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Riding shotgun with the Almighty

God Jr. A Novel Dennis Cooper Black Cat: 164 pp., $12 paper

October 02, 2005|James McCourt | James McCourt is the author of numerous books, including the novel "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" and "Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985."

WHEN I talk about Dennis Cooper's writing, I tend to become excited beyond enunciation, sounding something like Joyce's Molly Bloom, all heated up there in her bed over life and love:

Yes, because it's very important, yes, because I've been wanting for ages to do a bit of justice on behalf of a body of work of a certain genius and the most Los Angeles kind of writing since whenever ... since Raymond Chandler ...

Chandler took a rough "headline" genre, the crime novel, and turned it into one of the best 20th century examples in English of the quest narrative, with a sequence of seven novels (and another unfinished). That sequence is as formal, in its own way, as Spenser's "The Faerie Queene." Cooper, like Chandler, takes a popular genre -- locus classicus (in this case, Los Angeles as the ultimate elsewhere) -- and remakes it as literature.

Its hallmark is a set of highly formalized tropes, handled according to methods in operation since "Gilgamesh" and refined for the Western canon by Homer; the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and (of particular relevance to Cooper) Aristophanes; and the lyric poets Pindar and Sappho.

Cooper has transformed the all-American boy story, previously elaborated on by Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Stephen Crane, Booth Tarkington, J.D. Salinger and William Gaddis, and notwithstanding his reworking of the formula so as to satisfy reader expectations -- and without relaxing his commitment to the moral fable -- transcends the formulaic with exquisite writing on the level of Rimbaud's "Illuminations."

"Aw rocks, tell us in plain words," says Molly.

All right, then. Cooper has his characters seeing and saying things -- crucial things that nobody else writing today sees or says -- even as the author disappears into his narrative (although there's a trace of him in the subtext, a trace composed of equal parts desire, pity, anger and fear, and one that is diffused throughout his five-part chronicle: "Closer," "Frisk," "Try," "Guide" and "Period"). Now, suddenly, with "God Jr.," the trace takes on the trappings of the parent heretofore pathetically distanced from his careworn progeny.

In "God Jr.," the parent is Jim, survivor of a car crash that killed his teenage son and only child Tommy. Tommy had spent his every waking moment stoned and was obsessed in particular with a computer game whose protagonist is a cartoon bear with godlike attributes. Left disabled by the accident, and abandoned by his wife, Jim is crippled as well by guilt and remorse. That's because, also habitually stoned in order to face life -- of which he had no more understanding than Tommy (or in Cooper's universe, God or God Jr.) -- he was driving.

To gain some understanding of the architectonics of a mysterious building that Tommy drew over and over in a notebook the year before his death, Jim submits to the allure of the boy's computer game and begins to take on the characteristics of its cartoon bear:

"The bear is a jewel among millions in a broochlike world. Then he knows his name is Jim and his body's my little costume.... When he walks, he feels how stoned I am. Still, he lacks an opinion on anything to do with feeling pleasure. It's all a given....

"I don't know why a bear that can't sit down is confused with the Almighty by everyone around him. I know why everyone in a false world would think a boy who spent his whole life doing nothing is God."

Is Jim connecting with his dead son or just going crazy?

"God Jr." is restive, uncertain and, most important, uncanny. The book's title (as well as the action of the computer game) is an unambiguous play on the supposed godlike powers of the writer, trumpeted ever since Homer invoked the ecstatic Muse. In "God Jr.," this aggressive narrative protocol breaks down, even as it assumes the prerogatives of the Almighty. God is not dead in Cooper's world (nor is God Jr.) -- he's simply had a complete crack-up.

"I'm a bit wiped myself," says Jim. "As I hope I've explained, the bear gets old fast. I have a fifteen-minute attention span, tops. It's genetic. Nothing personal. It's just that I've seen what I'm seeing so long I might as well be blind."

Cooper ought not to be faulted because Samuel Beckett (following Nietzsche) already installed these epistemological ideas in modern literature; rather, he is to be honored for following in Beckett's footsteps so fearlessly. People who declare as repellent Cooper's existential handling of perennial American themes -- themes too often purveyed along with rose-colored glasses -- and call his writing strange make me want to say rude things out loud. They're usually benighted Americans, seeking the easier, softer way. Cooper's reputation abroad, especially in England and in France, is much higher than it is here. And I suspect that if the situation is going to change, the change must begin in Los Angeles.

Therefore, with all the earnestness at my command, I beg you to be intrepid and thorough from the start. If you have not read "Closer," "Frisk," "Try," "Guide" and "Period," make note of these titles on an L.A. postcard to use as a bookmark and a reminder while reading "God Jr." Ideally, one would first read the others in sequence, but this is an emergency, and "God Jr." is on display in (or coming soon to) a bookstore near you. Buy it. Read it. It is an American masterpiece. *

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