Robert Coover Coover, Robert (Lowell) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert (Lowell) Coover 1932–

American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and poet.

Coover uses his fiction to startle and fascinate the reader. He believes, with John Barth, that literature has reached a state of "exhaustion." In his search for new literary approaches, Coover produces works in which the distinction between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. By taking standard elements from fairy tales, biblical stories, or historical events and placing them in a distorted context, Coover strives to deconstruct the myths and traditions which people create to give meaning to life. Robert Scholes has cited Coover's work, along with those by Barth, Donald Barthelme, and W. H. Gass, as examples of "metafiction," a term he defines as writing that "attempts, among other things, to assault or transcend the laws of fiction…."

In the novel The Origin of the Brunists (1966), Coover describes the formation of a religious cult, the Brunists, after the survivor of a coal mine disaster, Giovanni Bruno, claims he was saved by divine intervention. In this work Coover investigates the human need to create myths, to impose order and purpose on chaos and inexplicable tragedy. Coover's second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), takes this theme somewhat further. An expansion of Coover's short story "The Second Son" (1962), this novel portrays a lonely, middle-aged accountant who devises a world for himself through a table baseball game. In obvious parallels to God, J. Henry Waugh creates the players, their histories, and their futures. The plot climaxes when the dice dictate that a favorite player must die; at this point Waugh has become so involved with the game that the "reality" of his life merges with the "reality" of the game. Coover blurs the lines between the two "realities" and leads the reader to question which of the two worlds is "invented."

Coover's next work, Pricksongs & Descants (1969), is a collection of short stories, some of which were written early in his career. By making readers aware that they are reading fiction and by subverting myths, Coover attempts in this book to induce an appreciation of new patterns. In Pricksongs & Descants Coover takes stories from the Bible ("The Brother," "J's Marriage"), fairy tales ("The Gingerbread House," "The Door"), and familiar everyday events ("Panel Game," "The Babysitter") and twists them into original, unexpected shapes. "The Brother," for example, relates the story of Noah's brother, who helps build the ark and then is left by Noah to drown. Along with other pieces, Pricksongs & Descants contains "Seven Exemplary Fictions" with a prologue in which Coover explains his literary intentions. He contends that "great narratives remain meaningful through time as a language-medium between generations, as a weapon against the fringe-areas of our consciousness, and as a mythic reinforcement of our tenuous grip on reality. The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader … to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation. And it is above all to the need for new modes of perception and fictional forms able to encompass them that I … address these stories."

Coover's next novel, The Public Burning (1977), brought him wide recognition. In this novel Coover uses facts from the 1953 conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and brings in then-Vice-President Richard Nixon as narrator. Creating bizarre scenes full of perversity and violence, Coover attempts to point out how destructive American self-concepts are. As he said of the book: "I originally felt back in 1966 that the execution of the Rosenbergs had been a watershed event in American history which we had somehow managed to forget or repress…. I was convinced, one, that they were not guilty as charged, and, two, even had they been, the punishment was hysterical and excessive…. [It] was important that we remember it, that we not be so callous as to just shrug it off, or else it can happen again and again." Due to the controversial subject of The Public Burning, Coover had great difficulty getting it published and faced an onslaught of negative reviews upon publication. Concurrently, however, some critics praised the book as brilliant.

A Political Fable (1980) is an expanded version of Coover's story "The Cat in the Hat for President" (1968). In this novel Coover presents the Dr. Seuss character, with all his zany antics, as a presidential candidate. Despite its broad farce, the book ends with the cat's murder and the symbolic death of artistic, creative energies. Charlie in the House of Rue (1980) is a novella which Coover attempted to write in the style of a silent film. Beginning in a slapstick mode, the book soon becomes surreal and horrific as the Chaplinesque protagonist accidentally hangs the heroine and frantically and unsuccessfully tries to save her. Here Coover manipulates such techniques as pratfalls and sight gags to show their inherent violence. Spanking the Maid (1981) is an experimental work in which the story is built around multiple repetitions of a single scene. A recent collection of short stories, In Bed One Night & Other Brief Encounters (1983), demonstrates Coover's talent for transforming standard occurrences into extraordinary events and for focusing on the act of writing itself.

Although the esoteric nature of Coover's writing has limited his readership, he has received significant scholarly recognition. Throughout his career his novels, stories, and plays reflect his comments in a 1973 interview: "Artists re-create; they make us think about doing all the things we shouldn't do, all the impossible, apocalyptic things, and weaken and tear down structures so that they can be rebuilt, releasing new energies. Realizing this gave me an excuse to be the anarchist I've always wanted to be. I discovered I could be an anarchist and be constructive at the same time."

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like a child who pats a pile of wet sand into turrets and crenelated ramparts, Robert Coover prods at our most banal distractions and vulgar obsessions, nudging them into surreal and alarming forms. His fictions—novels, stories and, in ["A Theological Position"], plays—sound at times like incantations which, as they progress, mount to frenzy. What began slowly, seemingly grounded in homely realistic details, lurches, reels a bit, becomes possessed by manic excitation; the characters' faces dissolve to reveal archetypal forms beneath; time and direction come unglued; the choices a writer makes to send his story one way or another are ignored so that simultaneously all possible alternatives occur and, at the end, as often as not, we find our laughter contracting in our throats because some of Coover's stories can be fearsome indeed.

From fantasies that crowd our minds in idle moments Coover's best tales come. At first simple distractions, the fantasies assume control…. A baby-sitter arrives and, for a moment, her employer is distracted by lust. Images gnaw at the corners of this man's consciousness; certain scenes recur, theme and variations, as the pace accelerates. Which are "real," which imagined? Where, in fact, is the point of departure, the tonic note? (p. 97)

This is Coover's most intriguing skill: while casting his stories loose from time and realism, he maintains the form and pace that narrative requires, shaping from banal details stories and symbols that have the...

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B. H. Fussell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Parodic language is Coover's meat and potatoes. Words are where the action is and what the action is, so much so that the pieces [in A Theological Position] seem better adapted for radio than for stage. Coover's problem as a potential playwright is how to translate his large talent for sound effects into equally potent gesture and visible action. He solves the problem of a main action by exploiting in each piece a burlesque re-enactment of some form of ritual sacrifice, moving from the myth of Movie Western in The Kid to Christian myth in the title play. In A Theological Position, a sort of Chaucerian fabliau, the main comedy depends upon the radical incongruity between what the Priest is doing (screwing the wife) and what he is saying (persuading the husband by Thomistic argument that the Immaculate Conception is impossible)…. But the play's—and the Priest's—climax depends upon the precise location of an answering voice—Her CUNT speaks. After which, so does the Man's—and the Priest's—Prick, in a travesty of the miraculous tongues of the Holy Ghost. What is so concrete for the aural and visual imagination, however, is more problematic for the literal concreteness of the stage. (p. 756)

B. H. Fussell, "On the Trail of the Lonesome Dramaturge," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 753-62.∗

Robert Scholes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Metafiction assimilates all the perspectives of criticism into the fictional process itself. It may emphasize structural, formal, behavioral, or philosophical qualities, but most writers of metafiction are thoroughly aware of all these possibilities and are likely to have experimented with all of them…. [Consider] four works of metafiction by four American writers: John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Donald Barthelme's City Life, Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, and W. H. Gass' In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. All four of these books are collections of short pieces. This is not merely a matter of symmetry. When extended, metafiction must either lapse into a more...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Cat in the Hat for President": that was the title of this satire [A Political Fable] when first published in 1968 (in the literary magazine New American Review)—and that's the single, inspired, ferocious joke (dated not one whit) that keeps most of these 88 miniature pages roaring along…. [The] Convention turns into a circus: first a catchy slogan starts appearing everywhere ("Let's make the White House a Cat House"); next, an irresistible campaign song fills the air ("So go to bat for the Cat in the Hat! / He's the Cat who knows where it's at! / With Tricks and Voom and Things like that!"); then funny hats, gorgeous cheerleaders, cute gags—and finally the arrival of the Cat himself, who pulls...

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Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the Cat in the Hat were to publish novels for adults, they would probably read like the works of Robert Coover. A magician with both words and circumstances, Coover writes of American absurdities with a crazy infectious rhythm that makes his nonsense convincing….

The Cat in the Hat books our kids love portray … infantile dreams of messing up Mother's household, a mad unleashing of every childish whim. A Political Fable does the same for us adults who've been living with presidential politics for the past eight months.

The Cat in the Hat for President? "I can lead it all by myself!" exclaims his slogan, and his campaign tactics add just that final touch, that one last...

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Carole Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Political Fable] is not exactly a new book. In fact, it is stretching things to resurrect in hardcover a short story that, when published in New American Review No. 4 in 1968, ran to 39 pages…. It's not that the fable, in which the renowned Dr. Seuss character gets the presidential nomination because of his charismatic magic tricks, doesn't hold up. But … A Political Fable seems more a trip down memory lane than a universal satire. The increasingly demonic nature of the Cat in the Hat, the stoned-out double talk and sloganeering, the haywire absurdity embraced by officials and public alike recall those days of Turn On-Tune In-Drop Out and Hell-No We-Won't-Go. It's still a dandy short story...

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Charla Gabert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charlie in the House of Rue is a miniature tragicomedy which takes as its point of departure the character and conventions of a Charlie Chaplin film. The leading character is not only named Charlie, but he also physically resembles Chaplin…. Charlie falls into the same straits as his namesake, employs characteristic gestures (e.g., twirling his cane), and possesses the same elastic naivete. As the story progresses, however, we are drawn away from our preconceptions about a Chaplinesque Charlie and into the dream-like, funhouse world of Coover.

The aesthetic problem of translating literature into the medium of film is a commonly discussed one, but Coover's opposite task is equally difficult...

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Richard Andersen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Coover's fictions clearly emphasize their author's interest in providing his readers with the kinds of metaphors that are necessary for a healthy imagination. Unfortunately, Coover says between the lines in every story he writes, people today have lost their desire for the thrill of discovery. They have become comfortable with having their conventional viewpoints confirmed through a limited range of artistic forms that have outlived their usefulness. Each of Coover's stories, then, invites its reader to relinquish one or more of his traditional approaches to art and participate with its author in an exercise of wit that frequently juxtaposes what is fantastic in life with the everyday.

The principal...

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Jon Zonderman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Coover has turned Chaplin on his head. In Charlie in the House of Rue Coover has placed the Little Tramp in a house where his timing, no matter how perfect, can not draw from the other characters the slightest response.

At first, the Tramp is merely annoyed by this. But Coover doesn't just pose for us the "what if nobody responded" question. He goes a step further and sets the supporting characters on their own courses.

The beautiful woman, whom the Tramp is mystified and made humble by, tries to commit suicide. While attempting to keep her from her course—jumping off the top of the staircase—the Tramp accidentally pushes her over the edge, where she dangles by the...

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George Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Denis Johnston wrote of Samuel Beckett that his works were "algebraic, in that his characters have the quality of X. And what X means, depends not upon him, but upon us." The Godot that bums wait for isn't simply God, but anything humans wait for that will solve everything….

Robert Coover, in his new novella ["Spanking the Maid"], has adopted Beckett's algebraic method. There is a "maid" and a "master," but they're as stylized as Beckett characters and will stand for any master-slave relationship you think fits.

The maid enters, tries to be perfect, fails; the master spanks her. She tries again, gets spanked again. Some of it sounds like Samuel Beckett rewriting "The Story of O":...

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John O'Brien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Spanking the Maid] is a failed attempt to employ the methods of the nouveau roman; the repetitions, the variations upon images, the structural loops, the shifts in perspective, all seem wearily imitative, forced, and pretentious. Each morning a maid enters her employer's bedroom, and each morning she is spanked for her failures…. [There] is an implicit invitation to see how the book is constructed…. [However], the machinery creaks, sputters, and grinds; the tricks are telegraphed, even to the ending in which the employer and maid exchange roles. Finally, I began to suspect that some grand metaphor was rearing its ugly head. Or a fable: the man and his maid are supposed to represent the relationship...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] fiction of Robert Coover is tightly unified by its metafictional impulses. In examining the concept of man-as-fiction-maker, nearly all of Coover's works deal with characters busily constructing systems to play with or to help them deal with their chaotic lives. Some of these systems are clearly fictional in nature…. Yet Coover's work is filled with hints that other, less obviously artificial systems—such as mathematics, science, religion, myth, and the perspectives of history and politics—are also fictional at their core. Indeed, in most of Coover's fiction there exists a tension between the process of man creating his fictions and his desire to assert that his systems have an independent existence of...

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John Brosnahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Bed One Night & Other Brief Encounters includes short] takes displaying Coover's prodigious literary technique. A conventioneer's high jinks in a stream-of-consciousness mode; nonsequiturs on the interstate; and the wisdom of fresh starts: all become opportunities for Coover's manic and inventive invasion of the modern mind.

John Brosnahan, in a review of "In Bed One Night & Other Brief Encounters," in Booklist, Vol. 80, No. 2, September 15, 1983, p. 134.

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Caryn James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Coover's stories are mind games with a heart. In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters humanizes language games and literary theorizing, and, remarkably, does so by using cartoonish characters and a nearly anonymous narrative voice. While these nine very short pieces don't amount to much in themselves, they are miniature demonstrations of the control Coover displays in his more substantial work. Like a literary juggler, he keeps all the parts of his fiction in motion, balancing rhythm, word play, and the central image of the author creating his story. Or does the story create the author?

"Beginnings," written in 1972, masterfully explores this question. "In order to get started, he...

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