Robert Coover Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Coover American Literature Analysis

Coover sees the world as constructed of fictions. Societal belief systems, whether organized religion or the civil religion of the state, are narratives by which most people live. The writer’s role is both to question, deconstruct, and dismantle established fictions and to construct new fictions, new and better narratives by which to live. The writer’s role is to “demythologize,” to strip accepted myths of their meaning and replace them with new myths, myths appropriate to the current age. Such interests naturally lead Coover to metafiction, or fiction about fiction, fiction that analyzes or exposes the fiction-making process, just as demythologizing exposes the mythic impulse.

All of Coover’s work is in some way revisionist. Even his most traditional work, Origin of the Brunists, though traditional in a structural sense, chronologically ordered, and essentially a realist novel, questions basic Christian beliefs. If a prophet, Bruno, can arise simply as a consequence of (miraculously?) surviving a mining disaster, and be the object of a cult, the Brunists, how can the reader not see the parallels with Christianity? Like many of Coover’s fictions, the novel bristles with biblical allusions, including many epigraphs from Revelation, or the book of the apocalypse.

Pricksongs and Descants may be Coover’s most revisionist work. He had written many of the “fictions” prior to Origin of the Brunists, but he believed that only after releasing a so-called standard novel could he safely publish the innovative texts of his first short-story collection. In Pricksongs and Descants Coover showcases most of the themes and techniques visible throughout his career.

Coover rewrites fairy tales. In “A Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” he revises the traditional children’s tales of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” (They are more clearly erotic, for example.) In “Panel Game,” he reconfigures the popular game show and iconic writer William Shakespeare. In “J’s Marriage” and “The Brother,” Coover rewrites biblical text (or stories, or Christian myths): J (Joseph) is not happily married to the Virgin Mary and drinks himself to death, while Noah abandons his brother and his brother’s pregnant wife to the floods that destroyed the world—even though the brother helps Noah build the boat that will save him and a select few.

“The Babysitter” and “The Elevator” are stories told through numerous short fragments, like individual cards that together create a whole deck. Which story is the true one? Such fragmented fictions present multiple possibilities, some seemingly more “real” than others, though of course all are inventions.

Similar themes surface throughout Coover’s work. Ghost Town (2000) takes the cliché of the Western and reinvents it. Stepmother reimagines the tradition of the fairy tale. A Child Again (2005) is a collection of short stories in which Casey is again at the bat, Red Riding Hood returns, and the Pied Piper still plays his pipe. Whether writing a short story or a novel, Coover is a master craftsman of language.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

J. Henry Waugh creates a table-top baseball game, complete with players, teams, and fifty-five seasons of play but then loses control of the world he has created.

Henry is a lonely, middle-aged accountant who invents a fantasy baseball game based on dice and complex charts. Henry becomes more and more involved with the game, creating biographies for the players, factoring in crowd reactions. The game is infinitely more interesting than his real life and gradually takes over. Henry becomes more alienated from his job and his colleagues, arriving at work late and carrying his players in his imagination at all times. After lengthy play, Henry begins to get bored, but a talented rookie, Damon Rutherford, saves the game, and Henry’s interest surges.

Henry is particularly attached to Damon, who is like a son to him. Then a throw of the dice dictates Damon’s death, when a ball strikes him in the head and kills him. Henry is devastated by his loss, and for the first time changes the rules of the game, cheating so that Jock Casey, whose pitch killed Damon, also dies by a roll of the dice. Thanks to Casey’s sacrifice, the game itself has been saved. The novel’s first seven chapters are narrated in the third-person voice, from Henry’s point of view; in the final, eighth chapter, Henry does not appear. Rather, the last chapter details the yearly ritual of “Damonsday,” something like a passion play in which players reenact the games in which Rutherford and Casey died. The characters Henry created now have lives of their own; they have been set free from their maker.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. manifests many biblical parallels. The structure of the novel reflects the seven days of creation, with a final chapter to suggest the Apocalypse. J. Henry Waugh reminds one of Yahweh, or God the Creator, and Henry does, in fact, create a world. His absence from that world reflects the modern world, in which God’s existence is contested, affirmed, denied, and ultimately...

(The entire section is 2208 words.)