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.)