Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2208
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 unprovable.
The Public Burning
First published: 1977
Type of work: Novel
A ribald retelling of the Rosenberg case includes famous historic figures, such as Richard Nixon, among its characters.
The most political of all of Coover’s works, The Public Burning is a complex, carnavalesque investigation into the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a Jewish couple with young children, executed in 1953 for allegedly sharing atomic secrets with the Soviets. The novel’s publication was delayed because of its controversial nature.
Coover’s text, based on extensive historical research and sometimes weaving in snippets of historical documents, suggests that the Rosenbergs may have been innocent victims of a bloodthirsty American public which needed scapegoats during the fearful Cold War period. Perhaps more controversial, the figure of Richard Nixon, “Tricky Dicky,” alive at the time and later to be president of the United States, is a narrator and main character. Nixon’s first-person narration alternates with that of an anonymous third-person narrator.
The novel contains twenty-eight chapters, divided into four seven-part sections by three “intermezzos.” It opens with a “newsreel” prologue and ends with an epilogue in which Nixon is raped by Uncle Sam. The action occurs principally in the last two and half days before the Rosenbergs’ execution. Characters range from Nixon to Uncle Sam to Gary Cooper playing a Western hero to a real Western hero, Wild Bill Hickok. Settings range from Sing Sing Prison to Times Square, where the Rosenbergs are executed in a carnival-like atmosphere which draws an immense audience. Nixon is a young, inexperienced politician, Uncle Sam the folksy image of America.
A third main character is the Phantom, representing chaos and disorder, who threatens the myth of America which Uncle Sam exemplifies. The Phantom is responsible for the Korean War, anti-American demonstrations around the world, and a temporary stay of execution for the Rosenbergs. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that the execution of the Rosenbergs is essential to the identity of the United States. Their execution is a public burning (electrocution), made into an “event” by the media, a national circus that draws together all members of “the tribe” and solidifies American group identity during a time of tremendous global uncertainty.
First published: 1969 (collected in Pricksongs and Descants, 1969)
Type of work: Short story
A babysitter arrives, the parents leave for a party, and a multiplicity of possible, often contradictory, events occur at the parents’ home and at the party they attend.
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 p.m. the children resist going to bed, Harry Tucker (at the party) imagines having sex with the sitter and imagines her having sex with her boyfriend, Dolly Tucker worries that the sitter is not trustworthy, Jack and Mark rape the sitter, Jack defends the sitter against rape, she willingly has sex with them, she refuses to let them come over, she innocently watches television with them, she takes a bath, she lets Jimmy wash her back, a Western and then a spy movie are on television, and the sitter vacillates between watching television and doing her homework.
The final hour of the story, from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m., reveals more variations on previous events: Harry Tucker is at home, at the party Dolly Tucker cannot get back into her girdle and several guests try to stuff her back into it, at the Tucker home the two boys drown the babysitter and the babysitter suffocates the baby and, through negligence, lets the baby drown.
The final two sections of the narrative provide alternative endings to a text of nearly endless possibility. In the first, the television is on at the party, there has been news of “a babysitter,” but the sports scores claim Harry’s Tucker’s attention. Dolly Tucker gets up off the floor, and Harry says he will drive her home, where she notices that the dishes have been washed. In the last section, ending Two, the hostess apologizes, noting that her husband is gone and the children and the sitter murdered. Her only response is to see what the late-night movie is. The third-person narration of the story switches from one event and locale to another, much as a television viewer changes channels. Most of these events are mutually exclusive; the baby, for example, cannot be killed twice. “The Babysitter” is a dazzling display of metafictional creativity that mixes fantasy and reality and thus reveals the arbitrariness of narrative, which is, after all, only the creation of its author.
Spanking the Maid
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novella
A maid repeatedly enters her master’s bedroom to clean, but her attempts at order are frustrated; her work displeases her master, who punishes her.
Originally published in The Iowa Review in 1979 as a long short story, Spanking the Maid was collected in Best American Short Stories of 1981 and Best American Short Stories of the 1980’s under the title “A Working Day.” It was later published with only minor changes as a novella as Spanking the Maid (with illustrations in 1981 and without illustrations in 1982).
Spanking the Maid describes a day in the life of a maid, “she,” and her employer or “master,” “he.” They are the only two characters in a single setting: the master’s bedroom, which the maid comes to clean. The story is told through a series of thirty-nine fragments much like scenes in a stage play or a film.
In the first fragment, the maid enters and then enters again, much as an actor might exit the stage to redo a scene. The bed is empty, the master not present. The second fragment is told from the master’s point of view. In general, the remaining sections alternate point of view from servant to master and back again. The actions, though essentially the same, change and expand incrementally with each new fragment. The maid clearly seeks to do her duty, to clean the master’s bedroom suite properly, with proper demeanor. Sometimes the room is empty, sometimes the master is in bed or in the shower. The two talk, or they do not.
She seeks, and cannot attain, perfection. For that, she must be punished, and just as her attempts at cleaning reiterate themselves but change over time, so too does her punishment. He uses a belt, a rod, his hand, a whip, a switch, a leather strap, a hairbrush, according to the instructions in “the manuals.” The manuals in question refer to Victorian guides for domestic servants on which Coover based this story, though he has taken the repetition of those guides to new extremes. Indeed, the repetition and its variations end only because the text ends. There is no resolution. The characters are doomed to repeat endlessly their assigned roles and tasks. The reader, too, is contained within the paradox of the text and is unable to distinguish between what is fantasy and what is reality.