Paradise for George Miles, dialogue between Dennis Cooper and Olivier Steiner about “I wished”

© Dennis Cooper

Dear Dennis, before I talk about your latest book I wished, before I talk about stories of confusion and truth, phone calls and guns, George, loneliness, suicide for those who stay, I would like to say that your book is in my eyes an event and a literary jewel. But since I’m not a real critic, I suggest we talk a little bit, will you? First I’ll try to introduce you. Dennis Cooper? Those who know, know. And even very well. Those who don’t know… how to say? Where to start? On the net it says that you were born in Pasadena on January 10, 1953, that you are a subversive American writer, author of the literary side of the queercore (or homocore) which is this cultural and social movement that started in the mid-1980s as an isolated branch of punk. It is characterized by a dissent with heteronormative society in general and a complete disavowal of the established gay and lesbian community. What do you think of what we can read? You want to tell me a word about this Pasadena of your childhood? When did you arrive in France? You live in Paris?

Dennis Cooper : Thank you, Olivier. Well, I would say the Queercore attribution to me is greatly overstated. I often seem to be described as a writer who came out of Punk, but, really, Punk was no more important to me than psychedelic music/culture was to me as a teenager and lo-fi indie rock and early Rave electronic music/culture was to me later, for instance. Queercore was a short lived movement in the early 90s that wedded Punk and Queer cultures, and I was involved in it, but it wasn’t particularly formative to me other than it being a time when I felt more connected to Queer identity than I had before because its definition of Queer was more inclusive of women and even people who were technically heterosexual but felt Queer anyway. I liked living in that world for the short time that it existed. That said, I’ve always felt alienated from society at large, Queer or otherwise. I’m an anarchist. I’m not interested in collective identity in general. I think it’s a form of lazy thinking about oneself and other people. So dissent is something I’m definitely attached to — to society and to literature itself too.

I wasn’t alive in the early 1950s, or barely. I grew up in a city called Arcadia, which was next door to Pasadena, but most of my friends lived there so I was in Pasadena a lot of the time. My memories start with the 1960s. Pasadena was a pretty typical large suburban city. It had a grungy area with underground record stores and bookshops and you could score drugs there, so my friends and I hung out there a lot. The best thing was that it was only about a 30 minute drive to Hollywood. One of my friends’ parents was a hippie druggy type, and she would drive us to Hollywood to see bands and hang out. Having that easy access was key.

I arrived in France in 2004 planning to only be here for maybe six months, but I fell in love, and I had been a huge Francophile since I was a little kid, so I just stayed. Yes, I live in Paris. I still have an apartment in Los Angeles, but I only travel there a few times a year at most.

Olivier Steiner: You’re here to clarify, it’s good. But I’m going to continue my «we say»: we can read that you represent the most marginal fringe of a tradition of American writers that the public mainly knows through the author of American Psycho, Glamorama and Lunar Park: Bret Easton Ellis. This tradition was better known in France thanks to the work of Guillaume Dustan who was inspired by it. We compare you to Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud or William Burroughs. In a contemporary style, based on a strict formal logic and a style as close as possible to the spoken language of adolescents, you seem to write the vertigo of a abandonment of the world as well as the vagaries of desire within an irremediable setting, cruel, sharp, precious and sumptuous, that of your texts, of your gaze. Can we say that you would be a Jean Genet who would have had enough of baroque and pompous harmonies? A Genet who would be wary of the virtuosity of the language, who would say that he will offer better than sublime to his slut, his sluts and his loves, namely to offer them outfits? Trash certainly, but dignity. What do you think of Genet? Your George Miles is a bit like his Maurice Pilorge, right? What about the words “dress”, “precision”, “dignity”?

Dennis Cooper : Yes, I’m very much an outsider in American literature. The literary establishment there does not like my work or think it’s worth taking seriously. That used to really bother me, but now I’m very happy they don’t support me. I don’t think I fit in that world at all, and the writers I consider peers in the US aren’t accepted much either. Even writers who are famous in France like Burroughs or Kathy Acker are still frowned upon in the US.  Of course I admire Genet. I started reading him when I was 15, and his work had a big impact on me. His work isn’t as important to me as, say, Maurice Blanchot or the Nouveau Roman writers or Guyotat, for instance, but his work did impact me greatly when I was first starting to write. I certainly have a huge distrust of language, and especially of conventionally beautiful writing. When writing is too beautiful, I really dislike it. It makes me bored and angry. If I see writing that isn’t damaged and distorted and reinvented in some way by the writer, I feel like the writer is just playing a game and following the rules, and I think the novel or story isn’t important enough to the writer. I’d much rather be confused by writing than flattered or comforted by it. My ideal writing is one that really bewilders me but that I can tell is technically justified on the level of structure or style. I need to feel very challenged to understand a book, or else I get bored.

It’s interesting you say that about George. I’ve actually thought of him as kind of my Jean from Funeral Rites, which is my favorite Genet. I never think about words like dignity. Accuracy I think about a lot. I have to because I’m always challenging myself to write about things that I don’t fully understand, and I think writing accurately is the only way to write truthfully for me.
« Dennis passa la plus grande partie de sa vie à croire que la personne qu’il avait le plus aimée et qu’il aimerait toujours plus que les autres était George Miles, un ami pour lequel il écrivit un cycle de cinq romans dans les années 1990. Ils se rencontrèrent quand George avait douze ans et lui quinze. George était le garçon le plus étrange, doux et beau que Dennis avait jamais vu sur Terre et, à sa plus grande stupéfaction, George l’aima instantanément avec avec acharnement. »

Dennis Cooper: Well, that paragraph is from the novel, and it’s true. George was the most important person I’ve known in my life, and our friendship shaped me into who I am as a writer and person, for better or worse, and his suicide at the age of 30 was the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with. ‘J’ai fait un voeu’ is about all of that. It’s the only way I could find to write about him and his impact on me that was fair to both of us.

Olivier Steiner: In the middle of your work is a cycle like the Indian cycle at Duras, it is a pentalogy begun in 1989 with Closer, and which ends in 2000 with the publication of Period. You call this suite of five novels the George Miles Cycle, named after a high school friend, George Miles, as beautiful as he is fragile, that you took under your wing and with whom you had, around the age of thirty, a love affair. This cycle is an attempt to exorcise your loving feelings and a catharsis of your fascination with sex and relationships of domination/submission, sadomasochism. Did this cycle happen on its own, by writing, along the way, the passing years, or did you foresee it thus in this form of five books? Before I talk a little about Closer (maybe my favorite), Frisk, Try, Guide and Period, I would like to ask you : is I wished an appendix to the cycle? An epilogue, a prequel, the zero number? I wished is not a novel?

Dennis Cooper: I decided that I wanted to be a serious writer when I was 15, and I decided then that I wanted to write a big, ambitious experimental novel or series of them. So I started thinking about that and planning and making notes from then on. I didn’t publish the first novel in the Cycle, ‘Closer’, until I was in my 30s, so it took a long time. I decided to write it as an homage to George in the early 80s, and that started to really focus the Cycle. George had very serious bipolar disorder, and he was a very difficult person to be with and understand, and I decided to write the novels both to understand him in a way and to make something that would give him a presence in the world because, even though he was an artist and brilliant, it seemed clear by that point that his problems wouldn’t allow him to realise his dreams. I wanted to realise a dream for him, and I hoped it might even inspire him, but he killed himself before the first novel was even published, which I didn’t know until after I wrote the fourth Cycle novel ‘Guide’.

The cycle was very planned out. I spent years finding the right structure and style. I did many experiments and made graphs and all kinds of things. The Cycle’s structure is very complicated, too complicated to explain here, unfortunately. It would take me many, many pages to do that.

I don’t see ‘I wished’ as being part of the Cycle. I don’t think one needs to have read the Cycle novels to totally get its effect, although I guess if one knows those books it adds something. I don’t see ‘I wished’ as an epilogue or appendix or anything like that. I think of it as a novel. I decided to write a very personal novel, which I had never done before, and to make my emotions and personal experiences the whole point of a novel rather than just material I could use with no more importance than the things I invented. And I decided to write the  novel about George because nothing else fills me with so much emotion and confusion, and I wanted writing the novel to be as difficult for me to write as was possible. That’s what the book is to me.

© Dennis Cooper

Olivier Steiner : When I said “dignity”, it was not in the generally accepted sense… how should I put it? Life is so vast, so wild, and there are so many dimensions that we, the real characters on the raft of existence, tossed about by it, often bullied, are confronted with a certain barbarity of living. And often I find that it lacks dignity… Let’s take the example of George, you knew and loved each other, time passed, and then he committed suicide. How to tell this, I mean really? How to restore the thickness of days, nights, bodies and feelings? How can we give thanks for what was? How can we say, write what escapes? You see? I wished touched me a lot, troubled me, too, because I just wrote a book about a boy I loved in my own way and who committed suicide, his name was Guillaume. The big difference with George Miles is that I knew very little about Guillaume, but I think we must have had similar problems as the author. Suicide is radioactive. Suicide is also the killing of others through their own bodies. Suicide wreaks havoc. The proof: it makes you mutinous, you’re flabbergasted, you don’t know how to talk about it. You turn around or you get lost in the forest of common places. Or we write. We write what we don’t know very well. Like you do. Like you did with the cycle.  So, “dignity”… okay… I’m willing to take that word out, but I was trying to say something… I meant that writing can, not save beings, resurrect bodies, but perhaps save their memory. Can we say that « I made a wish » is a tomb for George Miles? On the cover there is no novel, no story… We are not obliged to designate, to name things, we agree, after all, book is enough, but still, what would you say? Epilogue? Prequel as in the sequel movies? I really like this definition of Pascal Quignard: The novel is the other of all genres, the other of the definition. In terms of gender and generalisation, it is what degenerates, what degenerates.

Dennis Cooper : As well and long and intimately as I knew George, from when he was 12 years old until the last time I saw him when he was 28, I never felt I knew him very well. That’s probably because he didn’t know or understand himself, or so he would say. He often talked about how he felt that he had been someone, a real person, when he was a child, but when he became a teenager and his bipolar condition took over him, he was torn into pieces and then artificially put back together in different, changing configurations by his medications. And it’s true that he was so unstable, always veering from almost catatonic depression to high speed manic thinking and behavior, that I always had to guess who he was, and so did he. One reason why he and I were so close was because I would remember the little boy I’d met and known well and then try to imagine an adult version of that boy and guess that that imaginary adult was who George was, and he would try to imagine that adult version of himself too, and we felt we understood each other. Being with George involved a lot of fantasizing, and who he really was, if he was anyone, remains a mystery to me. So, what you say about your friend Guillaume, I can at least relate to how you feel about him.

I thought and still think of the last book in the Cycle, ‘Period’, as George’s tomb, or rather as the tomb of George as depicted in the Cycle. Maybe ‘I wished’ is a heaven for him or something like that. As I said, I don’t think ‘I wished’ is connected to the Cycle in a formal way at all. The George character and the stand-in characters based on George in the Cycle only resemble him in looks and temperament. His real life was nothing like the lives of those characters. The George in ‘I wished’ is the real George as completely as I can represent him. I think if one really wants to connect the novel to the Cycle, the only way I can see that is if perhaps it’s a kind of behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of the Cycle, what was going on in my head and memory and heart when I was writing it.

« George est comme un dauphin qui fait signe aux humains sous la surface un peu agitée de l’expression. »

Olivier Steiner : Is it scary to really write about the real Georges? If so, what is this fear made of? What did George look like physically? Do you think George’s soul, or his conscience, survives in any way? You know what, Dennis, after the book we feel like we knew him, without knowing who he is. There is a failure there, which is actually a literary success, strange… What do you think of Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s film? Do you like this film? I thought about it when I was reading. The music, George’s wanderings, the tragedy, the humor as well…

Dennis Cooper: I wouldn’t say it was scary to write about George. I think about him a lot, and I’ve written many things about him, some publicly but most privately. It was extremely challenging to try to find words to represent him and my thoughts about him in such a concentrated way for people who didn’t know him and for whom my language is the only view of him they’ll ever have. It was hard to be accurate and, at the same time, to create something that had to always be a literary work that was compelling and pleasurable to read because, ultimately, that’s what people want.

If you’ve ever seen the cover of the American edition of my novel Period, it shows two photographs of George that I took when he was 12 years old. This is a photo of him I took when he was 15 years old.

George Miles © Dennis Cooper

I think when people die, they just die, cease to exist, and there’s nothing left behind. But there were times when I was writing the novel that I became very emotionally fucked up and desperately wanted a sign from George that he knew I was writing the book and was okay with that, and I became a little nonlogical at times. For instance, at one point I asked a friend who reads Tarot cards professionally to try to make contact with George for me if he could. It was very strange. He did one reading, and it freaked him out, and he wouldn’t tell me what the cards said, so he did a second reading that he said gave him the same message. He said that the cards were telling him that it was very dangerous to try to make contact with George, and that he should stop trying. He said that nothing like that had ever happened in his Tarot readings before. The message didn’t explain why it was dangerous, but it scared my friend enough that he told me I should stop trying to contact George and just let it go. I didn’t really believe in any of that, but I still wonder what that meant.

I saw Last Days when it was originally released, and it didn’t make a big impression on me at the time, and I don’t remember it very well. But my friend and collaborator Zac Farley, which whom I’ve made the films Permanent Green Light, Like Cattle Towards Glow, and our new film Room Temperature, which we will shoot this fall, loves Last Days. Zac and I think a lot alike, so I’ve been meaning to rewatch the film. I think it’s quite possible that I will feel the connection you mention when I see it again.

Olivier Steiner: Atheists are the most spiritual people there are. What if we never mourn? What if we live with ghosts, these beings waiting for qualification? We could talk about hours and days, dear Dennis, but I would like this dialogue to be just a little way to the book and its incredible sentences. I read I made a vow like a pagan prayer to a boy, George. A book to him, for him, with him. A book like a kaleidoscope. A schizophrenic book sometimes, full of sex or funny, a book that takes itself for other books. A book that is other books, a novel. It’s very strong. I thank you very much and before I return to the Cycle for those who do not know, let us leave with your words and this passage of the phone that I loved:

« Le téléphone sonne.
« Pourquoi m’as-tu aimé ? » demande George à la personne qui l’appelle, peu importe qui.
« Parce que tu m’aimes tant », dit la voix.
« Mais je ne t’aime pas, dit George, si je t’aimais , je ne ferais pas ce que je suis sur le point de faire. »
« Je jure devant Dieu que tu m’aimes, dit la voix.
« Et quand j’étais hystérique ? » demande George.
« Je faisais comme si tu m’offrais une standing ovation », dit la voix.
« Et quand j’étais catatonique? », demande George.
« Je te regardais et je fantasmais », dit la voix.
« Je suis désolé de n’avoir jamais… » commence à dire George dans le téléphone ou plutôt au téléphone puisqu’il n’y a personne, et pas au téléphone puisque c’est un pistolet qu’il tient contre se tempe. Il ne termine pas sa phrase parce qu’il n’est pas désolé.
« Qu’est-ce que c’est cette musique, demande la voix. C’est beau. »
« Si tu m’aimes, tu vas raccrocher maintenant », dit George. Il pense que son interlocuteur va raccrocher. Il le concrétise même si ça fait mal. Il sait que c’est réel parce qu’il entend le clic. »

George Miles Cycle Review

1/ Closer presents an ambiguity that the translator left intact by leaving the original title: comparatif of the adjective closed, either « nearest » or to close, or « close », « conclusion ». The novel tells the fate of the angelic teen George who submits to the fantasies of other boys or mature men in a series of increasingly extreme experiences.

2/ Frisk is also a title so polysemic that its translator has left it as it is in French: «frisquet» or «enjoué» in its adjectival version, it is also a noun which means «amusement, amusement joyeux» or a verb which means “feel, search someone’s clothes”. The novel presents, «in a succession of scenes going crescendo then begins a hallucinated walk, a journey in violence, whose murder would be the climax: various facts, newspaper clippings, dreams, extracts of «gore» films, fantasies intertwine, overprint, overlap, staging characters in search of more and more extreme sensations, composing the devastated and terrifying landscape of a society without landmarks.

3/ Try could easily have been translated as «try, attempt» but who can know if it is not the imperative of the verb to try, either «try, experiment, test» or «taste that». One could say that this book is an attempt to push even further the limits of a genre specific to Dennis Cooper that goes as far as pedophilia, or sadomasochism in which the submissive is a young teenager.

In Try, the surrogate father figure is a hetero heroin addict, poor second best compared to the teen’s gay father couple, Ziggy, who is also the victim of incestuous rape by one of them. All the taboos seem «high» in this novel about which Arnaud Viviant writes: Technically, Cooper slowly turns the voices like the disco ball at the bottom of a sticky nightclub: from this point of view, he remains the inventor, always imitated, never equaled, of a pop-literature where the idiosyncrasies of the kids (and the less kids in appearance) are carefully reproduced, at hesitation, at the close-up. Voices of adults who no longer believe in love, voices of teenagers who are still searching for it.”

4/ With Guide, Dennis Cooper blurs the lines of the narrative where «the author invents a fictional double which, accentuating the blurring between fiction and reality, destabilizes the reader a little more.» For the author, this novel focuses on the brain, intellectual and analytical approach.

5/ Closure of the Romanesque cycle, Period (meaning « period » but also « final point » in English) explores Satanism, the Gothic movement, drugs, sadomasochism again.

Olivier Steiner: The last word? An end word? How are things going right now when this book has just been released? Is this the last time you write «publicly» about and towards George?

Dennis Cooper: Last word? Mm, I guess not. Except … thank you very much, Olivier. It’s always nerve-wracking when a book of mine comes out, but I’m busy and distracted by writing new fiction and working on the new film and other projects, so that’s good. I don’t know what else I could write about George, but, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine never writing about him again. So, I probably will, but maybe not by name and not biographically again. He’s usually somewhere inside most of the things I’ve written, but secretly. We’ll see.

French version here