Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Closer - Dennis Cooper

We follow up one re-read with another in what will not be a continuing trend (our next item is the much-anticipated Imperial Bedrooms, referenced quite a long time ago on Flying Houses, here with Closer, what could be considered Dennis Cooper's breakout novel, published in 1989. This preceded Frisk, and later Try. They form a trilogy which can be considered his strongest work.

In the same way Ziggy is the central figure of Try, George Miles is at the center of Closer. However, the story is not as narrowly-focused, which distracts, but also allows the work to delve into a few experimental episodes that coalesce and form its own unique symmetry. There are eight relatively short chapters in 131 pages with seven narrators, or protagonists in what could be considered short stories, all of which link. This is definitely a novel, though.

John, where the novel starts, draws portraits of his classmates, and gets involved physically with them. He meets George Miles, who takes several tabs of acid every day and smokes grass in between and keeps a shrine to Disneyland in his bedroom. Sex ensues, thoughts of violence ensue, and then they end up meeting a punk who goes with them into a purportedly haunted house and then later the punk describes his predicament:

"'Hurt me,' he yelled in a hoarse voice. 'Fuck me up and I'll never forget you. I really fucking love violence. I want to tell all my friends what we did so they'll hate me or call me a fag or whatever, but fuck them. I'm not a poser like they are. I want to do everything so when I die they'll say I lived and tell bad jokes about me but who cares. I like getting crazy and you seem okay. Anyway, why not?'" (10)

The second chapter is narrated by David, who believes he is a pop star, or fantasizes about it often enough to become his fractured reality. The novel shifts its tone and voice drastically in this chapter and becomes a bit humorous, while still very dark. David is paranoid and talkative, the chapter is breezy, and it serves as a nice transition between the 1st and 3rd chapters.

The 3rd chapter is George's first chapter, and in it he describes getting asked to leave school one day, hitchhiking, getting picked up by a carpenter, more sex, going to a school dance, smoking a joint with his teacher, who is a closet case, and then later meeting Philippe. The segments with Philippe are the point at which Closer tips the obscenity scales at 10. Philippe has a particularly gross fetish that is four letters long and starts with the letter s. That is all I will say about that. But it does become an important plot point.

The next two chapters are 1st and 3rd person alternately with Cliff and Alex, who are more of the same, basically--they are friends, and they watch old scary movies together, sometimes they smoke pot together, they talk about George Miles, and how obsessed they are with him (as does everyone), and then there is always more sex. Cliff watches Philippe perform his act with George, and then later tells Alex about it, who wants to recreate it for a project in his film class. Later an accident happens.

George's second chapter comes next, and it has the probable climax of the novel in his encounter with Tom, who attempts to kill him, because that is what he understood their meeting to mean.

Philippe is the next chapter, and in it he describes the root of his perversion in relatively original prose, such as the interior-dialogue he has with himself as he tries to sleep:

"'What are you feeling, Philippe?' Tired. 'Then you should sleep.' But I am too tense; I keep thinking. 'What kind of thinking?' Well, everything. 'Of Georges?' Some. He represents something I have desired for a long time. 'How long?' Since before I came to America.
'Why did you come?' I came because in my own country I felt afraid. 'Of what?' Everything, but mainly of myself. I was beginning to want what I could not have. 'Can you be more clear?' No. When I try, my beliefs or desires come out beautiful. They are beautiful to me, but I cannot understand them in that form.
'You wanted to kill someone?' That is too simple. I thought about killing someone, though I did not know who. My ideas about death are very beautiful, so I wanted to think about killing a beautiful person. 'A boy?' Yes. 'And you could not find him there?' I could not find myself there. I was known as what I am not.
'Who are you?' I am trying to find this out. It is hard. I am driven to do certain things, and I believe they are helping me, because they seem strong. 'Why Georges?' He makes me feel something. I do not know this answer. 'He has been hurt?' Yes. 'By someone you know?' Yes." (109-110)

The novel's final chapter is narrated by Steve, who starts a nightclub called the Forefront in his parent's four-car garage. Later he meets George, and then an accident occurs, and the novel ends, in fairly effective order.

If there's anything to criticize about this book, it would be its subject matter, but that is a discussion I don't care to offer. I think it's unfair. More to the point: this novel meanders. Sometimes the meandering is great, and Cooper will find some new way to say something simple, in a sentence that the reader feels they might have read before, but with a word or two exchanging positions in order that changes the meaning. Other times, when a new narrator enters the picture, the reader can feel that they're losing the story, or missing the point. My first time reading it, I didn't like it as much.

The second time, I must admit it seems much longer than its 131 pages, but is consistent all the way through, and offers many quotable passages, as deranged as they may be. One of my favorites is more innocent though--it is George's declaration to change his life, in his diary:

"'I'm going to use this to make myself change, like a starting point. I think that's the best thing to do. I won't buy any more drugs. I'll try not to do what I always do. I never do anything other than school and Philippe.
'Tomorrow I'll clean up my room and make it look like a normal place. I think I'll burn all my Disneyland stuff so I can't change my mind. Nobody else was ever interested in the stuff anyway and all my feelings for it are destroyed by the drugs now.
'I called Cliff tonight, just to talk. He doesn't care anymore. He kept saying how cute David was. I guess they're in love. He said that David is sort of obsessed or whatever with me. I don't know why, but it pisses him off. I hung up.
'It's strange I'm not sad about Mom. I guess it took such a long time I felt everything I could feel already. I wish I hadn't been there, but I'm glad the last person she looked at was me. She really loved me once. Likewise, I guess.
'I think I'm afraid of stuff. Maybe that's it. I was afraid Mom would die, but now she has and it's okay. I can't let it stop me from doing things. I'm going to keep that in mind from now on. I mean it." (97)

Closer envisions an alternate reality of sex and violence that many will find shocking, and while it does not reach the heights of Try, it is nearly as good as Frisk, and a decent enough introduction to Cooper's work. It's definitely above-average, but something about it does seem longer--and there is something else worth noting: compared to the rest of the work in Cooper's oeuvre, it seems bland in some way. Like, there is no defining factor that makes it memorable.

For me, this isn't exactly true, but I could see how others might regard it in this light. The final chapter in particular, and the idea of the Forefront, stuck enough in my mind to imagine a parallel setting in my second novel. All of Cooper's work in general influenced my writing it, but several details reminded me of specific scenes, or even phraseology that I would later use, that were pleasures to re-discover. Though it is not a pleasurable read! Reading any of Cooper's books is not a pleasant experience, but it can also be cathartic in ways few other books can match.

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