Robert Coover Essay - Coover, Robert (Vol. 7)

Coover, Robert (Vol. 7)

Coover, Robert 1932–

Coover is an American novelist and short story writer. If there are comic elements in his metafiction, they derive from Coover's conviction that the highest truth lies in a comic, not a tragic, response to life. His collection Pricksongs & Descants is his best known work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Robert Coover writes his first novel [The Origin of the Brunists] as if he doesn't expect to make it to a second. Everything goes into it, including plots for several grim short stories and more social novels, and notes for a juicy essay on how West Condon ministers and their wives celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection…. It is a novel of intensity and conviction—even though he forgets which of his many stories he most wants to tell and cries uncle in the clutch. If he can somehow control his Hollywood giganticism and focus his vision of life, he may become heir to Dreiser or Lewis….

The strength of this novel derives from the old tradition. It brings us the news about mining, petty journalism, small-town nonculture and the weird fusion of truth and wish that sometimes underpins religious belief. It's impregnated with stories. It creates characters. But it offers no new or terrifying revelations. The reason: Mr. Coover himself is unable to decide whether the Brunists are tragic or comic figures, whether West Condon is a joke or a condition. Afflicted by indecision, he gives up and organizes the believers, abandons the town, and sends Justin Miller back to bed with a nurse called Happy Bottom.

It's a pity Mr. Coover ran out of ideas before words. He has a splendid talent. There's no joy in seeing it too lie spent. (p. 4)

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1966.

The Origin of the Brunists trembles on the brink of serious fiction…. To be second to Cervantes, Fielding, Dickens, or Dostoevsky is to be a great writer. It is hardly a disgrace for Mr. Coover that he is still only an aspirant to that rank.

Especially since he is gifted as well as ambitious. The trouble is that he has tried to do something that is very difficult, perhaps impossible. Whether deliberately or not, Mr. Coover has attempted to revive the naturalistic novel for serious literary purposes by grafting onto it fantastic, surreal, and hysterical elements…. Now, literary naturalism, the attempt to compile an objective record of events and personalities, unclouded by moral bias, was introduced in fiction over a hundred years ago, and at that time the defenders of the genre justified it by an appeal to the procedures of science. They were themselves sustained by the assumption that a morally and psychologically neutral investigation of facts would lead to advances in art and in manners, as it was believed to have done in physical science. Under such conditions, it was imagined, the operation of objective laws would ensure the progressive improvement of literature and, for that matter, every other department of human affairs. A hundred years later, we no longer believe that any human undertaking can be morally and psychologically neutral; all that is left of the naturalistic tradition is the falsely objective tone of the popular journalist. A contemporary author would have to be naïve indeed to accept for himself the intellectual program of literary naturalism.

Mr. Coover is not at all naïve, but he has a serious problem in that naturalism is the most recent positive literary tradition available to him. If he were a nihilist, a cynic, a satirist, a précieux, a private sensualist, or a prophet, he would have alternative traditions to draw upon; but his temperament is such that he gains artistic assurance from contact with the facts of daily life in their most sober, unmediated guise. Hence naturalism. And since he is a child of this present age, he is perfectly conscious of naturalism's deficiencies and inadequacies. He tries to make up for them with rant, brutality, portable apocalypse, and an attitude toward his characters that oscillates between prayerful absorption and contempt. (pp. 38-40)

There is evidence in The Origin of the Brunists that the author's literary gambit—his choice of naturalism-cumfireworks—maneuvered him into a position that clapped a bushel over whatever sweetness and light he has. Given his imaginative exuberance, it is hard to believe that he is mean-spirited. With a little luck in the way of literary strategy, his next novel should prove more creditable for him, more edifying for us. (p. 40)

Emile Capouya, "Real Life in an Unreal World," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 15, 1966, pp. 38-40.

Baseball and theology might seem to make strange bedfellows. But, like a medieval schoolman who could make theology out of just about anything, Robert Coover has spliced the two together and produced a species of baseball scripture. His God [Henry Waugh] is a lonely middle-aged accountant who has devised a dice game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. That is all. Upon the void he projects the laws of chance, the percentages, what managers call "the book." (p. 79)

Waugh talks to himself in different voices as he plays, and these voices become independent people. God turns schizoid, giving up bits of himself that his creatures may live, and also that they may interest Him.

As the players become conscious and separate, they become also contentious and political. History is now ready to roll. The Universal Baseball Association is soon a full-blown society, complete with ballads and a sex life, culture and continuity, even obituaries. Yet nothing moves it except the throw of the dice. (pp. 79-80)

All right, anyone can think of a cute parable. What makes this one work at book length is the complexity and congruity of Coover's whole Summa Baseballica. (p. 81)

It would be a pity if the baseball buffs were put off by [the] mythology, or the mythology rooters dismayed by the baseball. Coover has in fact written a fine baseball novel, the best I can remember in an admittedly thin field, and based obviously on a study of the texts. The atmosphere is turn-of-the-century early Lardner, when the game was in full swagger, but his averages are lively-ball 1930. The best of both worlds, in my opinion. The language is just right—colorful but not fancy. Take away the big metaphor in the middle, and the book still stands up. Conversely, not to read it because you don't like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don't like boarding houses. (pp. 81-2)

Mr. Coover's admirable novel adds to our stock of benign legends. And how many books have you read lately that do that? (p. 82)

Wilfrid Sheed, "Robert Coover: The Universal Baseball Association" (1968), in his The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; copyright © 1968 by Postrib Corp.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 79-82.

Odd indeed are the stories in Robert Coover's Pricksongs & Descants. Coover … exists blatantly and brilliantly in his fiction as an authorial consciousness, not at all interested in creating old-fashioned worlds for us to believe in, but interested—obsessed, rather—in creating a dimension of personality that is pure style, pure eloquence, "form" equalling "content." He will remind readers of William Gass, of John Barth, of Samuel Beckett. He is as surprising as any of these writers, and as funny as Donald Barthelme; both crude and intellectual, predictable and alarming, he gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying his craft. (pp. 304-05)

Coover's art is the kind that can move gracefully into pure drama, pure imagined drama, and it is significant that the last item in Pricksongs & Descants is a bizarre short play, "The Hat Act," reminiscent of Ionesco's early one-act plays. Action begins ordinarily enough, then accelerates to madness; it is always mysterious, always inexplicable, and yet its ending comes at exactly the right time. Coover is in charge of the "hat act," a formidable magician. At the end he declares the act "concluded" and regrets that there will be no refund. This act—and the other acts of the book—are extremely entertaining, but entertaining in a coolly intellectual way. We cannot become emotionally involved because there are no emotions in the stories; there are familiar responses, the parodies of normal emotional responses, and the shapes of familiar people come and go, along with the shapes—the sounds—of familiar human dialogue. And yet it is not human: it is magic. (pp. 305-06)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1971, by Joyce Carol Oates), Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971.

For Coover the presence of [the] demystified narrator (I invent, I make, I cause) is invariably comic; he is Prospero in a blazer and ascot, a fumbling magician, the tyrannical moderator of a TV panel show. He is also Coover's fate and that recognition often makes the comedy desperate. In Pricksongs & Descants, his most representative work to date, he writes variously in both moods and reveals at every turn the paradoxical nature of this particular approach to fiction. In such metafictive art, Fredric Jameson notes [in "Metacommentary," PMLA, January, 1971], "it is wrong to want to decide, to want to resolve a difficulty." What is exhibited is not objective content but a "mental procedure which suddenly shifts gears, which throws everything in an inextricable tangle one floor higher, and turns the very problem itself (the obscurity of this sentence) into its own solution (the varieties of Obscurity) by widening its frame in such a way that it now takes in its own mental processes as well as the object of those processes." (pp. 210-11)

[If] Beckett's trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, is in effect a single sentence, the unbroken chronicle of an austere intelligence painstakingly articulating the motion of its consciousness, Coover's metafiction is principally directed elsewhere—toward the technique of writing, toward fiction as a game of choices, and not toward writing as metaphysical risk-taking. What is for Beckett a point of departure for some purer form of meditational discourse is for Coover a formal and stylistic cul de sac. The final story in Pricksongs & Descants, "The Hat Act," comically prefigures the frustrated toil in Coover's recent story…, "Beginnings." In "The Hat Act" an exemplary magician, a lower-case version of the Beckett-like sculptor, fails to extricate the warm breathing body of a woman from his hat, but gives us nonetheless the performance of his incapacity, his desperate striving. In "Beginnings" Coover takes drastic measures to rid himself of the obtrusive narrator, the I writing: "In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself." But the writer-hero resolutely survives to share the magician's fate. His narrative is a sequence of enveloped fictions, pluckings from the hat of invention. The tone in both stories is ambivalent, darkly humorous. Coover writes in such a way as to suggest that the liberation from content (plot and character) frees the writer for nothing. Where Beckett is intensely present in his narrative voice, Coover is not. (pp. 211-12)

Barth's richly ironic projection of history alone sustains the lengthy duration of Giles Goat-Boy, but it is the writing itself that constitutes the exemplary deed, a feat of strength not unlike a record-breaking mile run. Coover's second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., similarly ambitious in its ideas and much briefer in execution, collapses upon its hollow absurdist center, fails because Coover does not possess the sinew of Barth's intellect, the embittered but wholly dedicated urgency of his questions. To write about writing, one must first have some measure of the writer himself as agent, the maker of fictive worlds, however marred. Like Leaves of Grass with its emergent Whitman, the Nabokovian and Barthian canon in part constitutes a chronicle, a body of work that is itself an object, the self about which the writer is conscious…. Unless extended, expressive of a particular vision of experience and illumined by an authorial voice immediately manifest in the style, metafiction becomes nothing but mode: a series of acrobatic exercises in technique.

Examples can be readily found in Coover's experimentation with fables and legends in Pricksongs & Descants. Poe's axiom that in short fiction incident must be accommodated to a "single effect" strictly applies to carefully worked tales like "The Brother" or "J's Wife." By switching unlikely points of view into the familiar tale—the building of Noah's ark or Joseph's fate as the Blessed Virgin's puzzled husband—Coover creates skillful tricks of interpretation, but once the trick is grasped, all that remains is an irreligious jest on the order of Mark Twain's in Letters from the Earth. "Coover's technique," Scholes writes [in "Metafiction," in The Iowa Review, Fall, 1970], "is to take the motifs of folk literature and explode them into motivations and revelations, as the energy might be released from a packed atomic structure." The image is forceful, but violent epiphanies rarely, if ever, occur in Coover's fiction. For one thing the managing and interpretative hand of the writer is omnipresent…. Coover's synthesized fables (the Granny who awaits Little Red Riding Hood in "The Door: A Prologue of Sorts" is the aged Beauty who married the Beast, Jack of Giant-killing fame is the woodsman chopping nearby) are often little more than adulterated versions of the TV cartoon, Fractured Fairytales, or worse, as in "The Gingerbread House," reductive psychoanalyses of the fable.

When opened, the Door to the Gingerbread House reveals, not existential terrors, but the wizard/writer busily wrenching symbolic language into rearranged patterns. Coover's professed aim to conduct the reader away from "mystification to clarification" is laboriously achieved in these tales. In brief, it is only a different kind of effect that Coover strives to produce in his fiction by deconstructing the "familiar form." The result is not a transcendence of that form, but rather a transposition of its elements. Thus stories like "The Babysitter"—its several narrative lines simultaneous in their time, alternating between fantasy and actuality, constantly posing unresolved probabilities—are finally reminiscent, for all their sophistication, of Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" This concentration on effect in Pricksongs & Descants, Coover's pursuit of surprise, not only mirrors the superficiality of this genre but also relegates his sexual motifs to the status of a device—with one exception, "The Magic Poker." (pp. 213-14)

Neil Schmitz, "Robert Coover and the Hazards of Metafiction," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1974), Spring, 1974, pp. 210-19.

The epitome of baseball fiction as mythic and symbolic is Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, the story of a league existing within the mind of an aging accountant, J. Henry Waugh. This premise allows Coover to indulge in playful theological speculation (J. H. Waugh = Jahweh; the UBA = the universe), but his real subject is the creative imagination. The novel doubles back upon itself, inviting us to contemplate the novelist's own relationship to his characters, and his God-like ability to make life out of the raw material of mere language. We see the process at work as Waugh "creates" Copper Greene and Whistlestop Busby—language serving as a rich and supple instrument as random associations are fused into living entities. The vitality and transcendent power of imagination are most fully affirmed at the end of the novel: Waugh disappears from the story and his players take on an independent existence, even creating myths and year-rituals of their own. (p. 440/86)

The Universal Baseball Association is close in spirit to Borges' comic vision, celebrating the life-giving power of sheer imaginative play,… [and] affirms the transcendent possibilities of illusion…. (p. 441/87)

Kevin Kerrane, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright 1975 by the Bowling Green University Popular Press), Fall, 1974.

Coover's baseball novel [The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.] may be seen … as a work which keeps in "balance" (a prominent word in the novel) a radical questioning of the nature of reality, which many have regarded as the major impulse of recent fiction, and an interest in narrative drive and old-fashioned story. (p. 78)

From the perspective of American folklore and American humor … we can place the novel in the mainstream of American humor. Comedy has traditionally dealt with the conflict between illusion and reality, and J. Henry Waugh's life certainly consists of pendulum-like swings between a self-created illusory world and the reality of his everyday life. In addition, however, the work is particularly, and quite self-consciously, American in its use of two staples of our folk culture—baseball and country music…. [The] folk concerns in Coover's novel coexist with the most sophisticated speculation on the nature and meaning of history, myth, and religion. Thus, the novel provides two perspectives on reality, the folk or country perspective of most of the ballplayers and the sophisticated urban perspective of Henry Waugh and Coover himself…. The tension between Coover's interest in and affection for the vernacular and the sophisticated use he makes of it is one of the novel's most unusual and notable qualities. (pp. 78-9)

Frank W. Shelton, "Humor and Balance in Coover's 'The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1975) Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 78-90.