Journal of Modern Literature 27.3 (2004) 115-127
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(Fill-in-the) Blank Fiction:
Dennis Cooper's Cinematics and the Complicitous Reader
Dennis Cooper's work is crowded with characters who desire death, and littered with corpses. His novels tell of drugged-out yet attractive young men and the often older others who satisfy the boys' self-destructive urges as well as their own sadistic fantasies. His writing has been located within a contemporary American literary movement associated with New York's cutting edge writers in the 1980s and 1990s.1 Though it is termed by some critics Downtown, Post-Punk or New Narrative, Elizabeth Young, Gary Coveney, and James Annesley prefer the adjective "blank" to describe this writing. While blank fictions have been characterized by their mixture of sex, death and, according to James Annesley, decadence,2 a more telling feature of Cooper's and others' work is their preoccupation with sexual self-endangerment.3 And it is in Cooper's work that the theme is most relentlessly presented: from Wrong, his collection of short stories, to Jerk, his collaboration with artist Nayland Blake, to his cycle of novels: Closer, Frisk, Guide, Try and Period.4 What is most remarkable about this work is Cooper's construction of the reader's complicity in such extreme representations. Despite the range of narrative stances employed—from the intense subjectivity of Closer's journal-format to the striking disinterest of Period's abstract screenplay—Cooper persistently casts the reader as an active party. It is the aim of this essay to demonstrate how Cooper uses various textual strategies to implicate and even graft his implied reader into the text. [End Page 115]
Cooper's writing offers the open admission or affirmation of the desire for self-risk: characters explicitly wish for death and/or align themselves with the murder victim. From the punk in Closer who says to John "Kill me" (p. 12), to Brad in Jerk who "want[s] to go" (p. 17), Cooper's self-endangerers don't mince their words. Some of Cooper's characters deliberately, and often gleefully, align themselves with the victim. Joe, the central figure of the mystery novel that Frisk's narrator is writing, "studied the bone he'd found, occasionally rubbing his own bones by way of comparison. It almost matched the size and shape of the one in his forearm" (p. 42). The desire for death is expressed on each level of reality that the texts negotiate: by the characters in the books, by the characters in the novels within the books, and by Cooper's readers themselves, for there are those who send Cooper "fan letters, beseeching him to come and kill them."5
It is important to note that this avowed desire for self-harm is not adequately explained by masochism: the character's self-destructiveness is neither exclusively sexual nor always in line with the theories of masochism. While many of the novels indulge in the theatricality of sadomasochism, with the punisher's cold stares and the submissive's plaintive posturings and wishful thinking, ultimately the characters' self-risk is to be distinguished from purely sexual concerns or preferences. In Cooper's work, sexual self-endangerment is predominantly about the prospect of death rather than the pleasure of pain. Sex provides the medium for self-endangerment (rather than self-risk the medium for sex, as in masochism).
Cooper's work stands out from other texts about sexualized self-harm in its relentless presentation of quintessential sexual self-endangerers conveyed through headily self-conscious and self-reflexive writing. Elizabeth Young notes that "Gay activists have found his necrophiliac emphasis on the torture and murder of teenage boys to be unconscionable."6 Yet if the unconscious is at the root of the unconscionable, the reader is always, at least in Cooper's work, implicated in it. Cooper's provocation sustains the most crucial and timely questions of contemporary notions of self and text through highlighting the consent and complicity of the implied reader.