Known best for applying his lean sentences like razors to his outre fiction, Cooper has also carved out a neat career for himself as a non-fiction stylist. In his preface, he admits to being uncomfortable with the form, calling it ‘a difficult formal experiment’.
Smothered in Hugs (which takes its title from a Guided by Voices song) collects more than 20 years of his difficult experiments, including essays, interviews, journalism pieces and obituaries. In truth, early on, Cooper does seem at odds with some of these works. A 1985 piece about punk fanzines reads like notes to the beginning of a research paper (or research for one of Cooper’s novels). And 1991’s essay ‘No Mo’ Pomo’ is less a considered response to prevailing critical opinion than it is an extended gripe.
But elsewhere, it’s a joy to watch Cooper’s mind at work, particularly where he drops the journalist’s veil. In a 1995 piece for the LA Weekly, Cooper interviewed novelist Ryu Murakami – whose novels take a sharp look at youth culture. He finds him to look ‘like a guy who sits around on his butt writing novels’, and wonders if he’s the subject of a hoax. In ‘AIDS: Words from the Front,’ Cooper tags along with an HIV-infected man and takes the reader on the guy’s dizzying spiral of reluctant fatalism. The criticism is also often sharp (except when, inexplicably, he elevates the acting of Keanu Reeves). In a 1995 piece on Quentin Tarantino, he writes, ‘Tarantino gives terrific surface, but in a Ted Kennedy kind of way – he makes you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness, even if the charisma is essentially inherited.’ Luckily, we have Cooper to go beneath that surface.