“The most original and provocative writer of his generation.” —The Times (London)
Selected by Michael Cunningham as a The Good Men Project Best LGBT Books of All Time
Dennis Cooper on Jean Genet
My relationship with the great Jean Genet is lifelong, if not quite as son to father-isa as it might seem. When I first read his novels as a teenager, they were part of my generation’s common language, as were the works of a slew of Grove Press authors—Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, just to name the most obvious. Adventurous literature was still a popular travel agency, no less vital or more forbidding than similarly groundbreaking films and rock music. It all coexisted in the beautifully large category “underground,” wherein all experiments on the imagination were prized, no matter how drastic. In the days before identity politics, young people looked to books for ways to reinvent themselves, not for reasons to sequester themselves inside their own gender, sexual preference, or race. The obsessive, violent, homosexual, lovesick, nonlinear realm of Genet’s work had a universal appeal that’s almost impossible to imagine now. All of which is to say, Genet was not a secret hero and role model of mine, but one of many countercultural heroes who happened to speak with a particular clarity to me.
In retrospect, Genet’s work communicates less about the defiant America that initially embraced it, or about the gay literary establishment that subsequently adopted him as a standard bearer, than it does about an individualism so thorough, and so in tune with the deepest, most complex mechanisms of fiction, that it remains a sublime, untouchable, unrepeatable feat. As for me and mine, Genet’s subject matter, so eerily approximate to the things I wanted to write about, g ave me the early courage to explore what he had begun to explore, and his densely poetic style and elliptical approach helped me identify the smoke that I knew I would need to clear away in order to find my own terse, skeletal truth.