Ben Winch's Reviews > Closer

Closer by Dennis Cooper
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really liked it
bookshelves: anglo, american

Dennis Cooper likes to play dumb. He doesn’t like explaining. He’ll drop you in the middle of a teenager’s popstar fantasy and you’ll think “C’mon, get real” before you realise it’s not real, nor meant to be. He’ll drag you with his desultory creatures through sex act after sex act, and you’ll find not one shred of titillation. Gay porn? This is the opposite. Anti-porn. Sex aversion therapy. In Closer’s sequel Frisk, if he got turned on during a sex-scene he’d rewrite it. This, to me, speaks of moral purpose. That he doesn’t trumpet that purpose – that, in all likelihood, he doesn’t know what it is – speaks of courage. Tempted to file him with Brett Easton Ellis? Don’t. Only the scenery is similar. Cooper is, almost, a comment on Ellis, or on that genre of disaffected teen/twenty-something nihilism. In the face of what he calls “a widespread belief that the material my work explores is suitable only for a discrete, heavy-handed, moral kind of fiction or for low-brow horror,” he has the gall to take away the signposts. It’s what finally sold me on Closer: the ambiguity. A high school where virtually every male is gay and homophobia never was? It’s like some vision of Heaven, but – inevitably – infiltrated by Hell. A kid driving a car looks up in time to see a truck pull out; next paragraph he’s in a wheelchair. The focus is skewed, flattened, inverted, as if Cooper were scanning every cranny of his invented world for meaning. And he doesn’t flinch.

I said he doesn’t like explaining, but in an interview for The Paris Review (one of the best I’ve read) he does just that.

On realism:

I think it’s important to reiterate that my novels aren’t realist. They’re not selective transcriptions of the real world... When there’s a real-world resemblance, it’s there to create an atmosphere of familiarity that’s helpful as a comfort zone in which I can introduce things that are difficult and unsuspected. The characters are the main entrance into the work because they’re shaped like humans and they’re lit more brightly than their surroundings. But they’re not real – they don’t feel or think or want anything.

On finding the “final ingredient” for his fiction in the films of Robert Bresson:

[I recognised] that the films were entirely about emotion and, to me, profoundly moving while, at the same time, stylistically inexpressive and monotonic. On the surface, they were nothing but style, and the style was extremely rigorous to boot, but they seemed almost transparent and purely content driven. Bresson’s use of untrained nonactors influenced my concentration on characters who are amateurs or noncharacters or characters who are ill equipped to handle the job of manning a storyline or holding the reader’s attention in a conventional way.

On porn:

Porn charges and narrows the reader’s attention in a swift, no-nonsense way, and it creates an anxious, intimate, and secretive atmosphere that I find very helpful as a way to erase the context around my characters and foreground their feelings, their psychological depths, their tastes... My goal is to try to articulate what my characters wish to express during sex but can’t and to depict the way language is compromised by sex, as realistically as I can.

If I were Dennis Cooper, I’d find it hard to say what Closer is about, but in a haunting scene in its penultimate chapter I think he comes close. A drunk sadist and would-be killer lies in the dark, talking inwardly with an unidentified voice:

“How would you kill Georges?” Very slowly, so I could see everything in him and know what he has meant to me. “Would you expect to see yourself in him?” I would expect to see someone who could answer my questions looking at me through him. He would resemble me.

... I am beginning to feel there is no answer for me. I am too interested in what is beautiful, and when beauty is not somewhere, I create it. But when something is beautiful it is impossible for me to understand. “How do you mean this?” I mean beauty is powerful. I feel very weak when I see it, or when I create it. No, I cannot explain.

“Death is beautiful?” It is too beautiful to explain. “But you try?” I must. “Why?” Because I must know what I love, because it is me. “I do not understand.” I do not either. “You wish to die?” No, I wish never to die, but to see myself in death. To know what I am in the answer of death.

Though I’ve picked up and flipped through Dennis Cooper’s novels at random for the past twenty years, this is the first time I’ve committed to reading one of them. That flipping-through worked against me, because in isolation his scenes don’t quite come alive. He’s not (judging by Closer, and what I’ve read of Frisk) an author whose work is “complete on every page”. The use of language is functional, convincing, but will not “wow” you. As he says himself, “for better or worse” his range is limited. But there’s a cumulative effect to his conjurings, and it’s powerful. He takes you somewhere. And though, so far, I trust him, he’s just hands-off enough in his guiding that it’s a scary place to go.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
2014 – Finished Reading
April 17, 2014 – Shelved

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