Ah, finally Dennis Cooper came out with a new book. I never read The Sluts because the cover looked too gay to me. Maybe it is good, I don't know. But I've read everything else by him, and Ugly Man is average in comparison with the rest. It is certainly different. It's definitely far more comic than anything else he has ever put out.
The closest reference point for this book would be Wrong, his collection of short stories published in 1992. Since that year, his star has grown bright, and he is probably more popular than ever before, thanks in no small part to his blog. I first read Try in 2003, followed quickly by Guide, then later My Loose Thread, Frisk, and Closer. For a while I didn't read anything by him, convinced the rest was not necessarily worth it--but God Jr. came out relatively recently, and that was interesting to see a different side of the writer. Finally while in L.A., I capped things off with Period and Wrong, later re-reading Try, which is the only other book by him reviewed on this blog http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/05/try-dennis-cooper.html. Now I want to read Guide again because I look back upon the part of his oeuvre that I have read, and I feel compelled to rank it in this order:
3) My Loose Thread
6) God Jr.
7) Ugly Man
And if you were to include Userlands, his anthology of online literature (the impetus for this blog, and its 12th post, http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/04/userlands-new-fiction-writers-from.html), it would rank beneath Period, probably. I could discuss them all, but let's keep things on Ugly Man, because there is a lot to discuss. Basically, I think it is better than Wrong, while still being very similar, because of the strength of a few of its pieces that go beyond 70% of the rest of the material--in particular, "Jerk," "The Worst (1960-1971)," and the powerful, closing "The Ash Gray Proclamation." Mostly it consists of really short pieces, varying in length from one paragraph to three pages. Flash fiction, I guess.
Sometimes the really short pieces work ("The Boy on the Far Left," "Graduate Seminar," and "Brian aka 'Bear'") and other times they just bleed into each other and seem pretty pointless. "Knife/Tape/Rope" is pretty decent as far as the other pieces that avoid categorization--or rather, fit neatly into the preconceptions of what a short story should appear to be. "The Hostage Drama" is another example of something that works in the end.
But pretty much everything else winds up sounding like an echo of Wrong--and what went wrong with it, pardon the pun. Which is that, forced to work within the confines of a smaller piece, much of Cooper's work loses its emotional impact and instead more closely approaches "torture porn," as with the shorter pieces the torture and the porn are introduced rather quickly, and violently, abruptly cut off. The plot is practically the same for every single one of these pieces--sexually confused teenage boy wants to die, and he happens to find friends that get off by murdering and raping him at the same time, and then sometimes the story will shift to the perspective of his executors. That is what this entire work is "about," so to speak, the nature of sex and violence, taken to the extreme example.
While we are on the topic of obscenity, what with Ulysses being one of our most recent posts, let me just say that Ugly Man, like the rest of Cooper's work excluding God Jr., which is practically family-friendly, would rate a 10 on the obscenity scale, which makes it more obscene than Naked Lunch, primarily because it makes sense.
One piece deserves special note--"The Anal Retentive Line Editor," which is probably the most exasperating thing in the book. It is like the centerpiece of the collection, and probably one of its longest pieces. It is funny, it is clever, and some may enjoy it immensely, but for me it got old rather quickly--though some of Cooper's self-consciousness makes it one of the highlights of any of his work, period.
The most pleasant surprise about Ugly Man, however, is the "P.S." feature at the end of the book, which is sort of like a DVD extra, brought by Harper Perennial. It seems that Cooper has hit the big time with this kind of attention--I've only previously seen one of these in Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer." And this one was much cooler. It has an interview with Cooper, by one of his fans, of whom Cooper is also a fan, apparently (Robert Gluck), and most interestingly, lists of his top 50 poems, top 50 songs by Robert Pollard, top 50 songs in general (which includes songs by Robert Pollard also), top 50 novels, and top 50 films, I think, in no particular order. This was easily the best part of the book. The interview provides the most quotable material:
"Well I guess I did become the writer I imagined I'd be, didn't I? My work seems to mean a lot to a certain kind of young person, and I get a lot of really moving e-mails and letters from young writers who say my work inspires them to write. So I guess your theory makes sense. Of course I never imagined the whole publishing world nonsense and the difficulty of cracking the literary establishment and the lack of financial reward for being this kind of writer. But, yeah, when I'm discouraged by the insurmountable problems that my work creates for itself and for me, realizing that I've achieved what I dreamed of achieving keeps me on track." (4, P.S.)
As if that were not enough there are also five poems by Cooper. Basically, I don't recommend this if this is your first time reading him--but I think fans of his will find much to like about it. I do think it is better than Wrong, and certainly Period, which threatened to collapse under its overwhelming desire to experiment. Ugly Man is experimental, but in a way that adapts the present climate of fiction, which has moved increasingly towards this "flash" thing--something between a poem and a story. Cooper may not be the master of this genre yet, but he has certainly added his own personal stamp to it, and on that basis alone, much of what he has created can exist comfortably alongside more celebrated short, short fiction.
I really hope that he comes out with a new novel soon, though. That would be cool. If I could I would read his blog and ask him to read S/M, because I never would have written it if it weren't for reading his work.