"Is this for real? Is that a stupid question?": A Review of Dennis Cooper's The Sluts
"Is this for real? Is that a stupid question?": A Review of Dennis Cooper's The Sluts
Dennis Cooper’s disorienting novel, The Sluts, complicates reader expectations about subjectivity and identity. As a result, Megan Milks notes that it “is either the most honest or the most dishonest literature I have come across.”
In a 1997 interview, Dennis Cooper lamented that his novels’ formal qualities often got lost in the attention bestowed upon his extreme subject matter (qtd. Canning 309). The five-novel George Miles Cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period) explores the eroticization of death amid a swirling confusion of fantasy and reality, and the sex is often as violent and graphically depicted as the murders. Cooper’s cycle presents such transgressions as queer sex, incest, pedophilia, kiddie and snuff porn with uncomfortable rigor and a brutally disengaged tone. Within them, the figure of George Miles circulates, sometimes named George, sometimes taking other names, other forms, but generally figuring as an effeminate young man carrying around a traumatic past, substance abuse problems, and a romanticized death drive, and always inhabiting an unknowable body upon which others can and do enact their fantasies. Many of these fantasies involve death, and the body count is high - though less than you might think if you’ve read about Cooper more than you’ve read Cooper. While I don’t want to diminish the level of sheer malice on display in his novels, it’s important to note that a number of the deaths in this cycle are consensual, accidental, or fantastic, and all of them possess a queasy, unstable moral ambiguity. While censure is never absent - the novels’ self-reflexivity and Cooper’s self-implication keep it hovering in the air - it certainly doesn’t land. The moral edge of the series is, if thin and treacherous, carefully constructed. The reader does not know where she stands on these events, but she is certainly a participant.
If I seem to be emphasizing the extreme subject matter here, it’s only to get it out of the way. Yes, Cooper pushes against the edge of ethical acceptability - but he is not the amoral monster some critics have made him out to be. Rather, his work is profoundly interested in the problem of morality. As such, it calls into question any and all presumptions about morality, especially in the realm of the fictional and in how it infringes upon reality (and vice versa). The point, then, is not shock value, but experiment: Cooper’s cycle constitutes a masterful experiment in the production of a coherent body of work, with each novel possessing a singular formal coherence that contributes to the coherence of the series as a whole. Cooper has described the cycle as “a single body being alternately tortured and repaired in a certain way, so that the form of the novels mirrors the content” (qtd. in Canning 300). Closer provides this body, laying out all of the elements in the series, elements that are violated, revived, and rearranged in each book. Each text becomes a skewed reflection of its relatives.
The figure of George haunts and exceeds these narratives; he remains unpindownable even in death. In many ways, George is simply a body - a continually fetishized vessel that, for his desirers, seems to demand entry. Yet, George’s circulating body is remarkably disembodied, a blank, a ghost: an image made by words, by fantasies put into language. Also circulating is the figure of Dennis, a version of the author who narrates Frisk and Guide, and whose persistent dilemma is the incapacity of language to either liberate nor deteriorate his desires: “I realized at some point that I couldn’t and wouldn’t kill anyone, no matter how persuasive the fantasy is. And theorizing about it, wondering why, never helped at all. Writing it down was and still is exciting in a pornographic way” (123). The writing isn’t enough, either for “Dennis” or Dennis (the author) - it requires readers. The letters in Frisk attempt to create an audience in their recipients, doubled by the audience of the novel’s readers. Indeed, the books are full of doubles and repeatings - as well as lies, attempts to generate or defy reality through narration. Cooper’s fiction is either the most honest or the most dishonest literature I have come across.
In the years since the interview cited above (from 1997), appreciation for Cooper has broadened. Part of this has to do with the recent publication of two collections of scholarship devoted to Cooper’s body of work, which emphasize its formal qualities as well as its foundation in European literature and philosophySee Enter at Your Own Risk, edited by Leora Lev (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006) and Dennis Cooper: Writing at the Edge, edited by Paul Hegarty and Danny Kennedy (Sussex Academic Press, 2008).; part of it has to do with the success of The Sluts, published in 2004. The Sluts is considered by Cooper his most popular book: its reception was markedly positive, and it even received a Lambda Literary Award for Best Fiction Book of 2005 - ironic given that “the gay literary world always hated me” (qtd. in Kennedy 193-4). This more widely positive reception likely has to do with a variety of things, not the least of which is the wider range of queer fiction being published in the past decade and a half, giving transgressive queer writers a better climate in which to produce more “negative” representations of queerness without as much backlash. With regard to The Sluts in itself, though, and in comparison with Cooper’s past work, I would venture to guess that the novel has received such praise for four reasons. First, although it retreads much of the same territory - snuff films, prostitution, murder fantasies - as the George Miles cycle (indeed it was originally written to be part of the cycle), it foregrounds form so completely that its extreme content can’t be easily extracted. Second, The Sluts gets rid of “Dennis” as a narrator and character, replacing individual consciousness with a swarm consciousness and making it pretty impossible to lambast Cooper as the origin of its horrors (though, of course, he still is). Third, The Sluts provides commentary on and justification for its own and the cycle’s interest in violent and exploitative sex and snuff porn. And finally, while the novels in the cycle are all exceedingly self-reflexive, The Sluts is often both self-reflexive and hilarious, trading in snide cynicism for comic irony. Cooper has gone so far as to call it a comedy (qtd. in Kennedy 195).
Like its predecessors, The Sluts is obsessed with neatness, with symmetry, repeating and perfecting the palindrome/mirror structure established by Closer and most loudly amplified in Frisk and Period. The novel is comprised of five sections, the first and last of which consist of a series of reviews of a hustler named Brad (occasionally (mis)identified as other similar-looking escorts). Apparently adhering to a pre-established review submission form, each review includes a list of statistics describing the hustler (that is, information about name, location, rates, contact info, height, weight, body hair, etc.) followed by a narrative describing the reviewer’s experience with the hustler. The first of these sections, “Site 1,” spins out the first iteration of the Brad saga, with “Brad,” an unusually accommodating and uncommonly cute hustler bottom with few or no limits, and his manager/pimp/lover “Brian,” who evidently wants to kill Brad, emerging as central figures. As early as page 9, Brad becomes suspect: after he responds to a reviewer whom he claims is lying about their encounter, a Webmaster steps in to suggest reviewers “stay clear of Brad” (9). A few reviews later, we meet “Brian,” who pipes up to explain that Brad has a fatal brain tumor and that Brian, whose “all time fantasy is to murder a boy during the sex act,” has agreed to take Brad in with the understanding that Brian will kill him when he becomes too disabled to enjoy sex (16). Soon another reviewer has joined the fray, claiming that “Brad” is actually another hustler named “Steve,” and that “Brad/Steve” has written all these reviews himself. All of this happens by page 18. The Brad and Brian saga is already out of hand, and its constant assertions and contestations of veracity will continue on, to a comical degree, until the last page of the book.
At the end of this first section, some bodies (may or may not) have piled up, but more so the questions: Is Brad the same person as porn star Stevie Sexed aka Kenneth Miller? Is Brad the same person as the San Diego-based escort known as Kevin? Are Brad and Brian in a consensual relationship, or is Brian keeping Brad against his will? Has Brian already killed Brad? Brian or “Brian”? Brad or “Brad”? Who killed Stevie Sexed? And so on. Throughout the section, the Webmaster functions as something of an authority figure, corroborating this or that account, questioning this or that other account; when he decides to close the thread, thereby closing the section, much is left unanswered. The novel shifts form in the next section, titled “Ad,” presenting hustler ads and telephone transcripts involving “Box157,” aka “Brian,” probably but not definitely the same Brian involved with Brad (or “Brad”). Box157/Brian discusses with each hustler the prospect of hiring them in order to kill them. This section is perhaps the queasiest of the book, as it strongly suggests there is some character, whether Brian or someone posing as Brian, who is going around killing hustlers. However, each script stops before a death actually occurs, so it’s impossible to know whether or not Brian goes through with any of the scenarios he has devised.
I debated whether or not to put the word know in the sentence above in scare quotes - after all, this is fiction, artifice, lies! The Sluts sits smugly within this tension, the most prominent of the book: reality versus fiction; testament versus lie. The novel’s interrogation of veracity is not so much a comment on fiction’s lies, although it is that, as it is a comment on reality’s fundamental unknowability (as demonstrated in narrative). Timothy Baker has persuasively read the novel in epistemological terms, pointing out that “Cooper highlights not only the way in which pornographic and textual acts create their own illusory reality, but also the way in which any idea of an external reality is always revealed as already fictional” (58). Another way of putting it might be, as posed by “Brad” fan bobbybebrace, “Is this for real? Is that a stupid question?” (137). The Sluts is an exercise in mythology, and we’re never quite sure who’s doing the mythologizing.
The second section, along with the fourth (a record of “Brad” and “Brian” interacting through email and fax), provide what appear to be more privileged points of view, focusing as they do on “Brian” and “Brad“ ‘s activities apart from the group consciousness. Yet, as with everything in The Sluts, what is real is indeterminate. What is real is only language, and much of it floats, unanchored in veracity or certainty. If the violence of the prose in the George Miles Cycle often reduces character to language, to inscribability, in The Sluts even language is unsettled - the words used to describe Brad are comically, emphatically inconsistent. As Baker has observed, the information reported by his reviewers gives Brad seven different heights, ten different weights; his eyes are reported to be blue, brown, green, and hazel (63). Both Brad’s identity and his body are unfixed, becoming only what his reviewers record them to be. And yet, Brad is also a ‘real’ figure - if we take as ‘real’ his responses to various reviews, in which he writes against his reviewers’ inscriptions. Of course, Brad’s version of Brad is just as incomplete and easily discardable as the other versions. “Brad,” then, is some kind of vacuum character: just as quickly as he’s filled, he’s emptied of meaning.
As in the George Miles novels, especially Period, characters here double; identities are repeatable. The Sluts refuses fixed subjectivity, suggesting that identity shifts, is exportable, assumable; it exceeds its boundaries. In the last section, “Site 2,” the Brad and Brian saga cranks back up for a second round, while the mystery of Stevie Sexed’s murder remains unsolved. Eventually we find out that the new “Brad” is actually a hustler named Thad impersonating Brad; and that the new “Brian” is actually a former hustler named Zack Young impersonating Brian. We also learn that each has been scamming the other, in addition to scamming the community of “Brad” fans they’ve been exploiting. Zack emerges as the mastermind behind at least the second half of the book, in which Brad’s mythology is exploited to the point where Zack is selling off “Brad“ ‘s body parts for abuse and torture ahead of his death. Whether this actually happens or not is unclear. Testimonies exist, but they are only words. On the message board, someone by the handle of “earljackson” asserts, “By the way, I am a real person” (174). That’s a laugh.
At the same time that it denies a clearcut “reality,” however, The Sluts seems to suggest that there may actually be one. After all, Thad is not Brad, no matter how good a scam he pulls. His ploys may work for a while, but eventually the truth (“truth”) outs him.It is difficult to read The Sluts now, in 2011, without thinking of potential connections to the JT LeRoy scandal. The Sluts was published in 2004, before JT LeRoy was exposed in 2006 as a fake identity developed by Laura Albert and impersonated by Savannah Knoop. Especially when Elaine, Brad’s much older girlfriend who is known to take an interest in the hustlers in her neighborhood, shows up, it’s hard not to make comparisons between the novel’s storyline and LeRoy’s fictional backstory of being taken in off the streets by a kind older woman. I’m not making any claims here. Cooper, who was an early supporter of LeRoy’s has come out fairly critically against the scam, as someone who participated in it unknowingly (see his October 28, 2005 post “A JT Leroy Riff,”. In any case, the connections are provocative. At one point, the “real” Brian returns to the site to make certain confessions, and observes that “now Brad is just a name. You don’t even know who it belongs to anymore. The point is, this is your story and your ending, not Brad’s and mine” (290). The narrative has been officially given over to the community, though of course it’s been the community’s all along. When Zack confesses to his deceptions in his final contribution to the saga, he explains:
Whoever the boy was, Brad or Thad or someone else, he wasn’t attractive or interesting or good enough in the sack to have lived up to the hype even if he had let himself be killed … That’s why I ended up thinking it was better if there wasn’t a Brad at all … I thought I could make up a better ending than whatever would have happened anyway. But too many questions were raised by too many people … It just became impossible to satisfy everyone and create the perfect death at the same time. (295)
Brad may have become “just a name,” but his identity is ultimately not fully assumable. Even in the seemingly anarchic space of the Internet, reality intrudes. About LA, where the George Miles novels are set, Cooper has said, “you can dump people anywhere here. It’s full of all these weird, fantastic negative spaces” (qtd. in Canning 323). In comparison, Cooper’s use of the Internet, a weird, virtual, uncontainable and fundamentally unknowable space, is appropriate. While the novel is housed on print, not on the Web, it might be considered a form of digital literature. Its forms are borrowed from technology: Cooper plunders Internet discussion boards as well as email, fax, and telephone transcripts. All of these forms are dependent on technologies; and all of these technological forms are language-based. Though largely taking place on the Internet (with the “real” events located along the West Coast), the geography of The Sluts is language. It is a remarkably disembodied book, especially in comparison with the mutating bodies of the George Miles novels. However, the space of The Sluts is neither totally blank, nor totally anarchic. In the Webmaster, we have a figure who exercises a modicum of control, grounding the narrative by choosing which reviews and responses to publish, and occasionally inviting this or that character to offer a new perspective or defense. The Webmaster serves as an organizing force and a control to what might otherwise become a breeding ground for contradictory assertions.
When the Webmaster drops out in the “Board” section, those drawn into the saga are free to discuss it on their own, outside the constraints of the review-based site and the control of a surveilling webmaster - though of course behind it all is the silent god-author orchestrating it all. This section is the most self-reflexive of the novel, and the one which most openly comments on Cooper’s work and its reception; in it, we get a bevy of contrasting opinions about community members’ desires to either kill or save Brad. Perspectives range from recantings like “this whole thing is just sick porn and we’ve all been implicated” (126) to defenses like “our fantasy lives are not a police state” (130), and members express varying degrees of concern over their own morality: “underthegunguy,” for instance, asks, of his desire to see the alleged Stevie Sexed snuff video: “Does that make me an amoral monster? That’s a serious question” (139). When Elaine pops in to say, “Hi, everyone. I’m Brad’s girlfriend Elaine. I think some of you are mentally ill” (130), it becomes clear that Cooper is using this polyvocality as a vehicle to air (and mock) some of the grievances he’s received in response to his other novels - accusations that he is sick, amoral, mentally ill, etc. The self-reflexivity through polyphony is tongue in cheek, and teems with ironic jabs aimed at anyone taking the story too seriously.
In the final pages of the novel, in his final confession, Zack Young ostensibly resolves any lingering questions about the events that have transpired in this saga. Adding to an already long litany of confessions he’s made disclosing his various deceits, Zack provides one final version, sent to and posted by the Webmaster after the Webmaster has learned from the police that someone named Zack Young has committed suicide. Case closed, or maybe. “So what was real?” asks pppeter in the middle of the book (176). Stupid question. Still, a tenuous explanation is available should you want one.
Baker, Timothy C. “The Whole is Untrue: Experience and Community in The Sluts.” Dennis Cooper: Writing at the Edge. Ed. Paul Hegarty and Danny Kennedy. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008. 52-67. Print.
Cooper, Dennis. Interview. Gay Fiction Speaks: Conversations with Gay Novelists. By Richard Canning. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print.
—. Interview by Danny Kennedy. “ ‘It’s the shift that creates’: An Interview with Dennis Cooper, 12 July 2007.” Dennis Cooper: Writing at the Edge. Ed. Paul Hegarty and Danny Kennedy. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008. 191-209. Print.
—. Closer. New York: Grove, 1989. Print.
—. Frisk. New York: Grove, 1991. Print.
—. Guide. New York: Grove, 1997. Print.
—. Period. New York: Grove, 2000. Print.
—. Try. New York: Grove, 1994. Print.
—. The Sluts. Brooklyn, NY: Void, 2004. Print.
Lev, Leora, ed. Enter at Your Own Risk: The Dangerous Art of Dennis Cooper. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. Print.