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BOOK REVIEW

'Ugly Man: Stories' by Dennis Cooper

The author's new collection inhabits a world of risk-takers and death-seekers that may test even a lover of dark humor.

July 04, 2009|George Ducker

"Killing's just about power, man." So says a character -- actually, a puppet version of a character -- in "Jerk," the first story in Dennis Cooper's new collection, "Ugly Man." "Jerk" asks us to imagine the last member of a murderous cabal of teenage boys. Having helped videotape a series of snuff films, he is now presenting his puppet-show recounting of the experience.

Written in a back-and-forth of puppet dialogue and first-person recounting, the story concludes with a short essay, written by a random undergraduate who has attended one of the performances. "Between the murders he has committed and the artistry informing his puppetry lies a path so overly complicated by his obsessive need to reconstruct his participation that the actual meaning is subsumed by it . . . " Cooper has neatly turned his own body of work inside-out and put it in the position of a killer seeking, over and over again, to recount the exacting details of each and every crime.

To Cooper's readers, this idea is nothing new. He has moved with stoic determination through a baker's dozen of novels and story collections -- all of them exploring notions of sexuality, boredom and death, and all of them defiantly set upon whittling away, through sheer manic repetition, at society's moral underpinnings. When easing into the fiction of Dennis Cooper, it's best to be ready to get a little blood on your shoes.

"Ugly Man" reads like vignettes plucked straight from the writer's notebook -- sketches, divergences and comic asides. The sulky photographer of "The Graduate Seminar" can't shake the fact that his subject, now deceased, is more famous than he'll ever be. A group of teenage Satanists in "Knife/Tape/Rope" discuss their own internal motivations ("Ok. It's for Satan. That's all.") until the Ethereal Disembodied Voice of their victim returns bearing unsettling news: "Being dead isn't any big deal, you guys. . . . It's not about Satan or anything. You just die. It's weird." The darkness of your sense of humor will dictate the corresponding laugh track, but "Ugly Man" raises the larger question of whether or not, after all this time, Cooper's notions continue to remain interesting.

The obsession with murder and death has always been there. Ditto the sex play, which covers such things as incest and necrophilia. Ditto the veiled self-referencing. Hailed from the beginning as a composer of terse, pitch-black grotesques, Cooper, in his fiction, which includes "Closer," "Try" and "Period," is of a lineage that includes the Marquis de Sade and the confessionals of Jean Genet. Young, waifish gay men, usually high on whatever's handy, stagger around and attempt to figure out the world through a prism of emotional domination, rape and torture. Love exists only as a vague concept, abstracted and hazily elusive.

It's shock through the process of detailed examination. There's no shying away from, say, a boy's face being pummeled with a baseball bat "like seventy times." But risk-taking literature such as this becomes increasingly less so when it is all that ever happens.

Perhaps the biggest risk came with "God Jr.," Cooper's 2005 novel that distinguished itself by being completely vanilla in almost every respect. It moves through a positively pastoral territory: the realm of guilt. Middle-aged former real-estate agent Jim Baxter mourns the death of his teenage son, Tommy, by commissioning an enormous monument in his backyard. Turns out that the monument bears a striking resemblance to a piece of background from a video game that his son played constantly. Now Nintendo's looking to sue. This is the least of Jim's worries, as his wife wants a divorce, the neighbor is complaining about the construction crew and Jim himself was the driver in the very car accident that sent his son flying through a windshield. Paralyzed -- literally -- by guilt, Jim has faked paraplegia and confined himself to a wheelchair.

It is only in the third section of the book, when pot-head Jim begins to play the video game obsessively, seeking a clue that will connect him back to his son, that things take a turn for the sublime. Tommy, also a stoner, had left the game on pause for long stretches of time. When Jim enters Level Three in the form of the game's cheery bear protagonist, he is confronted with characters who have been jarred into sentience, simply by having to exist for so long in the pause mode. A ferret explains the conundrum: "Players are meant to spend maybe ten of your human minutes here. . . . My program was simple, kill or be killed. I wasn't meant to live forever. I wasn't meant to think, consider, daydream, pontificate."

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