RWW Soundings

101 Ways to Survive: An Appreciation of Bernard Cooper

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Bernard Cooper has been holding hands with Death while thinking about Art since he was a very young boy. He writes about both subjects with ferocious humor and a sense of vulnerability, using prose honed to such perfection it penetrates your brain as his thoughts are directly poured in. Once read, his prose lives within you. Cooper’s frank examinations of how our self-preserving impulses drive us in the deepest moments of grief, as well as how our impulse to create art and order out of chaos and despair tear down the “fourth wall” between writer and reader, painter and viewer. Cooper writes about his life: coming of age as a gay man, pre-Stonewall, and then coming out and loving in the age of AIDS. He writes as the child of immigrants, the son of a self-made man and a repressed housewife and mother. He writes as a younger brother whose beloved hero—his older brother—died inexplicably from cancer. He writes as an artist, in a family concerned with money and convention, and as a survivor, his immediate family and his life partner all dead. He writes as an Angeleno, someone who lived the California dreams of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

photo by Jonathan Cowan

Cooper’s body of work seesaws from fiction to memoir; from a craft perspective, it’s fascinating to trace vignettes from his memoir into his fiction and often back again. His first novel, A Year in Rhymes, is the coming-of-age story of the eleven-year-old Burt Zerkin. The novel chronicles the slow death of an adored older brother, the confusion of longing for his male best friend instead of the girl at the make-out party, and the discovery of art. All of these events and situations echo life experiences Cooper writes about later in his memoirs, My Avant-Garde Education and Truth Serum.

In an interview with Coachella Review in 2014, Cooper talked about the autobiographical nature of his fiction and how he has shifted back and forth during his career from nonfiction to fiction, and from poetry to art. When reading his work, you can see how the movement from fiction to memoir allows Cooper to gracefully explore different shifts in consciousness, and how we may experience ourselves as outside, as other, and as fragmented in the face of a world peopled with those who seem perfectly in sync. Though he realizes it’s doubtful that others may feel perfectly “in sync” with the world, Cooper delves into those moments when a sense of belonging is shattered.

For example, in his fiction, a young pregnant woman realigns her sense of family to include a gay father and his lover, and a man leaves a sleeping wife in the morning only to realize upon his return that she wasn’t sleeping, but dead. Cooper uses seamless prose to work his way into the existential terror those out-of-alignment moments conjure, such as when the fictional young Burt loves his best friend fiercely in A Year in Rhymes, which mirrors the moment when young Bernard sees his best friend in a new erotic light in the memoir, Truth Serum. Cooper gently leads us to the places that frighten or pain, allowing us to look a little longer and that much deeper. The losses faced by AIDS patients and their families became fiction in the short story, “Exterior Decorationin Guess Again, a study of love, grief, denial and intolerance, then morphs back into memoir in “Something into Nothing,” the penultimate chapter in My Avant-Garde Education. In his nonfiction, Cooper is his own best subject, generous with details, owning feelings of love, sorrow, ineptitude, even aghast at his own inexplicable behavior, and the most uncomfortable explorations become possible.

My Avant Garde Education: A MemoirIn August 2015, Cooper became the inaugural Judith Kitchen Visiting Writer at the Rainier Writing Workshop summer residency. This chair was created to honor RWW co-founder Judith Kitchen and her enduring legacy of devotion to craft and teaching. After Cooper taught his Nonfiction Master Class, both faculty and students were treated to an evening reading and interview with RWW faculty member Barrie Jean Borich, which turned out to be an amazing mashup of conversation on craft and Cooper’s journey back to visual art. After a reading from his latest memoir, My Avant-Garde Education, Cooper presented his visual art from his solo show at the Miami Dade Museum of Art and Design.

Bernard Cooper was an excellent choice to honor Judith Kitchen, as, similar to her, Cooper also marries his life to his art with skill, open-heartedness, humor and grace. Whether he’s describing scenes from his stories of growing up in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s, such as the glittery stucco apartments with tiny kidney-shaped turquoise pools underneath ratty palms and neighborhoods built on cul-de-sacs with the requisite goody-two-shoes kids, or if he’s zooming in on the life moments that send us spiraling into confusion such as a realized attraction to best friends or the harrowing experience of a loved one dying, Cooper’s writing sticks with you, becomes the voice in your ear whenever you let your mind wander in the shower, washing dishes, driving, and just before you drift off to sleep.

His exploration into the fictions that hold families together, the dignity of a life lived in resignation to the inevitable death of a lover, becomes an innermost look at life that sticks with the reader long after she’s read his words. Like Kitchen, Cooper’s ability to be present as well, as a detached observer, connects our art with our humanity and death in the most intimate way.

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