Soft Cover, German, Glue Binding, 132 Pages, 1991
Those of sensitive dispositions would do well to avoid Dennis Cooper’s work, and even this review may prove too much for the squeamish. Cooper pushes the boundaries of the accepted expressions of desire into the taboo.
It’s when I reread books like Frisk that I realize just how my memory has faltered – the strongest memory was of the intricate detailing of sexual murders, which turned out to be only a chapter in this book, and I wish that I had some record of my thoughts about reading Frisk seven years ago so that I could see the ways my reading changed. Frisk is the second novel in Cooper’s George Miles cycle, a loosely connected series of books exploring the complications of desire through masochism, sex, murder and death.
Frisk makes use of the technique of having a central character with the same name as the author, Dennis Cooper. The ideas expressed here are so far removed from what we are usually willing to accept, that it seems like Cooper is urging his audience to project the depravity on to him, or his fictional persona. In a sense, he’s removing that step where readers guess that the expression of the abnormal must reveal the deepest hidden desires of the author. But, this very projection is also at the heart of all the sadomasochistic violence within the novel, and fictional Dennis Cooper’s fantasies: the worst of it comes from our imaginations, so who is responsible and are we willing to confront our complicity? Cooper’s technique is decidedly self-reflexive:
“I don’t know,” I muttered, shrugged. “Well, that’s not totally true.” My forehead crumpled up. “I sort of know…well, basically because I realized at some point that I couldn’t and wouldn’t kill anyone, no matter how persuasive the fantasy is. And theorizing about it, wondering why, never helped at all. Writing it down was and still is exciting in a pornographic way. But I couldn’t see how it would ever fit with anything as legitimate as a novel or whatever.”
The novel opens with a graphic shot by shot reconstruction of a snuff porn image, presumably, we learn later on, the same pornography that Dennis saw as a young boy. The novel weaves between Dennis’ later sexual experiences with a boyfriend, Julian, and his fascination with a particular type of young man. Through a brief relationship with a man, Henry, who looks exactly like the man in the original still, Dennis realizes that the image may have been faked, that is, not a real image of man being murdered. It got me thinking about how images seen at crucial times of development can become ingrained, informing desire itself, even if the image is violent, demeaning and dangerous; that learning the desirous image is faked doesn’t lessen the desire for it, despite the impossibility (or criminality) of achieving it.
Nonetheless, Dennis explores his fetish for the combination of sex and death, and extreme sadism through his graphically depicted fantasies. He reconstructs the story of an object of his desire, Joe, supposedly a masochist, who was murdered before Dennis could form a relationship with him. The line between fantasy and “truth” is absolutely essential to the theme of Frisk – that so much of our desire is based on a unachievable, unrealistic fantasy with little concern for reality. Dennis moves to Amsterdam and writes letters to his former boyfriend Julian about his murderous exploits, claiming to have killed and dismembered a number of young men. Julian and his brother Kevin visit Dennis, intrigued by the letters, and discover that Dennis’ letters were the creation of his imagination. However, Kevin is determined to recreate the original image for Dennis. The novel ends on another shot by shot reconstruction, this time revealing the imperfections of the image, the ways in which it has obviously been constructed. It’s almost a melancholic ending, as we come to see that unless Dennis can block out his morality, he’ll never achieve what he views as the ultimate sexual release. It’s a ruthless metaphor for how desire is so controlled and obstructed.
I think it is clear that Dennis Cooper’s fiction is not going to appeal to everyone. The sexual violence is told in brutal detail that is difficult to read, it revels in the horror and pleasures of total destruction. That the imagined (again the postmodern roots show, as a fiction novel isn’t it all imagined?) violence was my only memory ofFrisk seven years after reading it suggests that maybe I read it on a purely literal level, and I don’t remember it affecting me very much at all. For those willing to brave the darkest corners of the psyche, Cooper raises a lot of relevant questions and does so in an inventive, if visceral, way.