In 2004, the same year that Facebook was founded, Dennis Cooper’s novel The Sluts was published. Perhaps today, the setting of an internet forum seems less unusual, but Cooper took the medium — that 13 years ago was relatively fresh and hadn’t quite dominated our lives — and reflected the darkest intentions of its users. Now, this isn’t surprising — this is the same author whose next novel, God Jr, included video-game characters who were left idle so long they developed consciousness; the same author who got into a highly publicised legal battle with Google over his blog; the same author who wrote novels comprised solely of gifs; the same author who will no doubt be remembered for always pushing what readers thought was possible in literature.
Set almost entirely on a forum where male escorts are reviewed by their clients, and told through posts, emails and experiences, the novel quickly lures the reader into its dark and unstable world. The novel opens with the heading “Review #1” before jumping into a detailed review of the characteristics of Brad — including a breakdown of where the reviewer met him, his sexual preferences, and an in-depth review of the time the reviewer spent to him. To some this may be shocking, but what Cooper really did was break down (and perhaps to a certain degree, foreshadow) the way people view and talk about private matters with complete anonymity online. We can see in the Alt-right, particularly the march on Charlottesville, how people hiding behind anonymity can spout hateful rhetoric, only to be reduced to tears once this veil is lifted. While this isn’t exclusive to any particular political side, it is a fact of life on the internet now. With The Sluts, Cooper focused on a group of people with certain desires and intentions, but this can universally be applied to any fan site, subreddit or specialised corner of the internet. The Sluts isn’t exclusively a story about homosexuality or violence, although they certainly are major themes in Cooper’s works.
Another way that Cooper subverts what we traditionally expect in a novel is by taking the device of the unreliable narrator to its limit. The Sluts features multiple points of view, inconsistencies, exaggerations and deliberate lies, with the forum participants commenting into existence a Brad far removed from reality. If written in any other way, this might feel like a cheap trick, but presented as forum posts it feels authentic, and is true to how people behave online — both back then, and today. Cooper shows the reader that in the 21st century, protected by anonymity, nobody is to be trusted, and truth is subjective. Since Cooper has since gone on to publish novels in alternative and modern ways, it’s not impossible at all to think that this novel could easily have existed as a locked forum, for people to read through. At times, it does read as a copy and paste of the darkest corners of the internet. Time is contextual with this, and there are other books that have challenged the medium of what people traditionally call the novel such as Cooper.
A prime example is Geoff Ryman whose novel, 253, followed the lives of passengers on the London Underground. Initially, 253 was created as a website before becoming a traditional printed novel, though many would argue that this medium did not work as well, being unable to take advantage of hyperlinks like it could on a web page. Interestingly enough, 253 and The Sluts are just different variations of what Jennifer Eagan did in a chapter of A Visit From The Goon Squad, where a character lays out their thoughts and tells a story using PowerPoint and various graphs. A Visit From The Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, and in no way shape or form am I trying to retract any acclaim it deserves — It’s truly a fantastic book — but one can’t help but wonder why the PowerPoint segment is the focus of so much interest, when two authors changed what people expected in a novel up to 12 years before.
What may hold The Sluts back from the acclaim that it deserves, for a casual reader (compared to say, the accessibility of Eagan’s …Goon Squad) may be the subject matter. Cooper admits that he is influenced by 120 Days of Sodom author Marquis De Sade, and directly mentions this in a poem from The Weaklings XL. Cooper’s writing is often sexually charged, just more focusing on the fringe of people’s morals and what they expected in a novel. In most of his work, and The Sluts particularly, no-one is trying to win us over. It’s violent and erotic, perhaps too much for some, and they would rather it stay hidden — but isn’t that just another reason that Cooper so perfectly encapsulates the internet?
Ultimately, by the end, we are nowhere near closer to understanding the depth of the human psyche, on the internet or in real life, after finishing the novel. The final sentence, other than a poster signing off, writes: “At least that way people reading these reviews will feel like they got what they wanted even if they aren’t happy about how it played out.” The way Cooper ties up the story, leaving some points resolved, others wide open, just makes the novel that much more realistic to the way that we interact online. Like losing hours on Reddit, or tumbling down the rabbit hole on YouTube, the answers aren’t always there, but every second is worth it.
In The Sluts, Cooper was ahead of the game in predicting how people behave online, and using the form to tell new stories that might not have been possible before. A novel that pulls no punches, it is as exceptional today as the day it was released. Cooper captures the darkness of human nature, and its raw desires, and shines a spotlight on the dark side of the web.