“Dear Webmaster, I need to clear my conscience. I’ve been lying to you and everyone who reads this website.”
When you’re browsing bookshop shelves and see The Sluts written on the spine of a book in the style of an electric neon sign, how can you not pick it up?
Dennis Cooper’s now classic The Sluts was a completely random read for me. As someone who went into the book with no foreknowledge (even including the book’s basic premise), I’m reluctant to ruin anyone’s experience of the novel by giving away too much of the plot. That said, if you’re a fan of transgressive literature (queer or otherwise), the wit and social commentary of Brett Easton Ellis, or meta-commentaries on online communities, The Sluts is probably a book for you.
What I will say of The Sluts (which I devoured in one sitting on a Saturday morning I’d planned to devote to writing—take note that if you start this book you’d best set aside several hours), is that it’s a found fiction-cum-literary-cum-horror-cum-true crime novel-cum-cum-cum-cum* book about the gay online escort scene in the early 2000s. Told through a series of reviews on an escort site, forum posts on the same site, and e-mail chains between key players, The Sluts quickly escalates into a full-blown mystery with puzzle box-like elements. The first few reviews—for an escort variously identified as “Brad”—are deceptively ordinary, but gradually build on one another to form a story about Brad, his pimp/boyfriend Brian, and their shady involvement in some of the more dangerous and fringe forms of sexual fantasy (snuff, bug chasing, bodily harm, extreme body modification, etc).
Both the reader and the fictional audience of forum users are propelled by a series of ongoing and ever-changing questions: Who is “Brad,” really? What’s the true nature of the relationship between Brad and Brian? Was Brad murdered? Has Brad killed? Was there ever really a Brad to begin with? It’s a book wherein the authenticity of anything you read is in doubt, and to say The Sluts is powered by unreliable narrators is a severe understatement. As the narrative unfolds through the first series of reviews, you can physically feel yourself being drawn in by Cooper’s textured yet efficient writing, which perfectly mimics the feel of online message boards and communication.
Although many past reviews (the book released in 2004, so I’m almost twenty years late on this one!), emphasize the sexual dynamics of the novel, a big part of what captured me was what Cooper has to say about obsession, onlineness, and the compelling promise of a true crime mystery. In this way, The Sluts succeeds where works like John Darnielle’s Devil House (2022) don’t entirely achieve their aim of subverting audience expectation and acting as meta-commentary of their parent genres. If, like me, you’ve ever spent more time than you ought to sifting through clues about real-life mysteries, trawling Reddit fora for more information following a particularly compelling True Crime documentary, or even if you simply enjoy learning about other people’s fascination with this type of media, then The Sluts is very likely to grab you in the same way it did me. As the men posting in the forum grow more and more entangled with the mystery being spun out through reviews on the website, we as the audience are entangled with them. The resultant process feels almost painfully realistic. To some degree, the authenticity of the information and clues being fed both to us and the forum users is almost besides the point. Those engaged in the “Brad saga” are ever in search of a truth, but more powerful is an ever-receding horizon of truth and the constant tug of fresh twists and turns. It’s a sensation nearly like an itch. We want the appearance of truth—a plausible undeniability—but if reality intrudes upon our more fantastical speculations there’s the threat the whole house of cards (and our enjoyment of it) will all come tumbling down. As with many True Crime stories, what attracts us so often is not the crime itself (or even the hosts), but the way in which the story is relayed—a sense of mystery where really there is none.**
In this way, The Sluts has a lot to say about our relationship with stories. By this I don’t just mean the latest episode of our favourite HBO drama, or whatever bestseller has hit the charts and exploded our desires, but the ways in which the human mind is fueled, to some extent, by narrative. To some degree, we narrativize both our lives and the lives of those around us, searching for symbolism, foreshadowing, and characterization when the truth is we are all rather unmoored from anything resembling the comforting safety of narrative structure. It’s something that in my academic work I’ve alluded to in the context of monster studies as a kind of “mirror of authenticity.” Mirrors appear to reflect an objective truth, but on a very basic level the image is always at least partly false (reversed, certainly, but also sensitive to the mirror’s size, the lighting, etc). The image in the mirror also always requires a mediator or agent to interpret the “truth” on the other side. In this way, authenticity, like image, is a constantly mediated and constructed thing. The mirror distorts, yes, but it reveals a kind of self-made truth or, more precisely, the ways in which truth is both always self-made and always malleable.
Put differently, we all seek external meaning from our experiences. This helps us contextualize, process, and dream, but it can also trap us in patterns of thinking, believing, and behaving that can harm us and those around us. These human tendencies are wielded masterfully by Cooper, and in many ways The Sluts is about the superimposition of story onto reality, as well as the dangers and pleasures that come with that. Along with the novel’s characters, we become spectators of other people’s lives, and are condemned for being all the more attentive when those lives appear to be tragic. In one of the novel’s most powerful moments, Cooper temporarily breaks the spell of the story, and what appears to be an unromanticized intrusion of brutal realism into the text resonates past the boundary of the novel (destroying, if you’ll allow the continuation of the metaphor, the limits of the protective circle drawn in chalk by the book’s fictional status). The moment, in a way, is too real. Too true. It hurts and troubles in the way much of the book’s content ought to hurt and trouble.
It is through this use of fantasy that The Sluts comments on sex, kink, and desire. The characters in The Sluts express some of what many of us would consider the most extreme and disturbing forms of sexual fantasy, and the fact that Cooper consistently blurs the line between what’s really happening and what is only a wish cast into the internet by the forum users only deepens the unease. There’s certainly a line between fantasy and real acts committed upon real bodies, but what the book draws attention to are instances wherein that line isn’t clear, and how willing we sometimes can be to pretend that it is. Against all odds, there’s a comedic zing to the sheer over-the-topness of some of what happens (or purports to happen) over the course of the story, as well as to the idea that any of this could actually be happening at all. Yet the fact that the sexual fantasies of the characters intensify as the story unfolds creates an effect whereby the reader feels trapped in a sequence of eternal escalation, both dreading and anticipating where the story will dare to tread. In many ways, the sexual content of the posts and e-mails, as well as the book’s premise, combine with this consistent build to mirror a kind of orgasmic tension—a painful one to which you’re never certain you want to be party. The logical conclusion of this exploration of the darkest corners of sexual fantasy seems inevitable, with death and desire having been conceptually linked in our symbolic repertoire for thousands of years. And yet, though the spectre of death is omnipresent in The Sluts, it is notable by its absence. Death is nowhere and everywhere, engaged in more of a flirtation with the text than a full-on tryst.
If all this talk of mirrors and symbolism, fantasy and reality, seems too heady, don’t let it dissuade you from picking up the novel. The Sluts is more of an experience than most books manage and truly needs to be read to be wrestled with. At the very least, it’s unputdownable, though it will leave you wondering whether you ought to feel entirely comfortable with that fact.
*There’s actually a surprising lack of cum in The Sluts, just a lot of people talking about it.
**As an off the cuff example, viewers of the True Crime show Forensic Files will recall that in a startling number of episodes the critical piece of information, known by the police from the start, that the [spouse/sister-in-law/mother/son/cousin’s favourite cat] took out a life insurance policy on the murder victim two months before the murder isn’t revealed to the audience till the episode’s last five minutes. This often creates a sense of a more complex and layered mystery, complete with red herrings and plot twits, than the reality of the investigation supports.
Purchase The Sluts on Indiebound