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issue 30: May - June 2002

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A Sneak Preview of
My Loose Thread by Dennis Cooper

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My Loose Thread by Dennis Cooper: Canongate Books, U.K., 2002

In an age where taboo breaking in fiction is the norm - with themes of pedophilia, spouse abuse, cannibalism, etc. - Dennis Cooper’s transgressive fiction stands alone (and has always stood alone) somewhere beyond all accepted boundaries. In the subversive tradition of Burroughs, Genet, Bataille and the Marquis de Sade (to whom he has been compared), Cooper explores the skewed world of sexually obsessed, confused, fucked-up, narcotised teenage gay boys, who have been abused in all manners of speaking. Consider Ziggy from the novel Try: he’s the adopted son of two gay men, one of whom began abusing him when he was seven years old; the other, who split from the relationship early on, is a sexual aesthete who re-enters Ziggy’s life when he’s nearly eighteen, having become fixated on his teenaged son’s beautiful ass. As if this family scenario weren’t bad enough, there’s Uncle Ken, who drugs and abuses young boys while making porno films of his exploits. Ziggy’s best friend is the slightly older Calhoun, who is a stone-hard junkie, so not much bonding goes on there. Ziggy is damaged goods. It is doubtful he could ever be put back together again, even (especially) with the help of his high school therapist, but the reader can empathize with him, as when Ziggy tries to explain his sexual feelings: "I’m sort of bisexual so far. When I do it with guys - not that I have very much - it’s, well . . . love, I guess. . . . With girls, though, it’s just . . . I don’t know . . . fun? So guys and girls are, like, different situations, and I don’t know which I like better yet." There is also a vicious strain of humor in Cooper: how can one not laugh when Ziggy’s dad has his face pressed so far up his son’s ass that the face has virtually disappeared, while Ziggy, trying to explain to a friend who’s watching the scene, says "Rimming’s my dad’s thing. I don’t care about it. But, uh __" Or later, to his dad: "If you loved me . . . you wouldn't rim me while I’m crying."

Amidst all the barbarous perversity, no one captures teenage angst - especially that of gay, abused boys - like Cooper. After completing the last of his five-book cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period), he’s back and in form with this latest offering. Gone is the older male figure, such as the dads in Try or Cooper’s alter-ego Walter Crane in Period. My Loose Thread focuses on a group of teens - abused, naturally - but here we watch them interact solely within their own age group. The narrator Larry, like Ziggy, is confused about his sexual identity, which forms a kind of sickness in him. The novel begins with Larry sitting in a car with another kid, to whom he is referring when he says to the reader:

A senior is paying me five hundred dollars to kill him. Actually, Pete got the job. But he asked me to help. I don’t know the senior’s name or what his problem is yet. I like the boy just enough to pretend we’re friends. . . Two days ago, as a favor to me, Jude got drunk enough to seduce him. I pretended to pass out, then watched. It upset me so much that I decided to kill him already. . . Maybe after I’ve killed him, I’ll shoot myself in the head.

In the wake of Columbine, talk such as this is suddenly something not only from a Cooper novel, but the stuff of Time magazine. Cooper fans, a large number of whom are European (not surprisingly, considering the literary tradition from which he draws), have long hailed him as an American visionary (he’s immensely popular in Spain), although many Americans have yet to ‘get it’ (Kirkus Review on Guide: "As offensive in its aimlessness as it is in its perversity. Cooper should be ashamed of himself.") Interestingly, Columbine plays a part in the new novel. The "senior," Gilmore, who put out the hit on the boy, has a picture of Harris and Kliebald (the two Columbine school killers) on his wall. As Larry says: "They’re his [Gilman’s] heroes, and that’s part of my problem. Of all the guys who shot other guys at their high school back then, they’re so boring." But Larry, like many of the teens, follows the Harris and Kliebald website like jocks follow sports; this forms the basis of much of their conversation, and they’ve concluded that they "did it" because Kliebald was gay and Harris wasn’t - a logic that makes sense to them.

Larry’s world sounds a tad too familiar, and it comes as a horrifying revelation to discover that real life now mirrors Cooper territory (it was always there, of course, but not in our face). There’s still that element of perverted humor, but more than ever Cooper is focused on probing the mindset (rather than the "body set") of these modern-day outcast teens. Forget the dozens of psychological profiles written on school killers - a direction Cooper would never take; his interest is getting inside their heads and roaming the territory. He pulls the reader into the vortex and if the logic is shaky, the thinking confused, and the actions sick, then so be it. The power of Cooper’s writing is that he can get in there and despite the outlandishness of the behavior (as over the top as ever), there is something frighteningly authentic to the whole.

Larry’s world revolves around the likes of Gilman, who has a small following of "Nazis," most of whom seem to be repressed gay boys. Larry isn’t a part of this group, but he hangs around them and follows Gilman’s order on the "hit." The victim - one of Cooper’s quintessentially beautiful young gay boys whose body is covered with scars from previous sexual abuse (and self-mutilation) - has kept a notebook with possible incriminating evidence against Gilman. Larry is ordered to destroy the notebook, but he doesn’t and periodically he reports the contents.

On the home front, Larry’s been having a sexual relationship with his younger brother Jim (cute and blond, depressed and suicidal). Their parents are totally ineffectual - dad has cancer and pays no attention; mom’s a drunk. The boys' shrink, Dr. Thorne, is equally unavailing ("There are so many other questions.  He just has to ask," Larry says. "He's so close to it.  He could see it in my eyes if he looked, but he's writing my prescription."). Already severely emotionally disturbed, Larry’s world took a further downward spiral when he accidentally killed his friend Rand (a hit to the head later developed into a deadly aneurysm), an action that takes place before the book begins. Larry’s still obsessed with Rand and later contacts the Franks on the Internet, a dubious couple who claim to be able to "record" the dead (a fuzzy MP3 file is later mailed to Larry).

And there’s the "bug," Trans, a gay Asian boy, whom both Gilman and Larry rape and then discuss killing ("Am I gay if I don’t kill him?" Larry asks). Larry spends a great deal of time wondering if he’s gay (Ziggy’s sexual confusion isn’t anything compared with Larry’s). Larry had a (sort of) girlfriend, Jude, but now she’s with his friend Pete, once a popular guy in high school and now a drunk who hangs around with the losers. Gilman will later ask Larry to kill Pete, a confidence Larry shares with Pete while deliberating on it himself. To say that these teens have a fascination with death is an understatement. It forms their world and is all tied up with their sexual confusion and their status as outcasts - a familiar scenario. Everyone’s fucked up. And if they haven’t been physically abused, then they’ve been exposed to a world (school killings; guns; parents who don’t care; freaky people who set up Internet scams) that adds to the insanity.

Written mostly in the stunted, inchoate dialogue of Larry and the other teens - which Cooper captures with an authenticity that I haven’t seen anywhere else in contemporary fiction - it can be a bit chaotic to follow here and there, but that’s to be expected. The fact that we get it at all is what’s so amazing. As the weirdness builds to its inevitable end, we follow with a helpless sense of horror.

Far more accessible than the elusive and experimental Period (1999), My Loose Thread is somewhat of a departure from Cooper’s previous work. Less surreal and fantastical than the earlier novels (though that strain remains and one could argue about the reliability of the narrator), it comes closer to touching on the minds of those marginalized teens who move, almost unnoticed, among the popular set of jocks and star personalities, until one day . . . . one day, one or two of them make national headlines and everyone is shocked and horrified and asks Why?! How?! Never questions that would cross Cooper’s mind. He’s our voice from the other side. He’s always been over there, and the world would do well to take note. J.A.

My Loose Thread will be published in July 2002 by Canongate Books . Check out chapter 2 in this issue of TBR.

© 2002The Barcelona Review
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tbr 30           may - june  2002

James SallisMarian KeyesDennis CooperJason StarrScott HeimNick HornbyCormac McCarthy

Short Fiction James Sallis Autumn Leaves
Marian Keyes Soulmates
Dennis Cooper
My Loose Thread (excerpt)
pick from back issues
Jason Starr Bianca's Wallet
Scott Heim In Awe
Interview Nick Hornby
Quiz Cormac McCarthy Quiz
SneakPreview Dennis Cooper My Loose Thread
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