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Facing Life's Limits in Robert Coover's Recent Fiction.

Two impulses oppose each other in Robert Coover's fiction. His characters embody one: they seek myths and narratives or systems of rules that will give meaning to their lives. Nixon looks to Uncle Sam's myth of the Phantom in The Public Burning; the prince and courtiers all try to make sense of life in terms of fairytales in Briar Rose; J. Henry Waugh restructures his life around fantasy baseball in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and an alternative Nixon creates meaning from football in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? Coover's own metafictional tactics embody the second and opposite impulse: whenever he sees a predictable pattern such as a fairytale happy ending, he does his best to smash it. The last thing he wants readers to enjoy is the satisfaction of a conventional feel-good finish. (1) Even our just being able to predict what will happen next would let us relax our engagement with the fiction, and that is anathema to Coover. He prefers his stories to penetrate rather than seduce with easy gratifications. (2) Coover's characters are thus looking for different things from those sought by Coover as artist. They crave the predictable whereas he interprets predictable patterns as chains or bonds. When we relinquish our critical faculties to rejoice in a happy ending, we enslave our minds. According to his artistic vision, destroying such patterns produces freedom. In his fictive world and metaphysics, breaking the bonds releases energy, and he equates that energy with freedom. (3)

As high postmodernism wanes, some of its leading figures have backed away from the void and have tried to offer partial answers to life's questions and some meaningful values. David Foster Wallace very tentatively seeks an ethic; Pynchon has shifted from complete distrust of every human organization (Gravity's Rainbow) to a strong and arguably sentimental belief in families. Pynchon once felt that even the Red Cross could not escape the inherent evil of being an organization, but his latest two novels have shown more acceptance of social realities, and Inherent Vice celebrates negotiating society's obstacles rather than anarchist destruction. Coover's retreating from the void would be no surprise, given that his metaphysic of smashing patterns must now measure itself against age and eventual death. Death will smash all personal patterns more effectively than any metafiction can, and probably will not release any usable energy as a reward. Whether on personal grounds or as part of the larger quest to reestablish values affecting other major writers, he might plausibly be reconsidering his metaphysic. What values does he still hold to and which has he developed in new directions in the last decade? The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) (2001), Stepmother (2004), A Child Again (2005), and Noir (2010) give us a delicious variety of fictional types to analyze with this clash between pattern seeking and pattern destroying in mind.

Coover has never shirked from describing the unappetizing aspects of aging. In Pricksongs & Descants (1969), Red Riding Hood's grandmother is described by her son as "preferring rot to obliteration, possessed like them all by a mad will, mindless and intransigent. [...] There they all went, birthing hopelessly sentient creatures into the inexplicable emptiness, giving carelessly of their bellies, teats, and strength, then sinking away into addled uselessness, humming the old songs, the old lies." (4) That son, Jack the Giant Killer, has grown up to be the new giant, and the granny was once Beauty who married the Beast. As these fairytale heroes age, they become the enemy for the new generation, and are every bit as unsavory as the enemy seemed to them when they were the young heroes.

This early treatment of age is a light-hearted shock tactic compared to the more detailed presentation in Pinocchio in Venice, where the wooden boy who turned into a man (and became a Nobel-prize-winning art historian) now starts to revert to wood again. He is frequently humiliated, and eventually the Blue-Haired Fairy must bring his magicked life to its close. "She leans toward the little man's head now as though to suck at the orifices there (yes, he can feel it go, feel it all emptying out), and then the eyes at the doorway turn away from the light and he is finally and for all that infinite span of time still left him, infinite because he will never know its limits, be they but a hair's breadth away (the thought escapes him, even as he thinks it), in the dark. [...] And ... is she doing something with his nose? Ah ...! Yes ...! Good ..." (5) Given that nose's erectile habits, this may be as close as Coover comes to a happy ending in his mid-career works. Even as Pinocchio's life is sliding away, he feels pleasure akin to fellatio. This final moment, however, comes after three hundred pages of Pinocchio's suffering the limits of his aging body. A dog must lick him clean when he soils himself, for instance, and women find him preposterous. His return to Venice is very much a Gustav von Aschenbach decline into death. Where Thomas Mann merely gives us an old man's degraded last days, Coover's portrayal gains disturbing power from his professor once having been the young Pinocchio whom we know either from the original Collodi story or else from Disney's version.

In Coover's most recent books, what if anything does he do to distinguish his handling of age and death from his previous forays into the subject? (6) Two of the stories in A Child Again resemble Coover's earlier rethought fairytales. "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee" shows Puff the magic dragon's companion of yore, Jackie Paper, returning because the memories of adventure that gave his life structure have ceased to do so as he declines physically. One of Sir John's ways of putting a good face on age has been to praise "the beauty of language--as a kind of palliative against the disturbing truths from the abyss," (7) but as he wheezes, exhausted, he feels even that gift leaving him. Sir John mounts Puff, and briefly feels "a rush of joyful exhilaration" (30). "From up on high, amid such phantasmal delights, he seemed to catch a tantalizing glimpse of the trembling sea in dawn light with its promise of noble adventure and, though surely it was an illusion (life is an illusion, as he has often declared), he embraced this promise (it was about then that the back spasms began) with open arms." He knows that hordes of heroes are approaching to kill this dragon, but he has no wish to live longer if the dragon in him is no more.

Sir John's response to age and death presents a new element. Puff and the heroic adventure of youth are in the past, but are also inside Sir John himself. He speaks of his soul as a dragon, even if he apparently does not believe in the reality of a soul. The symbolic adventure is something inside, not just a fair) tale with no connection to real life. It gives his life an intensity that will do for meaning, even if that cannot last beyond death. It may be an illusion, but then, as he says, so is life, so maybe an illusion of meaning is all we need. Such an illusion is all that we are likely to get, and our only problem will be to try to ensure that whatever illusion we choose does not oppress other people--a point that Coover does not raise directly here, but which presumably underlies his distaste for the Phantom myth of The Public Burning.

"Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock" similarly takes someone we know in her youth and places her in a situation of great frustration and haggard age. Poor Alice has been stuck for all her life at the Mad Hatter's tea party; intervals above ground are possible when the Red King dreams her there, but when he awakens, she is back at the tea table, suffering from ferocious hot flashes. She has become hideous, "her whole body like a huge squeezed sponge" (109). When she once saw herself in a looking glass, she had seen "the huge baggy thing [...] (the creature's upper arms were flapping like wings! and all those chins!)" (109). The Hatter greets her on this birthday with
 "You are old, Mother Alice, and big as a door,
 And all covered with wrinkles and fat [...]
 And yet you still wear your old pinafore,
 Pray, what is the reason for that?"
 "I'll tell you, good sire" Mother Alice replied,
 "And I hope you'll not think that I'm bitter;
 Since I've grown I could not get it off if I tried
 For it won't lift off over my sitter!" (125) 

The knave serenades her with
 Tinkle, tinkle, little twot,
 How I wonder what you've got [...]
 How I wish I were a flower,
 Underneath your golden-- !" (122-123) 

Alice looks at her Looking Glass life as "death and madness--the madness, as it were, of soldiering on for all the pointlessness of it, all the cruelty" (126). She is so upset that she bepisses herself, another demeaning problem of age. Coover portrays her with cruel clarity. This extrapolation of life in his conjoined worlds of Wonderland and Looking Glass Land is truly brilliant both linguistically and psychologically. He exploits the Carrollian idiom powerfully and upsettingly. Yes, Carroll could show cruelties, but Alice was always rescued, and did not have to bear up under them for long. Here, she is denied escape, and her treatment extended through the years is enough to cause nightmares for readers extrapolating those experiences to real life.

The Time of the Jabberwock is the term used by Alice and the Duchess for menopause and its hot flashes, but seems also to represent death. Alice knows she will have to meet the Jabberwock, whether she goes toward or away from his wood. She tries to describe how she feels: "Like whatever me was in there has been oozing away with everything else that's been squeezed out by the Jabberwock, leaving just a black empty hole in there." "If that's how this world works, it's a poor thin way of doing things!" (136) She considers various explanations for her situation; maybe she is just an entertainment for everyone else, since all the others in this Wonderland do not age as she has. She feels the heat of the Jabberwock rising inside her breast. She denies that she is afraid, but rather is angry at the unfairness. The heat rises and thickens, and she scarcely has time to say "And how fast it comes!" (138)

"The Fallguy's Faith" shows Humpty Dumpty just after his fall, knowing that he is dying. He tries to find meaning; maybe falling leads to being born, or maybe all that matters in life is the gesture--but he cannot articulate even this last thought as he cracks further and dies. "Aesop's Forest;' a story from earlier in Coover's career but collected in A Child Again, covers the death of Aesop's lion. Whereas in the fables, the lion summons the rest of the forest to his deathbed as a ruse, here he is dying for real, and while he relishes fighting back as they mob him, he dies, betrayed yet again by the fox. "Punch" offers us something to ponder. Punch is immortal, and he "kills" all the puppets with whom he shares the stage. That is his nature, his comic-grotesque routine. He muses, though: "that's what's missing. The price of immortality. When nothing ends, nothing remains" (40)

Not all the stories in A Child Again rage at age and death, but among some of those that do, we find an inward turning, a sense of something inside one that matters, or that gives meaning, or that feels good as one fights back against death. That something can even produce an uprush of joy as one dies. Coover never offers any real alternative to death as finality; by implication, I would say, he agrees that all the bonds will be broken and we will fragment into unrelated atoms with nothing of us left. The suggestion that something inside us, though, is what gives us a sense of meaning, not just an external myth, seems new to me in his work. He manages to internalize certain feelings--joy and excitement--if not stories and ideas, and counts that worthwhile. That inward turn is rather different from material found elsewhere among his fictions.

Another form of inward turn seems to me splendidly represented by The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell). This collection started as a series of fantastic hotels based on the idea of Joseph Cornell's box assemblages, a form of art derived from surrealist principles. (8) Coover's hotels for me evoke memories of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as well, but the hotels seem more clearly aimed than Calvino's cities at creating a single state of mind in visitors. "The Grand Hotel Night Voyage" offers to its guests the extended sensations of peaceful relaxation, an almost voluptuous sense of persisting enjoyment without explosive highs. Evanescent and subtle smells like evening dew fill the air. Rooms do not have double beds; this is not a place for activity, but for passive, almost drugged, enjoyment. This hotel sets a pattern; the states of mind they encourage are difficult to obtain, even more difficult to hold for more than a few moments, yet we crave these varied pleasures, sometimes not realizing that we might prefer such feelings to, say, the more frenzied joy of sexual novelty. "The Grand Hotel Penny Arcade" gives us voyeuristic pleasures of aroused sensitivities but infinitely deferred gratification, while intriguing us with the dormant but moving and dreaming body of a naked princess. This sleeping beauty's combination of sensuality and celebrity status gives those who favor this hotel grounds for endless speculation and argument. "The Grand Hotel Galactic Center" exposes guests to the infinite depth and grandeur of the cosmos, a feeling in itself desirable but also characterized by passivity. "The Grand Hotel Forgotten Game" and "The Grand Hotel Nymphlight" both regress clients to childhood mentality and sensation, to game and childish pleasures. After several other hotels, Coover winds up his list of mental states with "Grand Hotel Home, Poor Heart" which manages, by triggering memories of the dead past, to produce nostalgia so pure that some clients cannot stand their longing for what is no longer available and commit suicide.

Coover thus identifies many states of mind that we crave but cannot hold for any length of time. Their evanescence frustrates us and drives us to fill our days with activities unlikely to produce anything remotely like these forms of joy. In The Grand Hotels, he suggests that a state of mind, a feeling, can give life a sense of meaning and pleasure, rather than the narratives (of various sorts) pursued by his previous characters. The latter involve thinking and acting; the former rely more on sensation and feeling. If happiness consists in cultivating sustained states of mind, then Coover would indeed be breaking new ground. The almost drug-like quality of some of the states of mind, however, seems suspect. As usual, he gives us no guidance, but I query our approving most such states. Several provoke suicide in unhappy people, and some, as in "The Hotel Bald Cockatoo" seem fairly frivolous. Particularly given their association with night and unconsciousness, one's usual condition in hotels, such seductive pleasures may exemplify avoidance of hard-won conscious awareness.

Such states of mind are at first sight interesting aesthetic alternatives to the fictions that his characters have used to give meaning to their lives. In his earlier work, unhappiness for characters has mostly provided the excuse for their wrapping themselves in the protective cloak of a myth, so this exploration of happier states might lead him to a different kind of fictive world. Alternatively, this unexpected attention to states of mind may be a by-product of the surrealism behind the Cornell assemblages. Surrealism was much concerned with the Freudian unconscious, so Coover's using a surrealist starting point for his reveries may give them more of a mental cast than we otherwise find in his art. Coover invokes such delicate states of mind and the objects that create them with great skill. The more I understand his rejection of pattern because it kills the intensity of our engagement with art, however, the more I suspect these hotel states to be yet one more pattern to be avoided, despite the delicate beauty he lavishes on their strangeness.

Stepmother offers a very different kind of new direction. This book does not seem to me to contribute to an inward, psychological turn, but does depart from previous patterns by focusing on women. (9) This is, in fact, Coover's most extended attention to female characters, since the nine muse-cinematographers do not really emerge as figures with any depth or complexity in Lucky Pierre, and the talking cunt of "A Theological Position" is a raucous commentator but not exactly person-like. His sticking to a purely male perspective, particularly a narrow male sexual response to female bodies, has been a noted characteristic of his artistic vision, so his pushing beyond that invites attention and speculation.

His first departure from expectation is to focus on the Stepmother. This stereotyped villain provides the narrative voice. She comes across as a lively crone who has somehow survived all the traps that destroy her daughters, stepdaughters, and adopted daughters in their young prime. As a figure of some power, she echoes the Blue-Haired Fairy and the woman in Ghost Town (1998). She lacks their overwhelming ability to manipulate the world, however. What can she say or do that will help the young women survive? While she is a witch of sorts, her power is unreliable. Magic accessories get lost or stolen, and she forgets spells. Sometimes she can remember only one trick, but it is useless for her current rescue mission. While she is vigorous and at times frisky, she is extremely cynical and not successful in saving her young progeny from being closed in barrels lined with spikes and drowned in the river or from being burned to death.

The male characters are a series of arrogant and selfish (or feeble-minded) princes, plus two others: the Old Soldier and the Reaper. The former is much like the Stepmother in his cynicism and in being the former possessor of various magic accessories that he has lost (at least according to his tall tales). He is a boozer and one for a quick tumble with any woman he can persuade. He is a cheerful rogue, not reliable but not ill-intentioned, amusing company but not someone to depend upon. He seems to be about the best that a woman could find as male friend, which says volumes about this unattractive world. The Reaper is mysterious: he attends every execution and so has the nickname that links him to death. The woods in which the girls hide and in which various princes and girls cross paths is the Reaper's Woods. The lengthy final episode involves the witch trying to keep him from attending the execution, which (she hopes) will prevent it from happening, while he falls in with her ruse to keep her occupied and prevent her from interfering with the execution. She arrives too late, but has the last laugh when she turns the execution audience to stone. Alas, the spell will not last long, and while she plans on smashing as many of the stone statues as she can, this depends on her finding the Old Soldier's big hammer, and on her being able to lift it, both conditions being difficult to fulfill. Whether she smashes this particular group of witch hunters or not, we know that she will not break the social cycle, and more daughters will meet their ends at this place of execution.

For all that Coover shows a detached interest in the Stepmother's situation, he continues to deny us fairytale endings and offers no overt sympathy. This lack of evident sympathy bothers readers of his other works, but Coover's worlds usually have a decidedly demonic cast, and they offer no answers or comforts. (10) If his male character is actively pushed toward death by a woman in Ghost Town, and less clearly but implicitly in The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and in Pinocchio in Venice, his women in Stepmother are shown to be abused and killed by men. Men have the political power but lack control over themselves and make many stupid mistakes; his women seem more intelligent and work through manipulation rather than power. They too, however, make mistakes and are not able to win independence from the male social structures or from their own sexual urges. His is not a world in which one sees much collaboration or real communication between the sexes. That lack of collaboration in all his previous novels (possibly excepting Lucky Pierre) marks his most recent novel as strange. Not only does Noir end in male-female collaboration of sorts, it also suggests yet another kind of inward turn for finding meaning.

Philip M. Noir, the private eye in this mock detective story, starts out looking for his meaning in standard generic fashions. (11) He accepts a rather unlikely story from a wealthy client dressed in widow's weeds, and begins hunting for "Mister Big," probably an underworld boss. The widow's sweet small-town story becomes murkier as incest, possible poisoning, and a criminal brother enter into the widow's subsequent versions. When Noir thinks he is about to be killed by Mister Big, he finds himself in a room full of mirrors, and sees only himself, evidently the object of his Oedipus-like quest for a criminal. Furthermore, the widow who launched him on this case turns out to be his secretary, Blanche, in disguise. The whole case evaporates, leaving us with little sense of what, if anything, the real action was. If this was all a charade by Blanche, what about the man who was (apparently) shot and whose death is being blamed on Noir? Blanche demands partnership, "Blanche et Noir," to which he responds by asking if "et" is the past of "eat," clearly feeling that his identity is being consumed by this black widow. Despite that crack, however, he seems reasonably pleased by the turn of events. He knows her to be competent in the office, and she has clearly hoodwinked him (as well as knocked him cold) several times, so she operates well on the street, better than he does (though he does not admit that). He is in deep trouble with the police since he has been framed for several major crimes. If he has any chance of escaping, it will come from her strategies and ideas.

A protagonist seeing himself as the object of his quest is not entirely new in Coover. Lucky Pierre is always refilming his previous films and so sees himself in film. He does not, though, exhibit any drive to understand himself. Since character creation is not what Coover concerns himself with, I cannot claim that Philip Noir will start learning who and what he is, but the blatancy of his hunting for a criminal and dramatically finding himself points us, at the symbolic level, in that direction. Somehow he must understand himself if he is to solve the mysteries. Of course, given Coover's world, his mirror image might remain flat, impervious to any quest for depth and meaning. Coover may be aborting that possible symbolism even while he tramples (affectionately) on the hardboiled generic situations. However, with some short stories as well as The Grand Hotels and Noir pointing to the mind and self for possible answers, we may feel that Coover is looking past myth and story to ways of configuring our search for meaning that are new in terms of his prior artistic output.

Despite rushes of joy at death bravely faced and fought by some of his characters, Coover does not solidify these emotions into Meaning-with-a-capital-M. They are new, but he does not seem to waver in his apparently skeptical and materialist view of what lies beyond physical existence and death. That tough-minded lack of compromise remains a core value throughout his work. His refusal to provide meaning emerges clearly if we compare Noir to Pynchon's latest novel, Inherent Vice (2009), also a loving parody of the hardboiled genre.

Pynchon's plot probably follows even more twists and turns, but the difference in main characters makes us more aware of the void still present in Coover's work that has disappeared from Pynchon's. Doc Sportello is on good terms with his parents. He helps out a former girlfriend, although her case is unlikely to produce any money. When he finds himself possessed of a huge amount of heroin, he is given the chance to give it back for reward (or he can expect to be killed). He hands it over, but asks not for money (which he needs) but for the life and safety from reprisal of someone who wishes to get out from under the thumb of the shady powers who rule the drug trade. By doing this, he helps reunite a family, particularly for the sake of the child "who ought to have something more than fading Polaroids to go to when she got them little-kid blues" (12) Doc indulges liberally in drugs, but warns his parents (neophytes to pot) not to smoke it when babysitting their grandchildren. In the last pages of the novel, Doc stops to talk to the secretary in the office below his flat and she tells him she's pregnant. "Doc did a quick radiance check on her and felt a stupid smile taking over his face. 'Well, what do you know. I thought that glow in the room was just some flashback I was havin. Congratulations, you guys, that's wonderful'" (361). These are not just pro forma best wishes; the emphasis on glow and radiance makes his comments stand out, and the "stupid" smile suggests Doc's strong emotional involvement, as if this news gives him a genuine thrill. I'm not sure that any Coover character responds with that much personal pleasure in the doings of another. Pynchon and Coover are trying to do different things, so my comparison means to disparage neither, but Pynchon's emphasis on family matters as cause for joy to neighbors shows that for him, or at least for his characters, some values are regaining the ability to give a sense of meaning. So far, Coover has not given in to that craving, however much his characters seek such meaning.

In a 1982 interview with Christopher Bigsby, Coover mentions his admiration for Samuel Beckett: "He'd probably laugh at the idea of trying to construct an order among men that would make any sense, given their appalling limitations. [...] As a young writer I found him a healthy antidote to the high-minded aspirations of the romantics, though these were also attractive to me" (83). Putting this attraction toward romantics together with a comment in the Gado interview (1973) about Coover's reading theology in order to try to solve "the problem of Christian belief" (153), one suspects that Coover himself early on felt some pull toward letting myths and fictions organize his world, or at least wondered at the power that they exerted. Indeed, he opines that "Under these conditions of arbitrariness, the artistic impulse is directed toward putting the random parts together in any order which provides a pattern for living" (Gado Interview, 153).

In a recent essay, however, he clarifies some of his thinking on myth, and makes a distinction between myth and tale that has bearing on any pattern for living that he might offer.
 Much of [the Consciousness Industry] is devoted to sleep and a
 of the unconscious. Consciousness is an accomplishment which requires
 enormous effort and so can be maintained only for limited periods,
 before, with great relief, we sink back into a mindless stupor. Tale
 heroic tales about the effort; myth celebrates the stupor. The
 Consciousness Industry, like any other, survives on profits, and
 is more profitable than that true consciousness they ostensibly
 and so, feeling blameless, they peddle mostly soporifics. The
 of full consciousness is so rare and difficult, it is often felt as
 super-natural, sleep (our original Edenic condition) the seductive
 "natural" state. Odysseus, the adventurous tale hero,
resisted the
 seductive Siren songs of blissful sleep, choosing the pursuit of
 consciousness (even so, he had to be lashed to the mast), but most
 It's too hard, hurts too much. Settle into prime time, go to a
 watch a game instead." (13) 

If he still sees himself as providing a pattern for living, what might it be?

First, I think he might offer his own code without calling it advice or a pattern: "Don't ask for closure or you might get it" would be one element. Closure is neat and satisfying. It stands for any simple answer, because that simplicity lets us ignore life's complexity. It lets us relax and cease to engage with the problems of life. We give up our energy when we relax, and energy seems to be very important to Coover, something closely related to life itself. Coover does not hold out hope that passionate engagement will result in any improvements in society, as we see in Stepmother. History tells his middleclass readers that life can be much worse than it is for them, however, so engagement may at least help counter entropic disintegration.

"Value the unexpected" might be another element in the code, because something unexpected forces us to engage more intensely with the present. Coover denies himself and us the generic outcomes we expect in fairytales (Pricksongs & Descants, Briar Rose, Stepmother, A Child Again), in films (A Night at the Movies, Ghost Town), and in pornography (or metafiction parading as pornography, in Spanking the Maid and Lucky Pierre). Both small town life (John's Wife) and suburban existence (Gerald's Party) teem with unexpectedly unappetizing life, at least if you are used to the American myths of the heartland town and comfortable suburb. In The Public Burning, the expected sense of victory at promise of the presidency turns into Nixon's unexpected rape by Uncle Sam, which is described in painful and squalid, though grotesquely funny, detail.

For all that Coover in his most recent works shows a new interest in states of mind, he has never ignored the problems of putting one's trust in feel-good mental experiences.]. Henry Waugh creates happiness for himself in a fantasy world, but escaped the complexities of living by avoiding life, and Coover disapproves of escapism. (14) The states of mind Coover seems to favor involve a flash of resistance, of bravery even. Sir John Paper, Alice, and the lion all feel that upwelling of energy at the end, of intensity and engagement. They won't survive, but no one gets out of life alive. They face what is coming clear-eyed. The ability to face age and death without comforting myths appears to deserve admiration in Coover's worlds. I am, of course, extrapolating here. Coover does not tell us this, for that would be to give us a satisfying ending. If he were to do that, we would relax our attempts to understand his artistic enterprise, would pigeonhole him, and would cease to engage intensely in his world.


(1) His first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), does end on a happy wedding, but as he comments, "I felt the need to show--myself as well as others--that I could write a traditional mimetic novel" See "Robert Coover," an interview with Christopher Bigsby, in The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists, edited by Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby (London: Junction Books, 1982), 79-92, quotation, 84.

(2) Coover does not actually use the term rape for attacking the reader, but it hovers metaphorically in some of his comments on writing. Great art must reach people "on a visceral level"; further, he asserts, "when something hits us strong enough, it means it's something real. Otherwise we look at it and say it[']s a cute act, you know, but it doesn't touch me at all" In "A Theological Position," the talking cunt insists "We have to stir the senses, grab you where it hurts! Any penetration, however slight, is a bloody business!" See Leo J. Hertzel, "An Interview with Robert Coover" Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 11.3 (1969), 25-29, quotations 27; and Robert Coover, A Theological Position: Plays (New York: Dutton, 1972), "A Theological Position," quotation, 166.

(3) For analyses of these career patterns, see Kathryn Hume, "Robert Coover's Fiction: The Naked and the Mythic," Novel 12.2 (1979): 127-148; Kathryn Hume, "Robert Coover: The Metaphysics of Bondage" MLR 98.4 (2003), 827-841; Marc Chenetier discusses the release of energy in "Ideas of Order at Delphi" in Facing Texts: Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics, edited by Heide Ziegler (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988), 84-108, 98. Coover himself mentions it: artists "make us think about doing all the things we shouldn't do, all the impossible, apocalyptic things, and weaken and tear down structures so that they can be rebuilt, releasing new energies." See "Robert Coover," an interview with Frank Gado, First Person: Conversations on Writers & Writing (Schenectady: Union College Press, 1973), 142-159, quotation 157. Brian Evenson sums up Coover's metafictional attacks on genre and form in Understanding Robert Coover (Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 15-22.

(4) Pricksongs & Descants (New York: Plume, 1969), "The Door: A Prologue of Sorts," 13-19, quotation, 14-15.

(5) Pinocchio in Venice (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 329-330.

(6) For his style of rewriting fairytales throughout his career, see Stephen Benson, "The Late Fairy Tales of Robert Coover," in Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale, edited by Stephen Benson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008), 120-143.

(7) A Child Again (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2005), 26.

(8) The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2002).

(9) Stepmother (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2004).

(10) The demonic nature of the world is spelled out in Hume, "Robert Coover: The Metaphysics of Bondage"; for complaint about lack of sympathy and lack of indication of how we as readers should respond, see Chad Gaits, Brown Alumni Monthly 96.8 (1996), 18-19.

(11) Noir: A Novel (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2010).

(12) Inherent Vice (New York: Penguin, 2009), 162.

(13) "Tale, Myth, Writer," in Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, Kate Bernheimer (ed.), (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), 57-60, quotation 57-8. Coover's distinction between Myth and Tale seems neatly embodied in The Reaper and The Old Soldier in Stepmother.

(14) Gado interview, 149.
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Author:Hume, Kathryn
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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