Dennis Cooper
All Ears: Cultural Criticism, Essays and Obituaries
New York: Soft Skull Press, 1999

At first glance Dennis Cooper’s collection of essays, interviews and obituaries is an exercise in pop cultural criticism with little more than the usual cast of disappointing media icons. But the book also registers an interesting tension. There is a striking emotional drive underlying the most substantial sections: the obituaries for Phoenix, Cobain, and Flanagan, the pieces on Nan Goldin, UCLA, and the Aids epidemic. The emotion is fear, and the presence of this element almost everywhere in Cooper’s observations brings something unique and honest to the collection. The essays are comprised of anxious children in their twenties, full of awe and confusion before a strange world whose origins seem to be unknown. Anxiety and fear are the common denominators, and death is everywhere. It becomes a distinctively woeful book when the journalist’s attention turns from vapid interviews with Keanu or Courtney. An essentially romantic sorrow sets the tone for Cooper’s observations, whether in Nan Goldin’s photography as a means to assuage loss, junkies who rely on their addiction to protect them from a "scary" world, or beauty torn asunder in the persons of Cobain and Phoenix who "seemed to distill a confused melancholy of an emerging generation." This voice reaches its summation in the obituary for Cobain.

"American Culture has reached a strange impasse.... It’s left us intellectually undernourished, emotionally confused, and way, way too vulnerable. [W]e’re told to reduce everything in our world into simple rights and wrongs, effectives and ineffectives, yeses [sic] and nos. We comply because the world is scary and because we understandably want to be coddled by the things that interest us. Kurt Cobain, so conflicted in his attitude toward success, and so complex in his ideas about love and politics, was a classic beneficiary and victim of this dilemma.... Cobain and crew showed what was possible, even in this ugly and demoralized culture. Unfortunately, with his stupid, infuriating death, he also showed us what our belief costs." The horror and confusion of a fallen, quotidian, manufactured world is one that has its limits. Cooper implies a challenge to come of age and have courage which many of his subjects never even seem to grasp. Moments like this in Cooper’s writing reveal the immense and immeasurable "culture" that exists outside of the pop box many of his icons will never escape.

– Garrett Scott