Monday, August 21, 2006

by Michele Aaron, Indiana University Press, 2004

Dennis Cooper's work is crowded with characters who desire death, and littered with corpses. His novels tell of drugged-out yet attractive young men and the often older others who satisfy the boys' self-destructive urges as well as their own sadistic fantasies. His writing has been located within a contemporary American literary movement associated with New York's cutting edge writers in the 1980s and 1990s. Though it is termed by some critics as Downtown, Post-Punk or New Narrative, Elizabeth Young, Gary Coveney, and James Annesley prefer the adjective "blank" to describe this writing. While blank fictions have been characterized by their mixture of sex, death and, according to James Annesley, decadence, a more telling feature of Cooper's and others' work is their preoccupation with sexual self-endangerment. And it is in Cooper's work that the theme is most relentlessly presented: from Wrong, his collection of short stories, to Jerk, his collaboration with artist Nayland Blake, to his cycle of novels: Closer, Frisk, Guide, Try and Period. What is most remarkable about this work is Cooper's construction of the reader's complicity in such extreme representations. Despite the range of narrative stances employed - from the intense subjectivity of Closer's journal-format to the striking disinterest of Period's abstract screenplay - Cooper persistently casts the reader as an active party. It is the aim of this essay to demonstrate how Cooper uses various textual strategies to implicate and even graft his implied reader into the text.
Cooper's writing offers the open admission or affirmation of the desire for self-risk: characters explicitly wish for death and/or align themselves with the murder victim. From the punk in Closer who says to John "Kill me" (p. 12), to Brad in Jerk who "want[s] to go" (p. 17), Cooper's self-endangerers don't mince their words. Some of Cooper's characters deliberately, and often gleefully, align themselves with the victim. Joe, the central figure of the mystery novel that Frisk's narrator is writing, "studied the bone he'd found, occasionally rubbing his own bones by way of comparison. It almost matched the size and shape of the one in his forearm" (p. 42). The desire for death is expressed on each level of reality that the texts negotiate: by the characters in the books, by the characters in the novels within the books, and by Cooper's readers themselves, for there are those who send Cooper "fan letters, beseeching him to come and kill them."
It is important to note that this avowed desire for self-harm is not adequately explained by masochism: the character's self-destructiveness is neither exclusively sexual nor always in line with the theories of masochism. While many of the novels indulge in the theatricality of sadomasochism, with the punisher's cold stares and the submissive's plaintive posturings and wishful thinking, ultimately the characters' self-risk is to be distinguished from purely sexual concerns or preferences. In Cooper's work, sexual self-endangerment is predominantly about the prospect of death rather than the pleasure of pain. Sex provides the medium for self-endangerment (rather than self-risk the medium for sex, as in masochism).
Cooper's work stands out from other texts about sexualized self-harm in its relentless presentation of quintessential sexual self-endangerers conveyed through headily self-conscious and selfreflexive writing. Elizabeth Young notes that "Gay activists have found his necrophiliac emphasis on the torture and murder of teenage boys to be unconscionable." Yet if the unconscious is at the root of the unconscionable, the reader is always, at least in Cooper's work, implicated in it. Cooper's provocation sustains the most crucial and timely questions of contemporary notions of self and text through highlighting the consent and complicity of the implied reader.
Not only do Cooper's novels portray the trade in extreme sexual acts, they also acknowledge and feed the larger market for them within the American literary scene. Cooper's move from small and relatively obscure publishing houses like Sea Horse to much greater exposure with Serpent's Tail and Grove Press evidences his diminishing marginality. His books are remarkably alike thematically - there is no mystery about the content of a Cooper novel - and the readers' active and educated choice of this material - their consent to it - must to a certain extent be assumed; so too must their expectations and desires.
Both Elizabeth Young and Robert Siegle have discussed Cooper's readers' implication in the text in terms of their self-endangerment. Young finds the readers of Cooper's texts exposed - both revealed and unprotected - in their vulnerability or their status as potential victims:

The reader is from the start face to face with the central mystery and terror of
life. Nothing can shield him. Barthes says that the text must "cruise" the
reader. Cooper's text goes further. It is, as they say of serial
murderers, "trolling for prey."

Similarly, Siegle, with reference to Cooper's early work Safe, dismisses the usual security of the spectating reader:

In Safe, a character "says his sentences are like bars on a cage that
holds dangerous animals." The only thing wrong with applying the line to
Cooper's sentences is that his are more like the hinges on cage doors. The
sentences swing open on readers who have come as tourists to watch Cooper's
Blank Generation characters be exotic zoo creatures.

What is crucial in both these cases is the placement of the reader in relation to the dangers of the text: the reader is endangered by the threat posed by Cooper's writing. Further, Young notes the reader's potential complicity in these dangers rather than his or her passive relationship to them.
Roland Barthes is a key figure in any discussion of the reader's position in relation to the text. The shift to the reader as the site where meaning is produced is, for Barthes, the cause and proof of the "death of the author." The goal of literature is "to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text," a text which he calls "writerly" against the backdrop of the classic "readerly" text which is, as he continues, "its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written." The writerly text affords the liberation of meaning and of the reader's creativity; the text becomes "a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds."" Barthes's distinction between the "readerly" and "writerly" text - and ultimately between the authority of the writer and the agency of the reader - can be applied to Cooper. But while Downtown fiction is seen by Siegle as utterly writerly in its playfulness, Young finds Cooper hard to categorize. What can be distinguished (and what qualifies my claim of his extreme brand of writerliness or enforced participation by the reader) are two textual strategies or registers through which Cooper grafts the reader into the text -constituting, provoking, and ultimately relying upon the reader for the efficacy of the narrative, and demanding his or her reaction to and involvement in the texts' various but extreme provocations: one literary, the other cinematic. Before turning to the cinematics of his writing, I will continue to illustrate his use of the literary register to divulge the desire of the consenting reader.
Cooper constructs a position or presence for the reader in various self-reflexive ways. Primarily, in writing about reading and writing themselves, there is always a sense of the constitution of the reader within the text. In Frisk, the narrator-writer Dennis acknowledges the reader status of Julian, Marv, and Pierre, to whom he sends letters telling of his activities. That Frisk's and Guide's narrator-writers share the author's name firmly connects the textual with the extra-textual world - the writer inside the text with the writer outside the text, the reader inside the text with the reader outside the text. In Frisk, Dennis's confessed authorship, with his writings constituting the story, allows for the possibility that all the characters are fabrications so that there really are only Dennis and the acknowledged reader, who is both himself (as writer and reader of his work in progress) and the imagined reader of the writing inside the text. The other characters are all, potentially, his creations, yet he himself is just a fictional character. Dennis is thus everybody and nobody: the absent object and the fading subject. And so, ultimately, is the acknowledged reader. The only constant and trustworthy presence is our own. Whereas Cooper is only "virtually" present, long removed from writing the book and present only in his textual traces, the external reader is precisely marked by real presence. The untrustworthiness of the textual fantasy is more than a method of implicating the reader; it almost concretizes him or her in contrast.
Cooper's intense (and self-reflexive) confusion of reality and fantasy creates an especially fraught state of complicity for the reader, who is constantly thrown off balance by the wavering perspective created for him or her. This is, as Cooper acknowledges, his intention: "I'm interested in throwing people off, in disorienting them." Readers must negotiate the blurring of reality and their own disorientation; they are "forced" to acclimatize, to negotiate the validity of the narrative and thereby attempt to regain their balance. In an interview with Kasia Boddy, Cooper confirms this desire to actively involve and provoke the reader:

KB: On the one hand, there is an abundance of realistic detail and dialogue; on the other hand, you and your characters are always pointing out how mediated our experience of all that is. So you find yourself seduced into the realism and then jolted out of it.
DC: Yeah, hopefully. In Frisk, where I guess I was using that tactic most elaborately, there's so much set up for everything to be false. Perspectives shift. There's so much hearsay.

The reader's incited (or involuntary) negotiation of the fabricated reality of Cooper's works is not simply about repeating the (postmodernist) breaching of the divide between reader and text. It also foregrounds the reader's desire to be "seduced" and "jolted out of it." In Frisk, the moments when readers are most relaxed - surrendered to the fantasy - and most passive in their distance from Dennis are when his intrusion is most obvious: "[t]hought of Marv's naked white body twisted for sex reminds Pierre of saliva, which makes him picture his own dribbling into my mouth" (p. 73). Dennis re-enters the fantasy in a shocking reminder of his presence, through the first person. In another example, Dennis acknowledges his place within the fabrication, his fantasy of himself: "[m]y eyes looked kind of drugged. Amphetamine, maybe..." (p. 113). Narrative command is both paramount and lost within its endless poses. Dennis's authority is re-established but undermined - it is ultimately fallacious. Readers must deal endlessly with the provocation of the material and with a writer who keeps reminding us of our roles. I intend in what follows to distinguish Cooper's particular spotlighting of the reader both from a heritage of literature which exposes or even addresses an implied reader (there is no "dear reader" here) and from (other) metafictional or self-reflexive novels of the last thirty years that negotiate the mediated experience of late twentieth-century culture.


Cooper stages the reader's entry into the text explicitly through his play upon the reader's propensity to "fill in." It is worth noting, first, that Cooper sets up the need to fill in as fundamental to desire and fantasy:

You still have to fill in a lot to desire him. For example, I've filled the
Dutch boy's big lips with the words, "Kill me, Dennis," among other
things. . . . Otherwise he reminds me of every guy I've wanted to fuck and kill. (Frisk, p. 53)

The reader's proclivity to fill in is mapped elsewhere in Frisk; for example, the scene of Joe's murder is similarly provocative. He tells Gary that he doesn't want to be killed; however:

Joe gazed at the nipple . . . He lowered his eyes to the smudge of pre-come on
the head of his own cock. . . ."God, Gary, you know what?" he said. "I -" Stab.
(Frisk, p. 64)

The final "I" with its suffixed dash is an invitation to the reader to fill in the gap. Is it "I consent" - a confession of desire or the possibility of it? Is it the realization of pleasure, of subjectivity, of truth? Or is "I" enough as it is - a statement of existence, of a subject willing to be object, of an expression of consent? Cooper sets up the possibilities of the phrase and, through the play on the reader's propensity to fill in - to fantasize, to envisage, to participate - propels him or her on a complicitous course through the narrative.
Another key example comes, in Jerk, which seems thoroughly transgressive with its child-like images, expressions, and format; used to convey the sexual murders of young boys. A "this book belongs to" inset on the inside dover, with three blank lines beneath for the reader's name (and address presumably), explicitly demands the reader's ownership of the text.
Cooper's implicated reader doesn't just participate mentally in the wordplay employed by the writer; his participation is projected onto the page by Cooper literally inscribing a space for the reader. Cooper stages the reader's involvement in the text, forcing the reader to react to his textual provocation, which takes several forms. Cooper's writing is linguistically provocative: he blurs reality and fantasy, forcing readers to negotiate the validity of his representations in an involuntary quest for some kind of order. He also offers structured blanks or gaps which incite the reader to fill them in. It is emotionally provocative: Cooper depicts extreme images of sex and violence which demand psychic reaction. It is also physically provocative: his pornographic writing elicits involuntary sexual responses. The readers' responses can be said to be forced in as much as they consent and desire to read Cooper's novels but also in that they have involuntary reactions to them, reactions often represented in the texts and thereby both acknowledged and licensed. The reader's textual participation is charged with desire, consent, and personal investment.


Cooper's texts both portray the market for representations of sexual self-endangerment and feed it: they cater to the desire of the reader. This desire is evidenced in the popularity of Cooper's work, but Cooper also highlights the reader's desire in other ways. First, as I have demonstrated, his playfulness, his blank writing's textual invitation to fill in, forces the reader to enter the scenarios and acknowledge/own his or her desires.20 Second, in his narrative focus on writing, the acknowledged reader (and his sexual involvement) stands in for the extratextual reader. Third, his writing exploits the reader's assumptions and reveals his or her consent to the texts.
Cooper's texts often center on writing - of novels (in Frisk, Try and Guide) or of magazines (in Guide and Try). In Frisk there is a particular emphasis upon the role of the reader. Dennis's letter writing is precisely about his search for a kindred spirit. His letters, which are the focus of the second half of the book, are meant to trigger the sexual desire of his readers. He hopes they will encourage someone to come and join him in his exploits. While his key recipient (and former lover) Julian journeys to Amsterdam to refuse the offer and dissuade Dennis from acting out his sadistic wishes, the self-destructive and sexually submissive Bobby (Julian's younger brother and another of Dennis's former lovers) decides to stay. Here, writing's unequivocal purpose is sexual provocation. Dennis's inscription of his extreme sexual practices is meant to excite the reader of his letter voyeuristically (just as Cooper's is meant to excite the reader of his books voyeuristically). That it is Bobby, the masochistic reader, who is won over demonstrates that these representations of sexual self-endangerment offer a masochistic voyeurism, as I suggested earlier in my claims that Cooper's reader is aligned with self-endangerment.
I am insisting, in other words, that readers have a sexual reaction to Cooper's texts. While Cooper's work has been seen as anti-porn, as parodying pornography's pretensions and as being itself decidedly non-erotic, his texts are all about characters' deliberate and graphic attempts to fulfill their sexual desires. Cooper might be deriding the utopianism and mechanical, inadequate eroticism of gay male porn, but to those uninterested, unable, or unwilling to accept his critical stance, his work appears as itself a form of Utopian porn, as a set of idealized fantasies of extreme practices. Given the blatant self-consciousness with which some characters, such as Dennis in Frisk, describe their sexual acts and mounting excitement to an acknowledged reader, the sexual effect on readers seems meant to be involuntary. This idea of the involuntarily desirous reader recalls Wayne Booth's claim that the reader's compulsory participation in a text is especially loaded when the text is pornographic but supposedly prohibitive of pleasure (because of the anti-pornographic stance of either the reader or, as has been suggested of Cooper, the writer). Yet, while Young states that Cooper's works "are not intended to excite the reader to orgasm", they are undoubtedly obscene, and Booth concedes that "[o]nly in intimacy with obscenity can one know what is obscene." I would suggest that Cooper's representation of sexual experiences and excitation inevitably incurs readerly involvement, which is laden with responsibility, given the inordinacy of the content. Cooper constantly stresses how desire works with repulsion, how characters and individuals are shocked to find themselves excited, and that desire and excitation are involuntary reactions that have little to do with wholesomeness. This is exemplified through Roger, the narrator of Try, whose disgust at the stench of Ziggy's body is incorporated into Roger's desire for him: "that stink, so generically B.O.-like to the casual sniff, came from him" (p. 110). Cooper's writing firmly instates sexual pleasure in seemingly unpleasant or unlikely situations (which could be seen as a kind of paradigm for the reader confronting this unconscionable pornographic material), and it encourages, as well as depicts, involuntary reactions in its graphic sexual images. In these ways it conveys and determines the reader's sexual involvement in the text.
Cooper makes the reader both aware of, and forced to share in, the arousal of the sexual selfendangerer. In Guide, for example, Cooper presents a snuff scene affording the victim sexual pleasure, then displaces this desire onto the reader. The character Chris craves his own sexual death, and when his lover Dennis refuses to provide it, he finds a willing sadist, the dwarf:

When he wouldn't or couldn't shut up, the dwarf stabbed him a half dozen times.
Chest, stomach, back. He fell backward. Things were way, way off game plan,
but . . . oh, well. The world was becoming so dreamlike that Chris didn't need
to reopen his eyes. But then he felt something down in his crotch that was
incomprehensible... (Guide, p. 86)

Accustomed to the kind of fiction Cooper writes, the reader is likely to believe that Chris's feeling in his crotch is an erection. The narrative then pauses, the next section starting with the "true" occurrence, that the dwarf has cut off his testicles, which are "resting three feet away, in the dwarf's tiny palm" (p. 87). Cooper exposes the reader's assumption of the involuntary sexual arousal; his writing relies on the reader's expectation of Chris's erection, forcing him or her to read it in. The narrative even pauses - yet another gap filled - to ensure the full effect. Although there is no "real" sexually aroused snuff victim here, investment in the conviction that there must be is shifted to the reader.
The almost contractual nature of this arrangement - the dangerous and powerful writer manipulating and pleasing, seducing and forcing, the knowing and willing reader - sounds very much like an S/M dynamic. While I would distance Cooper from both conservative and libertarian formulations of masochism, it is certainly important to acknowledge here how Cooper's desirous and consenting reader corresponds to the notion that it is the masochist who holds the power ultimately, who is the one "who controls the other's control." (After all, Cooper's manipulative writing is only manipulative when read.) As I have demonstrated, readers' active submission is performed precisely through their invited participation in the text, through, among other things, the kind of language games that Young sees as defining Barthesian writerliness.
Cooper grafts the reader into his texts through both content and style. His representation of extreme and provocative activities stimulates the reader's involuntary reactions; his self-reflexive focus upon story-telling constitutes the reader in the text, thereby offering a paradigm for his or her involvement; his literary playfulness - his use of blanks or pauses - draws out the reader's intervention and assumptions. But Cooper goes further. He imbues his images with the concreteness of spectacle and in so doing invokes the active pleasures of spectatorship which attend the "reader" of film.


Cooper's writing is not simply self-reflexive but also cinematic. Its staging of its own artificiality is frequently done on the level of the stylized and filmic construction of the visual image. Cooper's cinematics take place on two levels. First, in terms of content, his work demonstrates an absorption in and reflection of film culture, employing its vocabulary, techniques, and fascination with the visual. second, in terms of style, Cooper's descriptiveness can be seen to replicate the movement of the camera's eye and its techniques. These two levels work together to construct and emphasize spectatorial complicity, and, in so doing, continue Cooper's exploitation of the agency of the consuming reader.
In his book Fiction and the Camera Eye, Alan Spiegel identifies key characteristics of cinematographic writing - visualization through a partialized and affectless or neutral perspective, and through montage. What remains to be demonstrated is Cooper's relationship to this tradition of writing - which Spiegel traces from Flaubert through Finnegan's Wake, and distinguishes from the scenographie visual consciousness of earlier writers - and the relationship between Cooper's cinematic texts and the reader's complicity.
Cooper's writing provides gaze- and spectacle-saturated scenes of self-conscious cinematics. Not only is a profusion of graphic visual detail presented, it seems, by a roaming camera eye and frequent reference to film terminology and techniques, but often there is a photographer or filmmaker present. Cooper's characters actually make films - Alex in Closer, Ken in Try, David in Jerk, and Pam in Guide - or acknowledge their role as; directors in other ways (Dennis in Guide says of one of his fantasies: "[i]t's more like I'm directing a scene in a porn film" [p. 56]). Cooper's writing integrates both cinematic language and cinematic practice. For example, for Alex in Closer, "life is a series of gradual dissolves" (p. 70), and Dennis writes of Chris in Guide that "[h]e'd been slouched in between his friends, lost in daydreams. I starred in one, for a second" (p. 11).
However, Cooper also tends to cover a broad canvas depicting the larger scene or vista. Jerk, for example, favors the scenographic unified vision: the micro-proscenium of the puppet show, the body shots of the puppet photographs accompanying the text, which contrast with the close-ups of the photographs in Frisk. Similarly, Cooper combines and contrasts the dispassionate mobile perspective of the camera with the emotivity of subjective experience (as yet another example of the demystification of neutrality). Wrong perfectly illustrates Cooper's brand of cinematic writing, repetitive of the "'flat denotative function' that reproduces the viewpoint of the camera eye," but also dispelling its blankness - the neutrality of looking-implicit in the story's avowal of self-endangerment. The first four pages of Mike's murders read like a series of set directions and wandering affectless filming. These are followed by and contrasted to the subjective intensity of George's experience. When narrative focus is handed over to George it is done with an almost directorial technique - a wide pan from the body in the river to George, standing near other tourists, photographing it: "[h]is body splashed in the river, drifted off. .. . George looked out at the Hudson. He saw a dead body. He shot the rest of his roll of film" (p. 65). The imaging of Mike's death is set with a film-like quality: the "camera" moves with the change in focus and narrative perspective, meeting the requirements or expectations of the spectators. Their compulsion to view and status as witnesses are accentuated by their alignment with tourists.
Cooper combines the stagedness of the scenographie with the movement and partialization of film. He charges the camera's affectlessness with the power to implicate, all within texts doused in film culture. His cinematics are employed precisely to integrate and implicate readers, and, in their accentuation of voyeurism, to render them fully sexually complicit. This is achieved through his special form of (cinematically-invested) visual consciousness, which reworks the power of image-building for Cooper's own entangling ends.
Cooper's graphic visualizations heighten the effects of "imaging," as Ellen Esrick calls image-building in her study "The Reader's Eye", which attempts to instate visualization as a fundamental element of reader-response. Across the range of its effects noted in her conclusion lies imaging's ability to increase the text's power in a manner most pertinent to this discussion. It has the effect of "positioning] the reader within the text...within the perceptual sphere of a particular character or narrative voice" (p. 196). It also makes the text more memorable, "helps make a fictional world concrete" (p. 192), or simply (in being image-rich, a text) forces the reader to become more involved and give it more attention and time:

The reader who visualizes, whether in the service of dispassionate, cognitive
understanding or affectively charged interest, is generally spending more time
with the literary text than the reader who is reading without forming such
images ... he or she is [also] more likely to contemplate affectively intriguing
and disturbing aspects of the text. (Esrick, p. 193)

A good example is David's description of one of his father's anatomical pictures in Closer:

For instance, over my dad's shoulder, I'm trying not to distinguish a boy about
my age. His back is turned and where his ass used to be there's this thing that
looks half like drawn curtains and half like what's left of a cow once it gets
to the butcher's shop (Closer, p. 28).

The need to think and identify the images conjured by David involves the reader in this extra interpretive work, affording a greater intimacy with the disturbing text through the recognition of these iconic images. In evoking "the psychodynamics of vision," imaging, of course, "promotes voyeuristic interests". In this way, Cooper must be seen to promote visual pleasures readily endorsed as voyeurism through the film culture context, and also by the attention to pornography. These visual pleasures, however, do not incur the safe distances so often associated with the objectifying scopophilic gaze.
The image-building triggered by the literary text has been thought of as a primary method of breaking down the distance between reader and text. The reader's mental construction or visualization of the written description requires a much more active input than is required of the cinema spectator, for whom the image is already constructed. Cooper's cinematic writing merges literary and cinematic provocations. It lends the mental process of image-building a charge of exteriority, making the virtuality of the reader's implication more concrete: what is going on in the reader's mind is projected onto the page, escaping the safe confines of either the sealed-off self or spectacle. Again, I am departing from the discussion of the reader/spectator's entry into the text as marked by identification, favoring what I see as a more convincing local mental process of entry. This is especially necessary with regard to such harsh narratives as Cooper's, which seem to problematize identification by undermining reality, shifting focus, and expressing the unconscionable. In other words, I am formulating a way of making readerly involvement undeniable, while still acknowledging the prohibitions of the text.
Cooper's appropriation of the cinematic lends his images a more graphic, dynamic, and implicating edge. A superb example is provided by Joe's death scene in Frisk. Here, as the image-building of literature combines with the montage effect and emotiveness of film, the flatness or matter-of-factness of Cooper's language gives way to the cleverest and most vivid of images. Cooper's staccato descriptions are presented like snapshots dissolving into each other, or in their rapid succession produce perhaps a (discontinuous) moving picture:

Joe gazed at the nipple. Then he gazed at the point of the knife. He raised his
eyes to Gary's tight little smile. He lowered his eyes to the smudge of pre-come
on the head of his own cock. When he shut his eyes a second later, the four
things - pink nipple, knife point, crinkly smile, white smudge - were
superimposed against the reddish darkness of his lids. It looked like a flower, (Frisk, p. 64)

The reader is not led to construct the sanitary, distant portrait of a neutral contemplative narration, but the character's lived experience of, or as, both image-building and montage. In Cooper, montage is central to the absorption of the reader into the text as it merges with image-building and gives way, finally, to the subjectivity of simile.
The intimacy of image-building becomes the shared spectacle of montage. Cooper's cinematics stage the inner world; they project the mechanics of the character's experience and with it the reader's, whose personal involvement in the text becomes part of a larger cultural landscape. Similarly, the frequent reminders of the fictitiousness of the characters' acts, and of the novels themselves, place the personal act of reading into the public realm of publication. The unfixed locus of narrative authority in Cooper's texts, as well as the multiple positions of identification offered, replicates the roaming and disinterested camera eye of an unrestricted film narration, while maintaining a nightmarish intimacy with the reader.35 If the novel has been seen to favor the "dramatization of inner conflict," and the film "extra-personal conflict," Cooper manages to involve both, making his world both radically personal and radically public. This could be seen as replicating an initial aim of classical cinema: to mask the industrialization of entertainment with the emphasis upon the individual - to manufacture intimacy. Although further fodder for the contention that his writing is cinematic, this combination also repeats a key idea of Cooper's writing and of this essay: that the experiences and desires of the individual (whether character or reader) are charged with cultural and political agency, that the representation of self-endangerment signifies both particular and more universal desires, and that both are politicized in contemporary western culture.
My emphasis on Cooper's cinematics is not simply confirming a 1990s susceptibility to visual culture or the usefulness of film theory (especially when investigating the representation of violence) or the postmodern prioritization of the image so central to Annesley's and others' analyses. Rather, Cooper's explicit flirtation with film heightens the grafting of the reader into the text, combining the state of implication inherent in engaging with a literary text with the complicity of voyeurism inherent in visualization: combining the privacy of reading with the publicity of spectatorship.
While the reader is forced to take up these positions and to experience these reactions, what I have also tried to show is how he or she desires and consents to this experience. Certain climactic scenes - for example, Joe's death in Frisk and Brad's death in Jerk - hinge upon and play with the victim's consent. In Jerk, the previously consenting masochist Brad changes his mind during the encounter. The reader is forced into the self-conscious position of being aware that Brad's consent is no longer there, and is thus made aware of his or her own consent. Cooper condones the questioning of consent which is found to be deceptive. But while his characters sway in their wishes (and his narratives sway in their focus), the reader is foregrounded as the sustained player. The characters change their minds, but the reader keeps reading. When the text is unconscionable, consent is necessarily risky - or perhaps it is precisely because the text elicits consent that it is deemed unconscionable. (Complicity has become a more useful standard for asserting the reader's implication, for consent is misleading - it is performed, undermined, and alibied - whereas complicity seems a more enduring or indisputable attribution.) The highlighting or even concretizing of the readers'desires and agency is not a vindication of their subjectivity - this is not the happy ending of the reassuring narrative. Rather, the reader is rendered present, participating in and consenting to the threatening, unsafe text; his or her expectations and engagement are, thus, unequivocable. The vulnerability, self-exposure, or fragility incurred by this position is exactly what is sought.
Cooper's texts are blank in that they can be characterized by the mapping of an empty space for the assumption and occupation by the reader. These structured blanks are not about the reader's participatory scouting for what is missing but about playfully integrating the reader into the text. This is the primary form and purpose of Cooper's blankness: to instate the complicitous reader. What I hope to have shown here is how Cooper's work challenges the qualities that have been associated by some with blank writing. Yet both his imitation of and departure from them serves to reiterate this primary form and purpose. Rather than being blank as in flat, atonal, or "uncommitted," his work is characterized by an (unavoidably politicized) affirmation of the desire for self-endangerment. This is conveyed through the multiple orders of representation in his cinematic texts. Rather than being blank, as in devoid of morality, Cooper's work exploits the cathartic potential of art.
Cooper's representations of self-endangerment do not symbolize and reinforce society's repressed desires; they are not about disavowal. Rather they expose the existence and pervasiveness of these reprehensible desires - it is disavowal that perpetuates them - and the avowing process of Cooper's work seeks to meet and treat these desires. Cooper's writing is explicit but frequently ironic or parodie. The clarity of any message is shrouded by the endless layerings of truth, so that his work is certainly "ambiguous and problematically blank." But the problem with his blankness is not, as others have seen it, that he fails to condemn the outrageous actions that he represents (or even to represent the pain of violence), but that the reader is forced to confront his or her desire for them. His loose style is tightly binding. Cooper's texts in their blankness command and confirm the reader's desire to fill in. They invite and even require the reader's input, interaction, and, ultimately, complicity. This is what I see as the key feature and function of Cooper's representation of self-endangerment: to firmly instate the reader and his or her cultural community within the desire for such depictions, thereby discharging the disavowal of self-endangerment and the hypocrisy surrounding it which typifies contemporary western culture.

Copyrights apply. Source: Journal of Modern Literature, (27;3), 2004, p. 115-127


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