When I was sixteen or seventeen, I was obsessed with a page from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet that reads, “We never know self-realization. We are two abysses—a well staring at the sky.” It was the sort of page I’d mull over so often and so intensely that I eventually wrote the quote on a piece of paper and tacked it to the small bulletin board in my bedroom. At the time, I remember thinking that Pessoa-cum-Soares’ words held some somber truth, their evocation of the void both intensely subjective and strangely universal. Really, though, I felt like I was in a hole, the inscrutability of my own complex emotional states rendering me easy prey for literature that cohered around existential dread, madness, and depression.
It was typical teenage shit: I was in love with my two best friends who were a year older, and they were getting me into drugs. I’d secretly drink whiskey during the school day, pass out in science or math class, then spend the hours between school and dinner talking about Beckett or the Replacements with them while snorting speed, drinking cheap beer, and getting stoned on mids. I was hopelessly, intensely devoted to these guys, yet I knew they couldn’t or wouldn’t ever love me the way that I loved them; that is, I knew that they didn’t want to sleep with me, and that they tolerated my fawning because we shared interests and I was butch enough to pass as straight, or at least straight-ish. Talk about an abyss—my well seemed to grow deeper by the day, and I kept inviting it to do so, pretending that being enveloped felt like an embrace.
“I love you,” said the well. I had to cover my ears, the well’s voice echoing loudly in a sort of wet, tubular boom. I didn’t know how to respond, though the well’s declaration made me feel wanted. I muttered to myself and fished a cigarette from my pack. “Whatever.” Some motes of pollen or mold caught a sliver of sun in the pit’s depths. I kicked a rock around, rubbing my crotch every so often, daydreaming of my friends and their belt lines. I was about to run my tongue across one of them when there was a voice from above.
“Hey, down there.” It was faint, dampened. I looked up but couldn’t really see anything, just a dot hovering in an illuminated circle, a small bug on a telescope.
“You don’t know me,” the small bug said, “well, you do know me, but that’s not important. My name is Dennis.”
“Okay,” I replied, craning my head back and hoarsely yelling up toward Dennis, whoever he was. I looked at my dirty sneaker and was thinking about what to say next when Dennis yelled down, “I’m a writer, like you say you are. You’re stuck in a space-time rift at the bottom of that well, Ted. You were writing a review of my latest novel, I Wished, when you fell through a hole in a dream and ended up being seventeen again.”
I wasn’t really prepared for this information, and found my face skewed in a gesture somewhere between ‘uncomprehending’ and ‘panic,’ but probably looked more like ‘hurt’ and ‘about to cry.’ I doubted Dennis could see me, though, since I couldn’t see him. After a few long moments, I craned my neck again and yelled, “That is a lot.”
More silence. It seemed like there was some movement at the well’s rim. I kept wanting to focus on what Dennis had told me, but was distracted by the thought of my friend Justin’s ass in the threadbare corduroys he wore most often. I smacked my head a few times, trying to form a coherent response, but the ass. A pebble fell next to me, and I looked up again. A piece of paper was swaying its way down to me, dreamlike, and then it landed in my lap. The image was almost laughable in its predictability.
“That’s what you’ve written of the review so far, Ted,” said the disembodied voice of Dennis. “I actually didn’t read any of it, except for the first sentence.” I wanted to ask him where he’d gotten a hold of what my future self had already written, but then he yelled down, “I have to go. See what you can make of it. I’ll be back soon.”
I gazed blankly at the review, then closed my eyes. Where had Dennis gone? I was trying not to drift off, and kept jolting up after finding my head falling, drool spooling from my lower lip. Eventually, I dozed off completely, into that other mystery.
I was awakened by the sound of the well’s voice. “It’s a good start,” the well said quietly, though its quiet voice was still a howl. “Read it yourself.”
At first I didn’t know what the well was talking about, but then I saw the paper on the ledge where I’d been dozing. Rubbing my eyes, I picked it up and began to read:
Holes proliferate in Dennis Cooper’s oeuvre, from the “cool quiet” cavern-like holes of abused teenage corpses in the early poems of Idols to the hidden passages both literal and formal of The Marbled Swarm and its outtakes. Of course, there is also the anal fixation of the George Miles cycle, with its veritable raft of holes being rimmed, fingered, fucked, “razed,” and turned into incomprehensible horrors. I Wished, Cooper’s most recent novel, might be the apotheosis of this trypophilic tendency, for while the slim volume isn’t so focused on sex, it is concerned with holes; in fact, the holes have gone sentient, and they’re articulate, too.
The previous Cooper novel most like I Wished is 1997’s Guide, which contains a recurring motif of inarticulate gibberish erupting from various pits: the ass of the queer junkie eviscerated by a vengeful dwarf goes “kkyphtsllmb,” the snore of the speaker’s paramour makes a “zzhbtyllkspp,” and the fatuous trash of a car radio scrapes a “kllfmccsxxpp.” The 1997 book, the fourth in the George Miles cycle, is also the most autobiographical of his previous works, with the novel’s speaker relating details from Cooper’s lived experience intertwined with a narrative undergirded by classical themes of obsession, absence, and movement. That said, I Wished overtakes Guide as Cooper’s most personal work because of its treatment of holes, most particularly the wound at its center: Cooper’s love for George Miles.
The reader of I Wished finds themselves thrown headlong into a world where Cooper’s love for Miles is transmuted into short sections that place the author’s muse in various impossible positions—engaging in philosophical discussion with the Roden Crater and light artist James Turrell, forming the anxieties of Santa Claus around his own gift-giving abilities, and enlisted as a member of contemporary internet subcultures of alienation. Cooper’s strategies throughout seem to reflect and refract his own anxieties about how he’s fictionalized Miles and his own infatuation, so that the novel becomes an interrogation of self and the artistic process: Cooper describes his love for George as “so far-fetched that [he] decided it would take a fairy tale’s preposterous surroundings and their blessing of suspended logic to convince a reader who doesn’t want to feel that much for anyone that his love for George was realistic.” Squeamish readers may shy away from Cooper’s more grisly works, but the bluntly emotional tenor of much of I Wished is equally disarming and saddening. The sense of loss is palpable, the damage almost visceral in its rawness—at one point, Cooper writes of another character, “Unlike me, he had no foolish hopes about himself and art’s value and love.”
Perhaps nowhere is this wreckage more present than in the book’s final chapters. The penultimate section begins as a tense dramatization of George’s suicide and the discovery of his body, which is unpleasant if not totally shocking. But then, Cooper makes George’s wound speak, because after all, “the crater can’t talk or do anything. It needs an artist.” The gaping hole of brain matter and gore at the back of George’s head banters with the paramedic sent in to document the scene, and ends with the declaration that in life, Dennis was a good friend, “but not good enough.” It is moments like these, where the real wound and the metaphorical wound meet, that allow I Wished to have an outsized, devastating impact—we wish
And that’s where the type on the paper ended. I’d been curled up in the fetal position while I was reading, but when I finished, I threw my arm with the paper down and stretched out my whole body. I was still in the well.
“Hey, Ted!” I looked up, then remembered that I couldn’t see much. “It’s Dennis. I’m back. What did you make of the review?”
“Hey,” I replied weakly. I sat up, thinking. I remembered that in many ancient cultures, radical healing powers were attributed to wells and their water. I thought of Justin and of Sam, my friends, and I felt my love for them radiating outward from my body, moving upward toward Dennis like a weird spectre,
and I am suddenly at my desk in my little home office in Philadelphia. I look down at the last pages of I Wished, and begin to weep. After decades of circling the wound of love, of exposing its permutations to the most horrible acts of trauma and violence alongside a mythic adoration, Cooper’s speaker has found that he loves George “so much that [he’s] nothing but that.” The voids, the abyssal wells that we create are often generated by this most fervent, all-encompassing love, as if we can only realize our truest selves by burrowing into our beings and giving large parts of ourselves away. These are not profound thoughts, really, but what I am trying to say is that I disagree with Pessoa: we only realize ourselves singularly in our relation to others. I cry at the end of I Wished because Cooper writes that his love for George Miles stretches temporally back to “the flowing lava...that eventually formed the ground he walks on,” and in this declaration, George is in the present and always will be. Perhaps there is little more to love than its perpetuity, a well staring up at the sky.