THE ONLY THING the world needs less than another self-involved junkie is another book about self-involved junkies. Guide, by post-punk poet and novelist Dennis Cooper, tries to pass the Burroughs Test--that is, the challenge to find an original metaphor in the tedium of the heroin subculture. And, in the process, it makes Trainspotting seem as intense as Frog and Toad Are Friends.
Riffing on Burroughs's wild, psychopathic vision, the fourth novel in Cooper's planned five-volume series follows the jumbled lives of a group of pedophiles and psychopaths through the wasteland of urban L.A. Caught in a holding pattern of drugs, sex, and violence, the characters fall in love, rape and kill each other, get high, then repeat the cycle. At the center of this debauchery is a lust triangle between a kid named Luke, a junkie/porn star named Chris, and Dennis, who is obsessed with the idea of murdering a young Brit pop star during sex.
Their lives are tangled in a nightmarish web of numb victims and cold-blooded predators, who move from apartment to apartment, alternately screwing and butchering each other. Pam, for instance, is nurturing a career as a child-porn auteur until she gets caught dumping the body of one of her adolescent stars in an alley. One of her former actors, Chris, wants to make his final appearance in a snuff film based on his obsession with gruesome fairy tales. "In Chris's fantasy," writes Cooper, "he's a 10-year-old lost in some forest...A monster of some sort tears [his] clothes off, ties him down on a bed, and tortures him for hours and hours. They fuck, and as the monster comes he brings out this machete and hacks Chris's head off. That's making a long story short." In Cooper's grisly fairy tale, Chris gets his wish and ends up sliced into a thousand pieces by a sadistic dwarf (presumably Grumpy).
Guiding the trip is "Dennis," the psychopathic omniscient narrator and Cooper's alter ego. As in Cooper's previous novels, including the controversial Frisk, "Dennis" controls the narrative, manipulating the other characters as they act out his twisted fantasies on each other. He creates a world without consequences, in which gruesome violence and extreme pleasure are vicariously experienced through the other characters. As a result, it's hard to tell what's really happening and what's just being played out in Dennis's head. At one point, Dennis the narrator begins writing a novel suspiciously similar to Guide. Halfway through the actual book, he says, "then magically or whatever, I start writing a novel...I start here or rather, a dozen or so pages back. That's where everything begins." The intentional blurring between narrator and author is intriguing and, considering the subject matter, more than a little disturbing.
Guide definitely fits the profile of the post-punk novel: stripped-down prose, loads of meaningless violence and sex, references to a bunch of bands, and enough drugs to kill Keith Richards. Stylistically, it's a tribute to the nightmarish hallucinations that permeate Naked Lunch. As with Burroughs, Cooper isn't really satisfied until he's pushed the sadism to its limit. Lacking the depth or subversive artifice of Burroughs's vision, though, Guide just seems like a self-indulgent sex-and-violence trip, without the power to shock, frighten, or arouse more than vague nausea.