Robert Coover Coover, Robert (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 731 words.)