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issue 48: May - June 2005

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The Sluts by Dennis Cooper: Void Books, 2005

Dennis Cooper may be one of the most consistently inventive, narrowly-focused authors alive. His books almost uniformly involve one lost boy, a sadistic coterie of exploitative older men, one true psycho, rimming, dismemberment, and somewhere around there is a snuff film that just might be real. In The Sluts he does not stray from familiar territory. Perhaps he is taking one last look at an array of obsessions that have characterized him as an author, hoping to find something new. Cooper has spent his career mining the sexual underground. On a literary genealogical chart, he succeeds Sade and Rimbaud. He is a minimalist, paring down his stories to the absolutely essential information. But The Sluts, Cooper admits in an interview on the Void Books website, feels like a "side project" to the cycle. By any other author, it’s a good book. But we have to judge Cooper by the high standards he has set for himself in the past, and by those standards there’s little new here that hasn’t been better explored in some of his past works, notably Try and Frisk.

The story revolves around Brad, a Cooperian archetype—looks like fourteen, is probably older, dazed look on his face, amazing ass—who acquires infamy and a cult-like following on a hustler review site. Brad is managed by Brian, a sadistic pimp, whom lost-boy Brad is strongly attached to. The book revolves around the story of Brad, his pornographic mythology, his possible death or escape from the hustler scene, and whether or not Brad was at one point replaced by another hustler. The focus, in a sense, is "the real Brad."

The meta-fiction of Brad is intriguing. In his hustling scene and on the gossipy websites, Brad is analogous to any star gracing magazine covers, stunning the insatiable public imagination. In Brad, Cooper gives us a tribal celebrity. Brad is not J Lo, but "Brad" is analogous to the PR machine of J Lo. Cooper focuses on the internet message boards which propagate Brad’s fame and questionable identity. Think Marilyn Monroe reincarnated as a male hustler with a sadistic cult-like following.

However, there's something fatiguing about the website formatting of the book. All the truths of the story wind around in kaleidoscopic circles. Cooper’s structure is narrative confusion, lies upon lies, with the promise that everything will be cleared in the end. In fact, I would argue that things become too clear.

Reading The Sluts, I often found myself wondering why Cooper doesn't expand the voices guiding his narrative more, why he doesn’t reach beyond the internet—or even more simply, why he so constantly restricts himself to the same familiar archetypes (lost omnisexual teenager, sadistic homosexual men). One of Milan Kundera’s statements comes to mind when reading Dennis Cooper: "Every good novelist is redrafting the same ideal novel." But Cooper’s having trouble giving new meaning to primal fascinations. The course of his stories is starting to become too predictable. We know the young boy’s going to be dismantled from the start; we know he’s lost and confused and that there’s a matching opposite whose erotic taste is for lost and confused boys. At times I wondered how Cooper might digress from this story, bringing in other fascinations or ideas, which might enrich the central thread of Brad’s story.

The entire book takes place in gay chat message boards, cruising review sites, e-mails and faxes.  Cooper simulates the idioms of these virtual meeting spots and does so very well, capturing the exhaustive trophy-seeking essence of the internet cruising sites, while not being too frivolous or repetitive. The encounters between the johns and Brad are distinct, fun, and often peppered with morbid, wry humor. One of the scenes that works best is an ice-cold testimonial by an excommunicated surgeon detailing the messy castration of Brad. It’s what it should be—lurid, relentless, detached, and bizarre.

"What if these ‘people’ and one or more of the minor posters are really one person?" one web poster asks, articulating one of the meta-fictional implications of The Sluts: the problem with people meeting through the internet. The Sluts was hailed by the Village Voice as one of the first novels to explore the philosophical dimensions of the internet. Cooper restricts himself to a simulation of the internet’s forms. But the problem with strictly simulating internet domains, is that it leaves the subject matter either cool and remote, or mere gossip and tabloid.  The story has more twists than the Jackson trial. And, like the Jackson trial, they’re predictable: we expect the twists because of the medium giving them to us. Everything circulates around constant (overused) "Murder She Wrote" reminders that we’re "getting to the bottom of this," "finding out what is real" and what is bullshit.

The Sluts obscures the truth through form. It’s an interesting idea—that the computer, the thing that allows people to network and surf their identities, is more of a cesspool for the truth, a lie by nature of the medium. But the idea is like the notion for a perfect political system: it works well on paper, but it’s too restrictive for the potential of the novel. You can only get so close inside a situation using the internet or newspaper as your form.

Dennis Cooper has been saying for years now that there's been pressure "from certain literary big wigs" for him to change the course of his fiction, to write something a little bit more PG-13.  He has often mentioned a necessary change about to occur in his writing, even proclaiming at the opening party for The Sluts in NYC: "This is my last spurt of this stuff."  Earlier in his career, Cooper once mentioned in an interview how he didn't show anyone his writing for years until he could find a style which would be able to contain his ideas. He’s still a great writer—acute, unpretentious, severe, with a dark sense of humor and a compassion that allows for emotions to emerge from his characters, without pleas for sympathy. There is a sense that Cooper is ready to explore a new territory for his fiction, hopefully with no stipulation he leave behind the land of the demented. As he quotes from Genet in his own classic book Frisk: "Put all the images in language in a place of safety and make use of them, for they are in the desert, and it’s in the desert we must go and look for them." The images need to be rediscovered. Marc Andreottola

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We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Serpent’s Tail, U.K. 2005

Kevin Khatchadourian, just shy of his 16th birthday, takes off for school one day just like any other day, but once there he goes about the business of murdering seven of his high school classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher. The media has a frenzy and before Kevin is locked up in Juvenile Detention the whole nation knows his name. Why did he do it? It’s the question everyone asks, and no one is more determined to know than his mother Eva.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver’s seventh novel) is structured solely around letters that Eva writes to her absent husband, Franklin, in which she explores Kevin’s past as well as her own life and marriage, looking for clues to understanding her son. Two years have passed since the incident. Eva now lives alone and visits her son in detention every two weeks, visits which she reports to her husband along with a brutally honest examination of their marriage.

Eva’s prose is articulate and intelligent; the tone a bit cool, a bit detached. Can we trust her as narrator? If we’re not sure at the beginning, we soon warm to her and begin to take her at her word. Like Lynette in Desperate Housewives, Eva was once a power person in the business world, although her "business" was a counter-culture concern and she was its creator and head executive. It began from a trip abroad she took in the 1960s. Realizing that there were no guide books for budget travelers (The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide would come later), Eva created the first, On A Wing and a Prayer. It immediately took off and Eva found herself a wealthy woman, traveling round the world, sussing out new hostels and cheap eateries; it was a job she loved (perhaps obsessively needed), refusing to ever wholly relinquish the field work to her young staff. Marrying Franklin did not stop her from her work. He was a scout for advertising sites and traveled as well, if not nearly so much and so long. All was going relatively well until Eva turned 37 and Franklin wanted children. Eva wasn’t so sure, but finally gave in. Would having a child constitute a new frontier?

From the beginning Kevin was difficult, refusing to take Eva’s breast and later refusing to talk. Eva discovered that the maternal instincts she had hoped (and been told) would arise, never did. Kevin screamed throughout the day, becoming a real terror, so much so that one nannie after another left within days. But when Franklin arrived home, he settled down, prompting him to defend his son’s behavior. He’s just doing what babies do, he’d say, and once accused Eva of being "cold." Was she? At age six, he’s still in diapers - enough to test the best of mothers.

Eva, unlike Franklin, becomes convinced of one thing: the kid knows what he’s doing. She also thinks, despite straight B’s in school, that Kevin is unusually bright, although he appears to have no interest in anything. When Eva has a second child, this time a little girl who is clingy and frightened of all sorts of things, Kevin looms as a constant threat.

Then come the terrible teens: Kevin begins to wear undersized clothing - and a full-time smirk. Various incidents occur in which Eva knows that Kevin is guilty, but can’t quite prove it. And apart from the bad boy behavior, there is just plain peculiar behavior, such as Kevin’s leaving the bathroom door partly open while he masturbates, making sure his mother knows.

The plot builds to the day of the high school massacre, which takes place when Kevin is still 15, a fact that he well knew would prove important in court. This gives tension to the plot as we know it’s coming, but it is not really the climax. That is yet to come, and when it does, it’s powerful and unpredictable and oh-so right.

So here is the story of a woman who has had to give up her work as world traveler, although she remains head of her company until she must sell it to cover lawyer fees for the trial. She has also, long ago, had to give up her apartment in Manhattan as Franklin had insisted on a home in the suburbs when Kevin was born. Eva was a dutiful mother, but she hated the suburbs, she hated her house, hated the isolation it imposed . . . and that’s not all. She has tried to hide these feelings from her husband, but it now comes spilling out in the letters. How much has she actually contributed to her son’s actions? On a visit to detention she asks: "Do you blame me?" Kevin spits back: "Why should you get all the credit?"

We later learn that Eva has had to endure a civil court case, brought by one of the murdered kids’ mothers, in which she was accused of being a negligent parent. This clearly seems to be a grieving mother’s overreaction to a child’s death, but what we take note of is Eva’s aloof manner in the courtroom, how she refuses to play a role and holds the court proceedings in slight disdain. This is a telling episode as we see a part of Kevin’s haughty personality in his mother. Yes, we like her; no, we don’t like him; but we see a connection. Kevin is rather like an ugly, exaggerated alter ego of Eva. Once while she was describing the horrid eating habits of fat people in diners, Kevin says: "You know you can be pretty harsh." Eva responds: "You’re one to talk." To which Kevin answers: "Yeah. I am. Wonder where I got it."

Although one wouldn’t know it from her name, Lionel Shriver is a woman. I have read that when she was in her early 40s, she was ambivalent about having children and had to make a decision. She wrote the book to explore those feelings and at age 47 remains childless. It is certainly a refreshingly honest look at "motherhood" and all that it implies, but Eva’s eloquent and expressive prose covers a large range of topics. Her probing proves profound and deeply disquieting. The big questions may never be answered - the "why" of the murders, the question of whether or not evil is innate, the cause of copycat killings - but they are exquisitely explored as is her disintegrating relationship with Franklin.

One will long remember the slyly demonic Kevin and his strong and bright, eloquently expressive mother Eva, who even has the guts to say - now that her marriage has dissolved and her life destroyed - how she once "used" her son’s notoriety to gain a little attention for herself. That’s honest, and so is this superb novel. J.A.

We Need To Talk About Kevin has been shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize.

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The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis: Serpent’s Tail. 2005 (June)

For those who speed-read reviews and book-cover blurbs, words popping up like ‘private eye’ and ‘alcoholic’ may signal a warning – Avoid! Stereotypes ahead! But relax, Robin Llewellyn is one private eye who is not going to give up the bottle to save his marriage/job or revenge his dead sister/wife/dog, and bravely fight cold turkey through the fog of booze to outwit his evil enemy and have Bruce Willis play him in the movie. To Llewellyn, redemption is something possibly running in the 2.30 at Chepstow; and if it is, he would bet on it and, of course, lose.

Private detective is a loose way of describing his function. He fell into the line of work back in the days when people almost liked him and the owner, the real boss, popped his socks leaving everything paid for but with no one left in charge except the next-to-useless Llewellyn. With one foot already in the gutter, and liver and kidneys already in the grave, Llewellyn knows he is on the way out, but one last job comes along: a blackmail gig. A woman has asked him to set up her husband. Hire a prostitute, get them to meet, get photos as proof – better still a video - and get out. Reasonably simple, but of course the advance he asks for soon gets turned into liquid non-assets and the ensuing blackout means he loses his house keys; to continue the sting he now needs a loan, and the only people who would give a loser like Llewellyn a loan are not the sort who give away money for fun. Llewellyn has to make some pretty sharp decisions but his line of thinking is usually along these lines:

A cold wind has whipped up from somewhere… so I don’t spend more than a moment watching the traffic crawl down into Temple Gate, deliberating over what to do next . . . . The warm, boozy fug of the Oxford was less than twenty footsteps away.

With the city of Bristol as backdrop, Llewellyn takes us on a massive pub crawl from the seedy and downright dangerous places in Bedminster or St Paul’s to the student/yuppie places of Cotham and Clifton. As he bounces, or is bounced, from one fresh hell to another, we are caught up in the tragic comedy of it all. It is the banana-skin syndrome – oh, how we all laugh when the victim slips and skids but how quickly we stop when his skull cracks on the pavement. Llewellyn may not be the nicest person - in fact, he is a slob of the first degree - but with disintegrating brain and body, his resilience, the ability to stay alive and somehow function, actually draws sympathy and support from the reader.

As a first novel it is quite an achievement; the writing is assured and confident, the humour gentle and dark, the plot classically private eye with the expected twists and double-dealings. What shines through, and worryingly, is how a 26-year-old author (from the Breacon Beacons if you are wondering about all the Welsh names) can paint such a convincing portrait of an ageing alcoholic like Llewellyn. This is not a feel-good read but it is a total gem; it kills dead the cliché alkie gumshoe for once and for all and breathes more new life into the crime genre, which for me just continues to blossom. MGS

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Mouths of Babes by Stella Duffy: Serpent’s Tail, 2005 (July)

Duffy’s lesbian detective Saz Martin appeared in four books, each published more or less within a year of the last, so I hope fans have not been holding their collective breath for number five as it’s been seven years in coming. And was it worth the wait? Oh yes, well worth it. Mouths of Babes, though stuck with the ‘crime novel’ tag, goes beyond the formula and digs deep into the idea of just how much we should tell our friends or partners – or they us – of our pasts, our flaws and mistakes. Should a rather nasty rotting skeleton, one that could totally destroy the life you have carefully built, come out of the closet (not the gay kind; Saz is openly gay)? Can it be pushed back – should it be pushed back - and the door closed again without your loved one ever knowing? No, this is not a story of a client hiring Saz to sort out a possible blackmail - well, not directly - but Saz’s own past coming back to haunt her.

Seven years in publishing time, but in ‘real’ time Duffy’s latest follows Fresh Flesh by a few months. Molly, Saz’s partner, has had the baby, Matilda; but with one hand what the lord giveth, etc, means her father dies. Coming to terms with two major upheavals strains the relationship a little, enough for Saz’s ex, Carrie, to make pseudo-moves knowing that Saz is not getting the shagging she needs. But this normal domestic chaos is first broken by Saz going behind Molly’s back to do some detecting work and then by a phone call from a voice from the past. Next, frighteningly, the owner of the voice shows up. Now a famous actor, he was once a control freak back in Saz’s school and the centre of a gang of arty misfits that included Saz as a naïve fringe member. He tells her that a can of very ugly worms from their past has been opened which would mean the end of his career should the press find out, as well as some very serious repercussions for all those involved. At this point should Saz sit down with Molly and tell all? Mmmm.

Duffy’s writing style is interesting. Early on in the book she worryingly used repetition à la James Ellroy or David Peace:

These kids were scary. Scary to other kids and, truth be told – though it never was - scary to the teachers. Not violent scary, obvious, brutal – nothing as uncouth as that, these kids were interesting scary, clever scary, cool.

However, unlike the two authors mentioned, this kind of repetition did not continue throughout the book, beating the reader into submission, but was purely a one-off: an effective device to give a beat to a certain part; the rest of her writing is short, sharp and sparse, and pushes the story along at a fair clip while maintaining a human quality that shines a light onto the relationships of the women and their daily lives and fears, allowing for pinpoint observation and the occasional background filler: "…the wind outside ripping unready leaves from the trees."

As a crime story it is a good tale; a certain crediblity keeps aspects of it in the realms of possibility though I am sure a famous actor would have had his past dug up and turned over by the British ‘build ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ gutter press or at least rumours would have been in circulation. I do enjoy a crime novel when the crimes are closer to home, more tangible than say people with guns chasing down Mafia hoods and East European child prostitutes. With Saz Martin’s soul now laid bare will readers follow her for a sixth mystery? I, for one, am game; Saz has suddenly become a lot more interesting, but Duffy, please, don’t make us wait another seven years! MGS

© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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