Robert Coover’s central concern is the human being’s need for fiction. Because of the complexity of human existence, people are constantly inventing patterns that give them an illusion of order in a chaotic world. For Coover, any effort to explain the world involves some kind of fiction-making process. History, religion, culture, and scientific explanations are fictional at their core; they are invented narratives through which human beings try to explain the world to themselves. The problem, Coover would say, is that people tend to forget the fictional nature of the fictional systems they create and become trapped by them, making dogmas out of the fictions. The artist’s function, then, is to reexamine these fictions, tear them down, and offer new perspectives on the same material, in order to make the reader aware of the arbitrariness of the construct.
Coover’s fiction often has been labeled “metafiction”—that is, fiction about fiction—and indeed most of his works are comments on previously existing fictional constructs. If in his longer works he examines the bigger metaphoric narratives such as religion, history, or politics (that one of the theorists of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard, has called “metanarratives”), in his shorter works Coover turns to smaller constructs, usually literary fictions.
In the prologue to the “Seven Exemplary Fictions” contained in Pricksongs and Descants, Coover addresses Miguel de Cervantes as follows:But, don Miguel, the optimism, the innocence, the aura of possibility you experienced have been largely drained away, and the universe is closing in on us again. Like you, we, too, seem to be standing at the end of one age and on the threshold of another.
Just as Cervantes stood at the end of a tradition and managed to open a door for a new type of fiction, contemporary authors confront a changing world in need of new fictional forms that can reflect this world’s nature better. Just as Cervantes tried to stress the difference between romance and the real world through the mishaps of Don Quixote, Coover wants to stress the fictionality and arbitrariness of some fictions that hold a tight grip on the reader’s consciousness. Like Cervantes, Coover wants to free readers from an uncritical acceptance of untrue or oversimplified ideas that limit and falsify their outlook on life. Fictions, Coover and Cervantes would say, are not there to provide an escape by creating fantasies for the reader. When they do so, Coover continues writing in his prologue, the artist “must conduct the reader to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelations.”
This quotation, coming from an author whose work is usually considered “difficult,” might seem somehow odd. How does Coover’s fiction clarify, or what does it reveal? His work often presents constantly metamorphosing worlds, which mimic the state of constant change in the real world. Just as the world is continuously changing, Coover’s fictions also refuse to present stable, easily describable characters or scenarios. Coover also calls attention to the fictionality of fiction by focusing on the process and the means of creation rather than on the product. As he states in the prologue, the novelist turns to the familiar material and “defamiliarizes” it in order to liberate readers’ imagination from arbitrary constraints and in order to make them reevaluate their reactions to those constraints. These are the main strategies of Coover’s two collections of stories, Pricksongs and Descants and A Night at the Movies.
Pricksongs and Descants
The title of the first collection refers to musical terms, variations played against a basic line (the basic line of the familiar narrative). As one character in one of the stories says, however, they are also “death-c— and prick-songs,” which prepares the reader for the sometimes shocking motifs of death and sex scattered throughout the stories. In Pricksongs and Descants, Coover turns to the familiar material of folktales and biblical stories. Using this material offers him the possibility of manipulating the reader’s expectations. One of the ways in which Coover forces the reader to look at familiar stories from new perspectives is by retelling them from an unfamiliar point of view. For example, the story “The Brother” is Coover’s version of the biblical flood told from the point of view of Noah’s brother, who, after helping Noah to build the ark, is left to drown. “J’s Marriage” describes how Joseph tries to come to terms with his marriage to the Virgin Mary and his alternating moods of amazement, frustration, and desperation. Some of the stories of the same collection are based on traditional folktales: “The Door” evokes “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Gingerbread House,” reminds one of “Hanzel and Gretel,” “The Milkmaid of Samaniego” is based on the Spanish folktale of the same title; and Hair o’ the Chine, a novella, mocks the tale of the “Three Little Pigs and the Wolf.” Coover subverts, however, the original narratives by stressing the cruelty and the motifs of sex, violence, and death underlying most folktales. Revealing the darker side of familiar stories is in fact one of Coover’s recurrent techniques.
In other stories of Pricksongs and Descants, Coover experiments with the formal aspects of fiction-making. He reminds the reader of the artificiality of fiction by presenting stories that are repertoires of narrative possibilities. Often, Coover juxtaposes several different beginnings, or potential stories, but leaves them undeveloped....
(The entire section is 2344 words.)