Hanging by a Thread
A US publishing conglomerate shoots—and misses
Until Robert Steinhaeuser, school violence had been obsessively documented by the European media as a uniquely American phenomenon—this despite the fact that there had been at least five prior incidents of gun-related deaths in European schools since 1996. Just as editorial pages across the continent began filling up with the inevitable are-we-turning-into-America debates, Eastern Europe had its first school shooting. Three days after the Erfurt massacre, 17-year-old Dragoslav Petkovic walked into his school in the tiny town of Vlasenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina and assassinated two teachers before killing himself.
Coinciding with the European focus on school violence was the publication of American author Dennis Cooper’s latest novel. My Loose Thread is a psychological tour de force that takes the reader inside the head of Larry, a sexually confused, psychopathic high school student. Throughout, it seems that Larry is about to snap at any moment. My Loose Thread reads as a first-person account of his unraveling.
As the book opens, Larry has just been offered $500 by the leader of a teenage neo-Nazi group to murder one of their fellow students and obtain the boy’s notebook. Larry’s alcoholic mother and cancer-stricken father are largely absent from the narrative. He frequently sneaks into bed with his 13-year-old brother, Jim, with whom he’s obsessed, and wonders if this means he’s gay. When Rand, one of Larry’s friends, finds out about the incestuous relationship, he tells Larry it’s “sick.” Larry punches Rand in the face; Rand dies shortly after of apparently natural causes, but Larry is constantly haunted by guilt. Coming to terms with the implications of his own existence, Larry feels emotionally dead, when he’s not drunk. Alcohol dulls the overflowing rage that he finds increasingly difficult to restrain as he lashes out at the world, up until the bloody Columbine-style conclusion, which surprisingly leaves Larry behind as a passive observer.
Like William S. Burroughs, a writer he’s often compared to, Cooper, 50, is something of an anomaly in the increasingly conservative mainstream publishing industry. He attained notoriety in the ‘90s with a five-novel cycle featuring intensely emotional scenes of sexual violence in a world that seems half real and half imaginary, populated with stoned teenage boys and older, predatory men. His work was attacked by a stunned literary establishment as an amoral exploration of disembowelment, drugs, incest, kiddie porn and snuff. Written in minimalist prose, marked by terse, obsessively crafted sentences bordering on reportage, Cooper’s books are often narrated by teenagers who mask their brilliance behind a wall of fucked-upness, yet somehow manage to create poetry out of this imbalance.
Along with the controversy, the novels earned Cooper a devoted cult following. He attained the enviable position of being successful without having to compromise his vision. Thus it came as a surprise—to the author as much as anyone—that the comparatively tame My Loose Thread is the novel that nearly ruined Cooper’s career before it was even published.
“My original intention was to write a nonfiction book analyzing the school-shooting phenomenon in America,” Cooper says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “At that point, it seemed like the book would be more sociological, a critique of consumerism, among other things.
“I was doing lots of research, but the turning point came when I saw [a US public-television] special on [American school shooter] Kip Kinkle. At the end of it, they played his confession, and it just broke me. I was bawling my eyes out.”
The jolting effect of the television documentary prompted Cooper to reformulate his initial idea into fiction. He pitched a novel based on his research to RobWeisbach Books, which responded with a $60,000 advance, the highest offer he’d ever received. Cooper went to work.
“At that point, I decided to cut out all the analysis and bullshit. I wanted to establish a direct emotional relationship between the kid and the reader, to really explore what’s going on in this kid’s head. The problem [with the nonfiction approach] is that once you start critiquing the culture that it happened in, you lose sight of the event itself. I wanted to counter people’s perceptions of those things, but I ended up thinking that was a fools’ game. This is an approach that many commentators take who have no inside knowledge on youth culture.
“So I ended up removing all the cultural signifiers. There’s only one mention of Marilyn Manson in the book, where Larry says something like, ‘I used to think that was scary, but he’s still wearing the same costume as three years ago.’ You know, the younger brother in the book listens to folk music, of all things. So I wanted to go in the extreme opposite direction—get really personal so that one can relate as much as possible to the emotions of the character rather than reduce him down to what he listens to or dresses like. I thought it would be interesting to shift gears.”
While Cooper was writing My Loose Thread, RobWeisbach Books was bought by HarperCollins, and immediately shut down. Since Cooper had already signed a contract and received half of his advance, his book was reassigned to another imprint within the conglomerate, Ecco Press. Cooper says he was looking forward to working with poet and Ecco editor Daniel Halpern. He didn’t anticipate the response he got after sending My Loose Thread off to New York.
“Halpern freaked out,” the author recalls. “He hated it. The technical reasons he gave was that it wasn’t what I’d initially proposed and that it wasn’t as long as I promised in the proposal. I think it was actually more of an emotional reaction. He said to a mutual acquaintance of ours, ‘I can’t publish this! I’m a father!’”
Halpern immediately canceled the book and demanded that Cooper return the $30,000 he’d been paid several months earlier by RobWeisbach.
“By that point, I was totally broke. I live hand-to-mouth and was relying on the second advance payment. I told them it wasn’t possible. Then they got really nasty, and refused to return my book to me, basically holding my book hostage.”
Between the ensuing legal fiasco and the book’s intense subject matter, no major US publisher would look at it. “The fact that this shit wore on for eight months after the book was finished, and that HarperCollins, a multimillion dollar publishing conglomerate, was at the root of it, that’s disgusting,” Cooper says. “It’s depressing how the power gets doled out, how HarperCollins has that much influence. But what shocked me most was that this poet was such a pig. He couldn’t see [My Loose Thread] as having any literary merit at all. He thought it was just outrageous shocking crap.”
Then Canongate entered the picture. The Edinburgh-based publisher had been searching for the right book to launch a planned expansion to the United States when My Loose Thread fell into its hands. Canongate assured the wayward author it would handle the problem with Ecco/HarperCollins. After long negotiations, a deal was struck. Once again, the cards weren’t in Cooper’s favor: Every dime he earned from My Loose Thread would go to HarperCollins until the initial advance was paid back. Nearly three years and $30,000 later, the author finally got to see his novel in print.
Despite its unique approach to a timely subject, My Loose Thread has been all but ignored in the US. One possible reason is the current political atmosphere. Since September 11 and its aftermath, the media’s interest in school violence has dwindled. But the more likely explanation is the American literary establishment’s grumpy refusal to take Cooper seriously. If My Loose Thread’s tortuous path toward publication shows anything—besides the power wielded by megapublishers like HarperCollins—it is that the mainstream book industry is determined to keep writers like Cooper on the fringe, at a safe distance from the reading public.
Not surprisingly, Cooper’s books fare better on a continent that produced the likes of Passolini, Nietzsche and Baudelaire. “Over here [in America], nobody knows who I am outside of a tiny cult of fans,” Cooper says. “When I go to Europe, I’m treated like a celebrity—they’ve done features on me in all the major newspapers there.”
The fact that the gunshots from Germany and Bosnia are still resonating across the continent might also have had an impact on My Loose Thread’s warm European reception. On a recent trip to Italy, Cooper was a guest on the country’s top cultural talk show. At the end of the program, the host held up a copy of My Loose Thread and proclaimed it the most important book of the year.
Cooper is nonetheless intent on remaining in America and continuing to explore dark subjects in his writing, whatever the domestic response. He’s presently at work on what he calls his “most shocking thing to date,” a novel in documents tentatively titled The Sluts. But the most shocking feature of Cooper’s writing is its honesty and immediacy. Its realness distinguishes it from other writing coming out of America, and poses a serious threat to the silent majority who prefer to ignore the truth.
Travis Jeppesen is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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