Thursday, May 15, 2008

Try - Dennis Cooper

Of all the books that friends could recommend you, Try may be the most hit-or-miss. You may have a friend tell you to read it, and you may end up hating that person forever. Alternately, you may have a friend tell you to read it, and you may think that person is really fucked up, but you’ve probably already taken the time to understand them, so instead you are just, concerned. In the last case, you’re told to read it, you do, you are blown away, you do not think about modern literature quite the same way again, and you decide, even if they’re not as good, you want to read the rest of Cooper’s books.

Oeuvre rule: I shared an apartment in Paris with a girl who had The Hipster Handbook, which was mostly a joke-text, but which did pin down the Williamsburg-type to a T. However, some elements of hipsters struck me as oft-kilter, namely the “hippest authors,” which included your usual bunch (Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac I think…) but placed Cooper at the #1 position and simply said, “Hipsters have read all of Cooper’s novels.” I find this hard to believe. I can count on one hand the number of people I know that are familiar with his work. Now, all five of those people may be hipsters, but I know more than five hipsters. This really doesn’t matter at all. My point is, Cooper is 55, Try was published in 1994, and if you don’t know who he is by now, then you probably won’t hear of him in the future, though that is up for debate, as one of his more recent texts, God Jr. has him flirting with the mainstream. You can find that volume in many mass-market arenas, but you will almost never find Try anywhere except in a library.

In my opinion, Try is Cooper’s definitive volume, at least so far. His other books explore similar terrain, but always with a focus on violence that at times I find confusing. Try is an extremely violent book, and contains at least three scenes that will make you audibly gasp. I found myself surprised that I took everything in stride until the penultimate scene in the novel, when I had to groan for a graphic description of “fisting.” However, this is my second time reading it. The first time was in Paris, and with a bottle of wine. The second time was in Silver Lake, and with a bottle of wine. Both times it was read in one evening. I feel it is appropriate to read the novel this way because all of the characters get so fucking messed up through the course of its 200 pages that you don’t feel so left out if you’re getting shitfaced as you’re activating the text with your mind. Also, it may make you cry more easily. I did not cry last night. I cried this morning (for different reasons, but probably because of some of the emotional turmoil left over from reading it last night). Try is extremely emotional. The last two pages are about as good as the last two pages of anything else I’ve read. You’d think I’m fucking crazy if I described this as a “tender” book, but on the second reading, that side of it seems more apparently resonant than the violent aspect.

A note on structure seems prudent, as Try is one of Cooper’s least –structured and most predictably forward-moving novels. There are several different “perspectives” that break up the text into chapters of sorts, though the action takes place over the course of two or three (really) crazy days. Upon reflection, it is not all the different from my first novel, except there are way less characters here, and there is nothing so pretentious as separate chapter titles for each different character perspective about to push through the next several pages of the story. No, the perspectives are Ziggy’s, Calhoun’s, Roger’s, Ken’s, and that’s sort of it. You go back between those four characters—the main one, his best friend, his father (the only one in first-person POV), his uncle—with a nearly symmetrical precision until all of the energy contained within the work is used up and exhausted.

Regardless of the deeper implications of the text, the story in Try is clearly its most salient element. The majority of Cooper’s other volumes sacrifice some level of story in favor of abstraction. Or else, their stories tend to be too similar. Frisk seems to have a very intricate story drawn up around it, but while it may boast an intelligent structure, the “page-turner” aspect is not quite the same. Do not get me wrong—while Try may be a page turner, it is not destined for Oprah’s Book Club. Giving away the story probably ruins a few surprises, but I will summarize it quickly anyways: Ziggy is 16, obsesses over Husker Du, edits a zine entitled I Apologize, a Magazine for the Sexually Abused, lives with his father Brice, rarely goes to school, when he does it is only to see Annie, a drug dealer who supply things with names like Superchunk, has a best friend named Calhoun who is a year older than him and so has graduated high school, but is only working part-time in a record store and is a massive junkie who slowly writes fiction, has an uncle named Ken who spends the entire novel sexually mutilating a thirteen-year-old Slayer fanatic on film, and finally has another father named Roger, who is a rock critic in New York, and who has decided that he is going to take Ziggy back with him, all while being somewhat overly-obsessed with “rimming.”

The subject matter is obviously a bit rough and sketchy. However, few books tend to take up this material so head-on. Anybody interested in figuring out the long term (though the work mainly deals in the short-term) effects of sexual abuse would be well-served to begin here, as there are few other novels to deal in it so unflinchingly. What is different is the complicity, the realism, the lack of options, the truly confused state. Anyone who has in fact been sexually abused would no doubt reap a great benefit from reading this text, even if it may force them to revisit painful memories. However, in that potential case one risks becoming fixated on Ziggy, perhaps the only character one could clearly state “is more fucked up than you are.” The part that makes the novel a masterpiece though, is that, despite how fucked-up Ziggy is from everything life has given him, he doesn’t complain, he does what he has to, and he does not give up on his search for happiness. Try is life-affirming in its own extremely fucked up way.

The fact that it is fiction lends the outside world the same appearance after reading it. It seems so, so made-up. It’s totally not realistic at all—at least the Ken sub-plot is completely absurd, unless you’re trying to say there are still more Gacys and Dahmers left that the world will never know about. But even though it’s ridiculous, even though few people will find themselves caught up in a situation like Ziggy’s (as atypical a nuclear family scenario as is practically possible), you cannot help but be moved to attempt to glean something from the text. One can dismiss the book in the first place, saying it’s “pulpy” or something, but Cooper never exactly stops writing about his characters like they’re still real human beings, and for that there is a whole world of understanding that can be brought out of his literature. I recommend reading Try while getting your choice of really-fucked-up, alone in your dwelling.

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