Dennis Cooper’s ‘Graduate Seminar’

Posted by @ 11:59 am on June 17th, 2009


One of the many great talents of Dennis Cooper is his knack for making the ‘profane’ or arcane seem not simply a specialized, ritual act, but a bevel in the everyday, of people. Among such commonly taboo subjects as rape, murder, S&M, you name it, Cooper’s work manages to funnel these acts not into the hands of the typically insane or ‘specialized’ bodies, but kids that lives in homes with parents, everyday kids, school kids, and people. I’ve several times been eerily moved by Cooper’s work in finding how close it felt to certain people I went to middle school with: the kid with the rat tail and cut off pants singing Cramps songs in the gym while everyone else tried to cooperate with the bowling unit, and he’s there kicking pins over, laughing. Several times that year he’d get his ass kicked, and others would be similarly embedded on my brain: the kid who brought in brass knuckles to fight behind the lunch room, the kids doing pink pills in the back of Ms. Storey’s English class and choking each other out to get off, etc. These elements are the everyday lining in those everydays, the bits that ride with me more than any of it, and so strangely, I’ve often found that read Cooper somehow taps into that mode, bringing it out not as a circus act, but as the thread in the simultaneously under-the-soil and always-right-there rhizome that it is.

This kind of everday accounting of the ritualization of the profane takes another interesting level to it in Cooper’s ‘Graduate Seminar,’ a short piece from his very recently released collection Ugly Man that was also featured on our regularly visited HP electronic journal Fifty-Two Stories. Here, Cooper frames the framing of the framing of a murder made ritual by presenting it in the form of a Q&A from a lecture by an artist to a group of art students.

The piece manages to deliver, in an economy of words, a whole aesthetic entourage of surfaces and strange holes: the artist documents the ritualized act of a truck driver murdering a young man, which he then goes to prison for and in the process becomes a famous artist, herein, post-sentencing, given terrain to show and explain his act to a host of student artists. Rather than aiming the piece, though, at the nature of the artwork (it is described only in passing, and to the artist’s great boredom) and the ritual of the act, ‘Graduate Seminar’ works off the method of potential energy rather than riding the ‘shock rock’ at its core. For such a potential disturbing act, the glassy poise of the artist in his description, the off-handed and even bored way with which he recounts his method to the student for whom it “changed my life,” the trajectory of the piece then becomes not about the ‘profane act’ itself (though that too is contained in the cold, disinterested manner of the artist) but about its dissemination into further flesh.

It is rather disconcerting, actually, how much information is indeed passed on here without much interest in explicating at all. The ground we cover in small strokes of dialogue is massive, each themselves capable, in lesser hands, of being exploited for its meat, pulled into the light, explained. Cooper, though, with the at once maximalist (in concept) and minimalist (in actual economy of text) capabilites for which he has become such a well known force, makes the nature of the ‘tell, don’t show’ work for him in a way that distances the tone of what is described to such an extent that in effect it becomes even more close.


The effect reminds me quite a bit of Brian Evenson’s ‘The Installation,’ (a chilling freak of a story from his The Wavering Knife) where again the grappling of a profane act is removed from emotional means by contextualizing it in a removed manner of telling: a man recounting for a panel who will judge him what exactly happened in the ritual murder and turning-into-art-object of his wife, who may or may not have been complicit. Both pieces use the ‘tell don’t show’ manner in this way to further extend their reach, and yet in ‘Graduate Seminar,’ the matter is even more implicitly diminutized, delivered in a tone meant, on its face, to seem that much more passe and everyday and accepted (if compartmentalized as art), and fledged with the kind of light that can truly enter a memory in the way that rides a body longer than simple shock tactics: like something we live with, and in, and around, even if we never lived through it really, not quite.

That Cooper can do so much, on so many levels, and contain so much breadth in what equates to hardly several hundred words, speaks not only to the greatness of abilities, but to the vital need and value for such kind of well-honed and to-the-throat-without-realizing-you-are-at-the-throat prose in a market where too often every inch of every line is declawed.

I’m never having kids, by the way.

Hail the DC.

** You can read ‘Graduate Seminar,’ as well as new weekly fiction from Cal Morgan’s Fifty-Two Stories, here and buy Ugly Man here.

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