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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...

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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

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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 timelessness, the compelling but oblique reality, of myth. He plays, too, with literary stories that have the qualities of myth, revising them to remind us of the eternal attraction of the gingerbread house even if, behind the cherry door, there is a "sound of black rags flapping." (pp. 97-8)

In the longest play [included in "A Theological Position"], "The Kid," the conventions of the Western, often satirized before, are given a scathing beating. Every line spoken, every stage direction, is a cliché …; the Kid is a psychopath programmed to respond only to certain stimuli, particularly Injuns, and the local hero has to be ceremoniously sacrificed. In [the title] play, the "theological position" is that virgin birth is no longer possible and therefore the priest had better have sex with the pregnant maiden; toward the end, only the players' genitals are talking, which should have been funnier, or more profound, or something. Never mind, Coover takes extraordinary risks and deserves forgiveness for his failures.

The remaining two plays are better. Both are monologues. In one ["Love Scene"], a director, perhaps God, urges two actors to show some feeling in their love scene, but they respond only with impassive motions. A scene with intriguing reverberations: perhaps Coover is suggesting that the first attempt to create love failed, or that love cannot respond to the clichés this director uses…. Coover's effect here, as elsewhere, derives in part from the deliberate artificiality of actors…. (pp. 98, 100)

The other monologue, "Rip Awake," may be Coover's "Emperor Jones." Rip Van Winkle toils up his mountain again, half dreading, half looking forward to his next encounter with the little men: "I mean. listen, I don't entirely regret them twenty years." Rip is in bad shape. He can't remember things well, can't sleep now, wonders whether the dwarfish bowlers get their importance from him or he from them. He worries about the Revolution: did it really happen, and if so and he slept through it, does he need his own? Are the "little buggers" in fact real? Anyway, Rip is, as he says, "proceeding back up the mountain to rassel with the spooks in his life." Internal or external, those are real, and that is what Coover writes about so well. (p. 100)

Peter S. Prescott, "Lumps in the Throat," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXIX, No. 20, May 15, 1972, pp. 97-8, 100.

B. H. Fussell

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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

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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 fundamental mode of fiction or risk losing all fictional interest in order to maintain its intellectual perspectives. The ideas that govern fiction assert themselves more powerfully in direct proportion to the length of a fictional work. Metafiction, then, tends toward brevity because it attempts, among other things, to assault or transcend the laws of fiction—an undertaking which can only be achieved from within fictional form.

The four works chosen here are impressive in themselves: the products of active intelligence grappling with the problems of living and writing in the second half of the twentieth century…. Each of the four books, taken as a whole, emphasizes one aspect of metafiction which may be related to one of the aspects of fiction and criticism….

Lost in the Funhouse (formal) City life (behavioral)
Pricksonge and Descants (Structural) In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (Philosophical)

These four books, of course, do not fit into the four categories described above like pigeons into pigeonholes. Their metafictional resourcefulness alone would ensure that. But each one does take a distinct direction, which can be designated initially and tentatively by the above diagram. (pp. 114-15)

[In Pricksongs and Descants Coover is] less directly concerned with the conditions of being than are Gass and Barthelme, and more immediately interested in the order of fiction itself…. Both descants and pricksongs are contrapuntal music. They run counter to the cantus firmus of behavior. But to run counter is not to run free. These songs must speak to us finally about reality, however roundabout their approach. (p. 118)

[Coover] sees contemporary man as living in a contracting universe, forced to re-assume "cosim, eternal, supernatural (in its soberest sense) and pessimistic" perspectives. In such a world the writer must use

the fabulous to probe beyond the phenomenological, beyond appearances, beyond randomly perceived events, beyond mere history. But these probes are above all—like [Don Quixote's] sallies—challenges to the assumptions of a dying age, exemplary adventures of the Poetic Imagination, high-minded journeys toward the New World and never mind that the nag's a pile of bones. (Pricksongs …)

Coover, like Gass, senses an order beyond fiction and beyond phenomena, which may be discovered. But where Gass seeks to move through behavior to essence, Coover makes the parallel move through form to idea. This is why some of the most successful things in Pricksongs are reworkings of fairy tales which probe into the human needs behind them.

Gass thinks of a "real" Hansel and Gretel "who went for a walk in a real forest but they walked too far in the forest and suddenly the forest was a forest of story with the loveliest little gingerbread house in it" (In the Heart …). But Coover thinks of a fictional Hansel and Gretel who find in a gingerbread house the door to reality…. This gingerbread house is a garden of sexuality, with its phallic chimney and cherry-red door. Sex itself is the door that connects fictional form and mythic idea: which is why these tales are called pricksongs and descants, or "death-cunt-and-prick songs," as Granny calls them in the opening story, "The Door." Apertures and orifices are as dominant in Pricksongs as mirrors and containers are in the Funhouse. Coover's technique 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 Door" itself is a critical mass obtained by the fusion of "Jack the Giant-Killer," "Beauty and the Beast," "Little Red Riding Hood," and other mythic fictions. In the heavy water of this mixture there is more truth than in many surface phenomena. Granny is aware of this as she ruminates on the younger generation's preoccupation with epidermal existence…. Granny is witch and wolf, wife and mother; she is the old Beauty who married the Beast—"only my Beast never became a prince"—she is temptress and artist, a Scheherazade who has "veils to lift and tales to tell"; she is initatrix into the mysteries of her own degradation and transfiguration:

for I have mated with the monster my love and listened to him lap clean his lolly after…. I have been split with the pain and terrible haste of his thick quick cock and then still itchin and bleedin have gazed on as he lept other bitches at random and I have watched my own beauty decline my love and still no Prince no Prince and yet you doubt that I understand? and loved him my child loved the damned Beast after all….

The "flux and tedium" of phenomenal existence is not reality but the thing which hides it. For Coover, reality is mythic, and the myths are the doors of perception. Like a mind-blown Lévi-Strauss, he is concerned to open those doors.

Coover's mythic vision can be defined partly by its distance from Barthelme's perspective on myth. Usually a fabricator of assemblages of "flux and tedium," in "The Glass Mountain" Barthelme gives us a fairy tale of sorts. It seems there is this man climbing—grasping in each hand "a sturdy plumber's friend"—a glass mountain "at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue." In one hundred numbered sentences and fragments he reaches the top with its "beautiful enchanted symbol."

97. I approached the symbol, with its layers of meaning, but when I touched it, it changed into only a beautiful princess.

98. I threw the beautiful princess headfirst down the mountain…. (City Life …)

This is myth enmeshed in phenomena. The "symbol" in the story symbolizes symbolism, reducing it to absurdity. It becomes an object with a sign on it that says "beautiful enchanted symbol." The magical transformation of "symbol" into "princess" is simply a change of signs. Barthelme is like a comic magician who removes a sign labeled "rabbit" from behind a sign labeled "hat" in a parody of all magic. But when Coover gives us a magician putting a lady in a hat in the last story of Pricksongs, she is a real lady in a real hat:

Pockets handkerchief. Is becoming rather frantic. Grasps hat and thumps it vigorously, shakes it. Places it once more on table, brim up. Closes eyes as though in incantations, hands extended over hat. Snaps fingers several times, reaches in tenuously. Fumbles. Loud slap. Withdraws hand hastily in angry astonishment. Grasps hat. Gritting teeth, infuriated, hurls hat to floor, leaps on it with both feet. Something crunches. Hideous piercing shriek. (Pricksongs …)

Magic is real. The fairy tales are true. Beast and princess are not phony symbols for Coover but fictional ideas of human essences. Barth and Barthelme are the chroniclers of our despair: despair over the exhausted forms of our thought and our existence. No wonder they laugh so much. Coover and Gass are reaching through form and behavior for some ultimate values, some true truth. No wonder they come on so strong. All four are working in that rarefied air of metafiction, trying to climb beyond Beckett and Borges, toward things that no critic—not even a metacritic, if there were such a thing—can discern. (pp. 120-23)

Robert Scholes, "The Range of Metafiction: Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gass," in his Fabulation and Metafiction, University of Illinois Press, 1979, pp. 114-23.∗

Kirkus Reviews

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"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 Seuss-like stunts, wreaks cartoon havoc, wows the crowd, and wins the nomination on the first ballot…. But the Cat's antics … eventually get out of hand … and he's skinned alive by an angry mob. True, Coover pushes this finale into the sort of excess and literalism that so thoroughly undermined The Public Burning: "While the Cat burned, the throng fucked in a great conglobation of races, sexes, ages, and convictions; it was the Great American Dream in oily actuality …" But otherwise the sheer awful exuberance of the central absurdity here—which somehow, paradoxically, tempers Coover's naked loathing with Seuss' more good-natured mania—works to perfection: a devastating, across-the-board swipe at presidential imagery and campaign hype, perhaps even righter for Election '80 than it was for the more issue-centered nightmares of '68. (pp. 724-25)

A review of "A Political Fable," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLVIII, No. 11, June 1, 1980, pp. 724-25.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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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 straw, that breaks the spell of rationality that keeps the whole spectacle of our presidential elections on this side of lunacy….

And what, after all, happens in a Cat in the Hat charade? After the punning, messing up, and mortification at Mother's discovery of the hijinks, nothing much at all—everything is swept up into the Cat's magical cleaning machine, and the page is clear for another book's adventure.

Like presidential campaigns, the Cat in the Hat books succeed each other like the turning of seasons, and the insight into ritual—as always, Coover's greatest gift—is the more serious side of this ludicrously funny book.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Cat in the Hat for President!!!" in Book Week—Chicago Sun-Times, July 27, 1980, p. 13.

Carole Cook

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[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 but, to cite another 1970s chestnut, it isn't Relevant.

Carole Cook, in a review of "A Political Fable," in Saturday Review, Vol. 7, No. 12, August, 1980, p. 66.

Charla Gabert

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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 and interesting. Like Joyce's experiments in Ulysses in writing prose that resembles other nonverbal media (such as the fugue), Coover's words create the texture of a silent Charlie Chaplin movie.

The text preserves certain formal aspects of film: visually precise rendering of actions, sudden shifts in scene, and the juxtaposition of ostensibly unrelated images. Coover utilizes only the present tense to simulate the immediacy of a live performance—of things seen rather than told—and to divorce the action from any antecedents or future results. Written in a consistently descriptive prose, the text captures physical motion with the same precise, literal accuracy that a camera does. Sentences are rhythmically related to the movements they refer to, ranging from short and curt to long and breathless. "He stands, brushes himself off, smiles apologetically up at the lady, sets the vase back gently on the balustrade, mops his brow, straightens his tie, leans back in exhaustion, and knocks the vase to the tiled floor, where it shatters in a thousand pieces." Or: "He waves at her. He jumps up and down. He throws her a kiss." Since virtually all the action of the story is physical, Coover varies his prose to differentiate movements and to break the activity into meaningful units. In so doing, he emphasizes not only the visual quality of a silent film, but also the underlying pacing and tempo that are fundamental to all films—the rhythm that is created by the movements of the camera, the length of each shot or scene in relation to the whole, and the repetition of discrete images or motifs.

The unique characteristics of silent films—absence of dialogue, and exaggerated gestures approaching pantomine—particularly dominate our expectations and shape the text. Charlie's psychological isolation and the primitive level of communication with other characters are economically expressed by the absence of speech, resulting in the impression that the "house of rue" is really a soundless vacuum. Coover has also drawn upon familiar conventions of horror film to reiterate the connection of his text to film: the shot of an emaciated white hand emerging from a coffin to push back the lid; the idea of a victim trapped in a house that is actively hostile; the silent scream which cannot be heard and is terrifying for that reason.

Although most of the familiar elements of a Chaplin film are on display—Chaplin as comic victim and mischievous prankster, the slapstick antics of a well-intentioned but clumsy buffoon, the pretty but unapproachable girl—the crucial element of humor is missing…. Without the laugh to cushion his fall, Charlie gets hurt; without the humor to win us over, Charlie looks malicious.

The narrator's voice is, for Coover, unusually circumspect and unobtrusive. In his earlier work of short fictions, Pricksongs and Descants, Coover did not hesitate to emphasize the author's controlling, inventive role and to point to the choices involved in the creative act. The multiplicity of overlapping, contradictory events, and the prismatic quality of the plots, required the presence of a self-consciously inventive narrator, who proclaimed his arbitrary power and worked to subvert the idea that a single reality was being portrayed. In Charlie in the House of Rue, however, Coover defines the narrator's role in terms of the passive, uniquely cinematic act of viewing, using it to further create for the reader the experience of watching a silent Chaplin film. Although Coover tracks a linear, narrative course through a kaleidoscopic series of events—which are related thematically rather than causally—the narrator's complete separation from the internal thoughts and feelings of his characters allows him to function as a "speculative spectator," who reads motives and meanings into Charlie's gestures and facial expressions much as a movie audience would do. The traditional concept of the narrator as a storyteller with some degree of insight into his characters recedes in importance; what replaces it is the viewpoint of an observer who watches and records events (over which he has no acknowledged control) as they unfold.

The nature of the events in Charlie in the House of Rue suggests, in fact, that no one is in control, least of all Charlie, who bounces from room to room like a pinball, buffeted by his own fears and desires, as well as by the constantly shifting rooms, objects and people. Assembled from a cast of easily identifiable stock figures, the people he encounters are little more than cartoon characters who function symbolically, almost allegorically—the policeman representing ineffectual authority, the sexually aggressive maid unbridled lust. These characters present us with no past or future, primarily because they cannot and do not speak. Their silence locks them into a reality that is visually compelling but ontologically empty; their actions are stylized, obsessive, and redundant. Each character exists in a separate realm—maid in the bedroom, woman in white in the foyer—while Charlie shuttles between them; when they vanish from Charlie's sight, they seem to disappear altogether. As the story progresses, they lose any semblance of being independent actors, and by the end, they are simply part of the hostile environment. Initially indifferent and unresponsive to Charlie, they grow increasingly aggressive, and attack him or try to thwart him. But even these actions resemble motiveless, gratuitous acts that are prompted not by their feelings or personal reactions to Charlie, but by an inexplicable stimulus outside of them.

The surreal environment that exists inside the house is a landscape littered with dreamlike symbols, objects that change into something else at their own volition. Charlie throws a pie into an old man's face, but the face turns out to belong to the mournful woman in white, the last person Charlie wants to injure; her eyes are actually the old man's, but they soon metamorphose into the maid's bare behind…. As the chaos grows more violent around him, Charlie too becomes more frantic in his futile effort to gain control of the unpredictable activity threatening to engulf him.

The "house of rue" exists solely as an interior space, a world unto itself which is as claustrophobic as a sound stage. The space is never defined clearly; doors and rooms disappear and materialize as Charlie leaves and enters them. His presence in the house is never explained, his entrance is never recorded, but it is clear from the beginning that the house is an alien environment in which he is first an intruder, then a prisoner. As a metaphor for the psyche, the house contains the forces that Charlie unintentionally sets in motion as a prisoner of his own fears and desires, which the house's inhabitants merely reflect and exemplify. The concept of rue refers not only to the remorse and regret that Charlie feels for accidentally causing the woman in white to be hanged, but also to his growing recognition of himself as a moral force, someone who is not only sorry but who must suffer for his sins.

The contradiction between the other characters' initial indifference to Charlie and their subsequent hostility toward him suggests that they are emissaries sent to punish Charlie; it is not only internal guilt, but external retribution that he cannot escape. Indeed, the house is like a Kafkaesque torture chamber in which Charlie unwittingly finds himself judged, declared guilty, and punished, without even realizing that charges have been brought against him. (pp. 60-3)

The last half of the story follows Charlie's desperate, ineffectual efforts to save the woman in white. As she dangles in the foyer, Charlie careens from room to room, searching for something to cut the rope. (p. 63)

Charlie's progress from a state of playful innocence to one of fatal tragedy proceeds inexorably, despite his ostensibly random movement from one room, one situation, to the next. In confronting his own cruelty, he forfeits his familiar status as the eternal victim and assumes the role of victimizer. At the same time, as he falls prey to forces beyond his control and suffers the guilt of the woman's death, we see him as a modern anti-hero who lacks the resources to shape his own destiny. It is here, in the expansion of Charlie's character from the pathetic to the tragic, that Coover most clearly departs from the "Little Tramp" character. By the time we reach the conclusion, the sentimental ending of the silver screen will no longer suffice. Instead, Coover gives us Charlie clinging in mid-air to the woman's corpse as the lights go out around him—a black-humored inversion of a typical ending in which Charlie and the girl are finally united, then plunged into eternal darkness by the shrinking circle of the lens. (p. 64)

Charla Gabert, "The Metamorphosis of Charlie," in Chicago Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 60-4.

Richard Andersen

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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 method through which Coover liberates readers from sensibilities that have been deadened by the familiar is irony. Irony enables Coover and his readers to distance themselves from traditional forms without isolating themselves from the human content of those forms. As a result, Coover's readers have the opportunity and pleasure of tearing down many of society's inherited approaches to art and life without losing their concern for humanity's condition. The result is a healthy sense of humor and the awareness of a developing consciousness.

In his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, Coover presents his readers with a fascinating interplay of realistic and artificial modes that enable his readers to enjoy his mockery of traditional narrative forms while simultaneously employing its conventions in vitally new ways. Similarly, Coover undercuts man's dependency on religion and history while revitalizing his interest in fiction as a way of ordering his universe. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., like The Origin of the Brunists, is primarily concerned with man's need to create order through fiction…. The fictions may be highly artificial, as in the case of games or mathematical formulas, or they may be more subjective, such as when they appear in the forms of myth, religion, and history. When man forgets his role as a creator of fiction, however, and begins to accept the works of his imagination as fact or truth, he finds himself imprisoned and manipulated by the very perspectives that he constructed.

In the twenty-one fictions collected in Pricksongs and Descants, Coover focuses his attention on reinterpreting familiar stories, which have been traditionally revered for the human truths they contain, and emphasizing the variety of technical and imaginative possibilities available when art and life are free from limiting conventions. The nature of reality, Coover seems to be saying, is so complex that any single way of interpreting it must necessarily be false. Hence, the problem of nature's multiplicity becomes its own solution. For art truly to represent nature, it must be variable as nature itself.

Having recast the appeal for originality and multiplicity that unified Pricksongs and Descants into the four one-act plays that comprise A Theological Position, Coover returned to his interest in The Public Burning, a new view of the events surrounding the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that makes as legitimate a claim to truth as any objective statement of the facts:

The truth for a narrator is not the same as the truth for a journalist, historian, or scientist. The author's truth comes out of a set of metaphors—even if sometimes he gives them names and calls them characters. So that in a work of fiction you can have a sense of terrible truth about a thing that doesn't seem to relate at all to the so-called real world. Normally, though, the metaphors will relate to the real world—language itself, after all, is a product of that world—and so fiction will have a second standard of truth. That is, the metaphors themselves have in the first place some need to arise, and the word "truth" is probably as good as any to describe why this is so….

Reworking history, as he has done with myths, legends, and fairy tales, may represent a new arena in which Coover can explore further the interests that have been of primary concern to him since The Origin of the Brunists: "Like in the creation of myths, I sometimes transpose events for the sake of a kind of inner coherence, and there's a certain amount of condensation and so on, but mainly I accept that what I'm dealing with here is a society that is fascinated with real data, facts and figures, dates, newspaper stuff. I can't mess around too much with the data here lest I lose contact with that fascination." Nevertheless, "my own inclination as a writer is to move more and more in that direction, condensing, moving facts around, juxtaposing living and dead persons, myth and history. That would seem a useful and proper way to write about the past"…. (pp. 141-43)

However Coover chooses to reinterpret history, his readers can be assured of accomplished and inventive stories that deal absurdly and metaphysically with the human condition without losing their sense of humor. (p. 143)

Richard Andersen, in his Robert Coover, Twayne Publishers, 1981, 156 p.

Jon Zonderman

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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 rope around her neck while he scampers around the foyer and second storey trying to get her down. Even Charlie grabbing for his baggy pants to keep them up, then his derby to keep it on, then his pants, then his derby, pants, derby, pants, derby, can't bring humor to this grisly scene.

The bald man, yes, the ubiquitous bald man with the thick mustache and suspenders, whose pate is used for everything, including an ashtray, gives the Tramp his comeuppance by standing at the kitchen table, looking into the soup that he has been sullenly staring at throughout the story, and promptly urinating into it….

The lights are always going out on the Tramp, and he finds himself in a place he never thought he'd be. He strikes the man, only to find it is the woman…. By the three-quarter point of the book, the story is moving at breakneck speed, yet there is no more slapstick to the pratfalls. It is no longer Chaplin, not even Olson and Johnson.

Once again, Coover has created a character beyond the edge, one who has taken his lunacy to the point where it turns on him.

Charlie has none of the political overtones of The Public Burning, where a crazed Richard Nixon goes out of his mind persecuting the Rosenbergs. The book stays away from religion, the theme of The Origin of the Brunists, Coover's first novel, which won him a William Faulkner Award in 1966. In Brunists, a Pennsylvania small-town newspaper editor turns the survivor of a mineshaft accident into a new messiah.

Charlie is closest to The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop., in which a man devises a dice-roll baseball game to amuse himself, only to have it envelop him to the point where his reality becomes that of the league, the games and the players.

The thread that runs through all Coover's work is the notion of America gone haywire, the fiercely independent character, always in control, suddenly out of control, no longer a part of the world around him. In Coover's world, not only do Americans have no history, but no reality. They are merely the lines of type in a newspaper, the statistics in a baseball record book and, finally, fleeting images on a moving-picture screen.

Jon Zonderman, in a review of "Charlie in the House of Rue," in The American Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, January-February, 1982, p. 24.

George Leonard

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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": "And what has she done wrong today? he wonders, tracing the bloody welts with his fingertips. He has forgotten. It doesn't matter."…

We're not gaining Samuel Beckett but we are losing Robert Coover. He's a writer of great natural energies and they keep bursting out here, undercutting the Schopenhauer theme. It's odd to watch a novelist trying to be dull—and failing.

Coover has always found life bizarre, the opposite of monotony. His previous fables include a gang of media-wise politicians who prey upon the public's nostalgia for a childhood hero…. They run The Cat in the Hat for President. (Is it so different?)

And what about Coover's master of reality who made up an entire league of ballplayers who played ball games in his head?…

Robert Coover, we miss you.

George Leonard, "Robert Coover Tries on Beckett's Garb," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1982, p. 4.

John O'Brien

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[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 between man and woman, between husband and wife, children and parents; or between artist and society, or artist and critic. No matter how well the artist does some things, so the fable might go, the critic will spank him for not doing others.

Spanking the Maid can be seen as new and inventive only if one forgets a dozen or so French novelists of the past 30 years. It is a simplification of the techniques of the French writers, and should not be viewed as much more.

John O'Brien, "Inventions and Conventions in the New Wave Novel," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 15, 1982, p. 10.∗


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[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 their own. For Coover, this tension typically results in man losing sight of the fictional basis of his systems and eventually becoming trapped within them.

In developing this view of man-as-fiction-maker, Coover is hoping to illuminate not only the process through which narrative art is created but also the broad base of metaphor through which the universe is comprehended. His application points in the same direction as the study of the use of metaphor in so many other areas of investigation, such as anthropology, mathematics, linguistic analysis, the various metasciences, and so on. Each of these disciplines has tended to analyze its own structures as useful models or symbolic systems created by man—either consciously or through some sort of innate structuring agency within him—and then applied to the world. In his fascinating study, The Myth of Metaphor, Colin Turbayne has examined Descartes's mind-body dualism and Newton's universe-as-machine analogy as examples of the way in which metaphors gradually instill themselves as ontological verities. The process Turbayne describes for "undressing" such hidden metaphors is very similar to what Coover is aiming for in his fiction:

First, the detection of the presence of the metaphor; second, the attempt to "undress" the metaphor by presenting the literal truth, "to behold the deformity of error we need only undress it"; and third, the restoration of the metaphor, only this time with awareness of its presence.

If we substitute Coover's concept of "fiction" for Turbayne's closely related term, "metaphor," we have a close approximation of Coover's method. For both Turbayne and Coover, the point is not at all to do away with metaphors and fictions; those forms that are still useful can continue to be applied and even admired as aesthetic objects—but this should be done with awareness of their true nature. This awareness does not hinder their utility, but it does permit us to break up more freely those forms which have lost their usefulness and to replace them with fresher, more vital constructions.

It is partially Coover's distrust of rigid, dogmatic attitudes of all kinds which leads him to dedicate his prologue to Pricksongs and Descants (perversely placed in the middle of his collection) to Cervantes. As explained by Coover, Cervantes's fictions "exemplified the dual nature of all good narrative art;… they struggled against the unconscious mythic residue in human life and sought to synthesize the unsynthesizable, sallied forth against adolescent thought-modes and exhausted art forms, and returned home with new complexities." Mistrusting absolutes of any kind and feeling that the complexities of reality are as inexhaustible as the number of perspectives we bring to bear on it, Coover directs much of his work at breaking the hold of these "unconscious mythic residues" (themselves a form of fiction) over people. One strategy used for this purpose is to use "familiar or historical forms to combat the content of those forms"…. Thus Coover often creates his fictions out of precisely the sort of familiar myths, fictions, cliché patterns, and stereotypes whose content he hopes to undermine. This undermining is achieved at times by overt parody or irony, and at other times by allowing the elements to freely engage and contradict one another. But at all times Coover hopes to deal with myth and fiction making on their own grounds (hence the metafictional character of all his works), and to use the energy stored within these mythic residues to break up the hold which they have and to redirect their forces.

Cervantes also represents for Coover a writer who felt the need to challenge the literary conventions of his age and who, in doing so, successfully created a narrative form capable of sustaining these challenges. Thus Coover observes, addressing Cervantes, "Perhaps above all else your works were exemplars of a revolution in narrative fiction, a revolution which governs us"…. In Don Quixote Cervantes combined what Coover calls "poetic analogy and literal history"—a combination which is usually credited with having given birth to the novel. Ironically, many of the conventions initiated in part by Cervantes have today become just as dogmatized as the stifling conventions of the romance in Cervantes's time. If Cervantes opened up a new world for narrative fiction, this world has alarmingly begun to shrink once more. (pp. 25-8)

[Like] so many other contemporary writers and critics, Coover feels that relying on any one set of conventions (like those of realism) will lead inevitably to a dead end—much as relying on any single perspective will produce only a false perspective. Realizing that modern audiences have grown suspicious of many of the conventions of realism, Coover often adopts strategies which will allow him to deal with these suspicions openly. We find him experimenting with new or unusual narrative methods, but just as often we find him resurrecting the forms, techniques, and subject matter of past traditions which have lost their conventionality and staleness because of disuse.

One result of this insistence on form is that the metafictional quality of Coover's fiction derives as much from the process at work as it does from the content. His fiction can also be termed "self-reflexive" in the sense used by Roger Shattuck—that is, it "endlessly studies its own behaviors and considers them suitable subject matter…. It is not art for art's sake, but art about art … it strives to be its own subject." This self-directed aspect of Coover's work means that it is not only possible to view many of his fictions—including his three novels—as allegories about art, but that in many specific passages we discover that the text is discussing itself as it proceeds. Thus even in his first novel [The Origin of the Brunists], which of all his works seems the most realistic and concerned with social commentary, Coover's real subject remains the relationship between man and his invented creations—the creations we have broadly termed "fictions." (pp. 28-9)

Larry McCaffery, "Robert Coover and the Magic of Fiction Making," in his The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 25-98.

John Brosnahan

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[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.

Caryn James

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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 went to live alone on an island and shot himself," reads the first line. What he starts is the story we're reading…. This circular undercutting of cause and effect is the most facile part of "Beginnings." Reaching for substance, Coover brings the author-character to life, making him implausible, mundane, unique, and universal. The island becomes a postlapsarian Eden, complete with Eve (this time she's the one who gives up a rib), children, and the distractions and rewards of family life….

Though the more recent works are slighter, they share some characteristic Coover effects. "here's what happened it was pretty good" is the first line of "An Encounter." "The Old Man" starts, "this one has to do with an old man." Such stories belong to the second generation of metafiction: Coover not only writes about self-conscious storytelling, he assumes that we are aware of his self-referential posture. There's no need to introduce us to the pervasive but protean "he," the author-character at the center of most of his fiction….

"In Bed One Night" is a literary slapstick in which several strangers are assigned to share the same bed—social security cutbacks seem to be the problem. An old lady searches for her dentures, her one-legged brother lies at the foot of the bed, a drunken worker fucks a fat woman, and a skinny Oriental cowers, as the owner of the bed registers his shock: "wha—?! he cries out in alarm." Coover skillfully orchestrates this pandemonium in a breathless, unpunctuated style. Even when his comic technique is so emphatically in the foreground, he keeps an eye on the complexity of authorship. In his most farcical moments or his most deft and restrained moods, Coover is relentlessly energetic about one question. His fiction insists on asking where its own creativity comes from, and just as insistently answers that it exists only in the active process of writing and reading.

Caryn James, in a review of "In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters," in VLS, No. 22, December, 1983, p. 4.

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Robert Coover Long Fiction Analysis


Coover, Robert (Vol. 15)