Robert Coover Essay - Coover, Robert (Vol. 3)

Coover, Robert (Vol. 3)

Coover, Robert 1932–

Coover is an American formalist novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

[Before] us we have several stacks of unread cards, maybe as many as a week's worth, and when in the course of the game we discover them, turning their faces toward us, they are placed in overlapping layers on the table. There these thin and definite narrative slices play us, though of course we say that we are playing them. Most of the fictions in Robert Coover's remarkable new volume are solitaires—sparkling, many-faceted. Sharply drawn and brightly painted paragraphs are arranged like pasteboards in ascending or descending scales of alternating colors to compose the story, and the impression that we might scoop them all up and reshuffle, altering not the elements but the order or the rules of play, is deliberate. We are led to feel that a single fable may have various versions: narrative time may be disrupted (the ten played before the nine), or the same space occupied by different eyes (jack of hearts or jack of diamonds), fantasy may fall on fact, lust over-number love, cliché cover consternation. The characters are highly stylized like the face cards. We've had them in our hands before: Swede, the taciturn guide; Quenby, his island-lonely wife; Ola, their nubile daughter; Carl, the fisherman out from the city … and in other stories there are others equally standardized, equally traditional.

Just like the figures in old fairy tales and fables, we are constantly coming to forks in the road (always fateful), except here we take all of them, and our simultaneous journeys are simultaneous stories, yet in different genres, sometimes different styles, as if fantasy, romance and reality, nightmare and daydream, were fingers on the same hand….

While the collection is dominated by the paragraph as playing card, there are short pseudo dramas and sections of monologue, too, as well as patches of more traditional narrative, for [Pricksongs and Descants] is a book of virtuoso exercises: alert, self-conscious, instructional, and show-off. Look at me, look at me, look at me now, says the Cat in the Hat. Indeed, Coover is the one to watch—a marvelous magician—as the last piece, "The Hat Act," suggests; a maker of miracles, a comic, a sexual tease, befooler of the hicks and ultimately a vain rebuilder of Humpy Dumpty, murderer of his own muse, a victim of his own art … mastered by it, diddled, tricked, rendered powerless by the very power he possesses as an artist….

A number of our finest writers—Barth, Coover, and Barthelme, for example—have begun to experiment with shorter forms, as Beckett and Borges before them, and in many ways each wishes to instruct us in the heart of narration, the myth-making imagination. The regions they have begun to develop are emphatically not like the decaying South, the Great Plains, or the Lower East Side; they are rather regions of the mind, aspects of a more or less mass college culture; and therefore the traditions—the experience—they expect to share with their readers is already largely "literary": Greek, often, with Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, though a broader spectrum of language received via TV, magazine, movie, and newspaper occupies Barthelme in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, while biblical stories, fairy tales, and the myths and fables of popular culture most concern Coover in the short pieces he's collected here, as well as in some others which he has yet to reprint….

It is finally significant, I think, that the experimental methods which interest Coover, and which he chooses to exploit so skillfully, are those which have to do with the orderly, objective depiction of scenes and events, those which imply a world with a single public point of view, solid and enduring things, long strings of unambiguous action joined by tight casual knots, even when the material itself is improbable and fantastic; and the consequence of his play with these techniques is the scrambling of everything, the dissolution of that simple legendary world we'd like to live in, in order that new values may be voiced; and, as Coover intends them, these stories become "exemplary adventures of the Poetic Imagination."

It is also characteristic of this kind of writing to give covert expression to its nature, provide its own evaluation; so that the imagined reader, dressed in red riding, bringing a basket to her wolf-enclosed granny and hesitating momentarily before the cover of the cottage, finally opens the door with the thought

that though this was a comedy from which, once entered, you never returned, it neverthless possessed its own astonishments and conjurings, its tower and closets, and even more pathways, more gardens, and more doors.

William H. Gass, "Pricksongs and Descants," in his Fiction and the Figures of Life (copyright © 1971 by William H. Gass; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1971, pp. 104-09.

The numerous and eminently notable twists, "symbolwise," in Robert Coover's early fiction are at once the mark of his intelligence as a novelist and a circumscription of his range as a writer. In The Origin of the Brunists, which won the Faulkner Prize in 1966, and the subsequent novella, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), Coover's sophisticated knowledge of his tradition—his expertise in storytelling and plot-spinning—is strikingly manifest. So, too, is the latent predicament he confronts openly in his most recent work, the four short plays that comprise A Theological Position. When the players in Waugh's fictive world, the UBA, come to their ultimate inning, they step forth from the frame tale and criticize, with Burkean ingenuity, their mythic roles, the symbolic nature of the game in which they are played. They emerge, in short, not as realized individuals speaking in the present tense of being (the tense to which Coover moves in the final section) but as characters aware of their characterization, fictional pawns trapped in a text that has failed to give them life….

Indeed the seemingly invincible rhetoric of fiction …, with all its attendant banality, has become to a large extent Coover's subject….

Unlike Waugh who loses himself in the sporting world of his creation, who is the most responsible of authors, a veritable Balzac, the narrators in Pricksongs are intensely aware of their art as artifice, constructions, riddles to which the clues (symbols) are readily apparent. Yet these alienated and complaining writers, Coover maintains, are not entirely to be faulted for their prolix self-consciousness. If they suffer from "overmuch presence" (to use John Barth's term), it is in part because their language has been overtaken by the analysts and critics, its mysteries coldly resolved by a relentless interpretation…. The title, as Coover construes it, exists as a theorem, a fragmented sentence, not as a piece of wit…. Coover's manipulative cleverness, the via media of the modern writer, is the source and center of a lamentation….

If Barth's metaphor for the condition of the modern writer is confusion and dismay in the mirrored, labyrinth of writing, Coover's is the island, the enclosed self wandering through the space of its isolation, a self that finds in language only the evidence of itself….

Yet where Barth in some sense emerges from his maze, surviving his metaphor in the fashion of Borges's Pierre Menard, wresting originality from imitation, Coover has still to make such a move in his art. Where Barth accepts the neoclassical compromise implicit in Borges's work and in effect has been rewriting (in good faith) classical narratives, Coover remains an elegist, a romantic modernist decrying his unavoidable betrayal of the tradition he can no longer possess. Although he has written a long essay on the heroism of Beckett ("The Last Quixote," [New American Review] II, 1971), it is not Beckett's austerity that is reflected in his subsequent work, but rather the extravagant despair of Melville's Pierre Glendinning, the young artist who maims himself (so John Logan has argued) in order to write.

Neil Schmitz, "A Prisoner of Words," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1973, pp. 131-35.

Coover's modern mandarin style, even though it can become slick, sentimental or glib, is one of the most attractive things about him. We detect at once a writer in control of his mind and material. But the mind is an odd one. Not fantastical or depraved or speculative. Just off beat. What holds this mixed bag of tales and scenes [Pricksongs and Descants] together is the slightly macabre, highly competent mentality pulsing through all of them. At forty this is only Coover's third book, an appropriate lack of haste being quite apparent in the carefully used language. I do not think Coover is a profound writer. He produces sophisticated divertissements for the jaded seventies. But, like an American Roald Dahl, he is hugely entertaining, a true creep.

Duncan Fallowell, "Sinister Fantasies," in Books and Bookmen, March, 1973, pp. xii-xiii.