Here’s a short list of ground covered in the nine novels Dennis Cooper has published since 1989: Rent boy murder mysteries; haunted sex labyrinths in the French countryside; cannibalism; sexual fantasies of being flattened; violent pornography; satanism. The experimental literary icon, suffice it to say, is provocative.
Of all of Cooper’s work — which includes at least 10 books of poetry, 12 plays and theatrical works, 2 GIF novels, 2 feature length films, a graphic novel, and a sprawling blog with a rabid readership — perhaps the best known is the George Miles Cycle, a collection of five novels (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period) in which the author dissects, reapproaches, and morphs the eponymous central character by placing him at the crux of violence, pain, and sexual fantasy. Cooper’s work is often misunderstood as sadistic, but for as brutal as it can be, there’s something irreducibly human about his writing; that brutality is often paired with yearning, obsession, and a quest to find beauty in the macabre.
Cooper last released a book via a major publisher in 2011; today, a decade later, comes I Wished, a new novel that may be his most personal and vulnerable to date. A fragmented, surreal, and devastating work, I Wished is Cooper’s attempt to memorialize George Miles — both the real-life George Miles, who Cooper befriended and fell in love with before he died by suicide at age 30, and George Miles as the literary character that Cooper has created. Partly autobiographical, the book reads like a kaleidoscopic fever dream; through fractured narrative shards, we witness the school dance where Dennis first meets George as he’s tripping on LSD, an absurd conversation between a prairie dog and James Turrell’s anthropomorphized Roden Crater, a reimagining of John Wayne Gacy’s final murder, and more. Throughout its splintered storylines, Cooper touches on the concept of the unknowable, mourning, and the innate failure of language.
One of Cooper’s literary mottos is that “confusion is the truth,” something he’s emphasized repeatedly in interviews. As one of the most enduring elements of Cooper’s work, I Wished attempts to express why Miles is so important yet ultimately indescribable to the author. Characters throughout the book are infatuated with George but cannot pinpoint why: he’s Santa Claus’ favorite child, seemingly arbitrarily; famed artist James Turrell blindly entrusts George to add finishing touches on a behemoth sculpture. Only a book this bizarre, this ambiguous, and this hallucinatory would be worthy of memorializing a figure like Miles.
From his Parisian apartment, Cooper spoke with them. about his boyhood crushes, the safety of the imagination, and music’s influence on his prose.
It’s been ten years since your last novel, The Marbled Swarm. What drew you to write again, specifically about George Miles, a recurring character in your work?
I always wanted to write a book about George because he was really important to me, and also because I’d written The George Miles Cycle novels about him, but those really weren’t about him. He wasn’t like that at all. I wanted to memorialize him in a real way and see what would happen if I let my guard down, because I never let my emotions out much in my fiction.
The Marbled Swarm is really dense, complicated, and unemotional. I always try to start from scratch and go in a completely different direction. George is a difficult thing for me to think about. It was pretty emotional to write it; it was pretty tough.