'Guide' is the fourth in Dennis Cooper's five novel cycle, and it is apparent from the outset - in the way characters drug themselves and each other, murder, get murdered, or just sort of arbitrarily drop dead - that Cooper is assuming his readers will already be familiar with his work. In fact it is his work that is central to this book, as it is the story of the writer 'Dennis Cooper' writing the novel you are reading, and all the things that happen to him while he's doing it. A touch post-modern, perhaps, but the effect is to make the events described seem more immediate and 'real' somehow, which, in many ways, is a mixed blessing.
Cooper assembles his usual collection of perverts, paedophiles, drug-dazed boys, suicidal hustlers and heroin addicts, only this time he claims these people are his circle of close friends in Los Angeles (which maybe some of them are). In an attempt to recreate a moment of (what now seems like) perfect lucidity he remembers from an acid trip when he was a teenager, 'Dennis' drops a tab and begins writing a novel about the people around him. Some of these people die or are killed during this process, while 'Dennis' kills some of them off himself, in the novel at least. Others try to satisfy their various lusts with whatever comes to hand, be it an underaged kid, a dead corpse, a picture in a pop magazine or a passing celebrity, and 'Dennis' himself becomes besotted by Luke, a raver with new-age mystical tendencies nearly half his age. What becomes obvious as the novel progresses is that 'Dennis' is editing and distorting the destinies of some of his characters more than others - what he is trying to figure out as a writer is: why?
Perhaps it's the quality of the writing, but this is the first of Cooper's novels where it is genuinely hard at times to distinguish between what might be real and what definitely isn't. Cooper's requisitioning of elements of reality for his own fictional ends has never been more blatant, nor more effective: for instance, an entire chapter is a fictional reworking of a factual article he wrote for Spin magazine about HIV-positive hustlers (the original, 'real' version can be found in his collection of reportage 'All Ears'), while the episode in which the bassist of the British band 'Smear' (a fantastically flimsily disguised Blur) is drugged and raped takes the whole thing to almost surreal proportions. Cooper's point is to make us more aware than ever of the distance between his fictional fantasy life and his fictional reality, and therefore, by extension, the distance between the fictional elements of the novel and his actual reality. The fact that we cannot ultimately distinguish one from the other is precisely his point - in life, our inner fantasies coexist with our realities, colouring and contorting them whether we like ot or not. However, the chances of our worst fantasies toppling out into reality are remote. That, after all, is what fiction is for - to safely exorcise our fantasies.
While this book still contains plenty to upset many readers, you feel that in 'Guide' Cooper is beginning a process of putting his worst excesses of human carnage into quotation marks, trying to show you that his books, although deeply shocking and thought-provoking, are still only books, no matter to what extent they may or may not have a basis in reality. There are moments when you feel you are being directly addressed by Dennis Cooper the writer, not 'Dennis Cooper' the character, and he's trying to explain why he writes what he writes, and why he thinks what he thinks. It takes tremendous courage for any writer to put themselves in that position, and this is what makes 'Guide' ultimately worthwhile.