Introduction

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Coover, Robert 1932–

Coover is an American novelist and short story writer. If there are comic elements in his metafiction, they derive from Coover's conviction that the highest truth lies in a comic, not a tragic, response to life. The relationship of the author to his audience is a focal...

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Coover, Robert 1932–

Coover is an American novelist and short story writer. If there are comic elements in his metafiction, they derive from Coover's conviction that the highest truth lies in a comic, not a tragic, response to life. The relationship of the author to his audience is a focal concern of Coover's, and one that he explores in all his fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

BENJAMIN DeMOTT

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186

Richard Nixon's inward ruminations in [The Public Burning] offer a view of the then Vice President's adolescence, college experience, early years, and sex life that's wholly engrossing. At one level the constructive imagination illuminates neglected relationships among the facts of a private and public life…. And simultaneously there's a dramatization, at another level, of the processes involved in the creation of a literary character…. But for every page of perception there's a matching page of rant and anti-American cliché, uttered by a fantastic creation named Uncle Sam Slick, a blend of Jove, the Holy Ghost, Davy Crockett, and Foxy Grandpa, who presides over the action of The Public Burning from beginning to end, and speaks a dreadful idiom drawn from the Down Home American Folk Past—shebang, hodag, etc. (There are precedents for this sort of rant in the Coover oeuvre.) Uncle Sam's deeds are as boringly predictable as his talk; because of both, The Public Burning seems overschematic and overblown. (p. 98)

Benjamin DeMott, "Culture Watch," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 240, No. 5, November, 1977, pp. 98-101.∗

Michael Mason

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

One thing [the sodomy episode in The Public Burning] brings out is how boringly enthralled and confused [Coover] is by sex, like many contemporary American novelists. This fantasy of anal sex is not nearly as good as the immediately preceding episode, a surrealistically transformed version of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The book should have ended here, especially as this is the "public burning" of the title. But Robert Coover evidently has a Mailer-like view of sodomy as something physically and morally dirty, and hence the conviction that to do it or write about it is interestingly outrageous….

The reader's strongest impression of The Public Burning will probably be of a prodigious feat of assimilation and assembly of historical fact, both ephemeral and substantial….

Generally the torrent of allusions has an almost perfervid liveliness, and shows brilliant powers of verbal mimicry. The crassness of the Nixon sodomy episode is counterweighted by the startlingly clever pastiches of brands of discourse which were conspicuous or celebrated in the early 1950s….

The whole novel consists of alternating chapters in the third person and first person, where the "I" is Nixon, and its most challenging interpretive difficulties concern the characterization of their speaker which the Nixon chapters generate….

Because of [Coover's] procedures the Nixon chapters gather a more authoritative feeling than the authorial ones. This effect is striking, especially in post-Watergate days, but it originates in Mr Coover's earlier, less factional fiction. The armature of The Public Burning is the same as that of his first two novels: an American superstition giving rise to its appropriate imaginary apocalypse. Here the superstition is anticommunism. In The Origin of the Brunists it is millennial religion. In The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh Prop. it is baseball. The heroes of both these previous books are manipulators of the apocalypse, but not dislikable. When Eisenhower's vice-president Richard Nixon is treated with the same degree of inwardness and generosity the result is even more disquieting and memorable.

Michael Mason, "Uncle Sam in Person," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3976, June 16, 1978, p. 663.

Neil Berman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

[In Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association] Henry Waugh's game-world has been so completely internalized that it creates its own course and meaning, creates its own myths and rituals, entirely cut off from … established mythic traditions…. Henry Waugh's baseball game is so fertile in metaphorical significance that there is virtually no activity in his life upon which the game does not impinge. There is nothing the game cannot include. Henry Waugh is the only character in all of recent sports fiction who can bear the full weight of Eugen Fink's ontological definition of play: "The player experiences himself as the lord of the products of his imagination—because it is virtually unlimited, play is an eminent manifestation of human freedom." In The Universal Baseball Association imagination is so truly protean that it becomes an end in itself. The final vision of the novel is of a complete play-world, personalized and separated as myth, art, and religion. (p. 210)

For Henry Waugh, and for Robert Coover playing with his protagonist, baseball surely has the force of an idea. It is an abstraction to be played with and explored as the focus of Henry's imaginative universe. Real baseball always bored Henry. What initially attracted him to the game was "the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances…. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, strange as it seemed, so much ultimate mystery." (pp. 210-11)

The remarkable richness and vitality of Henry Waugh's Association mark it as a self-enclosed world. Indeed, the ascription "Universal Baseball Association" forewarns the reader that nothing as petty or parochial as "American" or "National" is intended. The Association has its own metaphysics and must be seen as the product of a godlike creative act…. The Universal Baseball Association confronts the reader with a vision of play and reality as radically interdependent. In addition to the figure of Henry Waugh, who plays with the actors in his game-world, the reader is never allowed to forget for long that Robert Coover is playing with Henry Waugh, with numbers, with language, and with myth. Even the players in the Association play baseball and act out rituals. The playfulness of the book thus exists on several levels simultaneously and shatters the idea that reality must be played out against a fixed and stable background.

One of the most important aspects of the game—and a sure sign of Coover's delight in playing games—is the naming of players. The inspiration for a player's name often comes from a sign Henry happens to see, but any words that happen to catch Henry's attention are played with, possibly recombined, until the sound is right for a ballplayer's name. (pp. 211-12)

Because of its long tradition as the national pastime, and because of the accessibility of its records and statistics, baseball is a fine metaphor for history, process, and order. It is history and continuity which most fascinate Henry…. (p. 212)

[In Henry's game of Universal Baseball, the] game is played by tossing three dice; the numbers determine what happens on the playing field…. Every contingency has been accounted for; even the eventual demise of players is tabulated with the aid of Henry's actuarial tables. While Henry is the creator of his game, his power is limited by the rules and forms of the game itself. His only real choice—at least initially—is whether or not to actuate the game by throwing the dice. (pp. 212-13)

There would appear to be a strong measure of dispassionate logic about all this; the game contains within itself an order which seems unshakeable. If Henry himself were a dispassionate god, the history which he records would be as mechanical as the tossing of the dice. But Henry is not at all detached. (p. 213)

[Unless] Henry realizes that he and the game are part of the same stakes, that both he and the game are subject and object of play, he is destined for a severe blow, which comes swiftly enough in the death of Damon Rutherford.

The game-world has always had the apparent means for dealing with death but always in the abstract form of statistics; older, retired ballplayers are "sorted out" of the Association on the basis of Henry's actuarial tables. But death in the impalpable form of mere statistics is an evasion. The death of Damon Rutherford marks the introduction of something new and significant into the game-world and makes death, for the first time, a concrete reality. Henry is more deeply committed to Damon than any other player in the Association, and that personal involvement … makes him more vulnerable than a god-figure should be. (pp. 214-15)

The introduction of death into the game is eventually positive because it makes the game more profound; it projects the game, and Henry's conception of the game, into a more serious stature by bridging the gap between the game and external reality. More than any other recent novel, Coover's book directly challenges the reader's tendency to dichotomize play and seriousness, game and reality, by portraying a game-world which becomes increasingly integrative and whole. (p. 215)

The extent to which Damon's death reaches beyond the spatial and temporal limits of the Association is manifested in Henry's complete inability to function outside the play-world and the overwhelming influence which the Association begins to have on Henry's external relationships. (p. 216)

Above even Henry is the impersonal force of fate, physically represented by the dice but more interestingly conceived of as Robert Coover. The coincidence of Casey killing Damon precisely on Brock Rutherford Day is an authorial machination, a contrivance designed to point up the limitations of Henry's commitment to the dice. Henry himself begins to see that commitment as a sign of his own impotence. He vows revenge on Casey…. When play resumes, Casey's every move is unpredictable, some even contradict his manager's signals, but as if in defiance of Henry's will, everything Casey does is successful. (p. 217)

Henry sees his apparent loss of control as part of "the new and wearisome order" of the game. But the order of the game has not changed at all, only Henry's understanding of his increasing identification with the play-world and his personal involvement with its players…. Henry begins to see himself as Coover has always intended the reader to see him: as both the subject and object of play, as player and toy, as creator and participant. (pp. 217-18)

Henry murders Casey by controlling the dice instead of submitting to them…. The implications of this scene go beyond the use of violence in any other recent sports fiction. Henry, acting as a participant-god in the play-sphere, has introduced murder as a means of saving the play-world. (pp. 218-19)

The self-sufficiency and completeness of Henry's Association are emphasized by the startling vision of the last chapter of the novel, in which the tragic deaths of Damon Rutherford and Jock Casey have been transmuted into the full mature play of ritual. Henry's violation of the rules of the game, his assertion of his superior personality, paradoxically confirms those rules and establishes the primacy of the game over his personality…. Henry Waugh has ceased to appear as a character. The harmony of play has evidently become so complete that there is not even enough conflict to insure survival. Henry's identification with the Association is so total that … all play and no work have made no Henry. The imaginative recreation of sport as play has become the world. There is not the slightest sign here of any other reality; even the existence of a creator external to the play-world may now only be inferred. (p. 219)

The Parable of the Duel [in the last chapter must] be seen as the central myth of the Universal Baseball Association. The creation of a myth is essential to full mature play…. Coover has foreshadowed the very idea of turning the history of the Association into myth even before Damon's death. He has Henry see with uncanny irony that the pitcher's duel between Damon and Casey is "Not just a duel of dynasties, but a real duel, a duel to the death…." (p. 220)

Given the overwhelming concern with history, order, and process in the Association, the Parable of the Duel as myth and ritual seems natural…. The transformation of history into myth provides the distance necessary to mitigate and contain [Henry's involvement in the murder]. It allows for a playful response to climactic events which must be transcended to maintain order but which, also to maintain continuity in the play-world, may not be excluded.

What is excluded from the play-world is anything that is not essential to it…. [By the last chapter] the only world that exists is the one that has been imaginatively recreated. The separation of this world is so total that it has finally given rise to its own dualism: the players in the Association are now trying to distinguish between the reality of their own world and the ritual they are about to perform, a play-form within the play-world. The conflict necessary to insure survival no longer comes from Henry's vacillation between two worlds but from within the play-world itself. (pp. 220-21)

The final vision of the eighth chapter is strikingly indeterminate. There are no final answers for the players in the game world, for even the mythic order of the Association is only one possibility among many…. The ritual is not played out; a ninth chapter would have implied the perfection of a completed baseball game, an orderliness and tidiness which the novel argues can never be absolute. What makes the Association universal, the only absolute in the game-world, is the play-attitude. Play encompasses the joy, creativity, and freedom which engendered the Association; play produced the story which became its central myth; and play is the essence of ritual, through which the myth is acted out…. [The] Universal Baseball Association is [a] most supremely playful imaginative recreation of sport, and, since it is mythic, and thus timeless, it partakes not so much of "real time" as "significant time."… (p. 222)

Neil Berman, "Coover's 'Universal Baseball Association': Play as Personalized Myth," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 209-22.

Tom Paulin

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

Coover is an ambitious and gifted writer who has made the mistake of treating a distressing and important subject in a kind of surrealistic razzamatazz which rapidly becomes confusing and unreadable. [In The Public Burning] the Rosenbergs become part of a collective nightmare which blurs and dissolves like a crazy documentary….

His attempt to understand Nixon fails because he substitutes random sensations and swirling reminiscences for hard-headed analysis of a vulgar but fascinating political personality…. Although Coover tries to present Nixon in all his furtive contingency, he fails to understand his personality and without that psychological insight we are left with a miasma of disjointed phrases…. [It] is more in sorrow than in anger that I have to say that The Public Burning is a colossally mistaken attempt to understand the disturbing politics of America. (p. 78)

Tom Paulin, "Fantastic Eschatologies," in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LI, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 73-8.∗

Susan Kissel

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

[In the story "The Hat Act," the] metaphor of the failing magician is a powerful one through which Coover suggests both the comedy of the artist's perspiring efforts to please and the horror of his possible failure to control his art; if he cannot master the techniques of his evolving craft, both the artist and his audience, it is clear, will experience fearful losses.

Coover suggests that the contemporary artist—bound as he is to his audience as performer, magician, and funhouse designer, and sensitive as he must be to the expectations and desires of those he entertains—nevertheless must not let his readers exert ultimate control over his efforts. Instead, Coover indicates that the contemporary artist must often find himself disappointing his audience—disappointing himself in fact—as in "Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady" where, in responding to the "precious metaphor" of the circus couple's relationship, the narrator reveals "we are irritated to discover their limits, to find that the Ludicrous is not also Beautiful…. Well, let us admit it, perhaps it is ourselves who are corrupted. Perhaps we have seen or been too many Ringmasters, watched too many parades, safely witnessed too many thrills, counted through too many books. Maybe it's just that we've lost a taste for the simple in a world perplexingly simple."… (p. 52)

To help his audience regain a taste for the perplexing possibilities inherent in the simple story, Coover repeatedly explores the basic myths of our cultural heritage and restores to these familiar stories the horror, irony, and comedy of their age-old human dramas: of Little Red Riding Hood in "The Door"; of Hanzel and Gretel in "The Gingerbread House"; of Noah's Ark in "The Brother"; and of the Virgin Birth in "J's Marriage" (as well as in A Theological Position from the collection of plays which bears its title). These simple stories of human betrayal, human misery, and human desire reveal Coover's premise that the fiction writer can only repeat the past and repeat himself, however cleverly.

Robert Coover knows all too well that the simple story, however viewed, will not satisfy the experienced tastes of the modern audience. In "Klee Dead," for instance, the narrator admits that his "show" has been "Pretty dull stuff…."… [He] reminds the reader that the writer is limited to the basic human experience in his fantasies and myths and that the stories to be found there will not astound or shock or uplift with their familiarity. Fiction can provide only a lesser stimulation in our amusement-oriented culture. The narrator's ironic offer of circus tickets in "Klee Dead" … comments upon the modern reader's insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation in arm-chair entertainment—an appetite which the reader shares with the much less sophisticated circus and street crowds he disdains.

The picture Robert Coover creates of the modern audience, then, is not always a flattering one; he suggests that the contemporary literary audience, with its intelligent, sophisticated readership, is guilty of the mass audience's exploitive, hostile demands for entertainment…. And yet Coover implies that the artist cannot afford to please his disappointed audience with new, bizarre tricks, without finally destroying the whole show and becoming, himself, the monster-magician dragged off the stage at the end of "The Hat Act." The audience's disappointment is one which the author, at times, shares; as the narrator of "Klee Dead" laments, "Even I had expected more."… So, too, the author-creator-spectator-protagonists of Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and his short play Love Scene expect more of the dramas they both direct and despair to see played out before them.

But the final voice is not that of the disappointed and failed creator-artist; it is that of the author as Ringmaster exhorting his audience to rediscover with the narrator of "Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady" the "ring around the rings" … in the seemingly simple world of circus entertainment:

We can hang on to nothing. Least of all the simple…. So, damn it, let us hoot and holler and thrill and eat peanuts and cheer and swill the pop and laugh and bawl! Come on! All us Thin Men! All you Fat Ladies!

                                        (pp. 53-4)

Susan Kissel, "The Contemporary Artist and His Audience in the Short Stories of Robert Coover," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1979 by Newberry College), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 52-4.

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