Unhealthy Appetites: Dennis Cooper’s Ugly Man
by Dennis Cooper
published May 26, 2009
As a rule, collected short stories are best consumed sparingly, letting the discrete flavor of each remain undiluted by the others. Dennis Cooper however is a rule breaker by trade, so it comes as no surprise that Ugly Man, his recent collection of short fiction, is an exception to the discretionary rule. For those who can stomach it, this is a volume that should be wolfed down. Indulgence of appetite is central to Cooper’s work after all and when read in large portions, Ugly Man not only displays his trademark range of horror, humor, and hyper-textuality, but also delivers much of the queasy power of his longer work. Ingested one after the other, the pieces merge and collide, pulling the reader further into a world of beautiful, apathetic junkies; death-tripping teens; molesters; mutilators; and cannibals negotiating the void of their world with violence, pop culture banter, philosophical speculation, and rampant sexual fetishism. The objectified body is the center of Cooper’s universe – the ass in particular, with the line between life and death, meaning and its lack, identity and image, often being the crack of that ass. Throughout the 19 pieces that make up Ugly Man, asses invite lust, idolatry, torture, and spiritual transgression – usually in combination – the ass as the sign of the liminal body – the ass crack as the bodily and existential abyss. All of this served up with a voice so dry one wonders how it can evoke such physical sensations and acute psycho/sexual hungers.
Ugly man is Cooper’s first short story collection since Wrong (1984) and his first work published by Harper Perennial. The volume includes an appendix of poems, interviews, even lists of Coopers favorite writing and music. While this ephemera certainly seems like a mainstream publisher’s attempt to legitimize Cooper’s status, much of the material does shed light on his work. In an interview with Robert Gluck, Cooper says that Rimbaud and Robert Bresson are two continuing influences on his writing. This influence can be clearly seen in the delirium of his content and the cool, transparent control of his prose. Cooper seems to have a butcher’s detachment to the abattoir he creates, simultaneously invoking a compulsion for trauma and removing the reader from it. This isn’t the safe literary position that it might seem at first. As Angela Carter once said of Burroughs “…you cannot be carried along by the narrative. You yourself are being rendered as discontinuous as the text.” In Cooper’s work rendering and rending are one and the same, presented in the form of graphic physical description. It may be hard to care for Cooper’s characters, but we do fear for them, and more so for ourselves in the places they invite us to enter. Caught in the mix of titillation, repulsion, and social incisiveness, we are consciously implicated in the atrocities the characters commit and have committed unto them. Everyone within Cooper’s text is a victim, a victimizer or both––leaving no easy moral escape.
This peculiar trap has run through all of Cooper’s work since he first gained attention in the experimental poetry and prose scene of the early 80’s and continued to cement his reputation with his George Miles Cycle of novels and the subsequent works My Loose Thread, God, Jr, and others. Containing pieces created between 1984 and 2008, Ugly Man may not reveal new territory, but it does present the wide range of mediums and methods Cooper uses to mine his familiar ground, as well as the growing emotional complexity and humor of his later work. Among the works included in the collection is the serial killer meta-narrative “Jerk,” which was originally published as a 1994 Artspace illustrated book and became the live puppet show that marked Cooper’s entry into theater. “The Anal Retentive Line Editor” shows wit and satire while “The Boy on the Far Left,” and “The Brainiacs” is surprisingly straightforward and sympathetic. Even the murderous, vaguely satanic teens of the performance text “Knife/Tape/Rope” and the diseased narrator of the title story have some fucked-up, mournful power to draw in the reader and then implicate and sully us with complicity. It may be that the accessible pathos, comedy and literary diversity of Cooper’s recent output are the qualities that now make him palatable to a mainstream publisher, but the frightening thing about Cooper remains his ability to identify and provoke our own appetite in the midst of unsavory, stomach-turning material. As his characters and texts consume themselves, we are left reluctantly hungry for more. Not an easy fact to swallow.