Friday, October 21, 2005

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Dennis Cooper's The Sluts

There are at least two points in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, at least two that I can remember, in which she talks about the way time has changed what is and is not allowable, or at least desirable, when it comes to public grieving. She quotes from a 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Ettiquette when public grieving was expected, at a time shortly after the influenza epidemic when there was scarcely any house that escaped the grief brought on by that flu virus. And she contrasts this with now with the adjectives that we apply to grieving parties, adjectives such as indulgent, how we live in a period that does not like reminders of death, and like it to happen behind closed doors, out of sight. I think she is right in her assessments and that is why I find it so powerful to read this memoir dealing with the death of her husband and the serious illness of her daughter, who now, also is dead. It is so honest and so tragic.

I thought of many examples of literature and film of recent memory that have dealt with death, but none that have done so, treating it as a tragedy. There is that term now, a few of them I can think of that distinguish the period I live in from that of Emily Post’s: black comedy and tragicomedy. That there is no tragedy, that there is tragicomedy. Dave Eggers wrote a memoir about the death of his two parents within a month or so of each other, and yes, there were heartbreaking moments to that, but there was also, as there is in most instances where death is discussed, an ironic tone to it all, a lighthearted remark said shortly afterward to let us know that you are not taking it that seriously, that there is some distance, and surely, this is a worthy coping mechanism we use to protect ourselves, but it also seems like one unique to our particular historical circumstances.

And so, it was plenty refreshing, plenty heartbreaking to read Didion’s memoir. It is the return to form that so many critics were hoping for with Where I Was From, and where you read a paragraph and wonder how it was you got to the end of that paragraph, by what path Didion guided you, and I was blown away more than a few times reading it. It is elliptical in a way that grief is, letting some trigger guide you down memory lane, remembering that house in Malibu and the real estate agent and the mudslide and Morton’s and on and on, painful, nostalgic sentences that have you, me, longing for our own past.

Throughout the book, she also talks about her own writing career and that of her husband’s, John Gregory Dunne, reading meaning into passages he had written in his books about death and heart attacks, and as much a pleasure as this book is to read, knowing that you are privy to something special here by one of our nation’s best writers, it is also so painful at times, like being punched in the stomach again and again and again with how these catastrophes happened so close to one another to this frail old lady, how she loses the two people most close to her and has to deal with that. I never cry. Ever. Especially not during movies or books, but my eyes did water a few times reading this book, and that never ever happens, so that is saying a lot about how much this book affected me. Far and away, my favorite book I have read in recent memory.

After finishing it in two, three days, the book still in unread condition, I brought it into Barnes and Nobles since they have a liberal return policy and exchanged it for Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts yesterday afternoon. Like the other Cooper books I have read, it is a quick read because the content is so salacious and incendiary that you can not put down the book, that the sleep you need just sounds so tame compared to snuff movies and hustlers and castration. This book is also amazing and I am sure lots of grad students probably are creaming their pants over it and the dissertations they could write about it. Cooper is so meta in this book, the setup of it being the postings to an online escort review site, and some of the posters complaining about previous posters posting fake information or posting under fake names, and throughout the novel, there being this big concern with whose reviews are real and whose are not, this whole concern with having a reliable narrator. There are also points when posters will critique other posters and their interest in snuff films, and how by having these sexual fantasies they are contributing to people’s deaths, and surely, as any good pomo lit reader knows, this is Cooper chiding us and his critics, implicating us by the nature of us reading his narratives, that we are just as participant to the creation of the text’s meaning as Cooper is. And there is so much to explore there, but really I think the real issue of this book, one that I have not seen mentioned in the couple of reviews I have read of it, is JT Leroy.

As some of you probably know, there is lots of debate going on, there has been for a while, about whether there is actually a JT Leroy or if it is not a big charade orchestrated by another writer, the one most often cited as being behind Leroy, being him, is Dennis Cooper. And really, I think Cooper is giving us a coda with this book, The Sluts, perhaps even admitting to being behind Leroy, or at least having fun teasing us that he might be. And I didn’t realize this until this afternoon when I was on my way back to B and N yet again, exchanging this book I really enjoyed for another one, this time for Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!. The whole book, Cooper’s, centers on this couple, Brian and his whore, Brad, who he plans on killing, and when Brad chickens out on dying so publicly, dying at all, all the readers of this thread want the narrative to continue, want to know where Brad is now, and eventually an impostor, Zack takes on the role of Brian pretending to be him, even finding an impostor Brad, really a Thad who wants the internet fame that Brad had, and so they orchestrate this hoax, pretending to be the Brad and Brian, already this collective fantasy of all these online forum readers. On the subway ride to the bookstore, I thought back over the book and thought to one of the characters, Jimmy Taylor, and for some reason, I remembered that only once, briefly, the way online forum people will abbreviate things to their acronyms, he was referred to as JT. This JT is friends with the real Brad and threatens to expose the fake one and tell his real identity unless he provided him with hush money. And here, at least, I think Cooper is acknowledging the Cooper/Leroy identity, discussing how easy it is to create these fake identities, these personas via writing, how these writings spring in an almost Bahktinian way from the collective imagination, that this stuff is already out there, the writer is just tapping into popular fantasies and making them appear real, say perhaps the fantasy of a truckstop hooker working his way across the South pretending to be a girl, say even Sarah.

It may seem like a stretch, a conspiracy theory, but I am pretty convinced that The Sluts is written about the ease with which fake writing identities are created, specifically that of JT Leroy’s.

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