Even now, when I think back on some of the shit I pulled, at some of the bottoms I hit, the memories are distinctly Goldin-esque. I can see the rooms where I snorted drugs, fucked hustlers, screamed at my boyfriend."
Although he likes to say his books aren't autobiographical, Cooper is always present in them, as is George Miles, his first love and a muse for the five-novel series that began with Closer in ’89 and ended in 2000 with Period. (Miles, who was severely bipolar, killed himself in 1987, though it was another 10 years before Cooper found out.) That series is limned by desire and destruction. Although Cooper's characters are often older men doing monstrous things to younger men, he bridles at the suggestion that he's writing gay fiction. "I've been out since I was a kid, and I wouldn't change it for the world, but I'm not interested in identity politics," he says. "I don’t think of my characters as being gay. They have sex that's gay because that's the sex I know and understand and care about. But I don't think of my books as being 'gay' books."
This distinction may explain why his audience seems to be split evenly between men and women (at least based on the reader reviews on the book lovers website Goodreads). The fact that The Marbled Swarm is being published by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins can be seen as a breakthrough moment, up there with Kiki & Herb playing Carnegie Hall. Certainly, Cooper considers it his best book and compares it to the kinds of tricked-out haunted houses that he likes to visit during Halloween -- his favorite holiday.
"Spooky houses are like artworks," he says. "You’ve got this certain kind of space, and you've got to make it really complicated and make it feel really big and disorienting. So the novel is like a really complicated spooky house." Not surprisingly, he's a big fan of Disneyland: "My favorite ride of all time was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. It's from the '50s. It's fantastic."
It could be said that Cooper creates literary rides of a similar kind -- complicated, experimental, puzzle-like. And also terrifying. Maybe it explains why he thinks younger readers are more likely to "get the books" than older readers. "I'm more interested in younger people than I am in older people," he says. "I'm interested in the difficulties of them, and the beauty of them, and the way they live their lives. Where the compassion lies is with younger readers, and so I think they feel comfortable with me."
With the evening light radiating through the trees, Cooper gets up to return to his apartment, but not before dispensing a suitably Cooper-esque tip. "You know what you’d never think to go to, but is actually really, really great, is London Dungeon," he says of the macabre English attraction that recreates gory historical events. "It has a fantastic mirror maze in it, and it's a great spooky house. You have to wait in line for it, and it's expensive, but if you have nothing to do, go to London Dungeon -- it's a blast."