Perhaps Coover’s most anthologized story, “The Babysitter” exemplifies the notion behind the title of the collection: a “pricksong,” or main theme, with “descants,” or variations on that theme. Using a series of one hundred and seven sections, the shortest containing only nineteen words and the longest nearly two-thirds of a page, “The Babysitter” takes the “pricksong” of an extremely ordinary event and transforms it with the descant of infinite possibility.
The main events can be summarized simply: At 7:40 p.m. a babysitter arrives to care for three children (Jimmy, Bitsy, and “the baby”); the parents, Harry and Dolly Tucker, leave for a party; the babysitter bathes the children, puts them to bed, and watches television; at 10:00 p.m. the parents return home. The action of the story occurs simultaneously in four locations: the Tucker household; a drugstore, where the babysitter’s boyfriend Jack plays pinball with his friend Mark, whose anonymous parents are hosting the party; the party itself; and on television.
There is a chronology of sorts in the story. The babysitter arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late. Over the next twenty minutes the parents leave; the sitter feeds, bathes, and wrestles with the children; Jack and Mark play pinball; and the characters on television dance in formal clothes. During the hour from 8:00 to 9:00
(The entire section is 546 words.)