George Miles, when he first appears as a character in Dennis Cooper’s debut novel Closer (1989), is beautiful, nervous, and eerily vacant. A high school acidhead, George is plagued with a psychic pain that is only exacerbated by the way other people treat him; his cute looks and hyper-passivity make him a target for a range of obsession, lust, and cruelty. There is, for example, his friend John, who wants to be an artist and tries to paint him, but George “twitch[es] and tremble[s] so much” he makes John think of “a badly tuned hologram”; instead, he uses George’s body as a “prop,” to imitate the pornography he’s seen. Another man, Philippe, develops a drastically more debasing sexual routine with George that makes him (and others who witness it) puke. Tom, a murderer, mistakes George’s ambivalence about being alive for a death wish; he spares his life but badly maims his body. Only George’s friend Cliff (a stand-in for Cooper) shows him anything like tenderness. Unable to tell George how he feels about him (he can’t utter something as clichéd as the word “love”), Cliff can’t really console him either. Instead he reports on George, “Now there was nothing between him and ‘it,’ as he called what he currently felt…. I’d never grasp it…. Saying so wouldn’t help.”
The novel, with its waves of hallucinatory and unnerving imagery, its punk lyricism, pitch-dark humor, and propulsive narrative, established Cooper as a luminous and subversive talent. (Then 35, he’d already been publishing poetry and novellas with alternative presses for a decade, in addition to working on his own press, Little Caesar). Closer was the first in a series he’d long wanted to write about the real George Miles, a profoundly important friend he’d met in high school (Miles was three years younger) in the late 1960s in Southern California and later established an intimate relationship with. In the subsequent novels, the character is not always named George, but as Diarmuid Hester points out in his recent critical biography of Cooper, Wrong, “Miles is a flickering presence in the Cycle.” He becomes the “hysterical” little brother Kevin, undone by insecurity in the novel Frisk (1991); the ever-stoned Ziggy, who edits I Apologize (“A Magazine for the Sexually Abused”) in Try (1994); Chris in Guide (1997), who’s obsessed with dying; and George again in Period (2000), where, per Hester, he also haunts the novel’s other troubled teens.
Themes of longing, adolescence, predation, sex, death, automatism, and fantasy course through all of Cooper’s many books (as well as his performances and films), but the George Miles Cycle has a definitive arc, shaped in part by real-life events. Cooper began working on it in 1986, a few years after he left Los Angeles to live in New York and then Europe. He and Miles had tried at different times to be together as a couple once Cooper and then Miles were in college in the latter half of the 1970s, but Miles’s conservative family and his diagnosis of bipolar disorder made the relationship too difficult. Eventually Cooper lost touch with him, writing letters but never receiving a reply. The series’ last book, Period, was written after Cooper learned, in 1997, that Miles had taken his life a decade before, at age 30. No one at the time had told him. “Miles,” Hester observes, “had never seen a single page of the celebrated work that was inspired by him and written as a monument to him.” Against hope, Cooper’s work had not kept Miles alive—it had never had the chance to.
Long after learning of Miles’s death, Cooper was still deeply affected by it. In Cooper’s interview for The Paris Review with his former agent Ira Silverberg in 2011, Silverberg writes, “When we talked about his friend George Miles, Cooper broke into tears; it was the first time I had ever seen him cry.” Every loss means a lack of resolution, but in this case Cooper was also confronted with a dearth of information. What remained accessible of Miles by then was almost all of Cooper’s own construction. A uniquely disturbing and wildly inventive artistic achievement, as well as a deep act of homage and love, the George Miles Cycle imagined many parallel lives and circumstances for its muse. What it could not account for, though, was the life Miles actually lived, and the lingering confusion and distress that Cooper still endures.
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In I Wished, his most explicit elegy for Miles and his first novel in a decade, Cooper recounts the predicament of looking for remnants of Miles and finding himself instead:
I’ve talked about my friend in so many articles and interviews. If you do a search using his name, pages and pages will turn up, and every one that’s not about some far-flung namesake is either by me or about me, or it’s something made by someone who only knows the characters I’ve named for him.
It’s unclear if Cooper believes he’s taken over something of Miles’s memory by harnessing him to his fiction. I Wished, nonetheless, questions how artworks can inexorably shape their subjects—as well as their creators. The novel is told in short, poetic chapters suffused with a kind of nonlinear dream logic. Many of them portray some version of an artist, not least Cooper, scanning the motivations of their work. One fable-like section is ingeniously set inside the Roden Crater, the volcanic cone in the Arizona desert that James Turrell is still in the process of transforming into a monumental site of land art. Cooper takes the crater—which “had looked its best when nothing was alive with the IQ to appreciate it other than as something to be scaled or walked around”—and gives it a voice, one that obsesses over its maker. “Maybe I’m in love with him,” the crater says longingly. “Sorry, I mean the artist who’s curtailed me…. I think that means the artist loves me too,” it continues, “but I’m never sure if I’m a circumstance that lets him love himself.”
Cooper doesn’t exclude the possibility that what passes for reverence or love might just as easily be a form of solipsism. What real love may actually consist of, however, is debated throughout the book. Cooper wonders if Miles ever genuinely loved him, and if not, whether his own feelings are authentic. Writing in both the first and third person, he proposes enigmatically that “if George didn’t love Dennis, and there’s no evidence he did, then I guess I never loved him. I loved something else that this is torn from.”
Love, here, most often misses the mark of another person and cathects to something inanimate or abstract instead. Love is “imagination,” and a novel—such as those that Cooper wrote for Miles—is a “brazen act of love.” In one chapter, also titled “I Wished,” Cooper writes revealingly about the complex genesis of his work, disclosing a horror of his being an unlovable person and a wish for death “to love me enough to kill me and take me.” In another, “X-Mas (1970),” he reimagines Santa Claus as a would-be conceptual artist, tired of not truly being loved or cared for by others despite his generosity. He’s willing to settle for “making things that sell for millions…a decent substitute for being personally loved.” Later in the chapter, Santa becomes an intermediary, as well as a cipher, for “Dennis”; he also recognizes George as “the most amazing sentient being who has ever lived.” He offers Dennis an equation to divine George’s feelings for him: “I will suggest, by my admittedly skewed logic, that he must love your generosity at least. Or if that thing + gratitude for thing = love for thing’s originator isn’t logical, I’m fucked. Giving gifts is all I got.”
Clearly, Cooper is not attempting a commonplace, coming-of-age account of his relationship with Miles, one in which the narrator would likely grow by the end to realize that love can be real and disappointing at the same time. At one point, he tells us, “Dennis” did try to write some version of that conventional book: “Dennis recounted everything they’d done and said as honestly and artlessly as he could write, hoping that his pain and lack of stylishness would read as hugely more than them.” But this doesn’t get him closer to the core of what he feels. It’s just “cathartic crap” that makes him see “everyone but George and him were right about them.”
It is also perhaps too painful to address the story of their connection head-on: “Whenever I would speak about him honestly,” Cooper writes, “like I’m doing now I felt a complicated agony beneath my words that talking openly can’t handle.” I Wished is not a transcription of Cooper and Miles’s relationship, but rather a meditation on the interminable nature of its loss, and that loss’s totalizing emotional impact; this is a ghost story in both content and form. Cooper’s poetic, slightly off-kilter syntax almost seems to glitch in the face of its subject matter. He gives the book an amorphous, spectral field of action: Scenes flash by, and things within them transform quickly. A telephone that Miles holds to his head, talking to a disembodied voice pledging its love, suddenly becomes a gun. The Roden Crater section ends with Miles digging alongside James Turrell, telling the crater his backpack has also magically manifested a gun inside of it. Cooper then steps back, reflecting on the fairy tale template he’s been employing, when a “massive UFO or sheet of metal” interrupts, as if unbidden by his imagination, flattening and killing everything and everyone.
There is one chapter, though, that does bring us closer to Miles as the author may have known him: It traces the evening the two first met through Miles’s older brother at a school dance, when George, then only 12, was struggling through a bad acid trip. The story also appears in Cooper’s Paris Review interview: “Jay led me to George and, yeah, he was tripping pretty heavily. I took him out to the football field and just sat with him for about four hours and tried to talk him through it.” In I Wished, the story is recast with patient timing and Cooper’s careful sense of language. As he guides Miles through the uncertainties of his trip, they study each other’s faces for a long time. Because of the acid, Cooper can’t fully access Miles; his eyes have “completely lost their windows-of-the-soul-effect, and just loo[k] cretinous to people who [are] sober.” But every time he looks away or tries to take his hand off him, Miles protests: “No, come back, I’ll fall,” he says. A complete communion is impossible from the start, yet Cooper’s presence and caring are what bring Miles over to the other side, at least in the moment.
As we know from the very beginning of I Wished, this will not last. The Roden Crater becomes, toward the book’s end, a different type of hole—the one in George’s head, which Cooper also imbues with a voice. This crater, too, needs an artist in order to speak. Joe, the paramedic, is studying the exit wound, fascinated, when it asks, “Why are you so interested?”
“I’m an artist,” he says. “I look at everything artistically. It’s easier that way.”
“I was an artist too,” the crater says. “Or I tried to be.”
“What kind?” Joe asks.
“My body played guitar,” the crater says.
It’s telling that in his novel most ostensibly about Miles, Cooper gives this head wound almost more of an opportunity to speak than he does his friend. Miles, in a sense, is the mutest character in the book. Ultimately, Cooper doesn’t believe that drawing a detailed portrait of Miles will lead us any closer to him. Portraits like these are “just distractions from whatever wish was dying in the writer as he typed it.” Like Dante’s Beatrice, whom the poet was said to have spoken to only twice in his life but also wrote volumes about, Cooper seems aware that Miles has become so deeply entwined with him, and so much a synonym for his inspiration, that his ghost can never be given up fully. By the end of the book, Cooper has not moved through a process of grief so much as arrived exactly where he started from: bereft, shattered, in love. “I love him so much that I’m nothing but that. Everything else I feel and do is like a habit or a doomed revolution,” he writes of Miles in the book’s final pages.
For some, this opacity might make I Wish unsatisfying as a novel, one that leaves too much untold about what is certainly one of the epic love stories of 20th-century letters. Even more than in the Cycle’s books, Cooper here refuses to meet the standard novelistic expectations for character growth and plot. Perhaps other readers, though—especially those who’ve had their own experiences with losing someone close—might feel, as I did, that by portraying loss as intractable, with its own highly personal landscape of images and associations, a wellspring of feeling that continually regenerates and renews, Cooper has simply rendered it with strange accuracy and truth. In any case, we are not the book’s intended audience, Cooper reminds us, more like “imaginary witnesses.” It was written for one person, and one person only: George Miles.