In Robert Coover’s work, humanity is presented not as the center of the universe, the purpose of creation, but, instead, as the center of the fictions it itself creates to explain its existence. Only when people learn the crucial difference between these opposing viewpoints will they understand their possibilities and limitations; only then will they be free to use their imaginations to live life fully and in all its perplexing variety.
Coover strongly distrusts humankind’s reasoning faculty and, more particularly, the Enlightenment concept of human progress. As he explains in the prologue to Pricksongs and Descants, Coover finds himself in the same position that Miguel de Cervantes was four hundred years before: at the end of one literary tradition and the beginning of another, where the culture’s traditional way of perceiving the world is breaking down. Reading the classic Greek poet Ovid, Coover came to understand that humanity’s basic and continual struggle is to resist these and other changes, to struggle “against giving in to the inevitability of process.” Accordingly, his stories depict a constantly shifting or metamorphosizing world, one in which the sheer abundance of material implies the abundance of life and where the straight linear plot of conventional realistic fiction no longer suffices. In these works, the active imagination battles the deadening influence of various systems of thought—religious, political, literary—that are, as Larry McCaffery has pointed out, ideological rather than ontological in nature. Understanding this difference brings people to the edge of the abyss, from which they then recoil, seeking safety and comfort in various rituals and explanatory sytems that are necessary and, to some degree, related to the artistic process itself. These rituals and systems, however, are dangerous insofar as people allow themselves to believe in them as other than self-generated imaginative constructs.
Coover urges his readers both to live in a more direct relationship to unmediated experience and to create fictions that will relieve them of their burden of anxiety in the indeterminate world. This balance of self-conscious fiction-making and unselfconscious participation in life is, however, not always achieved by Coover’s characters. Even the best of them, the pattern-breakers, are often guilty of the same rigidity of the imagination that typifies their antagonists, the pattern-keepers. Refusing to accept their own mortality or that of their systems and beliefs, they venture forth on a spurious quest after immortality and platonic absolutes. Their terror of the void is real enough, but because their responses to it are ludicrous and absurd, the terror is rendered comically, fears turning into pratfalls, as in the misadventures of the Chaplinesque “Charlie in the House of Rue.” If, as Coover believes, existence does not have an ontological status, then life necessarily becomes not the serious business his characters make it but a kind of play, to which social historian Johan Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1949), is the appropriate guide.
Coover is a fiction writer who distrusts fiction, not because it is “exhausted,” as Barth claimed, but because he feels that writers’ various fictions—not only their stories and novels, but also their histories and religions—are always in danger of being confused with reality. He parodies myths, history, literary formulas, and elements of popular culture in an effort to expose their artifice. He imposes order on his fictions, both as structure and as subject, to undermine that order effectively, to prove its arbitrariness, and thus to lay bare the indeterminacy of the world. In place of the inadequate, narrowly conceived systems that some of his characters devise or even the more expansive but eventually imprisoning fantasies of others, Coover writes what one critic has called “cubist fictions,” inviting the reader’s participation in a work that is less a product than a process, a revelation of the instability and uncertainty of modern existence.
The parallels between Coover’s fiction and process-oriented abstract expressionist art, modern physics, and postexistentialist philosophy mark Coover as a distinctly modern writer. His works are often discussed as leading examples of metafiction, a formally experimental, highly reflexive literary mode that, as critic Robert Scholes has explained, “assimilates all the perspectives of criticism into the fiction itself.” Although many of Coover’s shorter works are clearly metafictional in nature, in the novels and novellas formal inventiveness gives way to an interest in traditional narrative, in telling a good story. What results is a tension between contemporary and traditional narrative modes that is analogous to Coover’s notion of the artist-audience relationship (dramatized in his story “The Hat Act”). In Coover’s view, the fictionmaker is at once an anarchist and a priest: “He’s the one who tears apart the old story, speaks the unspeakable, makes the ground shake, then shuffles the pieces back together into a new story.” Coover’s power to disturb is clearly evident in reviews of his work. More important, however, is the fact that these relationships between Coover and his readers, artist and audience, innovation and tradition, bear a striking similarity to the plight of his characters.
The Origin of the Brunists
Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, is not “a vicious and dirty piece of writing,” as one reviewer claimed; rather, it is a work in which Coover pays his dues (as he has said) to the naturalistic novel and exhaustively details the various ways in which people imaginatively respond to the randomness and variety of their world. Briefly stated, the story concerns a mining disaster that kills ninety seven men, the formation of a millenarian cult around the sole survivor, Giovanni Bruno, and the reactions of the townspeople, especially Justin “Tiger” Miller, editor of the local newspaper, to the Brunists. An odd assortment of immigrant Italians, Protestant fundamentalists, a composer of folk songs, a numerologist, and a theosophist, the Brunists are drawn together by their desire to live meaningful lives in a comprehensible, cause-and-effect world, one in which they misinterpret random events as providential signs. Many of those who do not join the cult find a sense of purpose and a release from the frustrations (often sexual) of living in a small, dying town by forming a Common Sense Committee. By accepting their roles as generally passive participants in these groups, the Brunists and their opponents gain the social approval, the feeling of power and significance, and the sense of communal purpose that make their unimaginative lives bearable.
Miller suffers from the lack of purpose and sense of frustration that afflict the others—perhaps more so because he is able to articulate these feelings to a degree that they are not. This same consciousness, however, also frees Miller from delusions concerning the truth of the fictions they accept without question. Unlike the others, who read his headline “Miracle in West Condon” literally, Miller, the ironist, distinguishes between experience, on one hand, and history and journalism, on the other, which he knows are not unmediated, factual accounts but imaginative constructions. The Brunists commit themselves to their version of reality and as a result become trapped within it. Miller, who is vaguely troubled by his own lack of commitment, joins the cult only to meet Bruno’s attractive sister, relieve his boredom, and work up material for his paper. He does not serve the Brunists in the way his namesake, the apologist Justin, did the early Christians, for Miller only pretends to be a believer. In fact, as the movement’s chronicler, he creates the cult and its members the way a novelist creates story and characters. Miller’s problem, one that recurs throughout Coover’s work, begins when his creation slips out of his control and takes on a life of its own, forcing its creator to assume an unwanted role: part antichrist, part blood sacrifice.
Life does not conform to the Brunist view. Yet, even though the world does not end on the date predicted and despite the fact that their vigil on the Mount of Redemption turns into a Roman circus, the Brunists survive and prosper in their delusion. Growing into a worldwide religion with their own ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Brunists find a mass audience for their apocalyptic gospel. Miller also survives, resurrected by his author and comforted by his nurse, Happy Bottom, and it is their lusty, playful, and imaginative relationship, their finding the “living space between the two,” that Coover holds forth as the alternative to Brunism and the denial of life it represents.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. HenryWaugh, Prop.
Coover is not the only modern American author to have written a novel about baseball and myth, but unlike Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973), which is played chiefly for laughs, or Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), in which mythic parallels seem forced, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. successfully incorporates its various elements into a unified but complex and richly ambiguous work of narrative art. More than its baseball lore, mythic resonance, theological probings, stylistic virtuosity, or wordplay, it is the novel’s blend of realism and fantasy and the elaborate development of its simple main idea or conceit that mark its achievement.
The novel focuses on a fifty-six-year-old bachelor named J. Henry Waugh and the tabletop baseball game he invents: not only dice and charts but also eight teams, players with full biographies, and fifty-five years of league records and history. Henry’s fantasizing is not so much childish as necessary, given his environment, the urban equivalent of Miller’s West Condon. Whereas the real world oppresses Henry with “a vague and somber sense of fatality and closed circuits,” his fantasy liberates and fulfils him in several ways. For the meaningless routine of accounting, Henry substitutes the meaningful rituals of baseball and in this way finds the continuity, pastoral wholeness, and heroic purpose that his everyday existence lacks. In his association, Henry directs and chronicles the course of history; outside it he is merely a loner, an anonymous clerk.
The advantages of his association are not without their risks, however, for at the same time that Henry uses his imagination to enliven his moribund world, he also reduces it to the narrow confines of his league: the USA miniaturized in the UBA, with its own “closed circuits.” What is needed, Henry understands, is a balance of fact and fantasy, but in his attempt to right the imbalance that characterizes his life as an accountant, Henry goes to the opposite extreme, withdrawing into his fantasized realm. When a chance throw of the dice “kills” his rookie hero, Damon Rutherford (“His own man, yet at home in the world, part of it, involved, every inch of him a participant”), Henry despairs, choosing to exert that “unjustifiable control” that destroys the necessary balance of chance (dice) and order (imagination) and transforms his useful fiction into a version of the Brunists’ providential universe. No longer a free, voluntary activity (according to Huizinga, a defining characteristic of true play), the Universal Baseball Association becomes repetitive work. Although the novel concludes with an unambiguous affirmation of the play spirit, the ending is itself ironic, for Henry, the godlike creator of his fiction (Jahweh), is no longer in control; having disappeared into the intricate mechanism of his association, he is now controlled by it.
Henry’s fate, which is very nearly Miller’s in The Origin of the Brunists, represents for Coover the danger all writers face. As he has explained, The Universal Baseball Association, “as I wrote it, not necessarily as it ought to be read, is an act of exemplary writing, a book about the art of writing.” In the light of Coover’s belief that all people are fiction-makers insofar as they create systems to explain their world, the novel serves the related purpose of pointing out to the reader how difficult—and how necessary—is the task of distinguishing the real from the imaginary if one is to avoid Henry’s fate. The need to make this distinction is the explicit subject of The Universal Baseball Association; the difficulty of making it is implicit in Coover’s method. In the novel’s opening pages, for example, Coover forces the reader to share Henry’s predicament in the parallel act of reading about it. At first, the reader assumes Henry is actually at the ballpark where rookie pitcher Damon Rutherford is a few outs away from a no-hitter, but when Henry takes advantage of the seventh inning stretch to grab a sandwich at Diskin’s delicatessen, one floor below, the reader corrects his mistake, perhaps unconsciously, now assuming that the game is being watched on television.
Even when it becomes clear that the game is being played in Henry’s mind and that Henry is himself having trouble separating fact from fiction, the reader does not stop his reading to consider what this means because, thanks to Coover’s pacing, he, like Henry, is completely caught up in being “in there, with them.” After the game is over, he does have the opportunity to consider Henry’s state of mind, but by the end of the first of the novel’s eight chapters (seven for the days of creation plus one for the apocalypse), the reader again becomes lost in Coover’s exuberant fantasy, as Henry, now in the guise of his imaginary hero Damon Rutherford, and local B-girl Hettie Irden (earth mother) play a ribald game of sexual baseball. Throughout the novel, the reader not only reads about Henry’s dilemma but is also made to experience it.
Tiger Miller understands that it is better to undertake numerous short “projects” than to commit himself to any one, as J. HenryWaugh does. Similarly, Coover has explained that the writing of short plays or stories involves very little commitment on the author’s part—at most a few weeks, after which the work is either complete or discarded— whereas a novel requires not only a greater expenditure of time and energy but a certain risk as well. The starting point for each of Coover’s works is not a character or plot but a metaphor, the “hidden complexities” of which he develops by means of some appropriate structural device, as in the play The Kid or the short stories “The Babysitter” and “The Elevator.” At times, the demands of the metaphor exceed the limits of structural devices appropriate to these short forms, and here Coover turns to the novel; thus, the two early stories, “Blackdamp” and “The Second Son” were transformed and expanded into The Origin of the Brunists and The Universal Baseball Association, respectively.
The Public Burning
The composition of Coover’s third novel, The Public Burning, followed a similar but longer and more involved course, going from play to novella to novel over a difficult ten-year period during which Coover often questioned whether the expanding work would ever be completed.
One reason the novel took so long to write is that its main character, Richard Nixon, began taking real-life pratfalls in the Watergate scandal of 1973-1974, outstripping the ones that Coover had imagined for him in The Public Burning. A second reason lies in the nature of the work Coover chose to write: a densely textured compendium of American politics and popular culture in which literally thousands of details, quotations, names, and allusive echoes had to be painstakingly stitched together so as to suggest a communal work written by an entire nation. Against this incredible variety (or repetitive overabundance, as many reviewers complained) is the novel’s tight and self-conscious structure: four parts of seven chapters each (traditionally, magical numbers), framed by a prologue and epilogue and divided by three intermezzos. Using two alternating narrators—Vice President Richard Nixon and the sometimes reverent, sometimes befuddled, even frantic voice of America— Coover retells the familiar story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, specifically the three days leading up to their execution, which Coover sardonically moves from Sing Sing Prison to Times Square. Although it is clear that Coover is distressed by the injustice done the Rosenbergs, his aim is not to vindicate them; rather, he uses their case to expose American history as American fantasy.
Originally titled “an historical romance,” The Public Burning interweaves ostensible “facts,” such as newspaper and magazine articles, courtroom transcripts, presidential speeches, personal letters, and obvious fantasy, including the superhero Uncle Sam and a ludicrous deathhouse love scene involving Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg. By creating “a mosaic of history,” Coover provides the reader with a selfconsciously fictive version of the Rosenberg case designed to compete with the supposedly historical view (as reiterated, for example, in Louis Nizer’s The Implosion Conspiracy, 1973, which Coover reviewed in the February 11, 1973, issue of The New York Times Book Review). Coover’s point is that, more often than not, humanity does not see experience directly (and therefore cannot presume to know its truth value) because it places that experience—or has it placed for it—in a context, an aesthetic frame, that determines its meaning. The New York Times, for example, is not shown printing “all the news that’s fit to print”; rather, it selects and arranges the news on its pages (“tablets”) in ways that, intentionally or not, determine the reader’s (“pilgrim’s”) perception of what he or she assumes to be objective reality.
In sifting through the plethora of materials related to the Rosenberg case, Nixon comes very close to accepting Coover’s view of history as essentially literary romance, or myth. He realizes that the Rosenberg conspiracy trial may actually be a government conspiracy against the accused (ritual scapegoats), depending chiefly on fabricated evidence, or stage props, and dress rehearsals for the prosecution; indeed, American life itself may be a kind of nationwide theatrical performance in which individuals play the roles assigned to them in the national scripts: manifest destiny, the Cold War, Westerns, and the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches plot. Nixon, however, is too much a believer in the American myths to break entirely free of them. Moreover, suffering from the same loneliness that afflicts Miller and Waugh, but being much less imaginative than they, Nixon desperately craves approval, and that requires his playing his part as it is written: “no ad-libbing,” as the stage directions in The Kid make clear. To have a role in the Great American Plot, to be a part of the recorded “History” that he carefully distinguishes from merely personal “history,” are the limited goals Nixon sets for himself because he is either unwilling or unable to imagine any other projects as equally workable and fulfilling. As a result, he plays the role Coover has appropriately assigned him: chief clown in the national farce.
The Public Burning is not a piece of easy political satire of the sort that Philip Roth dashed off in his Nixon book, Our Gang (1971); in fact, Coover’s Nixon is a surprisingly sympathetic character. It is not “a cowardly lie” that defames a nation and exonerates criminals, as one reviewer claimed. Coover’s third novel, like all of his major works, is a warning to the reader concerning the uses and the dangers of the imagination: Humankind must accept its role as fiction-maker and its responsibility for its fictions, or it will pay the penalty for confusing its facts with its fables.
After 1978, Coover continued to explore literary and “mythic” forms and to stretch generic classifications, revising or recycling a number of short fictions as “novels”—“AWorking Day” (1979) as Spanking the Maid (1981), “The Cat in the Hat for President” (1968) as A Political Fable (1980), and “Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?” (1968; novel, 1987)—and in an intertextual triple feature of film parodies titled A Night at the Movies, including previews, weekly serial episode, shorts, intermission, cartoon, travelogue, and musical interlude. All these texts manage to subvert the disclaimer that appears at the beginning of A Night at the Movies—“Ladies and Gentlemen May safely visit this Theatre as no Offensive Films are ever Shown Here”—but none so flagrantly as Gerald’s Party (1985). Harking back to Coover’s two “Lucky Pierre” stories about an aging pornographer, Gerald’s Party constitutes a full-scale narrative onslaught, a playfully sadistic attack on its clownishly masochistic reader, and a vast recycling project that reverses the centrifugal reach of The Public Burning, moving centripetally in on itself to form Coover’s fullest and most claustrophobic exploration of a single narrative metaphor.
Considered reductively, Gerald’s Party parodies the English parlor mystery, but the parody here serves as little more than a vehicle for Coover’s Rabelaisian exploitation in which John Barth’s “literature of exhaustion” meets Roland Barthes’s “plural text.” The result is at once exhilarating and exhausting, freely combining murder mystery, pornography, film, theater, video, sex, puns, jokes, rituals, slapstick, clichés, fairy tales, party chatter, memory, desire, and aesthetic and philosophical speculation, all in one thickly embedded, endlessly interrupted yet unstoppable, ribald whole. The narrative is at once abundant (like the food and drink), full of holes (like the one in the victim Ros’s breast), clogged (like Gerald’s upstairs toilet), and stuck (as Gerald becomes in one sex scene). Plots proliferate but do not progress in any conventional way. As Inspector Pardew tries to solve the murder mystery, Gerald pursues Alison; Sally Ann pursues Gerald; Jim, a doctor, attends to the dying; Steve, a plumber, fixes everything but the toilet; Gerald’s wife continues to prepare food, vacuum, and make wondrously inappropriate remarks (“I wish people wouldn’t use guns in the house,” she says after one guest has been fatally shot); and Gerald’s mother-in-law, trying to put her grandson Mark to bed, looks on disapprovingly. These are but a few of the novel’s myriad plots.
Gerald’s efforts to understand what is happening, along with his inability to order the chaos, parallel the reader’s. The novel in fact anticipates and thus short-circuits the reader’s own efforts to understand Coover’s bewildering but brilliant text, which seems to question its own purpose and seriousness and whose structure follows that of an all-night party, including the almost inevitable winding down to its anticlimactic end, or death. Not surprisingly, Pardew’s solution resolves little and interests the reader not at all. Moreover, the most serious and philosophical comments in the novel—the ones upon which the conventional reader would like to seize for their power to explain and control the rest of the text—seem to be nothing more than additional false clues. Clearly, here as in all Coover’s novels, stories, and plays, the reader can survive and in fact enjoy this narrative assault on his or her abilities and sensibilities only by resisting the Inspector’s obsession with patterns and “holistic criminalistics.” However, even if the reader takes a pratfall or two, Coover’s parodic range and supercharged narrative energy make the ride worth the risk.
John’s Wife is Coover’s postmodern version of small-town life in middle America, much as Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was Sherwood Anderson’s modernist take on the subject. Coover continues and expands the modernist angst expressed in Winesburg, Ohio and other fin de siècle works by focusing on the clichéd sexual repression and personal alienation of the characters until the corruption of the American Dream becomes mythic parody. Coover presents a plethora of characters whose lives revolve around the most powerful man in town, a late twentieth century “mover and shaker,” a builder and businessman whose power to transform the small town and the lives of the people who live in it is matched only by his amorality. John, the builder, rewards personal loyalty from those who work for him with business promotions and upward social mobility, while destroying those who get in his way, including his own father-in-law.
John becomes the archetype of the late twentieth century materialist who will stop at nothing in his own rise to power. Concepts such as culture and tradition become palimpsest commodities to be bought and sold and ultimately transformed into consumer goods. John’s wife, the titular character, is seen only through the impressions of the other characters. In fact, John’s wife becomes an ironic archetypal exemplar of the feminist concept of the woman as “other” in much putatively patriarchal fiction. She is the focus of desire, both sexual and artistic, for the male characters of the book, while she is the friend and confidant of most of the female characters, yet, as one character states, she is “a thereness that was not there.” She seems to fade out of existence even while people are talking to her. The theme of the book seems to be that we are born into stories made by others.
Ghost Town is a fabulation (to use a term coined by Robert Scholes) of the trope of the American Western, first introduced in the dime novels of the late nineteenth century and then popularized by the films and television of the twentieth. Ghost Town transmogrifies the clichéd elements of the genre (character, plot, and setting) in the “play space” of the fiction, allowing the author’s imagination to explore the ironic possibilities inherent in the form. The main character, for example, is at times both good and bad. He is the archetypal hero, innocent yet tempered by experience. He is “leathery and sunburnt and old as the hills. Yet just kid. Won’t be anything else.” Instead of riding into the town from a Beckettian nonplace, the town “glides up under his horse’s hoofs from behind.” Thus, in this ghost town, the hero can become the sheriff as well as a gunslinger and a train robber. The officious schoolteacher can also be the saloon chanteuse in disguise. The hackneyed plots (the hanging, the train robbery, the shoot-out, the rescue of the schoolteacher from her bondage to the train tracks) and the setting itself (the saloon, the jail, the roughhewn church, the hideout) all become available for parody and ironic paradigmatic substitutions.
Fiction: The Origin of the Brunists, 1966; The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., 1968; Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, 1975 (expanded, 1987); The Public Burning, 1977; Hair o’ the Chine, 1979 (novella/ screenplay); A Political Fable, 1980 (novella); Spanking the Maid, 1981 (novella); Gerald’s Party, 1985; Pinocchio in Venice, 1991; Briar Rose, 1996 (novella); John’s Wife, 1996; Ghost Town, 1998; The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, 2002.
Short fiction: Pricksongs and Descants, 1969; The Water Pourer, 1972 (a deleted chapter from The Origin of the Brunists); Charlie in the House of Rue, 1980; The Convention, 1981; In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters, 1983; Aesop’s Forest, 1986; A Night at the Movies: Or, You Must Remember This, 1987; The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell), 2002 (vignettes); A Child Again, 2005.
Plays: A Theological Position, pb. 1972; Love Scene, pb. 1972; Rip Awake, pr. 1972; The Kid, pr., pb. 1972; Bridge Hound, pr. 1981.
Screenplays: On a Confrontation in Iowa City, 1969; After Lazarus, 1980.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.
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