Closer by Dennis Cooper

This novel is less than 130 pages long in my edition, so I supposed I would read it in half an evening. But even though I was prepared for the unflinching brutality of the book, I couldn’t bear to read more than two chapters in a single sitting, so it took me days to get to the end.

The story is set in an average American city, and the characters are high-school students, their acquaintances and their teachers. Most of them are gay drug-users, and almost every one of them suffers from some psychological or psychiatric disease or aberration. Each chapter focuses on a different person, and the minor characters often make guest appearances in one another’s chapter. The protagonist is George Miles, an extraordinarily attractive teenager who spends his days in an emotionless, drug-induced haze and lets everyone use and abuse him in the way they please. Some people employ him as a model; some only dream about him; someone wants to cast him as the main actor in a porn movie; some people want to have sex with him; and someone goes as far as to nearly kill him. And George accepts all these atrocities without complaint.

The reason for George’s passivity and his abandonment of himself isn’t entirely clear to me. However, it is clear enough that in fact George is not an emotionless zombie – in fact, he is brimming with emotions which he pours into his journal since there they don’t trouble anyone. It is also evident that George would like to put a stop to this terrible situation that everyone can treat him like an object, but he is unable to assert himself. Of course George is a „typical” clueless teenager, but I have no idea when and how his life went astray and it doesn’t seem that he will ever be able to find his way in life again – which is unbearably sad.

However, it’s not only the hopelessness of George’s fate that saddens me – the fate of virtually all characters makes me sad. Everyone in this novel is the victim of their desires, dreams or illnesses, and even if they use and abuse George as they will, all they can ever get is a moment’s relief from their sufferings.

The title of the novel is worth mentioning. „Closer” in this book almost always refers to bodily closeness. The characters are constantly amazed by each other’s beauty and skin, they would like to get closer to the other person’s beauty, and their way of getting closer is either by entering the other person’s body (by having sex with him or wounding him) or by devouring those things the other’s body emits. This kind of closeness and intimacy is, however, incidental and can end in any minute. The novel illustrates this point a good many times. For instance, after George’s super-sexy bottom is brutally insulted, suddenly no-one wants to have sex with him (i.e. no-one wants to get closer to him), instead, all just pity him or turn away from him in disgust. Or I can also mention one of the minor characters, Alex, whose lower body is paralyzed in a car accident, so when his friend has sex with him he doesn’t feel a thing – that is, he doesn’t experience closeness.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t claim that the characters of the novel lack the need for emotional or spiritual intimacy and closeness: from time to time we can witness some feeble attempts of someone trying to get really close to someone else. For instance, at one point George’s father wants to go somewhere with his son, just to spend some time together – however, his suggestion is harshly turned down. And of course all the other connection attempts in the novel are unsuccessful, too. It’s only the skin and the flesh the characters can really see, it’s all they can connect to, and they are unable to handle anything more spiritual than the body itself – but I tend to think they would like to be able to do this. And I also think that they know all too well that what they call closeness is far from being the real closeness, and they also know that all they get during their intercourses is the skin, while the real person is somewhere else – but all this knowledge doesn’t help them to change and to be able to get truly intimate with another person. And this fact makes Closer a stunning and immensely sorrowful novel.

(The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis is a somewhat similar novel, only it’s much „lighter” than Closer.)