The Pleasure of Pain
Dennis Cooper—an author best known for his sexually transgressive brand of boundary-bending fiction—started a blog. Within months, his fans had flocked to it, sharing links to their own blogs and writing. According to his introduction, Cooper became fascinated by their work, and an online literary community of discussions and feedback was born. Twenty months later, we have Userlands, a compilation of these new voices from the web.
Narrated by a cast of outsiders and sexual deviants, the shorts in Userlands occupy territory that is angry, young, and decidedly male—of the 41 contributors, most were born in the 1980s, and only three are women. It is also territory that overlaps Cooper’s; it’s easy enough to see why these writers were drawn to his work, and he to theirs. Most of the stories speak to one of Cooper’s common themes: pain—or more specifically, the pleasure entangled with inflicting or receiving pain. I’m using the term pain broadly, as the 41 stories each address it in their own unique way. Pain can take the shape of alienation or substance abuse, but most often it is in the form of eroticized physical violence. Jack Dickson’s Mine, for instance, narrates a four-day span in which one man keeps another captive in a basement in order to exercise total sexual dominance over his detainee. Dickson is a decent psychological narrator, and is able to endow the captor’s ferocious actions with an unexpected tenderness. Still, there is plenty of vicious pain for the captive, who has willingly signed up for it.
Eddie Beverage’s story in the collection, entitled from Return to Zero, sums it up:
Pain is the dead of night stuffed into my ears, my nose, and mouth, sticking to everything and filling me up like black cotton candy; gummy strands of regret and emptiness. You go your whole life thinking you understand pain, know pain, feel pain, but you have no idea because pain wears a thousand masks—a chameleon with teeth like a shark. And it can become you. Unless you’re prepared to wed yourself to pain, it will always control you. So marry the bitch ... fuck the bitch. And ditch the morphine condom. Go bareback and take it like a man.
The characters in these stories do just that: embrace the pain, and wear it as a badge of outsider identity.
Which leads me to wonder about pleasure in the text for the reader. I ask this because on many occasions I was so disturbed by the descriptions of violence that I found it hard to continue reading (and I preface this by saying I’m not a particularly weak-kneed reader). But I imagine that anyone who picks up this book because he or she is a fan of Dennis Cooper will expect an element of that. Because the stories are so short, however, the violence did not have the same narrative function that it often does in Cooper’s work, and at times felt gratuitous. Without a longer narrative to frame the violence, it often accomplished nothing more than shock value—which can be one of the pitfalls of such young authors.
On the other hand, one of the exciting things about young authors is that they have the potential to bring a truly fresh and transgressive perspective to fiction. Some accomplished this with formal innovation; Zac German, for instance, achieves a frustrated teenage speech pattern by dismissing with caps and creating a staccato language full of “uhs” and “likes,” as well as casting it with the character’s pop culture icons (including Dennis Cooper). Nearly all of the authors are consciously pushing social boundaries.
As Cooper says in his introduction, he set out to create a collection of work in opposition to what’s being produced by mainstream publishing houses. And this work very much explores what it means to be on the margin, albeit in a fetishized and self-centered way. The Internet has effected a wonderful democratization of publishing, and this collection reflects how crucial the web is to allowing certain types of voices to see the light of day. In a way, it’s the contemporary forum for stories such as these: raw, informal, iconoclastic. Once they get on the printed page, there’s an entirely different set of expectations, and not all of these hold up. The ones that do, though, offer a unique dose of pleasure to accompany the pain they dish out.