To frisk is to “search a person for something concealed, especially a weapon.” “Frisk” is about a man who wants to kill someone and find what the body conceals. Spiritually, the thing that remains of the body after death is the soul. Physically, the thing that remains is only splatter.
The narrator of Dennis Cooper’s novel “Frisk” also is named Dennis; whether he represents the author remains a question. The narrator seems to be interested in carnage; Dennis Cooper himself seems engaged in a search for the soul.
The narrator is fascinated with sex and death. As a child, he has seen some pornographic photographs of a murdered boy. The photographs turn out to be elaborately faked, but Dennis, hooked, becomes fascinated by the idea of killing. The images of death thrown up by punk rock, by horror and splatter films, by Stephen King novels, stake their claim on him. The line between art and life becomes blurred.
“Frisk” is ultimately a coming-of-age novel about a young man learning the difference between representation and reality, between pornography and art. Dennis chooses representation over reality; that is to say he becomes an artist rather than a killer, but the art he chooses is dark and horrific.
The book’s vantage point is entirely homosexual. The safe world is left behind, leaving a cast of pornographers, hustlers, drug users and sex addicts. The world displayed is unhealthy in the extreme. Nevertheless, the book is the work of a real writer, classical and aesthetic. The issues raised are moral and spiritual, the treatment austere, rigorous and contemporary. “Frisk” is an art novel but with the voltage and luridness of the most degraded thriller. It is a portrait of the artist in a world that has outgrown “nice” art.
Gertrude Stein has interesting things to say on the ugliness of the destined classic: “When it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it. . . . If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating, not only when it is accepted and classic.”
Stein also says, “The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.” “Frisk” certainly lays claim to being the work of an outlaw; that it is destined to classic status is upheld by its extraordinary vileness, the psychotic imagination of its violence and its bracing ugliness. Unlike some recent “transgressive” fiction, which we grow inured to but we don’t really enjoy or admire, “Frisk” exhilarates by the intensity of its language, and by the suggestion of a spiritual radiance at the core of its dark vision.
Many may ask, Why dignify with the word classic a work that willfully betrays civilized values? Why is the high level of disgust this work causes worthy of so elevated a claim?
This is an odd question that has recently re-raised its conservative head: Why this emphasis on the ugly and the inhuman? One hesitates to answer the question this late in the day, after we have heard the answer again and again in reference to Flannery O’Connor’s deformities or Beckett’s cripples. It isn’t enough to say, “The world is mean, and man uncouth.” But more likely the case is that in extremity the artist finds the clarity to define his vision of the world. By clearing the page of the clutter of acceptable pieties and garden-variety realism, the artist is freed to discover moral and aesthetic connections. The artist need not beautify the world, he may do service by bringing purity and order to its ugliness.
The first and decisive test is the quality and originality of “Frisk’s” language. Yes, it is extremely profane, foul even, so foul that it cannot be quoted at any length in a publication such as this, but its structure and syntax reveal a real ear for what speech has become and a poet’s ear for the elegance of modern cadence. The book is about the process of taking forbidden materials and transforming them into art.
Cooper’s language lurches about, simulating now the jerky intensity of a hand-held camera in an after-hours club, now the startling disorientation of a jump-cut, representing a lapse of consciousness or the momentary aphasia of a drug-induced blackout. This is the syntax of discontinuous contemporary consciousness; any one who has ever taken a mind-clouding chemical has felt physically the stammer and slash of these madhouse sentences. The disfiguring buzz of ums and uhs and verbal hesitations, the sentences that just stop because the speaker cannot remember what it was that he was saying, the blur of obscenities, slurred and half-meant; these are the daily banalities of language that Cooper converts into the austere rhythms that shape and distort his English.
It’s a commonplace to complain about the inarticulateness, not to say illiteracy, of the current generation of Americans. Cooper turns these excrescences to aesthetic purpose, making an art form out of what is available to him: in this case, the “dead” language of people who claim to be aesthetes of the spirit while engaging in anonymous sex. These connoisseurs interrogate the body, finding the odor of the armpit “too blatant.” “Crotch, overrated. Mouth, profound.” They sample the body’s secretions, verging on cannibalism. The body is being asked to speak, but it is not being asked to use words.
As Dennis begins to recognize the slightly stuporous, dark-haired boy who is his “type,” the reader begins the descent into the mind of the serial killer. Bodies become clues, valued for the secrets they have locked inside. Dennis loses track of his actual behavior, telling himself he’s “perfecting his feelings,” “dissecting their physical perfection.” We witness, awed, the ongoing process of alienation from the physical world. Intimacy, physical and emotional, is replaced by a bizarre quest for ultimate knowledge, a knowledge that can only be satisfied when the body has been torn open and frisked.
Dennis, like the adult admirer of teen idols or the obsessive who fixates on porn stars, is unlikely to address the object of his desire-- the result is an elaborate fantasy life that fastens upon the body. The body necessarily has no connection to personality or mind. No wonder Dennis examines orifices looking for “information"--smells, textures, tastes. The body’s secretions substitute for language; revulsion and attraction substitute for emotional exchange. When Dennis begins to buy hustlers and talk to them about death and the secrets their bodies hold, the reader is held in the twin grip of repulsion and fascination. The fascination is more interesting than the repulsion, because Cooper manages to subordinate the descent into terror to the quest of the holy.
Slowly, the strategy of the book becomes clear. The faked snuff photos of the opening provide the key. It will calm no one’s nerves to say so, but there is no actual murderer in “Frisk.” Just as the pornographer simulates a victim, using dyed cotton to manufacture a vicious-looking wound, Dennis Cooper has simulated a killer, effectively using the language of sexual compulsion to draw us in.
This is not a book that leaves one with the feeling of ease or edification. Dennis the killer mutilates the bodies of his victims, leaving only a mess behind. Dennis Cooper, a disturbing and transcendent artist, enters the mind of a killer and comes out with a genuine revelation.