Eating People is Wrong


By Aaron Hicklin

Dennis Cooper has never shied away from extreme subjects. Next on the agenda? Cannibalism.

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."