Robert Coover’s (born February 4, 1932) central concern is the human being’s need for fiction. Because of the complexity of human existence, people are constantly inventing patterns that give them an illusion of order in a chaotic world. For Coover, any effort to explain the world involves some kind of fiction-making process. History, religion, culture, and scientific explanations are fictional at their core; they are invented narratives through which human beings try to explain the world to themselves. The problem, Coover would say, is that people tend to forget the fictional nature of the fictional systems they create and become trapped by them, making dogmas out of the fictions. The artist’s function, then, is to reexamine these fictions, tear them down, and offer new perspectives on the same material, in order to make the reader aware of the arbitrariness of the construct.
Coover’s fiction often has been labeled “metafiction”—that is, fiction about fiction—and indeed most of his works are comments on previously existing fictional constructs. If in his longer works he examines the bigger metaphoric narratives such as religion, history, or politics (that one of the theorists of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard, has called “metanarratives”), in his shorter works Coover turns to smaller constructs, usually literary fictions.
In the prologue to the “Seven Exemplary Fictions” contained in Pricksongs and Descants, Coover addresses Miguel de Cervantes as follows:
But, don Miguel, the optimism, the innocence, the aura of possibility you experienced have been largely drained away, and the universe is closing in on us again. Like you, we, too, seem to be standing at the end of one age and on the threshold of another.
Just as Cervantes stood at the end of a tradition and managed to open a door for a new type of fiction, modern authors confront a changing world in need of new fictional forms that can reflect this world’s nature better. Just as Cervantes tried to stress the difference between romance and the real world through the mishaps of Don Quixote, Coover wants to stress the fictionality and arbitrariness of some fictions that hold a tight grip on the reader’s consciousness. Like Cervantes, Coover wants to free readers from an uncritical acceptance of untrue or oversimplified ideas that limit and falsify their outlook on life. Fictions, Coover and Cervantes would say, are not there to provide an escape by creating fantasies for the reader. When they do so, Coover continues writing in his prologue, the artist “must conduct the reader to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelations.”
This quotation, coming from an author whose work is usually considered “difficult,” might seem somehow odd. How does Coover’s fiction clarify, or what does it reveal? His work often presents constantly metamorphosing worlds, which mimic the state of constant change in the real world. Just as the world is continuously changing, Coover’s fictions also refuse to present stable, easily describable characters or scenarios. Coover also calls attention to the fictionality of fiction by focusing on the process and the means of creation rather than on the product. As he states in the prologue, the novelist turns to the familiar material and “defamiliarizes” it in order to liberate readers’ imagination from arbitrary constraints and in order to make them reevaluate their reactions to those constraints. These are the main strategies of Coover’s two collections of stories, Pricksongs and Descants and A Night at the Movies.
Pricksongs and Descants
The title of the first collection refers to musical terms, variations played against a basic line (the basic line of the familiar narrative). As one character in one of the stories says, however, they are also “death-c— and prick-songs,” which prepares the reader for the sometimes shocking motifs of death and sex scattered throughout the stories. In Pricksongs and Descants, Coover turns to the familiar material of folktales and biblical stories. Using this material offers him the possibility of manipulating the reader’s expectations. One of the ways in which Coover forces the reader to look at familiar stories from new perspectives is by retelling them from an unfamiliar point of view. For example, the story “The Brother” is Coover’s version of the biblical flood told from the point of view of Noah’s brother, who, after helping Noah to build the ark, is left to drown. “J’s Marriage” describes how Joseph tries to come to terms with his marriage to the Virgin Mary and his alternating moods of amazement, frustration, and desperation. Some of the stories of the same collection are based on traditional folktales: “The Door” evokes “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Gingerbread House,” reminds one of “Hanzel and Gretel,” “The Milkmaid of Samaniego” is based on the Spanish folktale of the same title; and Hair o’ the Chine, a novella, mocks the tale of the “Three Little Pigs and theWolf.” Coover subverts, however, the original narratives by stressing the cruelty and the motifs of sex, violence, and death underlying most folktales. Revealing the darker side of familiar stories is in fact one of Coover’s recurrent techniques.
In other stories of Pricksongs and Descants, Coover experiments with the formal aspects of fiction-making. He reminds the reader of the artificiality of fiction by presenting stories that are repertoires of narrative possibilities. Often, Coover juxtaposes several different beginnings, or potential stories, but leaves them undeveloped. He interweaves the different story lines, some of which are complementary and some of which might be contradictory, as is the case in “Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl” and in “The Magic Poker.” In the “Sentient Lens” section and in “Klee’s Dead,” Coover explores the possibilities and the limitations of the narrational voice: In the first set of stories, Coover denies the possibility of an objective narrative voice by portraying a camera that constantly interferes with the events of the story; in “Klee’s Dead,” the supposedly “omniscient” narrator is unable to explain the reasons for Paul Klee’s suicide.
In most of the stories of Pricksongs and Descants, the figures are types described with a flaunted lack of depth of characterization, which prevents the reader from identifying with them in any possible way. This contributes to the critical distance that Coover thinks it is necessary to maintain toward fiction. As critic Cristina Bacchilega says in her article about Coover’s use of the Märchen (folktales) in this collection, while “the Märchen is symbolic of development, of a passage from immaturity to maturity, Coover’s fictions present rather static characters . . . the only dynamic process allowed is in the reader’s new awareness of the world as a construct of fictions.” The function of the artist in contemporary society is one of Coover’s recurring concerns, which surfaces in “Panel Game,” “Romance of Thin Man and Fat Lady,” and “The Hat Act,” all of which portray cruel and insatiable audiences who, in their thirst for entertainment, do not hesitate to exterminate the artists if their performance does not stand up to their expectations.
A Night at the Movies
In A Night at the Movies, Coover probes the nature of filmic fictions, which present a greater danger of being taken for “real” because of the immediacy of filmic images. Coover approaches film from three perspectives. In the stories “Shootout at Gentry’s Junction,” “Charlie in the House of Rue,” “Gilda’s Dream,” and “You Must Remember This,” Coover demythologizes specific films and offers his own version of the story, usually baring the ideology of the original version. In “After Lazarus” and “Inside the Frame,” he explores the conventions through which these fictions create an illusion of an independent world on the screen. In “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Intermission,” he challenges the ontological status of reality and film by making the characters cross the boundaries that separate these two realms.
“Shootout at Gentry’s Junction” is a parody of the ideology and of the form of the Western film High Noon (1952). Coover parodies the narrative line and the easy identification of good and evil typical of most Westerns. The film celebrates the code of honor and personal integrity typical of the Western hero; abandoned by everybody, the sheriff of the film, played by Gary Cooper, has to fight alone with the villain and his gang. In the story, however, the protagonist is a fastidious, neurotic sheriff who is obsessed with fulfilling the role imposed on him. The villain is Don Pedro, the Mexican bandit, whose major talent is expressing himself by expelling intestinal gas. As in the film, the narrative progresses toward the confrontation of the villain and the sheriff. The tight structure of the film, however, is disrupted in the story by giving both characters a different kind of discourse. The sheriff’s discourse has a traditional narrative line. It is narrated in the past tense and refers to formulas taken directly from the visual tradition of the Western. The Mexican’s discourse is in the present tense and in broken English, influenced by Spanish. Furthermore, Coover makes the Mexican ubiquitous. Readers never really know where he is—he seems everywhere at the same time, raping the schoolmarmat the local school, cheating at cards in the saloon, and burning papers at the sheriff’s office. After shooting the sheriff, the Mexican sets the town on fire and rides into the sunset.
The irreverence of Coover’s version of Casablanca (1942) is even greater. Casablanca has become the epitome of the romantic melodrama, drawing like the Western upon codes of honor and heroic behavior. In “You Must Remember This,” Coover gives his version of what might have happened between frames. Quite literally, Rick and Ilsa fall between frames and make furious love several times. The love story becomes a pornographic movie. The disruption of the moral code of the film creates an avalanche of disruptions in other categories: Rick and Ilsa begin to sense that their senses of time and place are fading, and their identities become increasingly diffused. At the end of the story, the characters melt into nothingness after several desperate attempts to return to the mythic movie.
Other stories in the collection A Night at the Movies aim at exposing the artificiality of the technical conventions of film. Written in the form of a screenplay, “After Lazarus” parodies the notion of the camera as the ultimately objective narrator. In the story, the camera “hesitates,” “pauses,” “follows back at a discreet distance,” and rapidly moves back when frightened. “Inside the Frame” refers in its very title to filmrelated terms. If films construct a narrative through the sum of frames that all have a reason and a function in the global construct of the story, this story presents several possible beginnings of stories in one single frame. In “Inside the Frame,” the reader gets glimpses of what could be potential stories: a woman stepping off a bus, an Indian with a knife between his teeth, a man praying at a grave, a singing couple, a sleepwalker. There is no development, no explanation of the images. “Lap Dissolves” is a literary imitation of the film technique. The story fades from one film-related situation to the next, with the words giving the cues to the transformation of the scenario.
Coover disrupts the ontological boundaries between “reality” and fiction by making the protagonists of “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Intermission” move between them. The mad projectionist of the first story lives in an abandoned movie palace and plays with the reels of film, constructing films by cutting and pasting images of other films. Somehow, his experiments go awry, and he becomes trapped in the fictions he has been creating. The girl of “Intermission” enters a film-related fantasy when the film in the story ends and she steps into the lobby of the movie theater to buy a snack. Outside the theater, she is thrown into a series of situations directly drawn from Hollywood films: She moves from a car race with gangsters, to a tent with Rudolph Valentino, to the sea surrounded by sharks. In what is supposed to be “reality,” she becomes a dynamic individual, but back in the cinema she returns to the passivity that Hollywood fictions seem to invite.
In Briar Rose, a novella and a retelling of the fable of Sleeping Beauty, Coover travels deeply into the dreams of the sleeping princess and into the forest of briars and brambles that plague the prince as he tries to rescue her. The story centers on the powers of the human imagination and escalates to an erotic pace as sex and storytelling fuse together. As the prince fights his way to the princess’s bed chamber to awaken her from a deathly enchanted sleep, Coover involves the reader by dangling numerous interpretative possibilities just below the surface of this brief narrative.
Coover’s genius is displayed in his use of words, drifting back and forth between reality and dreams. His speculations about what makes a prince forge through the briars and what a princess dreams about while magically asleep for one hundred years are thought-provoking, mysterious, compelling, and at times hilarious. As the tale unwinds, Coover exposes the masculine desire to prey on female beauty. In addition, he leads the reader to contemplate the necessity that women resist male yearnings that are projected onto them. The tale is a bit dull in places and lacks a definite ending with some culminating metaphor, but Coover constructs an intriguing story that is well known, turned in on itself, and explored to reveal different levels of human consciousness.
In his major collections of stories, Coover elaborates on his fundamental concern, namely the necessity for the individual to distinguish between reality and fiction and to be liberated from dogmatic thinking. In order to do so, Coover emphasizes the self-reflexive, antirealistic elements of his fiction. The result is original, highly engaging, and energetic stories that probe human beings’ relationships to the myths that shape their lives.
Plays: A Theological Position, pb. 1972; Love Scene, pb. 1972; Rip Awake, pr. 1972; The Kid, pr., pb. 1972; Bridge Hound, pr. 1981.
Novels: The Origin of the Brunists, 1966; The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. HenryWaugh, 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’sWife, 1996; Ghost Town, 1998; The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, 2002.
Screenplays: On a Confrontation in Iowa City, 1969; After Lazarus, 1980.
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.
Coover, Robert. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 1 (Fall, 1993): 89-94.
____________. Interview by Amanda Smith. Publishers Weekly 230 (December 26, 1986): 44-45.
Evenson, Brian K. Understanding Robert Coover. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Gordon, Lois. Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Kennedy, Thomas E. Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Pughe, Thomas. Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994.
Scholes, Robert. “Metafiction.” The Iowa Review 1, no. 3 (Fall, 1970): 100-115.