SOURCE: Caldwell, Roy C., Jr. “Of Hobby-Horses, Baseball, and Narrative: Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association.” Modern Fiction Studies 33, no. 1 (spring 1987): 161–71.
[In the following essay, Caldwell discusses the intersection of sport and literature in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., drawing attention to parallels between the formal game structure of baseball and Coover's authorial game-playing in the novel.]
The play-world is not a real situation involving real men; it has an odd character of appearance—it is not real, and yet not nothing.
—Eugen Fink (109)1
I will draw my uncle Toby's character from his HOBBY-HORSE.
—Laurence Sterne (1:85)
I lay claim in this novel … to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.
—Jorge Luis Borges (75)
When A. Bartlett Giamatti recently accepted his appointment to the presidency of the National League, he commented on his move from academia to the sporting world by observing that aside from literature, baseball was the greatest game of all (“NL Names Giamatti”). Rarely do the sports pages disclose cultural insights as keen as this. To be sure, the growth of play into elaborately organized forms cannot go unnoticed by any critic of popular culture in the twentieth century. One may indeed argue that huge contests (the Olympics, World Cup, World Series) have become the most important—certainly the most popular—cultural events on the planet. As President Giamatti's remark demonstrates, the increased importance of games in our culture has not been limited to the masses and its television sets. At present, games and play represent a concept central to the latest discourses of art, literature, and philosophy.2 One may even wonder if our time might not come to be remembered as the Ludic Era, the Age of Play. French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, champion of the Nouveau Roman, clearly sees contemporary society and literature in these terms. In the preface to Project pour une révolution à New York, he offers the following assessment of the state of the novel: “After the collapse of the divine order (of bourgeois society) and, following that, the collapse of the rationalist order (of bureaucratic socialism), only game structures remain possible.”3 Robbe-Grillet inherits from Nietzsche, Hemingway, Camus, and Beckett the notion that in a fundamentally absurd life, play becomes the only affirmation.
Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. belongs squarely in the tradition of the playing novel. Unlike most “sports fiction,” this book is ludic on more levels than the thematic. Not only does it take for its subject a man at play, but it also constructs its text by means of gamelike operations. Thus, Coover's novel contains one kind of game—baseball—and plays itself that other game cited by Giamatti—the game of literature. Arbitrating the confrontation of these two ludic forms within the text, one might well rule that the latter dominates the former. The Universal Baseball Association is not really an example of “sports fiction” at all, for no one in it plays baseball. Its semblables in literature are not the baseball novels of Malamud, Harris, Greenberg, or Kinsella but Tristram Shandy, whose Uncle Toby has converted a bowling green into a miniature battlefield on which he reproduces the King's campaign in Flanders, or the fictions of Borges (especially “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” from the collection Ficciones ), where elaborate counterworlds—complete with their own languages, histories, mythologies, and religions—are erected. The true subject of Coover's novel is not the playing of baseball but the making of fiction. J. Henry Waugh's tabletop baseball league images the fictional world: hermetically sealed...
(This entire section contains 4894 words.)
within a magic circle; ordered by its own time, space, rules, ends; undergoing changes dictated by internal forces; imperfectly mimetic, unfaithful mirror of the world outside it. Although baseball represents only the vehicle of the novel's investigation, not the object of investigation itself, few literary works “about” baseball reveal as much about the nature of the sport as this one. Indeed, the interweaving of baseball and fiction-making that occurs throughout this novel poses in an especially clear fashion questions of interest to theorists and technicians of both literature and baseball: for the first, where and how do storytelling and game-playing intersect? for the second, why does baseball, above all other games, lend itself to narrative?
The Universal Baseball Association presents a structure of nested fictions. The first fictional frame, the outer diegesis,4 establishes the world of the protagonist Henry Waugh, an accountant who passes his time by playing a complex baseball game of his own invention. The second fiction, the inner diegesis, is the world of the game itself—the league, its players, its history. Three narratives coincide within the text: the story of Henry's life (his job, his friendships with Lou and Hettie, and so on); the story of the events within the Association (the games, the seasons, the players' lives); and, between these two, the story of Henry's continuing transformation of the world he has created. The protagonist's life—his increasing alienation from those around him—represents a rather conventional story and offers little interest to a discussion of the interplay of baseball and narrative. I do not intend to examine the poverty of the protagonist's relations with other human beings, nor will I attempt to analyze his fears and neuroses. I will not be concerned with the manner in which events in his life affect the events within his Association. Borges writes that “a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them” (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” 25). In the system of this paper, Waugh's personal life will be subordinated to his role as proprietor, creator, and God of the Universal Baseball Association. His accomplishment, not his failure, will be my subject.
Roger Angell writes in The Summer Game that baseball is one of the most mathematical of sports. All the various actions on the diamond must submit to the scrutiny and judgment of the scorer (chronicler): hit or error; earned or unearned run; win or loss. The game provides a perfect, finished balance sheet: each accomplishment (credit) of the hitter represents a failure (debit) for the pitcher, and vice versa. Each individual match may be read afterwards from the composite of its statistics (3–5). From the complex network of real actions on the playing field, an absolute, mathematical figure thus results. The scorecard and box score “imitate” baseball, translate it into a numerical representation.5
Unlike Uncle Toby of Tristram Shandy, Henry Waugh has not come to his hobbyhorse out of some need to compensate for his inability to participate further in the real game. Waugh has never played the sport and admits that actual baseball bores him. What attracted him to baseball were its formal qualities and its potential for narrative. He observes of another game derived from baseball, a pinball machine that (crudely) simulates the American Pastime:
“THE GREAT AMERICAN GAME,” it said across the top, between the gleaming girls. Well, it was. American baseball, by luck, trial, and error, and since the famous playing council of 1889, had struck an almost perfect balance between offense and defense, and it was that balance, in fact, that and the accountability—the beauty of the records system which found a place to keep forever each least action—that led Henry to baseball as his final great project.
As poker demands money, so Waugh's game requires not only dice but pencils and papers; without records the Association loses its meaning. By rolling the dice and recording the results, the player generates a narrative sequence, what the French novelist and critic Jean Ricardou calls a dispositif, an arrangement from which a story may be deduced.6 Each element in the sequence is an empty configuration waiting to be endowed with further meaning. Waugh's game is thus no true contest at all. It will not, as his unfortunate experience with his friend Lou reveals, admit a second player. There can be no protagonist and no antagonist. Instead of a game, Waugh has actually devised a machine for the production of a narrative. This machine operates by an action just the contrary of real baseball. The sport exists as a series of physical actions occurring in real space and time; the statistics to which the game is reduced are derivative; the numbers are the imitation of the real game. Waugh's game, by contrast, produces not actions but numbers. From the abstract schema of box scores, Waugh works “backward” to his fuller narratives. The sequence of figures produced by the roll of the dice and the machinery of the charts are only the skeleton of Waugh's creation; he gives the Association body, heart, and soul as he sees the stadium, the sun, and the field, as he invents the playing styles, characters, and physical appearances of the players.
At the opening of the novel, Waugh and his Association are experiencing a crisis that can only be explained in terms of narrative. The machinery of the game continues to produce the figures of narrative, but Waugh himself has become bored and fails to endow the games and players with the fuller dimensions they require. The Association now represents the mere functioning of apparently meaningless processes: the narrative machine functions in a void. The games and seasons spin out, but no history is made. A new player has recently entered the league, however, and has revitalized the entire process.
Henry hadn't been so excited in weeks. Months. That was the way it was, some days seemed to pass almost without being seen, games lived through, decisions made, averages rising or dipping, and all of it happening in a kind of fog, until one day that astonishing event would occur that brought sudden life and immediacy to the Association, and everybody would suddenly wake up and wonder at the time that had got by them, go back to the box scores, try to find out what had happened. During those dull-minded stretches, even a home run was nothing more than an HR penned into the box score; sure, there was a fence and a ball sailing over it, but Henry didn't see them—oh, he heard the shouting of the faithful, yes, they stayed with it, they had to, but to him it was just a distant echo. But then, contrarily, when someone like Damon Rutherford came along to flip the switch, turn things on, why, even a pop-up to the pitcher took on excitement, a certain dimension, color. The magic of excellence.
Waugh's dissatisfaction with the Association centers on the aleatory operation that determines the outcomes of the games. As Damon Rutherford stands at the threshold of the greatest achievement in league history, a perfect game, Waugh feels certain that the malevolent dice will frustrate the pattern.
Of course, it was just the occasion for the storybook spoiler. Yes, too obvious. Perfect game, two down in the ninth, and a pinch hitter scratches out a history-shriveling single. How many times had it already happened! The epochal event reduced to a commonplace, a mediocrity, a blooper worth forgetting.
On this occasion fortune cooperates with Waugh's design, and before he leaves for a celebration at a local bar, he grins at the dice—still showing the last out of Rutherford's masterpiece—“for once adjuncts to grandeur” (18).
The benevolence of fortune will not long endure, however. When next Waugh's favorite player performs, the wicked dice unfold the most catastrophic stroke of bad luck the Association has ever seen: an extremely rare combination of throws brings Waugh to his “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart,” and there he reads that his young hero has been struck down and killed by a pitched ball. This event triggers a nightmarish sequence of fictions completely undetermined by the dice. The game halts as Waugh visualizes the action following the death of Damon Rutherford. Here the novel displays in clear form the free-play of Waugh's invention as he shapes the events over which the dice hold no sway; here we behold fiction not as a product but as a process. The proprietor of the Association imagines the reactions of the various players and league officials: some rush to the fallen body, while others surround the pitcher, Jock Casey, who hurled the fatal ball. Originally, the men close on Casey and beat him down. But then Waugh changes the story: from the grandstand, Damon's father stops the men with a word. This version becomes the true, the “official” account; it doubles the original version and finally replaces it. The outer narrative of The Universal Baseball Association remains conventional, for we never observe the outer narrator (whom we may call “Coover”) as he “writes” or “overwrites” Waugh's life. The inner narrative, by contrast, presents a fundamentally ludic operation: the text Waugh creates retains its false starts and dead ends, its unrealized possibilities.
The crisis of the Association has now become more acute. Waugh places his own doubts about the game's meaning into the character of league commissioner Fenn McCaffree. “Damon had been a wonderful league tonic. The whole process had been slowing down, the structure had lost its luster, there'd been rising complaints about meaninglessness and lack of league purpose” (104). McCaffree questions the old assumptions on which the league has been based and wonders if it should not take an altogether different course.
What if, Woody, we have passed, without knowing it, from a situation of sequential compounding into one of basic and finite yes-or-no survival, causing a shift of what you might call the equilibrium point, such that the old strategies, like winning ball games, simple and proper within the old stochastic or recursive sets, are, under the new circumstances, insane!
Indeed, when Waugh finally resumes the suspended game and season, the fundamental structure of his operation has changed. No longer does he remain aloof from the fray, and no longer does he adopt the strategies that lead to winning ball games. He begins to cheat. Against the rules he has established, he ceases to keep records and alters the strategies of the individual teams so that they frustrate the fortunes of Jock Casey and his team, the Knicks.
He was destroying the Association, he knew that now. He'd kept no records, hadn't even logged a single entry in the Book. Didn't know if all the players had their required at-bats or innings-pitched, didn't know who was hitting and who wasn't, didn't know if any pitchers were running over the legal limit of innings-pitched, didn't even give a damn who was winning the pennant. He'd been obsessed with a single idea: to bring Casey and the Knicks to their knees, see them drop behind the Pioneers in the standings, if only for a day.
Despite these modifications, Waugh continues to respect the aleatory operation that generates the course of events. Ultimately, however, the desire for some remedial event brings him to abandon the uncooperative dice. With Casey on the mound, Waugh fixes a combination of rolls to produce the result he has long wished: the pitcher is struck and killed by a batted ball. Justice and symmetry have thus been served: Damon has been revenged; Jock the Mad Killer meets the fate he merits.
With this stroke, the Universal Baseball Association enters a new phase. By liberating himself and his league from the tyranny of chance, Waugh seizes an expanded role as the sole source of authority in this world. Where earlier he had accepted a partnership with fortuity, he now rules absolutely, meting out “rewards and punishments,” overseeing “life histories” (27–28) as he sees fit. Unbeknownst to the ballplayers who dwell within the inner diegesis, a divine revolution has occurred: God the Father has driven Dame Fortune from the pantheon. The narrative machinery has been completely altered. The “mindless,” “irresponsible” dice no longer produce dispositifs, formal arrangements that curb and shape the form his narrative will take. The gamelike qualities of the narrative disappear as alea yields to authorial design as the fundamental operation of text production. Henry Waugh now stands in the same relation to the universe of the Association as any conventional novelist to his creation. He has changed his game and become a different kind of player. He no longer plays a simulated game of baseball; he now plays openly the game of literature.
From the Era of Chance the Association passes into the rich and turbulent Era of History. Waugh presides over the small universe, constructing more colorful narratives than the essentially antidramatic dice would ever have allowed. A rookie bursts into the league, hits as no one ever has for one campaign, then falls into an abysmal slump and washes out of the circuit the next year. The destiny of Royce Ingram, the player who struck the blow that felled Casey, follows an opposing trajectory: consumed by guilt, he sinks to the lowest level of performance before rebounding to become the best backstop in history. The politics of the Association, a system Waugh had developed some (league) years back, becomes more important than pennant races and batting averages. Barney Bancroft, former skipper of the Pioneers, wins election to the Commissioner's office, only to be assassinated a year later. The “Monday Revolt” ensues. During this phase of the game, Waugh is an active God, manipulating events to enhance the drama of the historical narratives he produces. Although he continues to play simulated baseball games, Waugh's narrative activity has actually moved to a higher level. He had been drawn originally to baseball by its formal clarity and its “precise and comprehensive” (45) history, but now a different set of patterns occupies him: not the patterns of baseball but the patterns of the changes within the system. Waugh's game is no longer baseball but a game-game, a meta-game: he plays not within the rules but with them.
Not by accident has Waugh chosen the original names of his teams and players from the era following the Civil War. When Waugh describes real baseball's fascination for the masses, we hear an echo of his own reasons for choosing this particular game to simulate. “Formulas for energy configurations where city boys came to see their country origins dramatized, some old lost fabric of unity” (166), he muses. The “fabric of unity” in Waugh's early Association contrasts sharply with life in a postmodern world, where social ties have been dissolved and individuals careen aimlessly in a kind of absurd Brownian Movement.7 (Waugh himself may be seen as an example of this.) Baseball, like other forms of play, offers an aesthetic pleasure; closed, isolated from the world by its rules and formal qualities, it provides a clear outcome and a limited perfection that life generally lacks.8 As Waugh's created world has expanded, it has retained this aesthetic character of games. Indeed, the early Association is a finite, unified world where everyone belongs to the game, where more and more often new players come not unknown into the league but from established bloodlines. The players of this “golden age” are unreflective and innocent; they live serenely in the medium of the game they play. Jock Casey's fatal beanball shatters this perfect (but more and more boring) world. Evil makes its appearance, and with it, consciousness.
The last chapter of Coover's novel leaps ahead to a game played in season CLVII, one hundred and one Association years since LVI, when the rest of the action has taken place. We quickly notice that many changes have occurred. The players are gathered not for a true game at all but rather to reenact the “Parable of the Duel,” the game in LVI when first Damon Rutherford, then Jock Casey fell dead on the diamond (demands of myth and ritual have dominated demands for historical accuracy, for the two players actually died in different games). No baseball is played now; instead of actions, the text records a polyphony of jokes, tales, songs, questions, wordplay. The conversation of the players reveals that the Association has developed another dimension: religion. Waugh, too, has assumed a different status in the text; he may still reign as God of this universe, but he leaves no trace of his presence. (Like a Flaubertian narrator, he has refined himself out of existence.) The Age of History, when Waugh intervened in the UBA, composing his narratives like a more or less conventional novelist, has ended. The Association has passed into another period, the Age of Interpretation.
The new direction Waugh's narrative activity will take is announced at the end of year LVI. As he ponders what course could save the league after the disastrous and chaotic events of that campaign, the idea of writing a history appears to him.
It was all there in the volumes of the Book and in the records, but now it needed a new ordering, perspective, personal vision, the disclosure of pattern, because he'd discovered—who had discovered? Barney maybe—yes, Barney Bancroft had discovered that perfection wasn't a thing, a closed moment, but process, yes, and the process was transformation.
During the course of the novel Waugh's players have become increasingly individuated. More and more, they tend to have their own voices, attitudes, styles, philosophies. He had previously assigned to the league commissioner, Fenn McCaffree, a vantage closely resembling his own omniscience: from an office equipped with cameras and microphones, McCaffree can observe everything that occurs in the Association, on the diamonds and off. By assigning his own function as league historian to one of his characters, Waugh creates another frame and infinite possibilities for further narrative.
And so Barney's history of the Association: revealing the gradual evolution toward Guildsmen principles, and using the Rutherford-Casey event as the culminating moment, revolving toward the New Day, how the league had progressed from individualism and egocentrism—the Bogglers—through a gradual recognition (perhaps by the mere accretion of population) of the Other—the Legalists—to a moral and philosophic concern with the very nature of man and society: the Guildsmen.
Bancroft's The UBA in the Balance (an imagined book, like those of Borges' Pierre Menard and Herbert Quain) will not have its source in any transcendent truth (Waugh's Book) but will be an interpretation of the Association from a single character's particular perspective, a function of his philosophical orientation and political goals.
Waugh's game, and Coover's, shifts to a higher level. Instead of simply playing, boozing, carousing, and whoring, the players of the year CLVII have all developed religious and philosophical configurations. They no longer play baseball and are no longer figures in a developing historical process; now they vie with one another to explain the meaning of the world in which they dwell. They write books, found and join religious sects, construct philosophical systems. The “fabric of unity” originally celebrated by the league has been lost. The figures within the Association have passed from a simple, unspoken ethos founded on action to a complex, problematic consciousness wherein no certainty can be established. Whereas some of them interpret their lives according to established Damonite or Caseyite dogma, others arrive at an understanding of their fictional status, their essentially absurd condition. McCamish confides to a mate: “We have no mothers, Gringo. The ripening of their wombs is nothing more than a ceremonious parable. We are mere ideas, hatched whole and hapless, here to enact old rituals of resistance and rot” (230). Another blasphemer gazes up at the sun over the ballpark and reads there “100 Watt” (232), an observation whose validity we are forced to acknowledge, for the true “sun” of the Association is actually the bulb over Henry's kitchen table. The players quest beyond their frame; they search for their creator, for Henry Waugh. Occupying a frame beyond even that of Waugh, we recognize the most valid religious observation of all the figures in the inner diegesis. “God exists and he is a nut” (233), concludes McCamish.
And where has baseball gone? The novel closes as the players designated for roles in the ritual reenactment of the “Parable of the Duel” take their positions. Before the first ball, Hardy Ingram and Paul Trench, playing Damon Rutherford and Royce Ingram, sacrificed son and his avenger, pitcher and catcher, consult at the mound. Trench can find no words for the emptiness of their condition. “It's terrible, he says; or might have said. It's all there is” (242). But the pitcher, knowing the play will result in his own death, has accepted the part he will assume in the unfolding pattern. He grins, Damon grins. The catcher, Waugh playing Trench playing Royce Ingram, affirms the game: “And the black clouds break up, and the dew springs again to the green grass, and the stands hang on, and his heart leaps alive to give it one last try” (242). The pitcher holds aloft the baseball. “It is hard and white and alive in the sun” (242). The Universal Baseball Association leaves us with this final image of the ball, source of all Waugh's stories, image of the only meaning possible in a world become a game.
“Die ‘Spielwelt’ ist keine wirklich-reale Situation von wirklich-realen Menschen, sie hat eine eigentümliche ‘Scheinhaftigkeit,’—ist nichts Wirkliches und doch nicht nichts” (my translation).
Some examples, from many, of significant recent studies in which the concept of play assumes special importance are: Derrida, Barthes, Huizinga, and Lyotard.
“Après la faillite de l'ordre divin (de la société bourgeoise) et, à sa suite, de l'ordre rationaliste (du socialisme bureaucratique), seulement des organisations ludiques demeurent désormais possibles” (no page; my translation).
Gérard Genette defines “diegesis” as “the universe of the narrative” (228).
Several writers on baseball remark the game's ideality. Roger Angell writes: “Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the last decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which the players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. … Since baseball time is measured solely in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time” (303). A. Bartlett Giamatti: “It [baseball] breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because after it had fostered again that most hungered for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised” (“The Green Fields of the Mind” 297). Kevin Kerrane even proposes (playfully) that “baseball was there all the time, waiting to be found. Like a set of pure relations, a Pythagorean theorem” (10).
“Soulignons-le: composer un roman de cette manière, ce n'est pas avoir I'idée d'une histoire, puis la disposer; c'est avoir I'idée d'un dispositif, puis en déduire une histoire” (39).
“De cette décomposition des grands Récits … il s'ensuit ce que d'aucuns analysent comme la dissolution du lien social et le passage des collectivités sociales à l'état d'une masse d'atomes individuels lancés dans un absurde mouvement brownien” (Lyotard 31).
For Huizinga, play is closely related to aesthetics: “The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is ‘enchanting,’ ‘captivating.’ It is invested with the noblest qualities we can perceive in things: rhythm and harmony” (10).
Angell, Roger. The Summer Game. New York: Viking, 1972.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris: Seuil, 1970.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain.” Trans. Anthony Kerrigan. Ficciones. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove, 1962. 73–78.
———. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Trans. Alastair Reid. Ficciones. 17–36.
Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York: NAL, 1968.
Derrida, Jacques. L'écriture et la différence. Paris: Seuil, 1967.
Fink, Eugen. Spiel als Weltsymbol. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Giamatti, A. Bartlett. “The Green Fields of the Mind.” Yale Alumni Magazine Nov. 1977. Rpt. in Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite. Ed. Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger. New York: Doubleday, 1980. 295–297.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. London: Routledge, 1949.
Kerrane, Kevin. “Season Openers.” Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite. Ed. Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger. New York: Doubleday, 1980. 3–14.
Lyotard, Jean-François. La condition postmoderne. Paris: Minuit, 1979.
“NL Names Giamatti to Succeed Feeney.” Washington Post 11 June 1986: D2.
Ricardou, Jean. Le Nouveau Roman. Paris: Seuil, 1973.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Projet pour une révolution à New York. Paris: Minuit, 1970.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ed. Melvyn New and Joan New. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1978.
Robert Coover 1932-
(Full name Robert Lowell Coover) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Coover's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 15, 32, 46, and 87.
Among the vanguard of American postmodern writers to come of age during the late 1960s, Coover is respected as a vital experimentalist whose challenging work continues to offer insight into the nature of literary creation, narrative forms, and cultural myths. Convinced early in his career that traditional fictional modes were exhausted, Coover has pioneered a variety of inventive narrative techniques, notably complex metafictional structures and ludic pastiches of various genres to satirize contemporary American society and the role of the author. In this way, he has attempted to subvert and revitalize older, cliché-ridden literary forms. In novels such as Gerald's Party (1986), Pinocchio in Venice (1991), and Ghost Town (1998), Coover offers idiosyncratic reworkings of the detective story, the fairy tale, and the Western, respectively. Likewise, in The Public Burning (1977), one of Coover's most acclaimed works, he reinterprets events from twentieth-century American history. Since the early 1990s, upon predicting the demise of the novel, Coover has also taken a leading role in the development of “hyperfiction” and other computer-based literary experiments.
Born Robert Lowell Coover in Charles City, Iowa, Coover moved with his family early in his life to Herrin, Illinois, where his father was the managing editor for the Herrin Daily Journal. Emulating his father, Coover edited and wrote for various school newspapers under the nom-de-plume “Scoop.” He was also his high-school class president, a school band member, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Cincinnati Reds. In 1949 Coover enrolled in Southern Illinois University, and, after transferring to Indiana University in 1951, earned his bachelor's degree in 1953 with a major in Slavonic languages. While in college, he continued editing student papers, as well as working part-time for his father's newspaper. The day he graduated, Coover received his draft notice and went on to serve in the U.S. Naval Reserve during the Korean War, attaining the rank of lieutenant. Upon his discharge in 1957, Coover devoted himself to fiction. During the summer of that year, he spent a month sequestered in a cabin near the Canadian border, where he studied the work of Samuel Beckett and committed himself to writing serious avant-garde fiction. In 1958, he travelled to Spain, where he reunited with Maria del Pilar Sans-Mallafré, whom he had earlier met while serving a military tour in Europe. The couple married in 1959 and spent the summer touring southern Europe by motorcycle, an experience he described in “One Summer in Spain: Five Poems,” his first published work. Between 1958 and 1961, Coover studied at the University of Chicago, eventually receiving his master's degree in 1965. The Coovers lived in Spain for most of the early 1960s, a time during which Coover began regularly publishing stories in literary magazines, including the Evergreen Review. In 1966, after the couple returned to the United States, Coover took a teaching position at Bard College in New York. He also published his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), which won the William Faulkner Award for best first novel. In 1969, Coover won a Rockefeller Foundation grant and published Pricksongs and Descants, his first collection of short fiction. That year, he also wrote, produced, and directed a movie, On a Confrontation in Iowa City (1969). Coover has maintained an interest in film throughout his career. During the early 1970s, Coover published only short stories and drama, including A Theological Position (1972), a collection of one-act plays, all of which were eventually produced for the stage. He also won Guggenheim fellowships in 1971 and 1974, and served as fiction editor for the Iowa Review from 1974 to 1977. By the mid-1970s, Coover had finished his next novel, The Public Burning; it took him more than two years to find a publisher for the work, which was ultimately cited as a National Book Award nominee. Coover received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1985 and a Rea Award for A Night at the Movies (1987), a collection of short stories. While Coover concentrated primarily on short fiction—with the exception of Gerald's Party—during the 1980s, he produced a series of new novels during the 1990s. Coover has taught at a number of universities, including the University of Iowa, Columbia University, Princeton University, and Brandeis University, throughout his career. Since 1981 he has been a writer-in-residence and faculty member of the creative writing program at Brown University.
The overarching theme of Coover's work is that narrative structures themselves—whether myth, superstition, or cultural tropes—influence the way people think about themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, Coover feels that by shattering conventional narrative structures one can acquire a clearer view of reality. Though he has attracted considerable praise for his short stories and dramas, most critical analysis of Coover's work is devoted to his novels. The Origin of the Brunists traces the rise of an apocalyptic religious cult centered around the sole survivor of a Midwest mining disaster. This novel is the most conventionally structured of Coover's works. However, by concentrating on the way the novel's events are interpreted by the characters instead of on the events themselves, Coover manages to devote a large part of the novel to exploring the nature of narrative structures. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), in which Coover extends this exploration, revolves around protagonist J. Henry Waugh, a middle-aged accountant who becomes obsessed with the progress of a solitary table-top baseball game of his own invention. The game—driven purely by chance—goes awry and Waugh's drive to impose his will upon the game's events wreaks havoc with his life. Coover uses Waugh's plight to demonstrate that fiction, and the narratives that societies use to interpret events, are as important as the events themselves. In The Public Burning, Coover's examination of narrative takes the form of a fictional reworking of the espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a seminal event in postwar American history. Coover takes great liberties with the real-life event; rather than have the Rosenbergs executed in federal prison, for instance, he stages the execution in Times Square, as part of a grand public sacrificial ritual. The overriding theme of this historical burlesque—half of which is narrated by former U.S. President Richard Nixon—is the way in which accepted modes of historical representation can actually influence the actions of the public. Coover's next major work, Spanking the Maid (1981), is an erotically charged series of thirty-nine stories, each featuring the same two characters: a maid and her employer. At once a parody of nineteenth-century pornographic fiction and Arabian Nights-style narrative cycles, the work is also a serious examination of the fundamental conflict between the concept of the self and the other. Coover again parodied a number of traditional narrative forms in Gerald's Party, most noticeably the detective story. Though the story does feature a murder investigation, all of the characters's attempts at logical detection are frustrated and subverted, and the story becomes a critique of the feasibility of ontological systems in general.
Coover returned to the subject of United States history and the character of Richard Nixon in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? (1987). An unconventional sports story, the novella follows Nixon through an alternate career as a professional football player during the 1930s. Coover applied his talent for bold parody and clever wordplay to a revision of a children's classic, Carlo Collodi's 1883 Pinocchio story, in his next full-length novel, Pinocchio in Venice. Coover recasts the familiar wooden puppet as an aging Nobel laureate who is frustrated in his attempt to finish his last and greatest work during a debauched tour of his homeland. On the surface, the carnivalesque tale is preoccupied with death and other finalities, but on a deeper level, it argues for the acceptance of impermanence and celebrates change for its own sake. In John's Wife (1996), Coover set parody aside, instead creating an ambitious narrative out of the fabric of small-town life. The plot involves a sprawling cast of more than fifty characters, each providing a unique perspective on the title character, the enigmatic wife of a prominent citizen. Two characters in particular—a novelist and a photographer—stand out, and through their musings on art, Coover gives focus to the townsfolk's opinions and anecdotes, ultimately weaving a text that is less about real life than about perception and consciousness. In his next two novels, Coover returned to reworking standard narrative forms. In Briar Rose (1996), he revisited the tale of Sleeping Beauty. As in the original, Coover's version features an evil crone, a bewitched maiden, and a valiant prince. Yet Coover, by placing most of the story inside the sleeping beauty's dreams, preempts any possibility of linear resolution. Each of the novel's sections—alternately narrated by the crone, the beauty, and the prince—start out promisingly enough for the characters, but they all end in disappointment and frustration. Ghost Town represents Coover's interpretation of a traditional Western novel. He utilizes a number of the typical characters of the Western genre—the outlaw, the sheriff, the cowboy, the dance-hall girl—but Coover shifts the characters' roles and attitudes unpredictably, ultimately rendering their stereotypes irrelevant. Coover has also been an early advocate for applying hypertext technology to literary endeavors, and has led experiments in computer-based hypermedia fiction at Brown University.
Coover has been widely respected by literary scholars for the depth and originality of his explorations into the nature of fiction and textual representation. In addition to his serious philosophical and aesthetic concerns, critics have admired the innovative narrative techniques that Coover has developed and honed over more than thirty years. His use of multiple narrative perspectives, nonlinear story progressions, enigmatic characterizations, and intertextual allusions has earned him a place beside Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme in the rank of postmodern writers. However, Coover has not achieved the wide popular audience that other postmodern authors have, and even among critics, his work is viewed as somewhat underappreciated. Many of his novels, including The Public Burning, had received decidedly mixed reviews upon their original publication. A number of critics have also expressed reservations at what they consider to be Coover's stylistic excesses. Coover's penchant for ribald humor and depravity, which is often quite graphic and scatological, has also given some critics pause. Additionally, Coover has drawn criticism for his pronouncements concerning the “death” of the novel and the rise of hyperfiction, as presented in his 1992 New York Times Book Review essay, “The End of Books.” As with other apocalyptic prognosticators, Coover's literary predictions have been met with both interest and disdain. While Coover's recognition in the greater world of literature has been less conspicuous, he has continued to attract serious critical attention for his challenging oeuvre and prolific imagination. His later novels, such as Pinocchio in Venice,John's Wife, and Briar Rose, have been hailed by many as among Coover's best.
SOURCE: Kearns, George. “Fiction: In History and Out.” Hudson Review 44, no. 3 (autumn 1991): 495–96.
[In the following excerpt, Kearns offers a negative assessment of Pinocchio in Venice.]
Would there were some text-specific Lethe-water one could swallow after reading Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice, which leaves me feeling soiled, defiled, gross. I knew I should have stopped, but, authentic sinner, I went on of my own free will. That Coover is supremely clever has long been established; he has gathered more prizes, grants and fellowships than a fetish has nails and feathers. The whole dictionary and a set of reference books are right there in his fingers, available to word-processing through a gift for sinister pastiche. He sprinkles rhinestones and sequins over a midden, not to improve the midden but to lure victims. For if there's a purpose to the over-ripe sophistication that lends styles of Coover's scatology of disillusion, it would seem to be that of defecating on anything the human race has ever found pleasant or believed in. I mean this literally, as I'll explain in a moment.
Briefly, the post-modernized story goes like this: At the end of Carlo Collodi's 1880 children's classic, itself quite nasty, our little puppet turned into a “real boy.” Who, in Coover, grew up to a brief career in Hollywood. (To read Collodi is to appreciate Walt Disney's gift for cosmetic surgery.) Then he became Professor Pinenut, an American academic with humanist pretensions sufficient for two Nobel Prizes. Now he's creaking professor emeritus returned to Italy, to Venice, to complete an autobiographical work and to search for the only mother-figure he ever knew, Collodi's blue-haired Fairy. In Coover's phantasmagoric Venice of masks, harlequins and carnival, he is humiliated, battered and besmirched in every way a Satanic author can devise, apparently as punishment for having written humanist works. Fragments of Collodi's tale pop up in transformations. The blue-haired Fairy is a coarse slut of an American co-ed from the fifties. (In this most misogynist of contemporary texts, by the way, there are no un-be-slutted females or feminine images.) Pinocchio once turned into a donkey, so the professor is baked into a donkey-shaped pizza, and after having had a hole bored in his rear with an apple corer (yes!), is given a ricotta-filled cannoni for a tail.
I kept reading this book because hypnotized, I couldn't believe my eyes, by Coover's fascination with shit, ass-holes, and anything metonymically associated with the same: enemas; arse pimples (pun on Art Principles); whoopee cushions; chamber pots; turds as “saints' relics” (and vice versa); a “peach of an ash”; the fouling of clothes; merdaio; cacca; buggering; hemorrhoids; diapers on the Ducal Palace, and, not in my dictionary, rectum snakes. This is a mere elegant sampling: mostly it's just our demotic pals like “shit” and “ass-hole.” I stopped counting at about two hundred, but the count must go over a thousand, for there are few pages free of the thematic, and some that let go, as it were, half a dozen. This goes elsewhere than art. Someone—let me be polite and invoke our old companion, the “implied author”—someone has a problem. Genitals fare badly, too, in this text, especially when they mingle with philosophy in Duns Scrotum (sic) and Immaculate Kunt (sick). Anything sacred must be made vile, insistently, obsessively; so we have a plenitude of things (I can't bring myself to type out the worst) such as the Fourteen Urinals of the Cross, a Bellini madonna with a penis drawn in her mouth, a Madonna of the Organs “reaching into the scarlet folds of her glistening vagina with both hands and pulling out her ovaries which she proceeds to flick on their fallopian strings at the Count's shaft like little pink yo-yos.” No, no, Coover is only superficially post-modern, if suffering from a style that might be firmed up by a bit of Kaopectate. His true genres, sturdy, unchallenged, charmless as they ever were, include the locker-room story and the crudely-drawn dirty comics we had as kids about the sexual exploits and remarkable physicalities of Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy. Let us turn to something better.
The Origin of the Brunists (novel) 1966
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (novel) 1968
On a Confrontation in Iowa City (film) 1969
Pricksongs and Descants (short stories) 1969
The Kid (play) 1972
*A Theological Position (plays) 1972
The Water Pourer (short story) 1972
Love Scene [originally produced in France as Scene d'amour] (play) 1973
The Stone Wall Book of Short Fictions [editor; with Kent Dixon] (short stories) 1973
Rip Awake (play) 1975
Minute Stories [editor; with Elliott Anderson] (short stories) 1976
The Public Burning (novel) 1977
The Hair o' the Chine (short story) 1979
After Lazarus (screenplay) 1980
Charlie in the House of Rue (short story) 1980
A Political Fable (short story) 1980
Bridge Hand (play) 1981
The Convention (short story) 1981
Spanking the Maid (novella) 1981
In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters (short stories) 1983
Aesop's Forest [bound with The Plot of the Mice and Other Stories by Brian Swann] (short story) 1986
Gerald's Party (novel) 1986
A Night at the Movies; or, You Must Remember This (short stories) 1987
Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? (novella) 1987
Pinocchio in Venice (novel) 1991
Briar Rose (novel) 1996
John's Wife (novel) 1996
Ghost Town (novel) 1998
The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Raw Footage (novel) 2002
*Includes The Kid,Love Scene,Rip Awake, and A Theological Position.
SOURCE: Joris, Pierre. “Coover's Apoplectic Apocalypse or ‘Purviews of Cunning Abstractions.’” Critique 34, no. 4 (summer 1993): 220–31.
[In the following essay, Joris examines Coover's metafictional approach to literature and his affinity for cinematic technique, as demonstrated by the title story of A Night at the Movies.]
I tend to think of tragedy as a kind of adolescent response to the universe—the higher truth is a comic response.
—Robert Coover in an interview with Leo J. Hertzel cited in Critique II, 3 (1969)
I work with language because paper is cheaper than filmstock … Probably, if I had absolute freedom to do what I want, I'd prefer film.
—Robert Coover in interview with Larry McCaffery (1979)
A Night at the Movies opens with the acknowledgment of the impending apocalypse: “We are doomed Professor! The planet is rushing madly towards Earth and no human power can stop it!” Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Both, no doubt, and then something more. Stories. Which is really the same thing, for what is the apocalypse if not a story? Or stories. By definition it is not something we can live to tell. The end of the world, and thus the end of us. How can you tell the end, your own death? You can only tell it before it happens because you will not be around to tell it after the fact. It is not a fact but a fiction. A story. No longer, under the present dispensation, The Story, but a story, one among many possible fictions. When it was The Story it was, says my dictionary, “the last book of the New Testament.” The apocalypse is a book. The apocalypse is the end of the world. A book is the end of the world. It is also the beginning of a new book. Of stories.
We, too, have been brought into a blind alley by the critics and analysts; we, too, suffer from a “literature of exhaustion,” …
And it is above all to the need for new modes of perception and fictional forms able to encompass them that I, barber's basin on my head, address these stories.
—Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants
Which is, of course, a very old story. Every book involves another book or books: writing is always preceded by reading; no book, no thought is totally “original” in that sense. “Like knavish cards, the leaves of all great books were covertly packed. He was but packing one set the more …” is Pierre's realization in the chapter entitled “Pierre at his book” of Melville's great novel of disappointment. Here the hero's disappointment comes about when, trying to become a writer, he realizes that literature is not the spontaneous product of some ineffable inspiration or of some “poetic nature,” but a craft that leans and relies on past books and writings. This realization leads to a loss of innocence and, as Joseph N. Riddel has shown, it is coterminous with the coming into existence of American literature, constituting, after a fashion, the fall from (a non-existent) innocence in the dawning awareness that there is no untainted originality. Here is Riddel's analysis of the chapter in Pierre entitled “Young America in Literature”:
If the satire is directed at anything other than Emerson and his original quoting or appropriation of Carlyle, it is surely a reminder that writing has always been implicated in a series of conventions and complications which preclude the thinking of its primal origin in the “poetic nature.” … Writing, Pierre discovers, implicates him in the worldly economy of textuality … Young America usurps the innocent's dream of originality, of radical innocence, and implicates its authors in a chain of fraternal production, a capitalist enterprise of textual production that abolishes the romantic dream of the “author” and subordinates his originality to the collective design of the “tailor.”
Pierre eventually has to come to terms with “this democratic economy of production, in which there is not one but many authors of every text.” Though Melville's development of this theme in Pierre can be seen as an especially explicit paradigmatic instance of this, it is not an isolated experience in American letters. Edgar A. Dryden, in a response to Riddel's aforementioned essay, shows how the same realization also affected, among others, Hawthorne who “recognizes that writers are readers too, the act of creation one of unweaving and reweaving texts of others”:
His tales are “twice-told” not only in the sense of being “musty and mouse-nibbled leaves of old periodicals, transformed by the magic arts of … friendly publishers into a new book,” but also in the sense of being interpretations of events, objects, and stories from the past. His starting point as a writer is most often an “Old Time Legend” …
“Legend,” as we know, comes from the Latin legere, which means to read. But, Dryden suggests, this discovery of “the extent to which man is a prisoner of the already known and written” is fraught with dangers and may have motivated both Melville's and Hawthorne's long periods of silence:
Both writers are overwhelmed by the exhaustion of possibilities and dismayed by the realization that their relation to their readers is based on deception and bad faith.
And yet, Dryden further suggests, these authors' continuing investigation of the limitations of story would intimate a new possibility “of a fiction which emphasizes story and reading in the face of exhausted possibilities” (192). In the second part of the twentieth century, a heightened version of this awareness will lead a number of the best American fictioners toward what can be called metafiction. Dryden goes directly to John Barth who sees in the very “used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities” a point of departure for new kinds of fiction. This fiction is based on imitations (“novels which imitate the form of the Novel by an author who imitates the role of the Author”), and, as Dryden has it, “the effect of an imitation is to repeat the source in parody and thereby to reveal its fictive nature.” Barth himself is clear that such imitations are not in fact the invention of latecomers, but have been central to fiction writing from the beginning on:
If this sort of thing sounds unpleasantly decadent, nevertheless it's about where the genre began, with Quixote imitating Amadis of Gaul, Cervantes pretending to be the Cid Hamete Benengeli (and Alonso Quijano pretending to be Don Quichote), or Fielding parodying Richardson. “History repeats itself as farce”—meaning, of course, in the form or mode of farce, not that history is farcical … This is the difference between a proper, “naive” novel and a deliberate imitation of a novel, or a novel imitating other kinds of documents.
One could argue that what differentiates the contemporary postmodern or “metafictional” novel from its predecessors is not so much the fact that it imitates, or even the nature of that imitation, but rather the high level of self-awareness or self-consciousness this imitatio has achieved. The ensuing unavoidable playfulness (“it's all done with mirrors!” could be the glib encapsulation of the metafictioner's methodology) such self-consciousness creates, is paralleled, accompanied, undercut, traversed and/or undermined, as the case may be, by the deep seriousness of an undertaking aware that it is never “presenting”—or “presencing”—but always “representing,” repeating a story without single origin and from but one of many possible perspectives and thus unable to claim any final “truth-value” for itself.
This high self-consciousness of the contemporary novelist has of course its dangers, the main ones being probably a certain inevitable narcissism and a love of pyrotechnics, of technical proficiency for its own sake. The constant need to look over one's shoulder and examine and re-examine the fictional forms of the past can easily lead to staleness or a new-fangled version of academic formalism. Even in Barth's behemoths of novels the author's undoubted and vaunted love of storytelling is all too often buried under webs of conceits strangling the initial exhilaration. The reader—or at least this reader—all too often gets the sense that the multitudinous literary forms of the past consciously dredged up and parodied finally constitute the essential part of the writing, so that, paradoxically, one is reading in fact an actual, antiquarian nineteenth- or eighteenth-century novel.
It is in contrast to this rather academic version of metafiction, prey to so much ingrownness, so much “nombrilisme”—a fascination with one's own belly-button, as the French put it—that Robert Coover's work is extremely refreshing. Though highly conscious of the necessary self-reflexive nature of fictional forms, Coover has managed to avoid the trap of gratuitous parody, of repetition for the sake of repetition. Even when working with “musty and mouse-nibbled leaves of old periodicals” (as he did, for example, in The Public Burning, a novel whose language—especially the dialogue—is based on the historical 1950s speeches and writings of Eisenhower, Nixon, and consorts), he manages to “in-form” his creations with new energy and meanings. One reason for this may be that Coover, while fully aware of the re-presentational nature of all writing, has not limited himself to a self-conscious recycling of those forms belonging to the history of the novel. His vision of where we are, though highly comic as it emerges in his works, especially the short fictions, is relatively pessimistic:
We seem to have moved from an open-ended, anthropocentric, humanistic, naturalistic, even—to the extent that man may be thought of as making his own universe—optimistic starting point, to one that is closed, cosmic, eternal, supernatural (in its soberest sense), and pessimistic.
(Pricksongs and Descants 78)
It is in reaction to this state of affairs that Coover conceives the writer's mission, which is to “use 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” (Pricksongs and Descants 79).
Thus A Night at the Movies is the conscious utilization of the familiar mythic and historical forms of another cultural genre: film. As we have seen, every writer is also and may be foremost a reader. Today we would need to amend that statement and say that she or he is also a viewer of films. The movies, which have to a great extent usurped the social function (and also very often the Aristotelian strictures) of the traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel, are in this sense essential documents of our present and thus, I submit, probably not only more accessible, but may be also more appropriate than say, Clarissa or even Don Quixote, to tell the story of our contemporary dilemmas or to criticize our culture. This is not to suggest that the re-flexive movement, which makes conscious and ironic or parodic use of older, “exhausted” forms, is not present. To the contrary, Coover's subtitle “You must remember this” ironically points out that film, although a contemporary cultural form, is also and at the same time already a form of the past, or better, a form “with a past”—and thus no innocent ingenue, no matter how much it would like to present itself as such.
Indeed, although the formal reference of the writing is to the medium of film, and although each one of the individual fictions that make up the book is directly related to film, the book as a whole tries to suggest the complex social occasion of “going to the movies,” of spending “a night at the movies.” That situates the event in the past and in opposition to either today's (low-brow) television culture or its (high-brow) art-cinema culture. Coover delights in constructing a nostalgic framework meant to remind us of 1940s and 1950s outings: rather than the one feature film we are likely to take in today when we are able to get off the television-couch, this is a full evening's worth of “entertainment,” including previews, serials, adventure flicks, shorts, comedy, kiddie-films, a travel documentary, a musical interlude and a “main feature.” Such a program cannot but reproduce a certain haphazard quality, a randomness alien to any Aristotelian notion of the well-wrought book, of the “novel” as a coherency mirroring a supposed cosmic coherency. But it is exactly that haphazard quality that serves the postmodern sensibility of complexity, discontinuity, randomness all the better. “Fictions,” the term Coover uses to define the genre of his book, is a concept that more accurately describes our imaginings concerning our contemporary world than the idea of “the novel.”
Coover's imitation of the genre(s) is unabashed from the very beginning: the traditional “table of contents” has been replaced by a “program,” followed by this rejoinder often found in old movie theaters or programs, and reproduced down to the erratic capitalization of the words, here usurping the place of the literary exergue: “Ladies and Gentlemen May safely visit this Theatre as no Offensive Films are ever Shown Here.” The reader smiles, detecting a clear note of sarcasm, and, of course expecting the opposite.
What's frightening is not so much being able to see only what you want to see, see, but discovering that what you think you see only because you want to see it … sees you …
—Robert Coover, “The Phantom of the Movie Palace”
This essay is not the place to propose or attempt a full analysis of the many fictions making up A Night at the Movies. We will have to make do with a close look or, better, with several medium-range shots (what French movie parlance calls “des plans américains”) montaged with a few zooms and panning or travelling shots of the first story. But this is no loss. That story, a dazzling tour de force of writing, can serve as paradigm for the whole book: it is, simultaneously, a comic parody of just about every imaginable movie genre, a stern fable on the porous boundaries between “fiction” and “reality,” an astute analysis and critique of the author's role, a philosophical meditation on the illusionary nature of time and the effectuation of the apocalypse announced in the text's first sentence.
The title itself, “The Phantom of the Movie Palace,” puns on the title of a well-known film, hiding and thereby highlighting another cultural genre, namely opera. Opera is a genre that, like film, partakes both of the theater and of literature. It is, moreover, also a genre that, like the novel and like silent movies, has often been declared dead. Something dead, then, although still somehow present, intruding, looming, or letting its shadow fall upon the present: that is, of course, the very definition of a phantom.
At the most superficial level of “realistic” analysis, “The Phantom” can be read as a funny and highly moral tale: in an old, slightly decrepit, and totally deserted movie theater, a lonely projectionist, refusing to acknowledge that the good old days—or “the age of gold” as Coover puts it—are over, locks himself so deeply into the fictitious world of old movies and movie characters that he finally goes insane, believing himself to be a character in an old historical movie, about to be guillotined. A rational medical diagnosis would describe the illness as paranoid schizophrenia, or if we wanted to invent a new, more literary term, “iconic schizoparanoia.” At this level of analysis a basic moral tail wags the story: The wages of the refusal to live in the present, i.e., real world, are madness, insanity. This is, however, an unsatisfactory “explication de texte,” not only because it rides roughshod over the very complexity and involutedness of the text itself, but also because it is unable to read the re-flexive nature of the moral it draws from its own flawed reading of the text. The un- or ir-reality it blames the character for wanting to live in is, of course, also that of writing, of fiction itself, and therefore such a moral would ultimately have to condemn all fiction as “only” re-presenting reality and thus never being the thing present to itself.
The most obvious mistake of such an analysis lies in the fact that it abstracts a linear plot—or tries to force the text into Aristotelian strictures—and thus falsifies the text. It is, indeed, more than a simple misreading; it presupposes a willed simplification of the textual matter itself bordering, consciously or unconsciously, on willful deception. To get to a more nuanced reading of Coover's story, in order to uncover the multilayeredness and interweaving of text and meaning, we need, first of all, to go to that text itself, to its texture. Coover's writing is anything but linear, expository prose. One way to describe its complex gestalt would be to compare it to Möbius strip—that paradoxical topographical figure where inside and outside turn into each other, creating a space literally indescribable by Euclidian means.
One could consider this Möbius strip topography of the text as its strategy, whereas its tactics are those of montage, i.e., a technique the early modernist writers brought into literature from film and that has been central for most innovative poetry and prose ever since. Coover's formal procedures or tactics thus actually imitate, parody, re-present those of the genre he is “writing about.” Writing is always a re-writing of an earlier text, although in the present case this applies not only to matters of “content,” but also to the formal procedures used in creating the text; in Derridaian terms it is not just a repetition of the trace, but a repetition of the angle at which the stylus hits the clay of the tablet—thus also a matter of stylistics.
A simple example of the text's Möbius strip strategy can be found early in the text, in pages 14–15. Coover has started his fiction by presenting, in four paragraphs, by means of rapid montage, scenes from various film genres: science-fiction, gangster, family drama, and pornography. (Further along, the story will show scenes from a Foreign Legion movie, a kiddie comedy, a Western, a Tarzan flick, and many more). This is done without any contextualization; i.e., the reader cannot know or decide where he or she stands, if she or he is purely an outside spectator watching the films with detachment, or some kind of eavesdropping participant inside the scene or frame. The fifth paragraph at first continues this pattern. The opening sentence—“The man with the axe in his forehead steps into the flickering light.”—indicates simply another shift of genres: we are now in some kind of horror movie. The second sentence—“His eyes, pooled in blood, cross as though trying to see what it is that is cleaving his brain in two.”—confirms the setting while already cross-breeding genres by shifting from pure horror to some (intentional? non-intentional?—we cannot say as yet) form of comedy, or at the very least, to a parody of the horror film.
The third sentence—“His chest is pierced with a spear, his groin with a sword.”—broadens both the horror and comic possibilities, thereby intensifying the parodic dimension. The fourth sentence opens with the logical continuation of the actions depicted by the first three sentences (or shots): “He stumbles, falls into …” Up to this point the language has been purely descriptive of an external action. Now, in the middle of the fourth sentence, it changes and presents us with what we take, or have to take, at first glance, for a metaphor: “He stumbles, falls into a soft splash of laughter and applause.” Our initial understanding of the completed sentence suggests that what we have here is a rhetorical trope where the spatial “into” replaces a temporal “as”—i.e., as the man falls, or at the same time as the man falls, the audience (who or where that as yet unnamed audience is, we do not know) begins to laugh at the horror-comic antics. The fifth sentence seems to confirm this reading, opening as it does with “His audience, still applauding …”; its end reassuringly indicates that what we have witnessed is indeed “only” a movie that has come to its end as the audience “rises now and turns towards the exits.”
However, the middle segment of that sentence—“as the light in the film flows from viewed to viewer”—is both enigmatic and disturbing. What is happening here? It cannot simply mean that the light of the movie-projector, and thus of the movie, goes out while the house-lights come on, for the sentence unambiguously states that it is the light “in the film” that now changes direction and flows from viewed to viewer. The sentence can semantically only suggest that what has been seen now becomes what sees, that the relationship of viewer and viewed is inverted. The horror movie now views the audience that in the next sentences (in fact three short sentence fragments setting the scene staccato) does indeed become the actor of another classic horror scene of that genre: “Which are locked. Panic ensues. Perhaps it is a fire.”
The next sentence buttresses the previously intuited insight: indeed the projector, i.e., the (light of the) horror movie did not go out/end, for we are now told that “Up on the rippling velours, the man with the split skull is still staggering and falling, staggering and falling.” In the next sentence the viewers of the original horror film are now viewed as caught in their own horror film:
“Oh my god! Get that axe!” someone screams, clawing at the door, and another replies: “It's no use! It's only a rhetorical figure!” “What—?!” This is worse than anyone thought. “I only came for the selected short subjects!” someone cries irrationally.
In the middle of this new film-scene further twists and layers appear in the strange dialogue (“It's only a rhetorical figure” and “I only came for the selected short subjects”), which we will come back to later. But this is not all yet: the last sentence of the paragraph introduces yet another twist:
They press their tear-streaked faces against the intractable doors, listening in horror to their own laughter and applause, rising now to fill the majestic old movie palace until their chests ache with it, their hands burn.
Now the audience, the viewers of the first film, has not only become the viewed of a second horror scene; but also, in the final twist of the paragraph, as actors in that scene, the viewers—the auditors, to be more precise—of themselves in their role as audience of the very first horror scene. The effect of these switches between observer and observed, viewer and viewed, inside and outside, in which the one seems at will to turn into the other in a whirling dervish dance of change of perspectives is exactly what I have called the Möbius strip strategy. The other set of terms that could, of course, be substituted for the one used above is “reality” and “fiction.” Clearly the boundaries between fiction and reality, between object and subject, between viewed and viewer are porous indeed.
This basic stratagem operates throughout Coover's story, both on the micro-level of the sentence and on the macro-level of the story-line. Briefly, in the latter, the main character, the projectionist, moves from the reality of his movie theater into the fiction of his films, in a chassé-croisé chase with the eternal ingenue character of his films who crosses over from the fictions of the films into the projectionist's reality-theater. The gateway for that crossing over consists also in a transformational process. The projectionist, erotically fascinated by what he perceives to be holes in the underwear of a young ingenue climbing a ladder leading to a hayloft, is however aware that they are “just water spots—it's an old film,” thus producing another one of the strange places where “fiction and reality meet.” But his desire, “his lonely quest for the impossible mating, the crazy embrace of polarities,” pushes him to conjoin the two.
To bridge the “unbridgeable distance between the eye and its object” he manipulates his old films (by means of filmic, literary, and painterly techniques: collage, montage, frottage, overlay, décollage) only to find that the ingenue has vanished—escaped through the water-marks that have shape-shifted or are they the stiletto heel marks of the incarnation of another ingenue? “a mad scatter of vicious little holes” in the middle of the screen. Thus, these holes in the screen are the gateway from one reality into another, but it is not as if the scatter of holes were random black holes: they spell out a semantically laden sentence in block letters: “Beware the Midnight Man!”
His comic gift allaying any queasiness we may have at the inevitably arising suspicion that “nothing and everything is true” (or, to use Hassan I Sabbah's harsher version of the same realization, that “nothing is true, [and so] everything is permitted”), Coover guides or rather rides us through these masterfully effected transformations and dislocations in a universe—or universes—where polysemy is not so much a metaphoric quality of individual words, but rather a metonymic function of syntax, and especially of that larger syntax structure we call narrative.
The hero, trying simply to save the world, enters the fun house, only to be subjected to everything from death rays and falling masonry to iron maidens, time traps, and diabolic life-restoring machines, as though to problematize his very identity through what the chortling fun-house operators call in their other-worldly tongue “the stylistics of absence.”
—Robert Coover, “The Phantom of the Movie Palace”
As behooves a good metafictioner, Coover's text is fully conscious of its own turns and twists, and on one level can be read precisely as an investigation and critique of the role of the fiction writer. The “Mad Projectionist” thus becomes another figure of the contemporary author: not the god-like creator of exquisite “true” fictions he is supposed to control completely, he is the technical manipulator of already existent data—images or words or stories—that he controls only to a limited degree. In that sense, and to go back to the suggestions made in the first part of this essay, in the traditional novel something “long forgotten” is dragged out, something that was hidden is revealed: the author as magus or demi-urge makes present what was not and would have remained thus without his mediation.
By contrast, in Coover's version of the author as projectionist, writing splices together everything we already know. We have seen and re-seen these films hundreds of times: there is no hidden origin, no long-buried truth that is finally revealed by the author. The Mad Projectionist shows us and himself what we have known all along although we did not know that we knew it. (“I think I have been in this movie before,” a contemporary idiom has it, while we could speculate, had we but the time, on how close this comes to Nietzsche's “Eternal Return.”
The Mad Projectionist qua author realizes how little control he has over the iconic cultural representations he handles, in this case, “his” characters and story-lines, and how “meaning” is independent of both his own will and of that of his characters:
They seem then, no matter how randomly he's thrown the clips together, to be caught up in some terrible enchantment of continuity, as though meaning itself were pursuing them (and him! and him!), lunging and snorting at the edge of the frame, fangs bared and dripping of gore.
(A Night at the Movies 18)
But he also senses the dangers lurking, for “he knows there's something corrupt, maybe even dangerous, about this collapsing of boundaries,” although it is simultaneously liberating, and thus he cannot stop even if at times he feels “like he's caught out in no-man's-land on a high trapeze with pie on his face” (23). When things go wrong, he has the authorial faith that “an expert touch of his finger on a sprocket soon restores time's main illusion” (26). But even that faith in minimal technical control seems a delusion, for in this story, at least, the author as Mad Projectionist does get caught in the web of his “creations” and remains unable to extricate himself. When he is led to the guillotine, the mob screams “The public is never wrong!” while a voice on the public address system (a voice that among other things is also the anonymous voice of the literary critic) recounts the crimes of the condemned. These “crimes” read like an encapsulated indictment of the innovative prose writer from Cervantes' time to today, proffered at the moment when the abstracted voice of the “critic” has taken it upon himself to produce justice and occupy the center of the stage:
… creatures of the night, a collection of the world's most astounding horrors, these abominable parvenus of iconic transactions, [my italics] the shame of a nation, three centuries in the making, brought to you in the mightiest dramatic spectacle of all the ages!
(A Night at the Movies 35–6)
And so we are in a way, led back to the opening paragraph of this essay, in a circular or, I would hope, spiral motion, which, as this is not fiction, can only try and fail to imitate the spiral of Coover's story. The end of which is no end, for although the Mad Projectionist caught in a movie of a movie seems to and, yes, gets guillotined, the dropping blade makes him “surrender himself finally … to that great stream of image-activity that characterizes the mortal condition,” enabling him to re-turn, to re-run (“it's a last-minute sort of rescue”) a film he once saw “(The Revenge of Something-or-Other, or The Returns of …)” as the Möbius strip twists one more time.
The apocalypse acknowledged in the opening sentence has indeed happened, but it is now only one old story-line among many others, and, as on a Möbius strip there is no beginning or end. The essential aspect of the apocalypse, namely that it signals the end, is denied, especially as he who tells it is there after the end. In an open universe, the apocalypse can only be local, limited, and therefore bereft of final, eschatological meaning. If Coover's story and writing techniques have so far been seen mainly under their spatial strictures—the Möbius strip is essentially a topographical gestalt, it is time now to look at the lessons they teach in matters of time, not some absolute time, but under the guise of “timing.”
The End of the World or apocalypse is also the end of time and the beginning of eternity. This concept of the apocalypse presupposes a linear, one-directional concept of time that in turn is the basis for the inevitability of events and thus for our sense of the essentially “tragic” nature of those events in the human sphere. Que sera, sera. The song, in its nostalgic whining, in fact gives the essence of the notion of the tragic: fate. The apocalypse is thus the ultimate tragic event. But Coover's apocalypse is apoplectically funny. What has happened? The answer, to abbreviate and oversimplify to the extreme, is: film. Or, better, the lessons concerning time that the art of the moving picture has given us.
Tragedy/Comedy: it is as if these literary “genres” were finally a matter of relative speed. A cinematic lesson we have all experienced: at the end of a run-of-the-mill entertaining, exciting, sometimes funny, gangster period-piece, the director wants to introduce a sense of the tragic. He does it with the slow-motion technique. Bonnie and Clyde die under a hail of fast bullets, but these bullets are slowed down so that we, the spectators, should conceive of these bullets as moving slowly, inexorably, inevitably towards their targets. In that slowness, in that infinite moment of suspension just before the bullet breaks the skin and draws blood, originates the tension between our desire to avoid, deflect, arrest the event and our realization of the unavoidable, inexorable nature of the event, i.e., of “fatedness.” The bullet was sent on its path long before we became conscious of its progress and target; it is an absolute event in a linear time frame that we cannot change or even inflect. We can only be impotent spectators. That tension is exactly what we call the tragic.
Comedy, on the other hand, resides essentially in the destruction of that moment of suspension, and of the tension thus created, by speeding up movement to the point where cause (the fate prescribed from before time) and effect happen simultaneously: the man collapses as/or even before the trigger is pulled. As Coover puts it: “Cause (that indefinable something) is a happy ending. Or maybe not.” And the reverse holds true too: take a basic slapstick pie-throwing scene, slow it down until the pie moves only by infinitesimal increments towards the face of the unaware victim, and you have tragedy. Every comedian knows that “timing is all.” Coover's statement that he considers “tragedy as a kind of adolescent response to the universe—the higher truth (being) a comic response” seems, to me, to express exactly that new knowledge of time. Once we are aware that time is not that absolute, sternly linear pattern that makes tragedy possible, but a malleable thing that can be speeded up or slowed down, abolished or created, twisted or re-run, then tragedy and comedy can become interchangeable, depending on how we read or see the world. Then, of course, an end of time, an apocalypse, becomes just one of many cosmic jokes, eternally recurring, like a bad joke that has us in stitches even as our heads rest on the block. And maybe it is our laughter that is also the signal for the guillotine to drop, the guillotine that is, as Coover puts it, that “gigantic ticket chopper” granting admittance to the movie theater of our Möbius strip world.
Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in The Friday Book. New York: Putnam's, 1984.
Coover, Robert. A Night at the Movies. New York: Simon, 1987.
———. Pricksongs and Descants. New York: New American, 1970.
Dryden, Edgar A. “Writer as Reader: An American Story,” in The Question of Textuality. Ed. William Spanos, Paul Bové, and Daniel O'Hara. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 189–96.
Riddel, Joseph. “Decentering the Image: The ‘Project’ of ‘American’ Poetics?” in The Question of Textuality. Ed. William Spanos, Paul Bové, and Daniel O'Hara. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 159–88.
SOURCE: Walsh, Richard. “Narrative Inscription, History, and the Reader in Robert Coover's The Public Burning.” Studies in the Novel 25, no. 3 (fall 1993): 332–46.
[In the following essay, Walsh examines Coover's reinterpretation of the Rosenberg trial and McCarthy-era hysteria in The Public Burning, arguing that the novel's carnivalesque satire—particularly as embodied in the Nixon and Uncle Sam characters—dramatizes the collective psychology of Cold War American society.]
Robert Coover, one of the most impressive of the postmodern American novelists, established in his early fiction a preoccupation with the ways our various explanatory narratives impose upon the truth of our experience. His exploration of these ideas was at its most abstract and metafictional in the stories of Pricksongs and Descants (1969); but his major novel The Public Burning (1977), about the Rosenberg executions and the climate of McCarthyism in which they occurred, gave the same concerns a hard political edge. The novel displayed a new emphasis upon the specifics of recent American history in Coover's work, to the extent that he was obliged to conduct a large part of the final editing under great pressure from the house lawyers at Viking.1 It both recreated and transformed the ideological narratives of fifties Cold War orthodoxy in order to explore the ways in which they inscribed both populace and protagonists, compelling them toward a deadly resolution. At the same time the argument itself worked towards an equivalent affective inscription of the reader, raising questions about the necessary conditions for moral judgment.
Fundamental to Coover's strategy in The Public Burning is a surprisingly unsympathetic treatment of the Rosenbergs themselves. They are kept at a cool distance throughout, even though the chapters narrated by Nixon are largely devoted to his (self-interested) attempts at reaching an understanding of them. Nixon's intensive study does not approach an imaginative empathy with the Rosenbergs but appropriates their story to his own life. He pursues relentlessly the parallels between the upbringing, experiences and character of Julius Rosenberg and his own, construing their lives as mirror images of each other and thus, in the process of assessing where Julius deviated from the Horatio Alger career profile, establishing his own adherence to that narrative. His analysis of Julius remains always subordinate to his obsessive self-analysis, maintaining the priority of the political aspirations which underlie his interest in the Rosenbergs.
Beyond this, the Rosenbergs' direct presence in the novel is limited to the quotations from their Death House letters and from Ethel's clemency appeals. These too are for the most part given in support of Nixon's theory that the Rosenbergs are consumed by the roles in which they have cast themselves, and so they operate exactly against the intimacy direct quotation would otherwise offer. Nor is Nixon's theory so unreasonable as to be purely a projection of his own obsessions (though it is that as well). Coover needs it to explain the Rosenbergs' strange behavior at the trial, and later in prison, where the Warden reports them “behaving in what they probably think of as, well, symbolic ways—you know, acting like they're establishing historical models or precedents or something.”2 It is also an explanation to which Coover himself alluded when he criticized Louis Nizer's The Implosion Conspiracy for “accepting the Rosenbergs' courtroom role-playing at face value,” and asked, “was the cause for their suspicious courtroom behaviour in fact their pretending to be somebody they were not during the trial?”3 In the third of the novel's “intermezzos,” in which the tone is usually at its most direct, Julius and Ethel's letters are used to create an extended statement of their stand against the pressures upon them to confess, under a title calculated to give maximum force to its melodramatic content—“Human Dignity Is Not for Sale: A Last-Act Sing Sing Opera” (p. 381). In spite of the use to which it is put this is not a pejorative representation of the Rosenbergs, as is made clear at the beginning of the second intermezzo, a dramatization of Ethel's clemency appeal to Eisenhower, in which her histrionic rhetoric is rationalized: “At no time during the dialogue does the PRESIDENT address the PRISONER, or even acknowledge her presence on the same stage. The PRISONER, aware of this, sometimes speaks to him directly, but more often seems to be trying to reach him by bouncing echoes off the Audience” (p. 247). In their hopeless situation, the suggestion that the Rosenbergs have adopted strategic roles carries no satiric charge, as it does in the case of Nixon himself. It does ensure that even the limited presence they do have in the narrative is discredited, and invalidated as a focus of reader identification. Clearly Coover is not concerned with a novelistic identification with the Rosenbergs, and therefore forfeits the sort of empathetic recreation of their martyrdom that would have generated the greatest emotional force from the story. But the cost of such an approach would have been to alienate the reader from the prevailing mentality of fifties America, the entire atmosphere of Cold War hysteria that condemned them. It is this phenomenon with which Coover is most concerned, and in which he seeks partially to implicate the reader.
If the Rosenbergs themselves do not ultimately concern Coover neither does the degree of their innocence or guilt, though he has expressed a firm opinion on the issue elsewhere: “If you read the trial record … you pretty much have to conclude that the Rosenbergs were innocent of the charges against them. But they were either responsible for protecting some other secret, or believed themselves to be.”4 But in the novel this interpretation of the reality behind the public record is put into the mouth of Richard Nixon, and he, at the novel's climax, is there at the head of the crowd rushing to pull the switch on Ethel. The actual innocence or guilt of the Rosenbergs was a minor issue among the forces that took them to their deaths: the title of his novel indicates that Coover places the emphasis upon the American public themselves. His concern is with the collective mind of America at the time of the executions: the ways in which its attitudes and responses conform to perceptions of the political situation modelled upon religious and mythical narratives, and acted out in ritualistic manner by the entire nation.
The fundamental manipulation by which Coover transforms his narrative from a historical fiction into a metaphorical realization of the fiction behind history is the transposition (offered deadpan in the first paragraph of the prologue) of the Rosenbergs' executions from the death chamber at Sing Sing to a stage in the middle of Times Square. This fusion of literal and metaphorical creates a narrative space that is both and neither, where analytic metaphor and historical fact can operate together without the mediation of an authorial narrator. Coover has said in interview that “Stories tend to appear to me, not as formal ideas, but as metaphors, and these metaphors seem to demand structures of their own.”5 This structure is apparent in The Public Burning, the founding metaphor that suggests itself being contained in the simple proposition that the Rosenbergs were scapegoats.
By developing this metaphor Coover is able to tease out all the overtones of primitive ritual in the scapegoat role the Rosenbergs fulfilled in the McCarthy Era, and create a full blown sacrificial rite in which the whole tribe of America participates. The metaphor owes an acknowledged debt to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which Coover has playing on execution night to an audience of one, the author. “Ah well: art …” he broods, “not as lethal as one might hope …” (p. 490). Coover's own art, at over twenty years distance, is offered more as analysis than as polemic. He takes quite literally the Manicheanism of the Cold War rhetoric that dominated the period, translating it into the scripture of a sect whose forces of Light, under the aegis of Uncle Sam, are besieged by the communist Phantom's forces of Darkness. That such a translation is so simply effected gives an authority to the metaphor that compels attention throughout the considerable length and intricacy to which he extends it—and he is able to turn an enormous quantity of the public record of the time to his purpose. The first intermezzo, “The War between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness,” is subtitled “The Vision of Dwight David Eisenhower (from Public Papers of the Presidents, January 20–June 19, 1953)” (p. 149); and in this collage of quotations Coover is able to establish an extraordinary insistence upon the metaphors of light and darkness and the religion of the American Way. “It was as though he'd never really believed in God,” observes Nixon, “until he discovered Him there in the Declaration of Independence” (p. 184).
The susceptibility to Coover's analysis of the behavior and events surrounding the Rosenberg executions suggests a link far more tangible than the trick of a metaphor: it suggests that the rhetoric and thought of Cold War America tapped into the substantial and insidious power of religious thought, superstition and ultimately the anthropological propensities of the American people. Coover's anthropological interest is apparent in his characterization of the Times Square chapters in terms of a concept he borrows from Roger Caillois: “‘Dreamtime’ is a ritual return to the mythic roots of a group of people … This idea of a ritual bath of prehistoric or preconscious experience was very attractive to me as I began developing the Rosenberg book.”6 The Manichean cult he imposes upon the climate of fifties America is therefore of interpretative value not just in itself but as an example of the way the politics of a modern society may draw strength from unacknowledged primitive models. The gathering in Times Square is an instance of the “collective effervescence” by which Durkheim characterized all religious or quasi-religious assembly. But while Durkheim held the creative power of such occasions in high regard, Coover's view is much less optimistic. The function of the Rosenberg executions is presented as reaching beyond the fulfillment of doctrinal expectations to the satisfaction of more fundamental needs. On the morning of the executions all America wakes in a state of sexual excitement: “But none, curiously enough, has used his or her aroused sexuality on a mate, it's as though, somehow, that's not what it was all about” (p. 164). The electrocutions are sanctioned by the harmony between their political motivations and the deep psychological needs of the American public.
The displaced source of these needs is revealed by the episode in which a moviegoer, after seeing the 3-D movie, House of Wax, walks out onto the street without removing his cardboard glasses. The surreal and slapstick scenes that result serve as his own private descent into “dreamtime,” exposing his deepest fears: “It's all coming together … into the one image that has been pursuing him through all his sleepless nights, the billowing succubus he's been nurturing for nine months now, ever since the new hydrogen-bomb tests at Eniwetok: yes, the final spectacle, the one and only atomic holocaust, he's given birth to it at last” (p. 286). In a standard carnivalesque inversion, the crazy distortions of the 3-D glasses are fundamentally truthful, expressing the madness of the country's psychological state. As beneficiary of these insights, the man himself “is very clear-headed, which is the main cause of his panic. It strikes him that he is perhaps the only sane man left on the face of the earth” (p. 287). He remains, however, a representative American, and the irreconcilable opposition between his personal insight and the public creed required of him lead him to throw himself into the chair on the Times Square set, his words serving as a satiric literalization of Eisenhower's rhetoric: “The President said it: ‘the one capital offense is a lack of staunch faith!’ THROW THE SWITCH!” (p. 288). The lengths to which Coover pursues his metaphor are grotesque, but it is the force of insight behind it that allows him to extend and elaborate it so fully, and continue to surprise with new points of contact between trope and history.
Summoned into being by this metaphor is the figure of Uncle Sam, who is deity and high priest to the sect, both the product of the unfolding American narrative and its orchestrator. This religious authority is grounded in his identification with the American folk consciousness: he is an amalgam of every popular hero from David Crockett to Superman, possessed of a rich folk vernacular which draws its imagery and rhetoric from the frontier experience and is given free rein throughout the novel. He is a character burdened with the history of a nation, but who eludes the ironies this generates by appealing to exactly the complexities of motivation and personality created by the equation between nation and character. So, dismissing his flagrant contempt for the Constitution in the Rosenberg case, he scoffs: “Bah! The wild oats of youth! … puritanism! whoo, worse'n acne! It's great for stirrin' up the jism when you're nation-breedin', but it ain't no way to live a life!” (p. 531). The expediency of character takes precedence over any commitment to the historical imperatives of a national constitution. The novel's evocation of American folk consciousness has been examined at length by David Estes, who notes that its barbaric values are preserved through an engaging humor.7 As Estes presents it, this is pure diagnosis on Coover's part; but his use of folk humor in the novel also makes a sly appeal to the reader. In the case of Uncle Sam, it generates a degree of affection quite at odds with the ethical response he provokes, and disconcerted critics have objected that he is simply not dislikable enough, finding it “hard to remember that he represents anything worse than the national talent for garrulousness.”8
Uncle Sam's role in the novel is complicated by functions other than that of personified national character. He is also the spiritual force that animates the president, his incarnation, and as such he is part accumulated heritage of the presidency—his looks are an eclectic sum of the features of past presidents—and part abstraction of the electorate, the spirit of enfranchised American opinion. All these elements in Uncle Sam have a role in furthering the inexorable movement towards the executions of which he is the architect. Personifying them in a character allows Coover to consider them in a way which is both intimate and analytical. As a character Uncle Sam, for all the vice Coover displays in him, evokes a response complex enough to challenge the reader with complicity in the ideology he represents: he holds a fascination which inhabits his worst excesses, and as such forbids the easy condemnation his (or America's) behavior would otherwise invite. The creation of Uncle Sam also crucially involves giving the national character a consciousness of its own, enabling him to articulate and act upon the implicit desires and fears of a generation. In this way matter that would be restricted to discursive interpretation and diagnosis in a less radical novelistic approach becomes a forceful, persistent presence and prime mover in the novel. Recognizing the value of character but addressing abstract issues, Coover has turned the latter into the former, and so enabled his presentation of what would otherwise have been a thematically overburdened argument.
Uncle Sam's role, especially in presiding over the Times Square ritual sacrifice, is that of ringmaster; part of Coover's larger structural concept of The Public Burning as a three ring circus. According to this framework, the different types of chapters (impersonally narrated, Nixon narrated and intermezzos) correspond to the three rings, and Nixon plays the clown to Uncle Sam's ringmaster. This structural concept combines two elements, carnival and performance, which are intimately related to the substance of the novel. Coover's use of the carnivalesque, according to the specification provided by Mikhail Bakhtin, is apparent throughout. The Nixon chapters harp ceaselessly upon the Rabelaisian motifs of Bakhtin's “material bodily principle”—Nixon's grotesque appetites, his sexuality, his smell, his increasingly shabby appearance, masturbation, flatulence, urination, defecation, buggery and his public exposure on the Times Square stage. In the impersonal chapters carnivalesque action builds in a crescendo as events in Times Square progress: an example is the slapstick scene in which the Supreme Court Justices who have earlier vacated a stay of execution flounder ignominiously in a pile of GOP elephant droppings. A rigorous penal code is in operation here—not just the simple inversion of rank that characterises carnivalesque in general but a much more specific degradation according to merit regarding the Rosenberg case. So Justices Douglas and Black, who opposed the overruling, escape the ordeal—as does Justice Frankfurter, who hovers on the brink but is spared for his belated choice of the dissenting camp.
The distinction has to be drawn, though, between carnivalesque in the narrative and the subject matter as carnival, for the latter, despite appearances, is significantly not the case. The structure of the novel as circus implies the subjugation of carnival through presentation or performance, the use of controlled carnival for tendentious purposes by ringmaster Uncle Sam. The function of the gathering in Times Square is to satisfy the primitive demands of the people with a simulation of carnival disorder—a logical extension of the scapegoat function fulfilled by the Rosenbergs. Or, in Durkheim's terms, it is a gathering of the tribe in order to consolidate their faith by participating in the effervescence of religious assembly: “This is why all parties, political, economic or confessional, are careful to have periodical reunions where their members may revivify their common faith by manifesting it in common.”9 “Oh, I don't reckon we could live like this all year round,” says Uncle Sam, “But we do need us an occasional peak of disorder and danger to keep things from just peterin' out, don't we?” (p. 95). The carefully contrived framework within which the festivities are allowed to take place betrays the hand of a manipulative Uncle Sam, as the embodiment of the national interest aloof from the people who should define it. As such, carnival is used as a generator of orthodoxy: the only genuine occurrences of carnivalesque in the narrative are in fact disruptive of this doctrinaire show, not allied to it. The detail of Bakhtin's concept of carnival makes clear discrimination possible. Carnival, for him, is spontaneous, and not to be equated with politically organized festivals: the Times Square burnings are minutely organized by Uncle Sam and his deputies. Carnival, as distinct from official occasions, involves the suspension of hierarchical rank, norms and prohibitions: rank is rigorously observed in Times Square through the provision of a VIP enclosure and the parade of dignitaries before the crowd; and the whole purpose of the occasion is the consolidation of anti-communist norms and the punishment of transgression. Bakhtin's carnival is the instrument of truth, exposing the formal impositions of dominant narratives rather than reinforcing them, as is the function of the Rosenberg executions for the dualistic framework of Uncle Sam and the Phantom.
Coover's narrative itself, however, does possess all these properties, and another lacking in the Times Square festival which goes to the center of his use of the carnivalesque. This is the particular function of carnival laughter, which Bakhtin distinguishes from straight satire: “Carnival laughter … is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants … This is one of the essential differences of the people's festive laughter from the pure satire of modern times. The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world's comic aspect is destroyed, and that which appears comic becomes a private reaction. The people's ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it.”10 It cannot be said that the revels in Times Square, the relentless mockery of the Rosenbergs perpetrated in the series of comedy acts that precedes their execution, meet this specification. But Coover's narrative itself goes to considerable lengths to locate itself within the world it satirizes, wary of transcendent pronouncements and cultivating the ambivalence of participation. He thus aligns himself with the spirit of carnival laughter, which Bakhtin considered to exist in an indissoluble relation to freedom. He has himself commented on the comic vision: “I tend to think of tragedy as a kind of adolescent response to the universe—the higher truth is a comic response.”11 This, in Bakhtin's terms, is a rejection of the modern attitude to laughter, that “that which is important and essential cannot be comical,” in favor of the Renaissance concept of laughter: “Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man.”12 In order to maintain the inclusiveness of his comic vision, Coover takes great care to subvert the reflex response his material invites. An unequivocal sympathy with the victims against the establishment is resisted by a sustained distance from the Rosenbergs; the portrayal of Nixon, while acutely satiric, is also unexpectedly empathetic; Uncle Sam too has an appeal that conflicts with the monstrosity of his character; and the impersonal narration is given from a self-ironizing perspective within the Cold War orthodoxy, rather than the exterior perspective that straight satire would involve.
Ultimately this circle of laughter inscribes the reader too, the process of reading the book itself becoming the arena of disruption. The central strategy here, and that which has most perplexed critics, is the use of excess. It is a cumulative effect, operating principally in the impersonally narrated chapters, where it is built upon an expanding repertoire of devices. There is the manic folk speech of Uncle Sam throughout, and the whirlwind summaries of world events synchronous with and more or less related to the action of the novel. Later, there are exhaustive lists of those present at the Times Square executions (and hence in some degree culpable—a roll-call of the damned): these include lists of Hollywood celebrities, tycoons and politicians, including all ninety-six senators in alphabetical order by state. There are slapstick and horror comic passages which continue long after their essential point has been made (the series of skits on the Death House letters, the mob hysteria during the blackout). And there are scenes which strive to exceed the limits of literary propriety, such as Nixon's sexual encounter with Ethel Rosenberg minutes before her execution, or his final initiation by Uncle Sam in the buggery scene of the epilogue. In form or content, all these devices serve the same effect, one which informs the argument of the novel as a whole. In seeking to explore and imaginatively recreate the atmosphere of Cold War hysteria Coover has deployed a technique which, in its insistence, generates an immense narrative momentum in the novel towards its denouement, analogous to that felt by America itself: “it's almost as though there is something critical about the electrocutions themselves, something down deep inside, a form, it's as though events have gone too far, as though there's an inner momentum now that can no longer be tampered with, the nation is too deeply committed to this ceremony” (p. 211). But in its excess, the narrative enacts the logic by which this momentum can compel a complicity in unsought violations: the inexorable march of the narrative exceeds the limits prescribed by convention, so that to read it at all is to be, and to experience being, coerced into transgression. The predictable and potentially trite repudiation of McCarthyist hysteria is given force and value by a method of narration that duplicates the mechanisms involved.
Implicit in this narrative momentum is the sense of an ineluctable script to history, by which the unfolding events are motivated. It is there too in the appropriation of carnival by Uncle Sam's circus. Circus is the performance of carnival, and wherever the narrative attention turns from the circus itself to its production and reception, this difference is elucidated. It generates the concept of history as drama which finds echoes at all levels of the structure of the novel. The Rosenberg executions therefore function as the fulfillment of a script, the finale of an act in the circus of history, which satisfies America's expectations of pattern in its perceptions of itself. Such expectations are based upon the theological script of manifest destiny: “Throughout the solemn unfolding of the American miracle, men have noticed this remarkable phenomenon: what at the moment seems to be nothing more than the random rise and fall of men and ideas … is later discovered to be … a necessary and inevitable sequence of interlocking events, a divine code, as it were, bringing the Glad Tidings of America's election” (pp. 8–9). The script that governs American history is a priori, and the diversity of events must be subordinated to a pattern that will encode it.
Coover gives considerable attention in the novel to the ways in which this imperative is met. A chapter is devoted to the daily augmentation of history in The New York Times, presented as a shrine to which millions of pilgrims bow their heads each morning. The nature and value of this pilgrimage is described between quotations from the headlines on the morning before the executions. The random jumble of the headlines, a non-polemical collection of facts, is their guarantee of objectivity, but Coover quickly shows that in presenting itself as such, the Times becomes a framework through which reality is sifted, and so shaped: “Yet even this extravagant accretion of data suggests a system, even mere hypotyposis projects a metaphysic. ‘Objectivity’ is in spite of itself a willful program for the stacking of perceptions … Conscious or not, The New York Times statuary functions as a charter of moral and social order, a political force-field maker, defining meaningful actions merely by showing them” (p. 191). The pilgrims draw comfort from the monumental stability of the shrine's great stone tablets, and find meaning already implicit in its assertion of order in chaos. This function of The New York Times for the people of America is supplemented by Time magazine, whose role is to elucidate the script in the pattern. Coover personifies Time as the “National Poet Laureate,” and elaborates his poetic credo while he surveys the scene in Times Square: “Raw data is paralyzing, a nightmare, there's too much of it and man's mind is quickly engulfed by it. Poetry is the art of subordinating facts to the imagination, of giving them shape and visibility, keeping them personal … Some would say that such deep personal involvement, such metaphoric compressions and reliance on inner vision and imaginary “sources,” must make objectivity impossible, and TIME would agree with them, but he would find simply illiterate anyone who concluded from this that he was not serving Truth” (p. 320). Time's acknowledgement of the subjectivity of his version of events is undercut by his pernicious claim to retain a privileged relationship with reality, to possess a “real grasp of the facts—not to mention Ultimate Truth” (p. 320). Ultimately, Time does not present his reportage as fiction, and betrays a cynical, manipulative understanding of the power of his “art”: “If he burst through the scrim of phenomena and grasps the whole of tonight's events, he will celebrate them; if they overwhelm him, he will belittle them. He's a professional, after all” (p. 329).
This perception of the power latent in historical narratives, the scriptwriter's opportunities in the inaccessibility of fact, is essential to both the political impetus towards the Rosenberg executions and Nixon's abortive attempt at revising the plot. The concept of history as drama is obsessively dwelled upon in the Nixon chapters, drawing sustenance from his discovery of a shared thespian background with Ethel Rosenberg and his own preoccupation with performance and the public self he is always at pains to maintain and advance. His analysis of the trial dwells upon its qualities as performance, considering the merits of all the protagonists, including the Rosenbergs, as actors before an audience of jury and nation. From here the idea becomes more and more inclusive, the aspect of performance encroaching upon that of audience until the two are coextensive and universal: “Not only was everybody in this case from the Judge on down—indeed, just about everyone in the nation, in and out of government, myself included—behaving like actors caught up in a play, but we all seemed moreover to be aware of just what we were doing and at the same time of our inability, committed as we were to some higher purpose, some larger script as it were, to do otherwise” (p. 117). Nixon's perception of the dominance of theatrical motifs at all levels of the affair leads him to the revelation that the entire episode of American history is “a little morality play for our generation” (p. 119). This in turn allows the more radical perception, his recognition of its fictional nature: “And then what if, I wondered, there were no spy ring at all? What if all these characters believed there was and acted out their parts on this assumption, a whole courtroom full of fantasists? … Whereupon the Rosenbergs, thinking everybody was crazy, nevertheless fell for it, moving ineluctably into the martyr roles they'd been waiting for all along” (p. 135).
That Coover is able to place such subversive thoughts in the mind of Richard Nixon is indicative of the dual function he has in the novel. This dualism is the product of a divided consciousness Coover is able to ground firmly in the historical model of his character. On the one side there is his ingrained lawyer's scepticism, the sort of analytic detachment which leaves him unconvinced by the neat narratives that surround the case: “If you walked forward through all this data, like the journalists, like the FBI invited everybody to do, the story was cohesive and seemed as simple and true as an epigram … But working backwards, like a lawyer, the narrative came unraveled” (p. 131). On the other side is the strict orthodoxy consistent with his position as Vice President of the administration that oversaw the Rosenberg executions. His drive towards the center of power involves a rigorous assimilation of the prevailing ideology, and the militant anti-communism by which he made his name almost justifies his eager appropriation of their piece of history: “even though finally I didn't have all that much to do with the Rosenberg case itself, I always felt that—indirectly anyway—it was my baby” (p. 80). But the fact that he figures hardly at all in the public record of the relevant events allows Coover to exploit the tensions between his drive toward the center and his felt exclusion, his observer's role. He works this paradoxical status deep into Nixon's narrative, making it fundamental to his character and tracing its sources right back to childhood experiences such as his baptism at a Los Angeles revival meeting: “I didn't really quite believe in what I was doing. It was like being in a play and I could throw myself into the role with intensity and conviction, but inside I was holding something back” (pp. 525–26). Nixon is both a committed performer and an observer of his own performance. Coover is able to use him both as the analytical narrator of a substantial portion of the novel's material and as an object of satire in his own right because this division is made to work within the character himself.
As Nixon turns his lawyer's eye upon the Rosenbergs, his every insight into them and the circumstances that have conspired to bring them to the chair reflects back upon the self he is obsessively remaking into the likeness of a president. By working within this divided consciousness, Coover is able to undermine the narratives of the Rosenberg prosecution and the McCarthyist atmosphere that motivated it, and even of the Rosenbergs themselves, while leaving not an alternative, revisionist narrative (which would remain, after all, a narrative) but the derelict, undermined hulk of a self, Nixon's and the nation's, held together only by self-delusion and the lust for power. Nixon as representative of the national orthodoxy is stripped bare by Nixon the cynical observer. But since the latter is only the means of securing the former position, it is the former that remains, barren but beyond the limits of his own analysis. Nixon's exposure of the “lie of purpose” (p. 363) does not result in a liberation from his public self but in his perception of the opportunity for advancing it. When he steps outside of the script and heads for Sing Sing, it is to augment his own role in the action by rewriting it. At least this is the superficial motive: underneath the political ruthlessness unstable emotions have been aroused by the humiliations he has endured, and deeper, contradictory motives begin to surface.
The interaction between Nixon's contradictory selves and his humiliating pratfalls is the main use to which Coover puts his concept of Nixon as the clown of his circus. The clownish behavior derives much of its force from the character of the historical original, but the main impetus of the comedy in the Nixon chapters is the combination of his series of pratfalls with an immense apparatus of self-consciousness which undertakes the assimilation of each to his created self, even as he blunders into the next. He is the only character the novel makes available for any degree of empathy, yet this intimacy is achieved through the presentation of a huge quantity of autobiographical information in ludicrously deluded self-analysis. The satiric exposure of Nixon's self-deceit does not distance the reader from him because the comedy arises from frequent glimpses of a Nixon almost wholly absent from his own narration: a Nixon who harbors unacceptable desires, feels genuine (if discreditable) emotion, shows weaknesses, naiveties, and ethical uncertainties. The intimacy with which Nixon is portrayed serves the cause of an empathetic involvement that goes well beyond the basic objectives of realist characterization. Nixon is the self-narrated representative, within the novel, of the reader subject to its narration. His self-deconstruction, exposing the series of contradictory roles by which he inscribes himself and is inscribed within his context, is vicariously that of the narrative's inscription of the reader.
Coover's Nixon, then, is a series of masks, the inadequacy of each of these indicating the existence of another behind it. The ludicrous attempt to create a statesmanlike, affable public figure is the work of the calculating, cynical politician, himself the facade of an emotionally and sexually desperate man, whose needs cover those of a pathetic self-pitying child. Nixon, with all the ragged and disreputable motives beneath his public face, is a microcosm of America, and Coover's purpose here is to explore on a psychological plane the same phenomena he approaches anthropologically in the impersonally narrated chapters. The unexpected sympathy for Nixon to which several reviewers have testified is a parallel to the unexpected ambivalence Coover cultivates in the novel as a whole, and Nixon's descent into himself during the Sing Sing adventure is an analogue of the communal descent into dreamtime in Times Square. The stripping of the layers of his personality that occurs in his encounter with Ethel proceeds alongside repeated transformations in his motives—which, given the fantastic nature of the situation, are virtually generating the action. Initially, he is the statesmanlike Vice President exchanging ideological formulae. Behind this role the self-obsessed career politician soon becomes apparent: “I … moved my right foot forward slightly and tilted my head as though expecting to be photographed. Or rather, expecting nothing of the sort, but recalling from other photographs that such a pose suggested alertness and vitality and clarity of vision” (p. 430). This strategic consciousness begins to develop beyond its political function to serve emotional purposes: “‘Admit it, Ethel! You've dreamed of love all your life! You dream of it now! I know, because I dream of it, too! …’ My God! I was amazing!” (p. 435). His successful transition to the emotional level allows for its displacement by the self-pity that motivates it: “‘You won't die, Richard! Don't be afraid!’ ‘Two of my brothers died!’ I bawled. ‘I always thought … I would be next!’” (p. 441). Nixon's control of the fantasy he is living out has begun to slip, however: in a maneuver that exactly mirrors the principle of excess by which the narrative itself is driven, Nixon finds himself drawn beyond the limits of his wish-fulfillment as Ethel demands immediate sexual satisfaction, dragging down his trousers to expose him completely in his carnal reality. From this point Nixon recoils, and as he escapes into the death chamber with his trousers tangled round his ankles he is already rewriting the experience in the rhetoric of his political memoirs: “I ducked back out of sight, reflecting that a man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed one of life's mountaintop experiences: only in losing himself does he find himself” (p. 446).
In the parallel time scheme of events in Times Square there are several explicit bridges to the Sing Sing narrative (the sound of prisoners rattling their mugs against the bars, the dipping of the lights as the dynamos are tested) which prepare for the moment when Nixon, hiding with his pants down in the Sing Sing death chamber, turns around to find himself standing (quite logically) on the replica stage set in Times Square. This sudden fusion of the novel's two narrative lines indicates the equivalence of the psychological and anthropological levels at which they operate, but also represents Nixon's reassimilation to the official drama. His desperate improvisation is a regathering of the paraphernalia of his constructed selves. The scene becomes a parody of the situation during the fund crisis that had threatened his Vice Presidential candidacy, and echoes of the rhetorical maneuvers of his “Checkers” speech provide a rich source of comedy: “and so I came here like this tonight—and incidentally this is unprecedented in the history of American politics” (p. 474). The parallel provides him too with the device that saves him: “I would suggest that under the circumstances, everybody here tonight should come before the American people and bare himself as I have done!” (p. 482).
Nixon's “pants down for America” ploy is successful, but when he oversteps the mark and demands that Uncle Sam himself comply he ruptures once more the scarcely established smoothness of the evening's performance. Trapped in the circle of Nixon's rhetoric, Uncle Sam reluctantly drops his pants, exposing the darkness beneath his façade, his identity with the Phantom, and plunging the populace into a raw encounter with their instinctual drives: “There was a blinding flash of light, a simultaneous crack of ear-splitting thunder, and then—BLACKOUT!!” (p. 485). For the crowd, loss of the national narrative embodied in Uncle Sam unleashes all the primitive fears and carnal desires it had so effectively harnessed. “In the nighttime of the people” (pp. 486 et seq.) there occurs a communal stripping of identities parallel to Nixon's experience at Sing Sing, until the prototype of all their projected fears, like the darkness beneath Uncle Sam's pants, is exposed: “for the people in their nighttime have passed through their conventional terrors and discovered that which they fear most: each other!” (p. 490). The exposure of this irreducible asociality is insufficient to change the course of events, however. As with Nixon, the people are unable to countenance the anarchy that has been revealed in them, and recoil into the only order available, readopting the old safe roles even in their discredited artificiality. Uncle Sam returns bearing “freedom's holy light,” the nuclear glow from Yucca Flat, Nevada, and the executions proceed on cue.
While the executions are the consummation of America's renewed commitment to the script of Cold War orthodoxy, the consummation of the disaffected Nixon's personal role is achieved in the buggery scene of the epilogue. In the throes of this experience, Nixon attempts to comfort himself with just this equation of self and nation, even as the autonomy of his sceptical self is obliterated: “This is not happening to me alone, I thought desperately, or tried to think, as he pounded deeper and deeper, destroying everything, even my senses, my consciousness—but to the nation as well!” (p. 532). Nixon's aspirations have frequently prompted him to speculate about the nature of the Incarnation: he notes from his observation of Eisenhower that it apparently requires a vacuum to fill, and self-consciously bemoans the impediment of his own self-consciousness. His final experience of the process, sodomy as the destruction of the self, by which succession to the presidency is facilitated, ends his eager conjectures: “I recalled Hoover's glazed stare, Roosevelt's anguished tics, Ike's silly smile: I should have guessed” (p. 533). Leaving Nixon huddled on the floor and bawling like a baby, Uncle Sam departs. His and the novel's parting words, “always leave ‘em laughin’ as you say good-bye!” (p. 534), turn the focus of attention upon the way the reader has been situated in the narrative. A dubious complicity has been courted throughout, by means of the comic appeal of Uncle Sam himself, the accessibility of Nixon, the ubiquitous strategy of excess and the principle of carnival laughter. The reader's subjectivity is constructed by its situation within the discourse of the novel just as Nixon's identity is constructed by the roles he would appropriate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the carnivalesque function of laughter throughout the novel, which has been to satirize from within, resisting the illusion of transcendent perspective. Yet if satire is to remain functional as a critical tool, a distinction between laughing at and laughing with must be retained. Uncle Sam problematizes this distinction, and the argument of the novel, by turning the reader's affective implication in the narrative to unsettling effect, makes the problem explicit. The Public Burning ends, self-consciously, as an assertion of the moral necessity of self-consciousness: its last line is not a punchline, but an observation about punchlines.
Interview, Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists, ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 77.
The Public Burning (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 407. All subsequent references in the text are to this edition.
Robert Coover, rev. of The Implosion Conspiracy, by Louis Nizer, New York Times Book Review, Feb. 11, 1973, p. 5.
Quoted in Thomas Alden Bass, “An Encounter with Robert Coover,” Antioch Review 40 (1982): 297.
Interview, p. 66.
Ibid., p. 74.
“American Folk Laughter in Robert Coover's The Public Burning,” Contemporary Literature 28 (1987): 239–56.
Thomas R. Edwards, “Real People, Mythic History,” rev. of The Public Burning,New York Times Book Review, Aug. 14, 1977, p. 9.
Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (London: George Allen & Unwin, n.d. ), p. 210.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 11–12.
“An Interview with Robert Coover,” Critique 11:3 (1969): 28.
Bakhtin, pp. 67, 66.
Balitas, Vince. Review of John's Wife, by Robert Coover. Insight on the News (1 July 1996): 33–34.
Balitas commends Coover's literary experimentation in John's Wife, but notes that the work reflects the author's characteristic strengths and weaknesses.
Bernstein, Richard. “Tall (and Existential) in the Saddle.” New York Times (21 October 1998): E9.
Bernstein offers a positive assessment of Ghost Town.
Birkerts, Sven. “Horseman, Pass By!” New York Times Book Review (27 September 1998): 11.
Birkerts praises Ghost Town, but expresses reservations over Coover's tendency toward excessive farce and silliness.
Gorra, Michael. “The Awakening.” New York Times Book Review (16 February 1997): 10.
Gorra offers a positive assessment of Briar Rose.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “One Town's Mad Crush on an Unknowable Woman.” New York Times (1 April 1996): C18.
Lehmann-Haupt evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of John's Wife.
Levine, Paul. “Copulating Fiction.” Nation 262, no. 25 (24 June 1996): 32–33.
Levine examines John's Wife, focusing on the intersection of social satire and metafictional game-playing in Coover's fiction.
Moraru, Christian. “Rewriting Horatio Alger: Robert Coover and the Public Burning of the Public Sphere.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 10, no. 3 (1999): 235–54.
Moraru examines intertextual links between the Nixon character in The Public Burning and the Ragged Dick protagonist of Horatio Alger's novels, noting additional connections between Coover's critique of public discourse and that posited by philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
Starrels, Jennifer. “Once upon a Nightmare.” Nation 264, no. 5 (10 February 1997): 35.
Starrels offers a positive assessment of Briar Rose.
Additional coverage of Coover's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45–48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 37, 58; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 15.
SOURCE: Frick, Daniel E. “The Prison House of Art: Aesthetics vs. Politics in Robert Coover's Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 2 (spring 1994): 217–23.
[In the following essay, Frick offers a critical reevaluation of Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, which he considers an underappreciated achievement that offers important insight into the depressing reality faced by contemporary American writers who seek to imbue works of aesthetic excellence with political relevance.]
Robert Coover's Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? does not appear on most short lists of the important works of contemporary fiction. In fact, it is not likely to be named as one of Coover's major efforts. But it should be. Instead, Gloomy Gus has been twice dismissed as an undistinguished performance. The short story version, published in 1975 in American Review, was seen as a writer's exercise, a way for Coover to work out the frustrations of the extremely difficult and tedious composition of the heftier The Public Burning, while the 1987 novella was most frequently understood as little more than a one-joke satire on Richard Nixon.1 Viewed from a more sympathetic perspective, however, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus? stands as Coover's most moving contemplation of the central issue facing any politically concerned writer: that is, the tension—perhaps the unresolvable conflict—between the demands of artistic excellence and of ideological commitment. This multifaceted—but underappreciated—literary gem casts light on the ease with which artists trivialize themselves by retreating into the sanctuary of their art, and, even when they do not, the crushing odds against their efforts to use their work for the public good.
What gives Gloomy Gus its largely unacknowledged depth is that Coover plays his theme in three variations. The first is a parody of an exclusively aesthetic approach to art. As in The Public Burning, Richard Nixon provides Coover with the basis for a fictional character, known in the novella as Gloomy Gus (a law school nickname of the ex-President), a former star halfback turned actor. In this one-time Chicago Bear prospect, Coover lampoons the artist fixated on technique. A shy college student, successful at academics, school theatricals, and politics, Gloomy Gus is a failure at the two things that the adolescent American male is told matter most: football and girls. Like a humorless Benjamin Franklin grimly pursuing moral perfection, Gus tries by the sheer force of an inflexible will to teach himself to be a football player and a lover. Setting aside two 30-minute periods a day to practice how not to go offside and how to hold a girl's hand, he starts at the beginning because, as a man who must make himself, “nothing ever came naturally to him” (102). Acquiring a single skill led, however, to the need to learn several new ones, and as he could streamline but never eliminate his original drills, Gus soon gives over his entire life to mastering his crafts. His confidence that he could learn the “virtually infinite” responses “with which opposing teams and girls might confront him” (108) testifies to his unquestioning trust in a disciplined technique.
Gus wins renown on both his chosen fields of play, but his obsession with mastering their formal structures renders the outside world invisible to him. Astonishingly, Gloomy Gus achieves his stardom in the early years of the New Deal, and later works as an actor for a WPA project, yet shows no awareness of the effects of the Great Depression. What is more, any emotional qualities outside of his enclosed system—such as beauty or joy—are unassimilable: Gus “would probably have registered them as some kind of vexatious disorder, and added yet another calisthenic to his schedule” (94). As a consequence, he learns how to seduce without ever feeling lust, much less love. Locked into programmatic responses that exclude the personal as well as the political, Gus is a “coldhearted craftsman” (131).
Even more pathetic, Gus's method brings only a fleeting success. The novella's title—referring to the genre of news articles that seeks out that oxymoronic creature, the forgotten celebrity—forewarns us of Gus's ultimate failure. When the opposing team in the 1934 NFL championship substitutes one of his sex-practice partners for one of their linemen, Gus is beaten senseless by the police to stop an exhibition of his bedroom technique. Unable to process such brutal disapproval, the greatest football player and lover comes unhinged, like “a kind of unwired puppet, unable even to recall his toilet training or his native language” (143). Eventually, his Pavlovian stimulus-response system kills him. Leo, a labor organizer, had thought having an ex-football star join the demonstrations supporting the strike at Chicago's Republic Steel plant would be good for the workers' morale. Instead, Gus starts a riot when he perceives an airborne gas grenade as a football and intercepts it to make an open-field run. Celebrating his “touchdown,” arms raised in a “V” above his head, Gus is shot dead by the police, a martyr to the techniques that taught him how to climb the ladder of success.
The obsession with aesthetics cannot be simply laughed away, however. So, in a second thematic variation, Coover confronts the problem through the character of Meyer, a Jewish scrap-metal sculpture artist who also works for WPA projects and dreams of joining his friends with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Meyer views Gus as his double: “I'm afraid we had a lot in common, Gloomy Gus and I, more than I've sometimes wished to admit” (107). This unsettling identification causes the sculptor to brood on whether he will share Gus's fate. And, truth be told, Meyer's dedication to his work does isolate him from human contact. Feeling a catharsis in Gus's death that inspires him to work, the artist declines a series of invitations to join in fellowship with his friends. Not even the spiritual and physical communion of romantic love is allowed to him. When Golda wonders why he has no girlfriends, Meyer explains simply: “I like to be alone” (129). Gus could become a great lover and football player only at the cost of his humanity; Meyer, too, must make a similar sacrifice if he is to realize his creative dreams. Thinking of his sculptures, he wonders, “how much is really a gift to the world, how much a premeditated theft of its substance?” (69). Art steals from life, while leaving its practitioner less than fully human.
But, unlike Gus, Meyer displays an awareness of the dangers of artistic mastery. As a result, he does not give himself wholly to his work. For Meyer, being a success does not matter as much as does participation: “It's what I love about socialism, theater, life itself” (82). He enjoys the intellectual play of developing aesthetic theories: from the idea that in a class-ridden society the artist's function is to make the separate planes of class existence collide (126) to his realization that “what I want to do is make sculptures that reveal different things at the same time” (151). Ultimately, though, he refuses to renounce companionship for his art. He may be “eager to light the torch before [all his theorizing] gets away from [him], but … not quite eager enough” to send away his friends who, despite his previous refusals, have entered his unlocked apartment (152). Such a lack of consistency would have been unthinkable in Gus; however, in Meyer it seems not fickleness so much as flexibility. Carrying this healthy impulse over into his work, a floor-to-ceiling size mask of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, Meyer resolves to stop his mania with finding the precisely right look for the eyes, vowing to “maybe … have one of them wink, or cross them, or paint eyeballs on cardboard that can be moved from side to side and up and down behind the cavities” (145). Instead of insisting on an unachievable perfected state, this series of alternatives allows Gorky's face, as well as Meyer's mind, a diversity of expressive forms. Like his sculpted figures of athletes, jugglers, and dancers, Meyer aspires to remain in well-balanced motion—the quality he calls “the central thing about life” (91). By keeping the door unlocked to new ideas as well as the comforts of human society, he is willing to be less than an ideal artist in order to be a better human being.
Paradoxically, however, the artist's triumph over mere formalism does not assure the political effectiveness of his art. Although he escapes Gus's neuroses, Meyer still has the potential to divorce his work from politics. For one thing, we cannot be certain that he will act on his insight and complete his Gorky. Moreover, the mask is the only one of Meyer's sculptures that relates directly to his political concerns. When the news of the bombing of Guernica arrives in the United States, Meyer has been working for an entire year on a cat constructed of pennyworth nails. The triviality of his work is an open subject among his friends. Maxie, a Zionist on his way to Spain, stares at Meyer's Gorky and mutters: “I don't know why anyone would do such a thing” (49). In one of his few comments not directed toward the short story version of Gus, Jackson I. Cope selects as the most important line of the novella the artist's confession that “I think of myself as a lyrical socialist, which makes about as much sense, given the world we live in, as being an anal-retentive anarchist with a bomb in his hand” (13). To the critic's mind this passage shows Meyer as a figure little different from Gus in that they both are “artists who know all the moves, and only that” (Cope 66).
As we have seen, there is some truth in this insight; but the comment Cope chooses as central to Meyer's character appears on the fifth page of printed text: far too early for a defining moment. To accept this reading makes the narrator a static figure, even though he is in motion—walking home from the hospital after Gus's death—during the bulk of the storytelling. And, most importantly, at the end of his trek, Meyer is confronted with a challenge that illustrates to him that art is inseparable from politics. Indeed, his aesthetic theorizing only begins to mature at the moment he confronts a swastika painted on his apartment's entrance door. Although he has consistently denied his Jewish heritage, hesitated to join his comrades fighting in Spain, Meyer fights back his urge to run away, paint over, or remove the sign. Instead he leaves the outlines of the hateful symbol intact but turns it into a work of art. Rather than pretend it was never there, he alters the swastika for his own purposes, leaving it on his door “transfigured maybe, but not dismissed” (127). A small triumph to be sure; all the same, I do not think we should be too quick to discount this accomplishment. Vowing “no more abdications,” Meyer realizes that “I'm not going to Spain” (125). Though an important struggle is going on there, he literally need not look any further than his front door to find evil to fight. Declaring the “dead time is over. I'm frightened, but I'm alive again” (125), he seems determined not to fall into the paralysis of his former ways.
Sadly, even as Meyer makes his first ideologically committed stand, we already know the helplessness of his art to halt the Holocaust to come. Leo's pessimistic warning—“nudge the establishment … and you can still get killed” (11)—forebodingly predicts the fate of those negotiating the tricky currents outside of society's mainstream. Moreover, Coover underscores this blunt warning by placing Meyer's hero-worship of Gorky midway between the writer's death in 1936, which came during a time when some argue that he was tiring of his role as an apologist for Stalin's authoritarianism, and the beginning of a 1938 show trial in which several of the dictator's political enemies were conveniently dispatched on the bogus charge of assassinating this beloved spokesman for the revolution (see Troyet 188–97). Put simply, the time-frame of the novella implicitly reminds us that politically concerned artists cannot always control the uses to which their works and names are used. Hence, Meyer avoids the trap of solipsistic formalism that destroyed Gus only to face another, more treacherous, snare: being “the little pig who lives in the straw house” in an America that is “the land of the wolves” (127). Saving his soul from the self-destructive dead-end of mere technique exposes himself to hostile cultural forces much more powerful than any work of art.
What adds to the poignancy of the novella's conclusion is that much of its irony is self-directed. For in dramatizing the uncertainty of Meyer's position, Coover is also commenting on his own, a twist that adds the third variation to his theme. Taking a comment from a 1986 profile—“When I write about the world, I'm writing about my own writing” (Smith 45)—as an invitation to read Gloomy Gus autobiographically, we can see that both Meyer and his creator see the dangers of over-valuing aesthetics. In 1973, when The Public Burning and Gus were his most current projects, Coover sought to dispel an interviewer's notion that “a fascination with structure” is the governing impulse of his fiction by responding that “No, finally, mere design is not that appealing” (Coover, Interview with F. Gado 145). In addition, he also went on to recognize the self-isolation that lies at the heart of the creative process, commenting that while “the fiction maker's function is to furnish better fictions with which we can re-form our notions of things. … [nevertheless,] to accomplish his ends, the writer, by the nature of his profession, must himself withdraw entirely” from human society (Coover, Interview with F. Gado 149–50).
In this light, Meyer's late 1930s America, an environment in which the Left exists as a demoralized political force, should be seen as an analogue to the world in which Coover wrote Gloomy Gus: the early 1970s, when the New Left's agenda of participatory democracy had shattered against the hard edges of Nixon's Silent Majority, and the 1980s, during the reign of Reagan's vision of “morning in America.” In this hostile climate, former radical activists gave up on direct political action and sought the refuge of academia. And while colleges and universities provided the safe haven of tenure, they also isolated the Left from the lives of most people. In an insightful essay on Fredric Jameson, Cornel West critiques the work of America's leading Marxist cultural critic during this period as brilliant but “too theoretical … too far removed from the heat of political battles” (140). In the 1970s and 1980s, the writings of the “Academic Left” became as irrelevant to daily life as Meyer's sculptures are to his world.2
Gloomy Gus shows that Robert Coover knows these depressing facts as well as anyone, even as he refuses to accept their inevitability. After all, his treatment of the conflict between aesthetics and politics attempts to subvert the cultural notion that art and ideology have no proper relationship. In fact, it is in Coover's insistence on the political nature of art that Lawrence Norfolk sees the writer “buck[ing] against his own alienating myth, that of ‘the postmodern novelist as disinterested nail-parer’” (730). In this way, Gloomy Gus illustrates Coover's aspiration to be a kind of cultural terrorist, “I like to be controversial in that way. It's proof I'm alive” (Smith 45). At the same time, however, he wryly acknowledges his own pretensions. As he told Christopher Bigsby in 1979, “I'm afraid the kinds of fictions that professional story-tellers have been engaged in … have had very little impact on the world” (88). The end result of this lack of cultural power is that most contemporary writers require a patron in order to function. Through Meyer, a revolutionary who subsists only by the grace of government relief projects, Coover mocks himself and his fellow radical artists who fund their work by virtue of academic positions and foundation money. The recipient of numerous private as well as governmental grants and fellowships, Coover is in the second decade of his association with Brown University, even though he once described such a position as a “trap”: “It's too easy. … The rewards come too easily” (Bass 291). (Ironically, the dust jacket of the Simon and Schuster edition of Gus advertises Coover's 1987 Rea Prize for the Short Story, boasting that its author had won “the largest literary prize of its kind in the United States.”) Like his fictional counterpart, Coover is implicated in a system that he despises. But what can artists do when there is no mass audience for their work? Meyer labors in obscurity to all but his fellow craftsmen, while Coover is a much-praised postmodern writer whose most recent novels—Gloomy Gus among them—march swiftly in and out of the pages of Books in Print. Both figures are products of cultures that subsidize artists and their works so that they may be ignored with a clear conscience. Thus, Meyer's predicament allows us to see that Coover is also an inmate in the prison house of art: finding himself compelled to attempt to use his writing for political ends even though he cannot imagine an act of artistry that, with any certainty, will make a difference.
In Robert Coover's Fictions, Jackson I. Cope asserts that the revised version of Gloomy Gus “is [Coover's] contemplation on aesthetics,” a work that mocks the artist who keeps art separate from politics (60). But despite this insight, Cope is primarily interested in the short story's relationship to The Public Burning. Because I wish to place the spotlight on Gloomy Gus in its own right, I base my analysis on the 1987 edition, which retains the major elements of the short story while adding significant new details.
I borrow the phrase “Academic Left” from John Patrick Diggins's provocative book The Rise and Fall of the American Left (277–383).
I would like to thank Joseph C. Voelker, Sanford Pinsker, and Joel W. Martin for their perceptive comments on earlier versions of this essay.
Bass, Thomas Alden. “An Encounter with Robert Coover.” Antioch Review 40 (1982): 287–302.
Coover, Robert. “Interview with Robert Coover.” With Christopher Bigsby. The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists. Eds. Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby. London: Junction Books, 1982. 81–92.
———. Interview. “Robert Coover.” With Frank Gado. First Person: Conversations On Writers and Writing. Schenectady, NY: Union Coll. P, 1973. 142–159.
———. The Public Burning. New York: Viking, 1977.
———. “Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?” American Review 22 (1975): 34–110.
———. Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? 1975. New York: Linden/Simon, 1987.
Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover's Fictions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left. New York: Norton, 1992.
Norfolk, Lawrence. “All-American Void.” Rev. of Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, by Robert Coover. TLS 1 July 1987: 730.
Smith, Amanda. “Robert Coover.” Publishers' Weekly 26 Dec. 1986: 44–45.
Troyet, Henri. Gorky. Trans. Lowell Blair. New York: Crown, 1989.
West, Cornel. “Ethics and Action in Fredric Jameson's Marxist Hermeneutics.” Postmodernism and Politics. Ed. Jonathan Arac. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. 123–44.
SOURCE: Petitjean, Tom. “Coover's ‘The Babysitter.’” Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 49–51.
[In the following essay, Petitjean argues that the narrative design of Coover's short story “The Babysitter” is intended to elicit multiple readings and interpretations.]
Robert Coover's short story “The Babysitter” is not fiction, but fiction(s). Coover presents to the reader all the expository information required of fiction: characters and action. However, it is an impossibility for the reader to organize the action(s) into a cohesive, linear plot; it is also undesirable. “The Babysitter” exploits the art of fiction, the notion of a story, to its full potential, exploding a given situation beyond the limits of linear plot and past the ordinary storytelling conventions of time and space. Coover's tale gives new meaning to reader response, as each permutation and possibility that exists in it is limited only by the imagination of the reader. Narrative development is at the reader's discretion; it is the reader who (re)writes Coover's fiction(s) “The Babysitter” as it is read.
The elements that are part of the basic expository information of “The Babysitter” are, in and of themselves, storytelling conventions. The situation of the story is simple and suburban: a schoolgirl comes to babysit for a couple, who go to a party. The main characters include the babysitter; the Tuckers, Harry and Dolly; the Tucker children, Jimmy, Bitsy, and the baby; the babysitter's boyfriend, Jack; and Jack's friend, Mark. The reader can be certain only that the babysitter arrives at the Tucker home, that the Tuckers leave their home for a party, and that Jack and Mark play pinball. The rest of the story or stories amounts to an indefinite number of situations that are all based on these givens.
These mix-and-match situations give rise to a variety of settings. The action takes place both in the “real world” of the story (at the Tucker home, for example) and in the imaginations of the characters. These imagined settings are no less “real” than the Tucker home, however, and include, among others, the television program being broadcast, the telephone, the bathtub, and a pinball machine. A place is determined to be real or imaginary in “The Babysitter” when the reader decides on a given reading.
Coover's plethora of possibilities begs the question, How does one read “The Babysitter”? The answer: any way one chooses to read it. Only one thing is certain: No reader will ever apprehend the “whole” situation. Coover forces the reader to provide whatever order he or she can.
One way to impose a sense of order on “The Babysitter”—one possible reading among many—is to recover a timeline based on those sections of the story that refer to a specific time given in figures rather than words. The timeline begins at “7:40, ten minutes late,” and Mrs. Tucker calls out, “‘The babysitter's here already’” (78). The next specific time is 8:00, when the babysitter gives Bitsy a bath and the child escapes the tub (81). At 8:30, it is time for recalcitrant Jimmy's bath (86). By 9:00, the babysitter has cleaned up the Tucker kitchen and has settled in front of the television set; she calls out for Jimmy to use the bathroom and brush his teeth, which causes the baby to stir (92). At 10:00, she dozes in front of the television, then “awakes with a start: a babysitter? Did the announcer say something about a babysitter?” (99). Because Coover has given “real” time to these episodes, the reader might assume—for the purpose of one reading—that these sections represent the only “reality” in the story/stories. The “[s]oon to be nine” section is not part of reality, because the time is spelled out rather than given in figures. So, for the purposes of this one reading, real time given in figures represents “reality” for one world of several in “The Babysitter.”
Because all the other actions in this reading take place outside the Tucker home, “reality” can be grounded in the Tucker home. If “reality” is grounded in the Tucker home, then everything outside the home can be considered other, or “nonreality.” Consequently, all the other action(s)—every other situation—may be considered the babysitter's imaginings, including everything from Jack and Mark's pinball game (the babysitter knows the boys play pinball and may imagine them in such a situation, as she may imagine the Tuckers at the party) and fantasy of a three-way sexual situation (read as the babysitter's rape fantasy, or the fantasy of being desired by more than one of her peers at the same time), to Harry Tucker's desire for the babysitter (read as her fantasy of being desired by an older man/father figure), to the absurd game of “Get Dolly Tucker Back in Her Girdle” (read as the babysitter's fantasy of being more desirable than the older woman married to the older man/father figure because the older woman does not possess the babysitter's young, firm body) (95). Such a reading seems appropriate because Coover seems to situate the sexual locus with the babysitter.
This “real-time reading” is just one of many possible readings of “The Babysitter.” Other possible readings of the tangled narrative(s) include a tale of rape (or a three-way sexual situation gone terribly wrong), a Lolita-like tale involving Mr. Tucker and the babysitter, the babysitter's stalking—probably by the boys—rendered in the vein of a '50s drive-in horror movie of the face-in-the-window variety, and even the tale suggested by the last section, ending with the children murdered, Dolly's husband leaving her, a corpse in the bathtub, and the house left a wreck (99). Coover's tale is like a set of Chinese boxes; one narrative thread leads to one narrative universe, which opens upon another narrative thread, which leads to another narrative universe, and another, ad infinitum. The overlapping contexts of all these universes make Coover's unfolding, ever-evolving story dense and rich in its possibilities.
Coover, Robert. “The Babysitter.” The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. Ed. R. V. Cassill. New York: Norton, 1988. 78–99.
SOURCE: Frick, Daniel E. “Coover's Secret Sharer? Richard Nixon in The Public Burning.” Critique 37, no. 2 (winter 1996): 82–91.
[In the following essay, Frick explores Coover's preoccupation with Richard Nixon, as evidenced in The Public Burning. Frick contends that Nixon represents an authorial alter-ego through whom Coover examines his own artistic self-doubt and depravity and the perils of attempting to debunk a tyrannical national mythology through the force of one's literary imagination.]
What lies behind Robert Coover's fascination with Richard Nixon? The novelist himself gave this explanation to Larry McCaffery in a 1979 interview: “[A]ny exploration of Nixon, this man who has played such a large role in American society since World War II, would have to reveal something about us all” (59). In an effort to uncover the nature of that revelation, most scholarship on The Public Burning treats the former president as a figure who offers us a perspective on the shortcomings of America's mainstream culture. As crucial as this sort of analysis is to an understanding of this ambitious novel, these studies, nevertheless, deal with only half of the writer's proposed exploration, leaving unasked the intriguing question: What does Richard Nixon reveal about Robert Coover? As the beginning of an answer to this neglected query, I propose that Coover casts the most infamous politician in contemporary American history as a version of his authorial persona. Consequently, the character Richard M. Nixon in The Public Burning should be understood as the vehicle by which Coover confronts his marginalized cultural status as a writer of politically oppositional texts.1
Admittedly, Coover's fictions are filled with troubled artist figures: a nearly murdered news reporter (Tiger Miller in The Origin of the Brunists ); an inventor of a table-top baseball game whose sense of identity is subsumed by his creation (J. Henry Waugh in The Universal Baseball Association ); a performer who kills, or creates the illusion of doing so, to please an increasingly demanding audience (the magician in “The Hat Act” from the short fiction collection Pricksongs and Descants ); and, finally, a Nobel Prize winning professor unhinged by his quest to write his magnum opus (an aged Pinocchio in Pinocchio in Venice ). Each of these characters illuminates Coover's abiding thematic concern with the powers and limitations of the creative impulse. All the same, in none of these instances do we find so close a parallel to Coover the writer as in The Public Burning's main character. In fact, the relationship between the two is so entangled that one can say that Nixon is Coover's secret sharer: a double through which the writer allows himself to wonder, borrowing the words of Conrad's unnamed captain, “how far [he] should turn out faithful to that ideal conception” of himself (21). As a consequence, studying the figure of Richard Nixon in the novel turns the spotlight on a pivotal struggle: the tug-of-war between Coover's designs—his desire to expose the corruption of America's dominant culture—and his artistic self-doubts—his troubling visions of political powerlessness. Put simply, the creation of this alternative self allows Coover to explore shadowy fears of failure.
To understand Nixon's value for Coover as a means of self-investigation, we must first comprehend the author's philosophy of myth. All of life, as Coover sees it, is interpreted through fictions: that is, by mythic narrative structures that provide human beings, individually and collectively, with ways of ordering and thereby making sense of the world. As such, myth is a necessary construct. “[W]e [have] to make a little story out of each day just to … get through it,” Coover asserts in his audiotaped conversation with Kay Bonetti; “there's no way you can live with random data.” The danger comes, however, when our fictions take on the status of natural artifacts. Too often, myths “get pushed into dogmas, invested with a force of reality, a sense of literal truth, that they were never meant to have” (Bigsby interview 84). When we forget the origin of myths, their sustaining power translates into a warping one. Therefore, the fiction writer fills, even if somewhat ironically, a priestly role in society, disrupting the old, stale communal myths. But this act of cultural disjunction must also create new stories. As Coover told Geoffrey Wolff, “the fiction maker … [is] to be the creative spark in this process of renewal …” (54). The destruction of old myths serves little purpose unless it “is to give a new life to narrative” (Bigsby interview 85). Struggling against the malevolent power of worn-out fictions while rejuvenating the generic form is, Coover believes, “an integral part of what I've been doing from the very beginning” (Bonetti interview).
Without doubt, these ideological aims are central to an understanding of The Public Burning, a fictionalized rendering of the last three days in the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as told by alternating narrators, a third-person voice and the first-person perspective of Vice President Richard Nixon. The novel's recreation of this politically charged case serves to unmask the propelling fiction of America's dominant culture: that it is a divinely chosen nation. This mythic turn of mind Coover represents by bringing to life the legendary figure of Uncle Sam, the leader of the “Children of Light,” to oppose the Phantom, the mastermind perpetrator of evil, and his “Children of Darkness.” The Manichaean structure of this national myth requires that any failure by the forces of goodness to control the world's destiny must be explained in terms of betrayal rather than weakness. Accordingly, regardless of the legal niceties of fairly establishing guilt, the Rosenbergs are scapegoated as the demonic agents who have tried to subvert God's plan by stealing the secret of the atom bomb. In his most marked departure from the historical record, Coover moves the couple's executions from Sing Sing prison to Times Square, the nation's “luminous navel” and “holiest” place (164) to illustrate how this act, more than a simple legal punishment, serves as “a consecration, a new charter of the moral and social order of the Western World” (91). America had to wash its feet in the blood of the Rosenbergs, Uncle Sam confesses at the novel's end, because “it ain't easy holdin' a community together, order ain't what comes natural, … and a lotta people gotta get killt tryin' to pretend it is …” (531).
Many critics have noted similarities between Coover the artist and his first person narrator: for instance, Naomi Jacobs declares that Nixon “often seems to be speaking for the author” (185); Raymond A. Mazurek remarks that the vice president views himself as a “potential writer” (35); and Richard Andersen and Jackson I. Cope both see a Nixon who, at times, expresses the primary theme of the novel.2 But there is more to be made of these correspondences than has yet been done. Indeed, far beyond superficial resemblances, Coover's characterization of Richard Nixon as a reader and writer of texts creates an authorial alter-ego. Sifting among the multitude of documents in the Rosenberg case, nothing discrepancies in the government's accusations, looking for pattern and meaning, Nixon's work mirrors that which Coover did in order to write this historically based novel.3 Moreover, Nixon's dissatisfaction with the FBI's story, what the vice president calls “The Crime of the Century, by J. Edgar Hoover” (131), draws him toward a rival act of authorship, molding the seemingly unconnected and contradictory elements of the case into a moral fiction:
I had to … write a speech! That was the point: I had to go before the people tonight and … help them all stand taller and feel proud to be Americans! … That was what language was for: to transcend the confusions, restore the spirit, recreate the society!
His days spend wading through the minutiae of physical evidence and testimony in the government's files have been preparatory for this job: composing the speech that, in explicating the Rosenberg executions, will create a new vision of America. Nixon's desire for his writing to redirect the nation toward its better self resembles Coover's assertion that the writer “reveals and tries to get inside what life is all about” (Hertzel interview 26), and it recreates in the text the statements of purpose Coover has insisted focused his efforts on The Public Burning: a novel first conceived of as an ironic inaugural gift to Nixon in 1972 and later, when the book took longer to write than planned, as a contribution to America's bicentennial celebration (McCaffery interview 59, 60).
What on the surface appears as a very odd couple, this Coover-Nixon pairing, is more comprehensible when placed in the context of Coover's contention that any subversion of a national mythology must be effected from the inside. As he explained to Kay Bonetti, “[the reform-minded writer must] confront [myth] on its own terms and, in effect, warp the tale.” In The Public Burning, Richard Nixon works as an agent of this authorial strategy, using his position as vice president to try to disrupt Uncle Sam's story about the Rosenbergs. Because his developing literary-critical instincts demand a re-examination of the myth to which he formerly subscribed with a zealot's faith, Nixon dismisses the narrative of America's election as the “stuff we make up to hold the goddamn world together” (436). In scenes such as this one, Nixon transcends the role of the pratfalling clown who unifies the disjointed circus acts of the narrative's third-person passages, the function that Coover planned originally for his character. Rather, Nixon displays here considerable intellectual curiosity and courage in abandoning his earlier position for this new one. It is this remarkable ability that makes him the character who most effectively voices Coover's essential complaint against the mythic imagination: that it forgets that myths are human impositions of order on random experiences. As the executions approach with seeming inevitability, Nixon realizes that, to the contrary, “there were no scripts, no necessary patterns, no final scenes, there was just action, and then more action!” (362). With this epiphany to guide him, he believes he can redeem the American people by stopping the executions to be perpetrated in their name. As one who attempts to subvert the old and destructive myth, at this moment, Richard Nixon is the model of the kind of writer that Robert Coover aspires to be.
Taken undiluted, however, an identification with Nixon would suggest the impotency of the dissident writer. After all, Nixon is unable to refashion the national narrative about the Rosenbergs. Despite a spontaneous trip to Sing Sing prison to see Ethel Rosenberg in the hope of winning her help in spoiling Uncle Sam's plans, Nixon learns that he cannot re-emplot the events planned for Times Square. Instead, control of the story line belongs to Uncle Sam who, to insure that his piece of theater follows according to script, has been using the federal government's powers of surveillance to keep the would-be renegade in line. He personally orders J. Edgar Hoover to retrieve the wayward vice president, who has gone AWOL from the pre-execution ceremonies. Moreover, this imperiously delivered directive raises a possibility (unacknowledged in the most prominent scholarship on this novel): that the “Ethel Rosenberg” whom Nixon meets and tries to seduce at Sing Sing is the director of the FBI in drag. Indeed, Nixon himself comes to this conclusion by the novel's end. Soon after his supposed liaison with the condemned spy, he unmasks the nation's top cop, now impersonating the politician's Grandma Milhous, uttering the words: “Goddamn you, Edgar! … It's been you all along!” (529). Even more suggestively, Hoover's response to being caught refers not to this particular moment of cross-dressing but to the unconsummated rendezvous at the prison: “the reason you've never been any good at making out is that you talk too much about yourself!” (529). Now, granted, Nixon could be wrong. Nonetheless, Grandma Milhous/Hoover's ability to quote from the tryst at Sing Sing's Death House indicates that, in one form or another, the FBI has been eavesdropping on the vice president, effectively defusing the radical potential of his attempt to rewrite the government's script.4 Everything that Nixon has done seems to have been planned on and prepared for by Uncle Sam.
Coover rebels against these unsettling suggestions of powerlessness, however, by resisting his identification with this other self.5 So while characterized in The Public Burning as a postmodern writer, Richard Nixon is also satirized as a bad one. His unfocused thought processes—analyses of the government's unethical conduct during the atom spy prosecution that are interrupted by reveries involving food or ones detailing sexual fantasies—work as comic parodies of the narrative discontinuities consciously practiced by authors like Coover. In this same vein, Nixon is presented as a plagiarist whose composition process involves the stringing together of prefabricated political clichés: again a postmodernist trope. Yet Nixon displays no self-awareness about his employment of the technique. Most damaging of all, despite his theoretical acceptance of the randomness of events, he cannot shake a teleological view of human history. Thus, not even Nixon's most heroic moment, his attempt to save the accused spies, stands untouched. So while he kisses “Ethel Rosenberg” and tells her that they have been duped by the same lie of causation, he thinks to himself, in midst of a passionate embrace, that their encounter has been the result of a hidden design in his coming to Sing Sing. In other words, the trip to destroy the lie of purpose had its own intent: to stage a scene in which he, as the leading man, finally gets the girl.
This selfish willingness to exploit Ethel Rosenberg to satisfy his personal needs finds its final expression in his speech before the executions. Nixon's long-anticipated moment in Times Square finally arrives but in a nightmare version of his dreams. Caught on the death house stage with his pants down, the words “I am a scamp” written in lipstick on his ass, Nixon turns what seems a career-ending humiliation into a weird triumph. Wrapping himself in the flag, he improvises an oration that not only explains his dishevelment, but also silences the jeering crowd, and even forces Uncle Sam to join them when they all answer Nixon's call to “drop [their] pants for America!” (482). To some degree, his impromptu performance is a success; he has salvaged his future political viability, but only by the coerced exposure of the sex organs of every individual in Times Square and the humiliation of his wife, father, and mother. Consequently, this laughably despicable achievement establishes his essential difference from Coover: instead of creating a moral fiction that will transform the mind of the nation, Nixon's act of authorship is mean-spirited and entirely self-interested.
If Coover's only goal were to separate himself from the foolish and corrupt aspects of his double, then the vice president's cynical performance at Times Square would have done that. What, then, are we to make of the final scene of the novel? In The Art of Excess (1989), Tom LeClair argues that Uncle Sam's sodomizing of a Nixon who is curled up and whimpering in Checker's doghouse presses the novel “to consistent and instructive extremes” by demonstrating that “we inhabitants of … America allow ourselves to be physically mastered by our own constructs …” (121). But, by definition, a strategy of excess purposefully goes beyond what is necessary. Thus, the question still stands. The Times Square scene already exposes Nixon as a captive of his own mythic demons; what is gained by piling more degradation on Richard Nixon's head? The explanation has to do with Coover's persisting suspicion that the radical writer is doomed to ineffectuality.
Kathryn Hume understands Coover's work as dealing with humanity's “nakedness”: what she describes as the “representation of man's weaknesses … and his vulnerability” (129). To this insightful reading must be added the assertion that Coover is also preoccupied with the nakedness of the writer. As he told Christopher Bigsby, “I'm afraid the kinds of fictions that professional story-tellers have been engaged in … have had very little impact on the world” (88).6 Significantly, these sorts of doubts extend beyond the Nixon sections of The Public Burning. Describing a performance of The Crucible given only to its author as the rest of New York City awaits the Rosenbergs' executions, the novel's third person narrator imagines Arthur Miller as wishing to address “that mob of drunken lunatics outside” using the words of his character John Proctor, “I'll show you a great doin' on your arse one of these days!” (490). Yet this supposed rebuke loses its sting when one realizes that it would be ignored by an audience secure in its own moral superiority. Certainly the narrator recognizes such a likelihood, sighing: “Ah well: art … not as lethal as one might hope …” (490). Moreover, because The Crucible was also written as a response to the excesses of the Cold War mentality, one can read the inclusion of Miller in Coover's novel as a moment marking the limits of dissident writing. Lurking in this passage, and coloring all of The Public Burning, is the idea that, regardless of its intent, literature cannot contend with hegemonic myths and ideologies.7
As his fears of powerlessness cannot be assuaged by strategies of distancing himself from his secret sharer, Coover takes the strategically excessive step of the novel's ending and tries to erase completely the identification between them. LeClair characterizes The Public Burning as a performance of authorial mastery: over the reader, the generic form, and, most important, over America's mythology. However, when we consider the novel's final scene, the triumph that LeClair announces appears far more troubling than his celebratory diction would indicate. What follows is, if anything, an understated, expurgated version of the finale:
… it felt like he [Uncle Sam] was trying to shove the whole goddamn Washington Monument up my ass! “For God sake!” I screamed. “You're tearing me apart!”
… I was screaming and howling horribly but nobody came to my rescue.
… I lay there on the spare-room floor, gurgling, sweating, half-senseless, bruised and swollen and stuffed like a sausage … Nothing could match this. … Not without being fatal.
Because Hume is correct in her assertion that “in most instances [Coover refuses] to satisfy any taste for developed, sadistic detail in torture” (142), it is especially significant that this rape stands in sharp distinction to the writer's usual practice. In this case, the brutality is not only graphic, but also is given to us from the perspective of a satirized victim. Even more horrific, the fictional Nixon masochistically accepts the attack as an act of love and is reconciled with his rapist. The scene's bitter satire strives to replace any remaining sympathy for Nixon with proleptic laughter at the buggering of history's most infamous bugger. The atypical, near hysterical, cruelty of the scene leads to the conclusion that whatever literary and political power Coover achieves is predicated on Nixon's being made wholly Other, a denial that permits the writer to imagine a triumph over the implications of failure that would follow from their continued association.
Viewed in this light, The Public Burning reveals a dark side to the desire for artistic mastery. True, Coover answers questions about the weakness of the writer. He does so, though, only by enacting the words of The Crucible's John Proctor—Coover's own version of proctology—and showing us a “great doin'” on Nixon's arse. Thus, the writer gains power, but at the cost of taking on the role of Uncle Sam: exercising potency through domination. What is more, even as Coover condemns American culture for acting as if its myths were divinely revealed truths, he himself loses the ironic self-consciousness that marked so much of the novel.8 The truly subversive idea that Richard Nixon might possess some qualities that go beyond the caricature “Tricky Dick,” an act of imagination that gives The Public Burning much of its power, is effectively contained, even retracted, by the novel's conclusion. Nixon stands before the readers as an entirely debased figure, one who is willing to accept, unblinkingly, both the pious moral rhetoric of Uncle Sam and the superhero's admission that “I'se wicked, I is” (531). From this Nixon, a character so eager in his embrace of evil, it is only too easy to see the mind that could sanction meaningless carnage in Vietnam and lies and illegalities at home: the legacy that the readers of the novel already know results from Nixon's reception of the incarnation from Uncle Sam. By insisting that finally there is no room for anything but corruption in the dominant culture, Coover leaves us with the paradox of a writer who is dedicated to debunking cultural verities coming close to establishing his own unquestionable dogma.9
It can be argued that the conclusion of The Public Burning merely faces an unattractive, but pragmatic, truth: namely, that if one hopes to overpower a mythology as tyrannical as America's, then one must be willing to imagine meeting brute force with brute force. But, if so, such a necessity creates dissonance when played against Coover's statements about his craft. In a 1973 interview, given while deeply mired in the writing of The Public Burning, Coover reiterated his belief that “the fiction maker's function is to furnish better fictions with which we can re-form our notion of things” (Gado interview 149–150). Yet, the concluding scene of the novel emphasizes the destructive at the expense of the constructive. The irony of this disturbing moment is that Coover's attempt to escape his double has brought him right back to Richard Nixon. For if the myths of the hegemonic culture are so firmly entrenched that the dissident artist can only reformulate them through assertions of an authoritarian imagination, then Coover, even if only temporarily, is also a disciple of Uncle Sam.
“He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, … [anybody] would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self” (Conrad 30–31). As in the case of Leggatt and the captain, Richard Nixon is not like Robert Coover really. Still, Coover draws considerable creative energy from a figure that, to the writer's mind, certainly symbolizes depravity. When one remembers that Nixon was the expert on how things played in Peoria, this astonishing pairing appears less startling. With this doubling, Coover puts himself in the heart of mainstream America, the chosen ground for his attempt to warp the nation's destructive mythic narratives. At the same time, by making his surrogate a politician known for his spectacular failures, Coover faces the possible futility of his efforts to overturn America's dominant, and dominating, culture. And finally, in his confrontation with the master manipulator of the Red Scare and future perpetrator of the Watergate cover-up, Coover confronts his own capacity for evil, his willingness to embrace the harsh pragmatism that governed the Nixon presidency: the idea that the ends justify the means. For it is only through his violent repudiation of his darker self that Coover finds the navigational marker by which to attempt to steer himself, and us, away from the nightmare destiny of Richard Nixon's America.
I accept Coover's description of his writing as generating out of metaphors with social, political, and literary content. “I don't write about myself,” he told Kay Bonetti during an interview taped in 1981 on the campus of Brown University. Nevertheless, in the next breath, he spun a kind of autobiographical interpretation of a story called “Beginnings,” a work comprising fragments of unpublished short fiction from early in his career. Describing how patching together this piece called to mind his struggles to become a writer, Coover concludes that the story “became, in a kind of, well, self-mocking way, a kind of a bit of autobiography” (Bonetti interview). In other words, this halting admission indicates that when Coover entertains the idea of including himself in his fiction it is as a professional, not as a private, man.
Brief discussions of the Nixon character as a device for advancing Coover's thematic concerns can be found in Andersen 127–28, and Cope 107.
Larry McCaffery comes the closest to examining the parallels between the politician and the writer. In The Metafictional Muse, McCaffery notes that “Nixon's own struggles to solve the Rosenberg puzzle become a metafictional representation of Coover's efforts to create a truthful presentation of an enormously complex set of elements” (89).
One consequence of reading the Sing Sing encounter as a tango between Nixon and a transvestite Hoover is an ability to side-step Mazurek's objection that “one cannot, finally, make Richard Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg embrace” (41).
Cope argues that Coover had to “exorcise the increasingly human and therefore disturbing Nixon of the novel” (62) by writing the novella, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?. It is true that in the shorter work Coover avoids the difficulties of an identification with Richard Nixon. But, even here, Coover does not repudiate the politician entirely. Rather, he provides his Nixon figure (known in the novella as Gloomy Gus, a law school nickname of the former president) with a double within the text. The story's narrator Meyer, a scrap-metal sculpture artist (note the similarities to the postmodern writer who welds texts out of fragments of already existing narratives), is fascinated with the idea that “I'm afraid we had a lot in common, Gloomy Gus and I, more than I've sometimes wished to admit” (107). With Meyer, Coover has what he lacks in The Public Burning: a filter through which he can block out the more unpleasant consequences of an association with Richard Nixon.
In 1973 Coover could face his cultural irrelevance with some equanimity, telling Frank Gado that “the number of intelligent readers has always been extremely small” (159). This self-assured calm is gone, however, in a preface to an anthology of experimental short fiction that appeared around the time of The Public Burning in which “Coover writes of the ‘dictatorship of the marketplace’ and its consequence: ‘You make a million or you don't even get printed’” (qtd. in Wolff 56).
The production history of Coover's novel is relevant to such a suspicion. After all, this is a book that after years of labor, required two years, three publishers, and scores of in-house legal reviews before it was released. Coover tells Thomas Alden Bass: “For the last year I worked on it I thought The Public Burning was unpublishable” (297). During the protracted composition period, Coover's editor and friend Hal Scharlatt died, and when the book lost its only unqualified supporter in the publishing community, the author went through “a very sorrowful time. It was as though all the props had been pulled out from under this monstrous thing I was building, and I was about to be flattened by it. I no longer believed it would be published, and had to write against this certainty” (McCaffery interview 60).
Notably, in his interview with Christopher Bigsby, Coover's voice took on a harsh edge when asked if he felt responsibilities to the real people and events that he treats fictively in The Public Burning. Relying on the notion that he was not in control of his imaginative processes, Coover claimed of his treatment of Nixon that “the book demanded it” (91). Moreover, what was demanded was not “cruel”: “Few killers in world history have been treated with such kindness” (91). Although there is truth, especially in earlier sections of the novel, to Coover's assertion that Nixon is treated sympathetically, nevertheless it is hard to imagine rape as “kind” treatment, even for a “killer.”
Thomas Alden Bass also sensed Coover's occasional weakness for absolutes. Describing their discussion of the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs, Bass notes that: “For all of his epistemological sophistication about the impossibility of resolving historical data into a final pattern of cause and effect, once you get Coover down into the dust of it, he is as partisan as any other historian” (297).
I would like to thank Joseph C. Voelker for his comments on earlier versions of this article.
Andersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Twayne's United States Authors Series TUSAS 400. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Bass, Thomas Alden. “An Encounter with Robert Coover.” Antioch Review 40 (1982): 287–302.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. 1910. Introd. Albert J. Guerard. New York: Signet Classic/New American Library, 1950.
Coover, Robert. “The Hat Act.” Pricksongs and Descants. 1969. New York: Plume Books/New American Library, 1970: 240–256.
———. Interview. “Robert Coover.” With Frank Gado. First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing. Schenectady, New York: Union College P, 1973. 142–159.
———. Interview. “Robert Coover on His Own and Other Fictions: An Interview.” With Larry McCaffery. Novel vs. Fiction: The Contemporary Reformation. Eds. Jackson I. Cope and Geoffrey Green. Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim, 1981: 45–63.
———. Interview. “‘A Sequence of Circus Acts.”’ With Geoffrey Wolff. New Times 19 Aug. 1977: 54–55.
———. “Interview with Robert Coover.” With Christopher Bigsby. The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists. Eds. Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby. London: Junction, 1982: 81–92.
———. Interview with Robert Coover. With Kay Bonetti. The American Audio Prose Library, AAPL 1052, Rec. May 1981.
———. “An Interview with Robert Coover.” With Leo J. Hertzel. Critique 11.3 (1969): 25–29.
———. The Origin of the Brunists. 1966. New York: Norton, 1989.
———. Pinocchio in Venice. New York: Linden Press/Simon, 1991.
———. The Public Burning. New York: Viking, 1977.
———. The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. 1968. New York: Plume Books/New American Library, 1971.
———. Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? 1975. New York: Linden Press/Simon, 1987.
Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover's Fictions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
Hume, Kathryn. “Robert Coover's Fiction: The Naked and the Mythic.” Novel 12 (1979): 127–148.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Crosscurrents/Modern Critiques/Third Series. Carbondale: Southern Illinois P, 1990.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.
Mazurek, Raymond A. “Metafiction, the Historical Novel, and Coover's The Public Burning.” Critique 23.3 (1982): 29–42.
McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. Critical Essays in Modern Literature. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1982.
Wolff, Geoffrey. “An American Epic.” New Times 19 Aug. 1977: 48–53, 55–57.
SOURCE: Miguel-Alfonso, Ricardo. “Mimesis and Self-Consciousness in Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association.” Critique 37, no. 2 (winter 1996): 92–107.
[In the following essay, Miguel-Alfonso examines Coover's movement from mimetic representation toward self-conscious awareness in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., drawing attention to the transformation of meaning and reality in the novel.]
After The Origin of the Brunists, Coover's interest in the examination of cultural paradigms became “limited” to the categories of fiction-making. In many of the short stories collected in Pricksongs and Descants and in his novel The Universal Baseball Association, he focuses on the interchange between the different components and strata of fictional creations. Authorial control, referentiality, the relationship between author and reader, and other elements are now subject to examination and undergo certain transformations that easily can be associated with the distinctive attitude of formal exploration of contemporary fiction. The Universal Baseball Association, however, deals with what we may call the “private sphere”—that area apart from the fundamental structures of collective consciousness, as in The Origin of the Brunists and The Public Burning. Coover's narrative since The Universal Baseball Association—hereafter cited as UBA—explores the status of fiction by examining the fundamental categories involved in its generation and development as reflected in a baseball game.
In the UBA (1968), his second novel, Coover maintains some of the subjects of inquiry he took on in the Brunist story. The novel is also concerned with pattern and the role of fictional systems in our comprehension of the world, although these themes are not so closely related to the “sense of reality” in the broad context of public ritual as in The Origin of the Brunists and The Public Burning. Although The Universal Baseball Association also engages the intrinsic problems of mimetic representation in terms of the conflict between self-consciousness and referentiality (a concern shared by all of Coover's fiction), the book focuses on this conflict in the private sphere.
Henry's board baseball game, around which he has founded the “Universal Baseball Association,” is a mimetic construction based on the actual sport. In a rather elaborate way, it reproduces the features of the game with detailed precision, and thereby represents a number of the names, terms, rules, and conventions that define the sport.1 (For instance, he has named his eight teams for legendary teams of baseball history.) Although Henry's game is very different from actual baseball—obviously, it cannot be otherwise—the UBA basically reproduces the actual sport. Henry's design is even more detailed and precise than the game itself in areas such as record-keeping and historical account. As in The Origin of the Brunists, a large set of characters and elements—not only a variety of baseball players—takes part in the imaginary game, making the UBA appear as a complex dialogic construction. Thus, the initial conception of the UBA is as a mimetic (private and fantastic) recreation of the world of baseball.
Although taking its cue from baseball, the UBA does not produce any kind of motion. Shortly after nearly falling asleep in the stadium during a boring baseball game, Henry Waugh went home, picked up his scoreboard, and found that “what was dead had life, what was wearisome became stirring, beautiful, unbelievably real …” (UBA 166). In short, he found that scorecards allowed him to do without the game itself. Its creator symbolizes the players' actions and organizes them according to numerical combinations. He transcribes concrete, real movements into arrangements of three dice, “three ivory cubes, heedless of history yet makers of it” (UBA 16). This three-die system encompasses within its 216 possible combinations all the activity of a baseball game; no action can escape Henry's contrivance. In the UBA, numbers play the same role as words play in a literary text. Obviously, the representational capacity of numerical combinations is less powerful; a sense of immobility is characteristic of board games. Because Henry's chosen symbolic language “signifies” neither characters, viewpoints, nor ideas but just the players' movements, he has to limit the game to the inside-the-stadium action and complement the UBA with his own interpretation of the dice's combinations and an extensive imaginary recreation of the characters' inner lives.
In addition to its undeniable mimetic import, the game is also a self-contained structure ruled by its own internal laws and performed according to a unique numerical pattern, wherein any movement or action is predetermined by the roll of the three dice. For Henry Waugh, the interest of his design lies not in the sport itself but in the inside working of his organization, the mathematical perfection of its evolution, and the unpredictability of its development. It combines the accuracy of numbers and of Henry's painstaking record-keeping, on the one hand, with the erratic and unforeseeable irregularity of dice-rolling, on the other. Such a feature is not to be found in the actual playing of baseball, where the outcome of a match depends almost entirely on the players' abilities. This is why the UBA self-consciously withdraws itself from reality to become a self-enclosed structure. By reducing action to numbers, the game establishes its own representational process—as every game necessarily does—retreating from the actual baseball game, and thereby foreclosing its mimetic potentials by becoming just an imaginary structure exclusively centered on itself. Numbers and records, which in the actual game are mere indicators of the progress of the games and the overall league, become not only the medium but also the purpose of Henry's design.2 Neither because he intends to discover some all-encompassing record-keeping system nor because he is an enthusiast of sports, he resorts to baseball because it lends itself to his fascination for numerical accuracy. In fact, “American baseball … had struck an almost perfect balance between offense and defense, and it was that balance, in fact, that and the accountability—the beauty of the records system that found a place to keep forever each least action—that had led Henry to baseball as his final great project” (UBA 19).
Henry's self-contained creation—with its own made-up players, rules, numbers, and combinatory potentials—is much more exciting than actual baseball-playing. Real baseball hinges on the supremacy of a set of rules given beforehand, whereas his creation rests on both authorial control and the unpredictability of chance. In the UBA world, he can perceive the interchange between the rigidity of the rules and the capricious fluctuation of numbers and also experience the effect of one on the other—thus feeling the oscillation between his mastery over the UBA and the haphazard occurrence of events. Henry enjoys
[n]ot the actual game so much—to tell the truth, real baseball bored him—but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. 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.
One of UBA's attractions is its capability to fuse antithetical terms and form a sort of “continuum” of experience whereby the logical opposition between theoretical evaluation (strategy, pattern, intelligence) and practical results (ultimately provided by luck and accident) vanishes. What Henry values in his construction is, then, its original synthesis of binary oppositions that integrates the individual and the team into the unique working of his creation. The essence of his design is, to put it another way, the fusion between the folk, mythical and religious, on the one hand, and the scientific, mathematical sides of the game, on the other3—all of which is, paradoxically, provided by the erratic throws of the dice. For Henry, no other sport symbolizes such a perfect integration of the intuitive and the patterned sides of (mimetic) creation. Although he has tried several board games from basketball to football, Henry has, after consideration, rejected other possibilities. Chess, for instance, seems to him “too Euclidean, too militant, ultimately irrational, and in spite of its precision, formless really—nameless motion” (UBA 156). He also tried to take up a table-top war game played by mail but quit because “the inability of the other players to detach themselves from their narrow-minded historical preconceptions depressed Henry.” To escape the dullness of his job, he surreptitiously plays a horse-racing game he hides in one of the drawers of his bureau. He has even invented a large-scale version of Monopoly that can be played using “twelve, sixteen or twenty-four boards at once and an unlimited number of players,” but finally gave up because “it never caught on” (UBA 44–45).
The basis of Henry's rejection of chess, for instance, clearly illustrates his attitude toward the microcosm he has invented. As creator, he has taken his essential task to be the act of “naming,” or giving his characters a specific identity. The play of the chart and dice is not enough to give life to his creation. Numbers and records contribute the mathematical part of the game, articulating and sustaining its structure and history, and eventually reinforcing Henry's hope that Damon Rutherford—the man whose feats “brought sudden life and immediacy to the Association” (UBA 13)—will become a legend in the history of the UBA. He also needs to suffuse the individuals he has invented with a soul and life that numbers cannot provide. His construction requires not only the external features of baseball: as a mimetic structure, its participants need the psychological characterization of real-life human beings for the UBA to materialize as something more than just an empty formal structure. This is why he feels “in there, with them” (UBA 3). As Henry puts it,
[Y]ou bring a player up from the minors, call him A. Player A, like his contemporaries, has, being a Rookie, certain specific advantages and disadvantages with the dice. But it's exactly the same for all Rookies. … But call Player A “Sycamore Flynn” or “Melbourne Trench” and something starts to happen. He shrinks or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to all fields or belts them over the wall. … Strange. But name a man and you make him what he is. Of course, he can develop. And in ways you don't expect. Or something can go wrong. Lot of nicknames invented as a result of Rookie-year surprises. But the basic stuff is already there. In the name. Or rather: in the naming.
This is why his imaginative construction is not limited to mere sport. His association also comprehends the lives of its players and managers, both ancient and contemporary. The viewpoints of many of its characters—their self-conscious insights into the world they inhabit—in fact take up most of the novel. The novel, therefore, dialogically sets up two opposing views, “the folk or country perspective of most of the ballplayers and the sophisticated urban perspective of Henry Waugh and Coover himself.”4 And the book in which Henry writes every relevant event constitutes the official history of the Association. This is a kind of “historical discourse” made of statistics. After all, he asks Lou, “did you ever stop to think that without numbers or measurements, there probably wouldn't be any history?” (UBA 49). The UBA constitutes a microcosm in itself, a mimetic construction that stems from a typically American sport, but whose creator self-consciously withdraws from the real world and develops as a completely private mythical universe. However, Henry does not exert complete control over the occurrences of the UBA baseball matches, and it is precisely his lack of supremacy over his own design, leading as it does to the death of baseball star Damon Rutherford, that marks the beginning of his extinction as owner and record-keeper of the UBA. When Rutherford, the most promising rookie in Henry's league and the man who was rescuing the UBA from a general feeling of routine and boredom, is killed by a ball fatally hurled by pitcher Jock Casey—by a dice roll of 1-1-1, Henry loses not just a player, but “[h]is own man, … every inch of him a participant,” who is characterized by “his total involvement, his oneness with the UBA” (UBA 9). The loss of Rutherford means the disappearance of the cornerstone on which the whole structure rests. It also implies a radical change in Henry's attitude toward the UBA, culminating in the bankruptcy of the order and pattern he has established—a retreat from mimesis and the impartiality of “objective” reference and the setting up of an all-encompassing authorial command ultimately leading to the characters' self-conscious autonomy.
Rutherford's untimely death definitely marks a point of inflection in the novel, from equilibrium to imbalance. As the creator of the UBA, Henry can go back, roll the dice again and wipe out Rutherford's death from the records; but he resists the temptation of intervening in the “natural” course of the game. His player must die, even if it is only the dice that so decide. An impulsive change in the overall process would not only thwart the development of the game but actually endanger the UBA's working. As he acknowledges,
[h]e was free to throw away the dice, run the game by whim, but then what would be the point of it? Who would Damon Rutherford really be then? Nobody, an empty name, a play actor. Even though he'd set his own rules, his own limits, and though he could change them whenever he wished. Nevertheless he and his players were committed to the turns of the numbers and unpredictable—one might even say irresponsible—dice. That was how it was. He had to accept it, or quit the game altogether.
For the game to work, Henry has no choice but to follow the rules he has imposed. Damon's death, furthermore, not only ruins the development of the season. For Henry, it also means that there is nothing the creator can do, at least initially, to avoid the outcome of the random dice or to sidestep its consequences. Talking to his friend Lou, he admits that “you can take history or leave it, but if you take it you have to accept certain assumptions or ground rules about what's left in and what's left out” (UBA 49). Any willful intervention on his part would not only shake the foundations of the structure by subduing its functioning to its owner's premeditated calculations; to neglect the central role of unpredictability in the overall design would also ruin his almost sacred creation of “life” and “history”; his characters would appear to be mere straw men in the hands of an all seeing god—a role he actually plays throughout but seems to be unaware of. Ultimately, his intervention would not affect the players only. His reflections on Damon's death and its consequences to the UBA imply not only the pointlessness of consciously altering the results of dice-rolling but also the impossibility of giving up the game altogether without losing his own personality as both author and master:
So what were his possible strategies? He could quit the game. Burn it. But what would that do to him? Odd thing about an operation like this league: once you set in motion you were yourself somehow launched into the same orbit; there was growth in the making of it, development, but there was also a defining at the outer edge. Moreover, the urge to annihilate … seemed somehow alien to him, and he didn't trust it.
This passage makes it clear that more than just a question of the formal difficulties of creativity is involved in Henry's giving up his game.5 Furthermore, it comprises some of the most outstanding features of the mimetic artist. First of all, his authorial commitment, as it were, toward his created universe, especially to the self-imposed rules that make it work, suggest that Henry momentarily respects his microcosm and does not thwart its progress. (This intention, as we will see, does not last long.) Second, and most important to our concern here, is the question of the creator's function in his own mimetic representation. This passage explicitly puts forward Henry's role in the UBA, how he conceives of himself as “launched into the same orbit” of his own design. The reader's view so far is that the “artistic impulse” leading Henry to establish order and pattern also forces him to get involved in his design, but in such a way that detachment (the “defining at the outer edge”) is always possible. Although his imagination pervades everything he knows and experiences, from his job as an accountant to his sexual encounters with Hettie, Henry never interferes in the inner working of the game. Until Rutherford's death, then, Coover presents Henry as comprising all the virtues of the mimetic artist: his creativity, which combines reference to reality (to actual baseball) and personal artistic variations, his search for pattern and, most important, the recognition of the eventual openness of his own interpretive system. But Rutherford's death increasingly brings about a central dilemma in this almost flawless structure.
Henry, therefore, compels himself to maintain the rules that make up the functioning of the game, even though “Casey had put out the light and everybody was playing in the dark” (UBA 136). However, he surrenders to the powers and privileges of his role as creator. Although he cannot finally avoid Rutherford's death, his anger leads him to alter the development of the baseball games in order to bring Jock Casey and his team (the Knicks) to their knees. He first cheats and changes a roll of 2-6-6 on the dice into a 6-6-6 one. When he does so for the second time and manages to get two dice-rolls of 6-6-6, he is able to get Casey killed by a fatal line drive from batter Royce Ingram (Rutherford's friend and partner). In so doing, Henry has consciously given up the random quality of his game to assume a sort of full-scale godlike attitude toward the UBA that marks a turn from unpredictability to his all-embracing rule that precludes the occurrence of randomness and chance.6 He is aware that “if you killed that boy out there, then you couldn't quit, could you. No that's a real commitment, you'd be hung up for good, they wouldn't let you go” (UBA 201). But he ultimately takes his revenge. Aware as he is that his action will inevitably come down to his being absorbed by his own creation, he assumes his part as the UBA's only ruler. This implies Henry's becoming self-conscious of the potentials of his authorial control not only for purposes of revenge but because it opens the way for him to realize that, as an artist, he can do whatever he wishes with the Association—manipulate it at will or quit altogether:
[T]he circuit wasn't closed, his or any other: there were patterns, but they were shifting and ambiguous and you had a lot of room inside them. … [T]he game on his table was not a message, but an event: the only signs he had were his own reactions; if these worsened, it might be best, after all, to close down the Association, maybe invent some new game, or in fact go join some club or other.
This passage brilliantly illustrates what happens to Henry after he decides to mediate in what was hitherto the work of randomness. It summarizes the most prominent features of his abrupt transition from a mimetic to a radically self-conscious creator. The core of this change resides, as I see it, in Henry's realization that his game is “not a message, but an event”: with this insight into the very nature of his (or any) fiction, he can give up the idea of his creation as conveying some meaning and conceive of it as a structure whose self-referential quality only he can provide. The possibility of manipulating the game at ease within its own patterns, a prerogative any artist can potentially make use of, not only allows him to control its functioning at every level; as an “event” in itself, the game, for Henry, can hereafter do without any human attribute (the lives of its players, for instance), and, most important, without its own history. What constituted the game's very heart has been now emptied of any value or merit; what was exciting is now worthless. Having realized that he has become the Lord of an entire world, Henry's first gesture is to limit meaning and reference to the self-referential play of “his own reactions.” Henry's responsibilities toward the UBA have given way to a narcissistic consideration of himself as absolute owner that will inevitably lead to the collapse of the previous order.
The radical change from balanced mimesis to overwhelming authorial control has another significant effect. By conceiving of the game as pure “event,” after having erased its historical consciousness, the UBA appears, in the eyes of the reader, as a timeless structure. The temporal dimension Henry has established for the UBA fades away. Unable to feel at home in the real world, he retreats to his imaginary world, where the game seems to take place in a sort of time-vacuum. References to the UBA's glorious past cease to appear, while the promising future vanishes. When Henry loses his job, the fragile equilibrium between his real life and the baseball game falls to pieces. (He no longer has “that balance, that rhythmic shift from house to house” [UBA 141] that allowed him to lead a normal life.) In so doing, his assumed role narcissistically impels him to avoid the constraints of time. His having become the all-comprehending figure of the overall design forces the course of the history of the Association to move in one single direction—the one its master wishes—in such a way that the endless possibilities that loomed at the beginning of the novel evaporate.
As this dismal reality distresses him, the entire world also turns into number and record. Reflecting on war, for instance, he coldly concludes that, in the same manner as he needs the accuracy of numbers, “people needed casualty lists, territory footage won and lost, bounded sets with strategies and payoff functions, supply and communication routes disrupted or restored, tonnage totals, and deaths, downed planes, and prisoners socked away like a hoard of calculable runs scored” (UBA 131).
As a kind of heir of the Brunist historian Justin “Tiger” Miller, Henry Waugh, the creator and organizer of the UBA, has some correspondence with his West Condon forebear, the publicizer of the Brunist cult. Both Henry and Miller give shape to their respective creations by modeling them into written form and providing them with a pseudo-historical consciousness—the former through his newspaper, the latter through his book of records. Henry, like Miller, carries out a mimetic-creative act analogous to what Northrop Frye identified in his Anatomy of Criticism as “low mimesis,” which he characterized in the following terms: “[w]ith the low mimetic, where fictional forms deal with an intensely individualized society, there is only one thing for an anthology of myth to become, and that is an act of individual creation” (59). Frye's concept cannot include contemporary literature, but in light of that classical study, the mythic side of the UBA can be thought of, as generated by Henry's individual creative act to oppose the dullness and egotism of the world in which he lives. “Low mimesis,” whose development Frye attaches to the literature of the nineteenth century, is characterized by “a sense of contrast between subjective and objective, mental state and outward condition, individual and social or physical data” (59). Untouched by the outside world, with a history of its own and an enigmatically precise functioning, the UBA emerges as a mythical structure that stems from Henry's act of creation. It comprises the world of his game versus reality, on the one hand, and his state of alienation versus the more pragmatic views of his friend Lou and his boss, Mr. Zifferblatt, on the other. These divergencies epitomize the contrasts put forward by Frye as the indicators of low mimesis. Whether or not Coover has read Frye, this correlation between the latter's literary theory and the former's novel underscores the mimetic quality of the UBA story and suggests, as many Coover critics tend to overlook, that the metafictional concerns of the UBA are very closely linked to the question of mimesis, whether high or low.
The most important occurrences of Coover's reflexive exploration, at least on the question of mimesis, take place at the end of the novel. In the final chapter, we still find ourselves in the UBA, but nothing remains of the rest of the narrative. The reader has been launched from year LVI, in which the novel began and developed, to the year CLVII of the UBA. The story of Rutherford's death has become a legend known as the “Parable of the Duel” or “the Great Confrontation.” On Damonsday, the best rookies of the season go to the stadium to reconstruct the confrontation between Rutherford and Casey, so that one of them inevitably will be killed by a beanball. After Rutherford's death, the Association seems to have reached the state of a group of “static participants in an ancient yet transformed ritual” (UBA 203). The scene in this chapter takes place more than one hundred seasons after the rest of the novel. Henry Waugh has disappeared, and the story of the UBA now involves the descendants of the characters we knew, who, completely self-consciously, have become actors in a game-world. The players have somehow realized that they are the product of a creative imagination as they start to question their origins and role in the game. For them, “the imaginative recreation of sports play has become the world.”7
In this year CLVII of the UBA, the rookies Hardy Ingram and Paul Trench have been chosen to perform the Great Confrontation by playing the roles of Damon Rutherford and Royce Ingram, the sacrificed victim and his avenger, respectively. An unnamed character will play the part of Jock Casey (referred to as “Gawky Jock, the Mad Killer”). Here we have a myth represented within another myth, and a game played within another game. This mise-en-abîme effect suggests not so much that another playful imaginative structure has generated within the UBA—because the ritual of the Great Confrontation appears more profound to the players' lives—but rather that the dramatization of the Duel is a necessity for the characters to return to their origins. However, the recreation of these origins does not relieve the characters of the existential void they feel. The attitudes toward the ritual vary. For some characters, the historian Barney Bancroft was the central figure of the UBA. For others, like Cuss McCamish, the whole setup is a lie, and their attitude is that of continuous mockery. Some even dare to argue that Casey and Rutherford in fact never existed, and the ritual is only “another of the ancient myths of the sun, symbolized as a victim slaughtered by the monster or force of darkness. History: in the end, you can never prove a thing” (UBA 224).
The baseball game has become the characters' only world: the UBA has materialized as the only reality available. When Paul Trench attempts to give up the game, he arrives at the following conclusion: “He wants to quit—but what does he mean, ‘quit’? The game? Life? Could you separate them?” (UBA 238). With its own “mysterious” origin, it emerges as the only possible world in which they can live. What was a representation for Henry has become a whole world for its characters. Trench, who is to play the role of Royce Ingram in the recreation of the Duel, reflects on the dead-end of this reality:
And he doesn't know any more whether he's a Damonite or a Caseyite or something else again, a new Heretic or an unregenerate Golden Ager, doesn't even know if he's Paul Trench or Royce Ingram or Pappy Rooney or Long Lew Lydell, it's all irrelevant, it doesn't even matter that he's going to die, all that counts is that he is here and here's The Man and here's the boys and there's the crowd, the sun, the noise.
This sense of immediacy has done away with the UBA's historical consciousness, diminishing the temporal dimension of the game to a here-and-now imperative. In fact, there is no sign in the final chapter of the novel that baseball is still played in the Association; all we know is that the ritual is the most significant event of the season. The old UBA has disappeared, or, rather, has become a legend. In a quest fraught with religious overtones, the participants begin to question not only where they come from but also if there is any creator (or record-keeper) at all. Rapsberry Schultz's answer, which, in a way, voices Coover's view of the development of self-consciousness in mimetic representation, is that “even if there weren't [a record-keeper], I think we'd have to play the game as though there were” (UBA 239). Coover is here suggesting that the relevance of authorship and ownership in an imaginative creation can disappear as the radical immediacy of the structure grows stronger. The figure of the creator, in Henry's case representing not only historical consciousness but also the very origin of the UBA, can thus vanish whenever his design gains self-awareness. Eventually, the characters grow so self-conscious that they can do without him. In this sense, as Coover puts it, “the league had progressed from individualism and egocentrism … to a moral and philosophical concern with the very nature of man and society” (UBA 216–17).
The fact that in the last chapter Coover chooses to present the UBA from within is also relevant. It is an attempt to show how the equilibrium between mimesis and self-consciousness seems to be restored. Although there seems to be no balance between Henry's game and the real world from the very beginning of the story, the final chapter reestablishes a sense of equilibrium within the game. When Henry evaporates and the characters become increasingly aware of their role as actors, the novel progresses from the state of authorial command to stability—a stability, nonetheless, marked by the players' sense of existential impasse. Although ultimately they do not reach any helpful conclusion about the meaning of the ritual (and of their lives), the fact that they are divided into pseudo-political circles, as it were, and that no possible interpretation of the Great Confrontation prevails over the others suggests the existence of a sense of order and equilibrium that, however fragile, preserves the working of the structure. Whether or not free from Henry's all-pervading control, the myth of the Duel provides the characters with a subject of reflection on which they can develop their interpretive “autonomy”—although the chapter is still too sketchy to see their evolution—and can find, either consciously or unconsciously, an equilibrium between the possible explanations they are able to elaborate.
Coover's narrative point of view in the final chapter, then, allows us to see how the self-conscious functioning of the Association is possible thanks to the permanence of the mythical encounter between Damon and Casey. For Paul Trench and his fellows, “the continuing strength of this story [of Damon's death] through time is evidence that it is somehow essentially true” (UBA 223). The vague sense of historical purpose that the myth of the Great Confrontation provides is the only meaningful intuition the characters share—each in his own way—and the ritual becomes the only significant action they can perform after so many years.
Finally, and most important, by showing us the inner development of the UBA, wherein a myth has been recreated aside from Henry's figure, Coover implies that there is an endless interchange between mimesis (Henry's game) and self-representation (the characters' view of themselves and the UBA). In time, Coover seems to suggest, mimetic representation becomes—so long as we focus not so much on the author as on its characters and his imaginative world—a self-enclosed structure in which what was a referential representation turns into a sort of opaque, self-conscious discourse looking for its own origins and meaning. In the context of the UBA, this opacity is brought about not by ideological concentration, as in The Public Burning, but by the disappearance of the very authorial figure that has hitherto given a purpose and name to the UBA—a purpose that now has to be discovered and interpreted by the characters. By turning from the “outside” to the “inside” narrative point of view, Coover discloses the artificiality of “transparency,” the fundamental imaginative assumption of mimesis, in two ways.
First, he definitely rejects the idea that representation, whether linguistic or historical, remains plain and well-defined throughout time. By obliterating Henry's authorial power, the purely factual meaning of Damon's death, according to which the reader has been constructing the story, vanishes. As the game grows self-conscious and the Duel emerges as a myth, the mimetic processes that originated the UBA lose their relevance until they disappear. The question, however, is not only whether or not mimesis is necessarily replaced by self-consciousness—in the UBA, this is only an effect of the shift in point of view—but also whether time, and not just the author's mediation as meaning-maker, can change the referential powers and limits of representation.
Second, Coover shows how the referential mechanisms involved in mimetic representation, far from being one-sided, have two faces: the purely representational and the self-referential. The former brings an imaginative construction into existence, whereas the latter regulates its inner functioning. Neither of them is to prevail, unless planned for some specific purpose—such as Henry's revenge.
One example of this essential equilibrium is the fact that the importance of historical discourse does not disappear with Henry. In his role as historian, he seems to be represented by Barney Bancroft, “the only … truly human participant in that incredible drama. Maybe the only real one” (UBA 223). Although overtly self-conscious, the UBA preserves a “real” character whose task is the writing of history—yet history now is a kind of guess-work. The conclusion Bancroft reaches in his account of the Great Confrontation is that the whole UBA needs “a new ordering, perspective, personal vision, the disclosure of pattern.” Bancroft had found, after all, that “perfection wasn't a thing, a closed moment, a static fact, but process” (UBA 212).
The players in this final chapter have no access to the referential elements of the Great Confrontation. The former historian, Henry, ceased to keep records when Damon died, and they are now too far away in time to find any reliable source of information. Once reference has been lost, the only available meaning is the mythical, fabled one. Experiencing the most opaque side of the myth the characters are compelled to perform, and according to this mise-en-abîme correlation I have pointed out earlier, Henry's characters begin to feel exactly as their creator confesses he felt when he went to a baseball game:
There were things about the games I liked. The crowds, for example, I felt like I was part of something there, … like in church, except it was more real than any church. … I even had the funny idea that ball stadiums and not European churches were the real American holy places. Formulas for energy configuration where city boys came to see their country origins dramatized, some old lost fabric of unity.
Despite its ironic tone, there are echoes of this view in Coover's interview with Frank Gado, in which he recalls Durkheim's thought on religious consciousness as a sense of “being part of something beyond our individual existences” (156). Henry's role, however, has changed since he recalled his experience in the baseball stadium. Now he is not the searcher for meaning but the reason why his characters look for the sense of transcendence that he once experienced. When the shift in Coover's point of view makes him disappear, Henry transcends his own position as author and meaning-maker and becomes, to his characters, an object of metaphysical reflection. It is now the players who sense themselves as part of a design whose comprehension is far beyond their grasp. The most daring ones see themselves as “mere ideas hatched whole and hapless, here to enact old rituals of resistance and rot” (UBA 230), the conception that, ironically, best approaches the truth of their nature. Their inability to transcend the immediate actuality of their lives leads them to a state of paralysis in which the only possible answer is that the myth has no purpose at all. It is simply there, standing for reality. When his partner Hardy Ingram is about to be killed in the annual recreation of the Duel, Paul Trench witnesses the scene, he “tries to speak, but he can find no words. It's terrible, he says; or might have said. It's all there is” (UBA 242). This last sentence suitably summarizes the consequences of Coover's change in point of view and of the transition from mimesis to self-consciousness. We bear witness to the UBA's constitution and functioning as a mimetic structure with a perfectly calculated organization, and we can clearly perceive the existence of Henry's authorial control, regardless of its fluctuations. Thus we can control the overall narrative in the same manner that Henry controls his game. Later, however, when Coover launches us into the UBA world itself, the previous frame of reference (author/game) is lost; what was only part of the story has now become the whole setting—and, subsequently, Henry's view is now the reader's. With this radical shift, a substantial change in the fictional world of the novel has taken place as well. By presenting Henry's and his characters' points of view, Coover strategically shifts from mimesis to self-consciousness.
There is still a further point to be made about the narrative changes I have been discussing. Although I have assumed Henry's disappearance from the scene of these last pages, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not he has vanished completely from the final chapter of the novel. There is no mention of him, although he seems to be incarnated in certain characters: the historian Barney Bancroft, who writes The UBA in the Balance and Rapsberry Schultz, an amateur who “plays himself some device with dice” (UBA 234). Physically, he does not show up, but traces of him can be found. This effect, again provided by the shift in Coover's point of view, can be understood in three different ways.
First, we can assume that Henry has completely vanished from sight. The self-conscious development of the UBA is, in this view, absolute: Authorial control is ultimately obliterated; the focal frame of reference is lost; and, for the reader, transparent representation seems to fade away. This approach underscores the collapse of authorial control as the novel's main reflexive concern and conveys not only the implicit impossibility of regarding the UBA as “non-self-referential literature” but also underscores a parallel between Coover's narrative practice and certain typically postmodern theoretical notions, such as Barthes's or Gass's celebrated claims about the “death of the author.”
On the other hand, we can also think of Henry as still present in his game, either incarnated in some character or just ruling his world “from above,” but always with such a godlike detachment that his presence can be felt throughout but never verified. This view, although basically retaining the original mimetic qualities of Henry's baseball game, still represents the UBA as a self-enclosed structure insofar as the game still enjoys a life of its own. In fact, as soon as Henry's authority vanishes, which seems to be the case in the final chapter of the novel, the characters, yet unsure about the purpose of their own existence, are in fact freer to choose one or another interpretation of the meaning of the Great Confrontation, and thus can, in many senses, be regarded as autonomous individuals.8 For this reason, Henry's possible permanence in his design, however actual or symbolic, does not modify any conclusions arrived at according to the first, “self-conscious” approach.
A third view—the most accurate, as I see it—combines the two preceding ones. This approach accounts for the majority of the reflexive concerns of the novel. It requires that we take the figure of Henry only as a textual frame of reference, so that we can look at the UBA not so much as an object in itself but as an unfolding plurality of processes. The perfection Henry seeks with his game is not, Barney Bancroft finally finds, “a thing, a closed moment, a static fact, but a process” (UBA, 212). Instead of taking the game as the aim of some representational mechanism, whether mimetic or self-conscious, the novel can be studied exclusively in terms of its inner development, apart from the more or less significant figure of the fictional author. The UBA narrative allows for this kind of “fabulationist” view that accounts for the purely narrative progress of the novel without giving up the mimetic qualities I have mentioned earlier. According to this third approach, Henry's figure can still be regarded as the pivotal element between the two sides (mimetic and self-referential) of the creative process; but, and this is crucial, he now appears more as a formal constituent of the whole creative process that he sets in motion. In this regard, Henry emerges as an element Coover introduces in order to thematize his dominant reflexive interest; but, however meaningful, this growth is not to be taken as a direct consequence of authorial intervention but as what, Coover implies, is the natural outcome of the meaning-making metaphor he wants to explore. As a meaning-making process in itself, this metaphor—the construction of a fictional system—comprehends all the levels and aspects of the UBA story, from the simple act of creating a baseball game to the imaginative recreation of the players' lives and the degree of self-consciousness they enjoy in the final chapter. Henry's disappearance would not, then, be a strategy that substantially changes either the novel's reflexive element or the course of the narrative. This does not mean that the effacement of the author produces no effect on the story. Rather, the fictional author's absolute detachment constitutes a purely formal device that greatly helps to understand the evolution from mimesis to self-consciousness in the UBA. Conceiving of the author as a vehicle, then, makes Coover's concern in this novel to be the creation and development of a fictional system.
It is this third view that most accurately accounts for the changes in the UBA narrative; but the most important question is left unexplained, inevitably, I would say. Regardless of Henry's being present in some way or another, the novel's main point is whether or not the UBA has become a self-enclosed microcosm because self-consciousness is the necessary final stage of any mimetic construction. This is the unresolved difficulty Coover's novel poses for the reader. The fragile balance between these two different, yet complementary, referential modes can be found, Coover implies, in all fictional systems, and constitutes the core of his idea of representation as put forward not only in the UBA but in other novels as well—notably in The Origin of the Brunists. The struggle between these modes is not, however, finally resolved; this largely constitutes the most ambiguous side of the novel.
To sum up, any study of the UBA's reflexive quality must take into consideration the interplay, or evolution, from mimesis to self-awareness. In any case, its exploratory disposition implies, again as in The Origin of the Brunists, that no possible balance between mimesis is, at least in fictional systems, ever kept. Coover's is an ontological, but not structural, examination of mimesis. Contemporary readings of the novel, however, usually look for an extension of the text's concerns. Figurative readings, for instance, according to which Coover attempts to broaden the mise-en-abîme effect of his story to all kinds of epistemological constructions, whether imaginative or not—would mistake reflexivity for self-referentiality. Allegorical readings of the mise-en-abîme phenomenon tend to see, in Lucien Dällenbach's words, the work's “referential dimension as merely self-reference in disguise” (49). Like Henry's characters, trapped within the game somebody has created, so are we readers as we enter Coover's novel. Coover, in turn, manages to play with Henry, the players, and us at the same time. Indeed there is a very seductive possibility of regarding the novel as a hall of mirrors in which not only Henry's artistic practice but also the purely referential truth-claims of our reading experience are reflected and called into question.9 In this sense, when approaching the UBA narrative, many Coover critics have been prompted to look at Coover's 1968 novel in light of Jorge Luis Borges's conception that if fictional characters can be eventually readers or authors in novels then actual readers and authors can be seen as fictitious.10 Coover's concerns in the UBA narrative do not fit in with this Chinese-boxes effect, which attempts to enlarge the scope of fictionality ad infinitum, although it can be suitable for other more complex stories (such as Julio Cortázar's “Continuidad de los parques”). The relation between Henry Waugh and his UBA differs significantly from that between the reader and a text. The make-believe component of all fictional representation does not work in the same manner in this case. The “sense of fictionality” is much stronger for the Coover reader—actually, for any reader—than for Henry Waugh, who really believes in many of his characters. The mise-en-abîme reading of the UBA, whose central interest lies in the pure interplay between fiction and reality, disregards some of the novel's most prominent subjects of inquiry—the problem of authorial control, the imaginative recreation of history—and does not account for the interchange between mimesis and self-consciousness that, in my view, characterizes the essence of the UBA.
In “Games and Play in Modern American Fiction,” Contemporary Literature 17 (1976): 44–62, Robert Detweiler also assumes that the UBA is mimetically self-conscious because it “imitates a number of established traditions” (60).
For Jackson Cope, “[a]n accountant is the precisely correct metaphor for a Platonic God who made the world by weight and measure.” Jackson I. Cope, Robert Coover's Fictions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986), 36.
Ronald Wallace, The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1979), 118.
Frank W. Shelton, “Humor and Balance in Coover's The Universal Baseball Association,” Critique 17.1 (1975): 79.
Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1982), 49.
For an analysis of the literary implications of this authorial transformation, see Roy Caldwell, Jr., “Of Hobby-Horses, Baseball, and Narrative: Coover's The Universal Baseball Association,” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 161–71.
Neil Berman, “Coover's The Universal Baseball Association: Play as Personalized Myth,” Modern Fiction Studies 24 (1978): 219.
In “Of Hobby-Horses, Baseball, and Narrative,” Roy Caldwell argues that in the final chapter of the novel “[t]he Association has passed into another period, the Age of Interpretation” (168).
Wallace, The Last Laugh, 135: “While the players speculate on the meaning of their lives and their history, the reader knows that they are merely figments of a lonely bachelor's imagination. But this knowledge comically turns back on the reader, throwing into doubt his own ultimate reality.”
For Borges, “if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.” Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions, quoted in McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse 55. For a study of Borges's influence on Coover's UBA, see Mark F. Frisch, “Self-Definition and Redefinition in the New World: Coover's The Universal Baseball Association and Borges,” Confluencia 4.2 (1989): 13–20.
Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York: Random, 1968.
Dällenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Trans. Jeremy Whiteley and Emma Hughes. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
Gado, Frank, ed. “Robert Coover.” First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing. Schenectady, NY: Union College P, 1973.
SOURCE: Mesic, Penelope. “An American Nightmare: It's Not Pretty in Robert Coover's Anywhere, USA.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 June 1996): 3.
[In the following review of John's Wife, Mesic praises Coover's prose style, but finds shortcomings in the novel's exaggerated depravity and sprawling cast of characters.]
John's Wife, the latest novel by Robert Coover, may appear to be set in a nameless, contemporary small town—Anywhere, USA, with its summer barbecues and high school football, its car dealership and photo shop, and its air of bustling boosterism—but be warned. A closer look at the townspeople—sheriff, golf pro, whore, preacher, scheming land developer, housewife—reveals that these ostensibly dull citizens bear a disconcerting resemblance to the grotesques of Hieronymus Bosch.
It's a population lewd, vice-ridden, cruel and blinded by folly. Wonders and monstrosities litter the landscape, some of a crudeness that seems borrowed from Rabelais. The much-abused daughter of a perverted drunk suddenly grows to gargantuan size, laying waste the countryside, crushing animals, tucking men into the folds of her naked flesh. As if to round out the late medieval sensibility in a modern setting, the title character, John's wife (like Lot's wife she has no name of her own), is felt as an entirely benign presence, a spellbinding, secular madonna.
Whether the feeling of peace and transcendence that a glimpse of John's wife induces should be seen as the outward sign of some force for good is another question. The reader, like the characters, sees John's wife only for brief moments. Her utterances are bland, but her effect undeniable. The town photographer secretly compiles a pictorial record of every chance meeting with her. The reader is told that, “Whenever Otis (the town's sheriff), self-styled guardian warrior, thought of the Virgin Mary, he thought of John's wife.” No one is immune to her loveliness. “The attention of John's wife, however momentary and enigmatic, was one of the laurels the town's men competed for, while the women, contrarily, often felt threatened by John's wife, yet protected by her at the same time.”
And yet, her presence offers no real protection. Like the Madonna, she is powerless to avert harm even when her own child is at risk. Her presence is simply consolatory. And as Coover rather wickedly makes clear, even that sense of sweet consolation may be illusion.
Nevertheless, we see why her fellow characters look so desperately for tranquility and reassurance. Coover's mid-America is a nightmarish place, spinning into chaos. The town is dominated by John, handsome, wealthy, shrewd, a star athlete, a sexual predator, ruthless in business. His lavish charity creates a swarm of weak dependents, while his quick and shoddy building practices create a featureless landscape of malls and subdivisions. Meanwhile, the center of town, the link with the past, is dying. What, John wonders, should he do with the old, unprofitable hardware store on which his family's fortunes are founded? He envisions “a slowly rotating bar, say, in the middle of a cyclorama of the age of pioneers. … Unspeakably dreary when lived, an entertainment when revisited.”
Despite a feeling of rootlessness and disconnection, the townspeople are not precisely idle, although they have little of their forebears' work ethic. Their overwhelming pastime and preoccupation is sex. Little of it is of a kind to arouse more than aversion in the reader, being largely drunken, abusive, compulsive or unloving. A young girl is raped by John's drunken buddies, a young boy stripped naked and humiliated. A motel room fitted with peepholes provides a sex show for the owner. John's oldest friend and rival in charm and intelligence has a taste for sadism best served by child victims.
Perhaps the point Coover is trying to make is one given utterance by Reverend Lenny, another old college buddy of John's. Planning a bland sermon on motherhood, Lenny suddenly realizes “there was something eerily unsettling about reproduction's uncanny power over the reproducer, as though God were in the gamete not the gamers, His eye on, not the sparrow, but the sparrow's sperm, not the rueful soul, but the ruthless seed. … (Even Lenny's children) were ensnared, as all within the animate world, in pleasure's cruel deceptions, condemned as all to suffer love's remorseless punishments.”
Lenny, like the rest of Coover's characters, is suffering the pain of being a rational being, with a sense of self, in a world in which cruelty, impersonal sex and ambition seem to have so much more force behind them than do thought or affection. There are those, like Gordon the photographer, who try with their work to give power and permanence to what they love, but the battle is always unequal. “Gordon, in his distress and confusion, felt that his own sanity—and more importantly, his art—depended upon a minimal restoration of order. Yet this too, like the principal subject of his lifelong quest (to photograph John's wife) eluded him; it was as though some essential pattern had been broken, some code forgotten.” And when he examines those images he has captured, they “seemed always to be blurred or partially blocked or oddly cropped or fading from the print he held.” As the book's most principled and cleverest character, the librarian Kate, tells Gordon: “Photography is a kind of magic, plucking images out of the flux like phantom rabbits. In the real world, Gordon, the thing we reach for is already something else when we grasp it.”
This is a hard lesson, and the reader may feel Coover exaggerates the degree of the world's disorder, that his small town has more violent sex, more gratuitous cruelty, more dumbness and ambition and adultery than is fair or accurate. Certainly not even the beautifully flexible, cadenced sentences Coover writes, lively with colloquialisms and exquisitely expressive without being in the least effete or precious, can entirely compensate for the monotony and distastefulness of so much of what Coover describes.
A further problem is that the cast of characters is vast, and the narrative style rapid and episodic. Occasionally, reading John's Wife feels like channel surfing: We flick from Veronica, Lorraine, Nevada, Gretchen, Pauline or Edna to Stu, Bruce, Otis, Rex, Dutch or Maynard, and a few lines later pass to one or another of a dozen more. The method suits Coover's message of unavoidable and unpredictable change, but even an attentive reader will have trouble keeping all these people straight, or, once identifying them, caring adequately about what they do.
Perhaps that is part of Coover's purpose. Often, despite the sympathy he creates for those who seek to preserve what they love and to make sense of a world they can scarcely take in, we feel that the author does not deplore the world's headlong inconstancy but celebrates it, glories in trying to keep pace with the sinuous twist of events. The result is a book in which chance sentences carry profound thought and deep emotion, but both are whirled away by the chaos Coover almost lovingly reproduces.
SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of John's Wife, by Robert Coover. Antioch Review 54, no. 3 (summer 1996): 364–65.
[In the following review, Brzezinski offers a positive assessment of John's Wife.]
Coover, one of America's most celebrated novelists and the leading practitioner of postmodernist fiction, weighs in with a dense, hallucinatory meditation on collective yearnings and the intrusion of the fantastic into everyday life. The novel is a darkly comic dissection of the interior life of a “quiet prairie town.” Boasting a cast of some 50 major characters, with dizzying shifts of perspective and narration, the book circles endlessly around common events seen from different vantage points. It is the achievement of this difficult and demanding work that the impact on the reader is ultimately illumination rather than exhaustion. Coover's disturbing probings into the psyches of his characters and his ability to commingle private fantasies with public events so merge individual and group perspectives that the reader loses the ability to separate individual dialogues from collective consciousness. This fusion of the personal and the public gives the book an unsettling and almost nightmarish quality.
In a novel where everything and everyone is so minutely detailed, Coover intentionally leaves the main character, John's wife, completely undefined. We are never even told her name. Her chief quality is a “thereness that was not there.” Her role in the novel as the collective obsession of the town is to bind the narrative together. Her presence, dreamlike and ethereal, drives the fantasy life of the characters. Though the desperate fantasizing and speculating about her give the novel its disturbingly voyeuristic feel, we know nothing about who she really is or what she really thinks apart from the projections and fantasies she unwittingly elicits. This is a profoundly original work of fiction. Ranging from farce to sadomasochism, alternating social criticism with Borgesian “magic realism,” John's Wife is an altogether singular and memorable achievement by one of this country's most powerful voices.
SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of John's Wife, by Robert Coover. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 3 (fall 1996): 183–84.
[In the following review, McLaughlin praises John's Wife, calling the novel “funny, moving, shocking, revealing, thought-provoking.”]
Over a thirty-year career, Robert Coover has given us ground-breaking fiction that, while making us laugh, cuts to the heart of the stories that define our world and to the terrible truths about storytelling itself. John's Wife, his brilliant new novel, is his thirtieth anniversary present to his readers. In it, Coover weaves his various characters' voices and stories into complex structures that create, then unmake, then re-create the world of contemporary America.
The novel is set in a small town, probably in the Midwest and probably near the present time (these contexts are presented with a fairy-tale-like ambiguity). It is narrated from the points of view of dozens of the town's inhabitants in a stylistic roundelay, each paragraph telling a story about a character, his or her friends or enemies, or the town itself, then moving on to another character. As the stories move on and come around, we piece together the history of the town, the characters' relationships, and the key events that have affected both. At the heart of all of these, providing a center and an anchor, are John and John's wife. Son of a politically connected real-estate speculator and son-in-law of a builder, John is the town's first citizen, cutting deals, obtaining land, building malls and developments and race tracks, and getting richer and richer. He employs many of the townspeople and those he doesn't, even his friends, he relates to as a medieval lord, dispensing largess, buying loyalty, rewarding and punishing. His ruthlessness in pursuit of what he wants is exemplified by his betrayal of his father-in-law, Barnaby: after stealing control of his company, John replaces the city park Barnaby designed with a characterless and poorly functioning (but profitable) civic center—mockingly named after Barnaby—along the way foiling an unfriendly takeover attempt by Barnaby and causing the old man's crippling stroke. In John is revealed the incompatibility of capitalism and democracy: capitalism is about getting money and power; democracy is an attempt—futile, John thinks—to protect the powerless from the powerful.
Where John is respected and feared, John's wife is universally admired in a Jacqueline Kennedy sort of way: she is unfailingly kind, involved in every charity and civic project, sexually desirable but untouchable. Perhaps unknowable as well. Vague to begin with—we never know her name—she becomes less and less determinate, scattering or fading right before her neighbors' eyes. In this she mirrors the novel. As it progresses, the characters' stories are less and less able to structure their lives or their town, and, as they fail, lives, physical laws, even time and space fail as well. At the novel's climax, the annual Pioneers Day celebrations, all the town's nightmares, the fears the stories are supposed to repress, assert themselves and run wild.
John's Wife is absorbing in the way that good gossip is; it is funny, moving, shocking, revealing, thought-provoking. Moreover, it combines up-to-the-minute analysis of America's social, political, and economic dilemmas with metafictional speculation about the nature and function of stories and, most impressive, shows us how the two are very much the same.
SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Other People's Wives.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 16 (17 October 1996): 48–50.
[In the following excerpt, Wood offers a positive assessment of John's Wife.]
What's a tour de force? A show of strength, with an emphasis on the show, the performance, the bedazzlement. The strength is artistic, but there is still perhaps an element of arm-twisting. Does the phrase necessarily imply that we like the show less than we admire it? Or only that there are shows we like more than this one, scenes where dazzled admiration is not the main feeling we have?
The tour de force in both of these new novels involves a certain kind of wager with the expected, in which everything is the way we imagined it would be, only more so. This is partly a question of style, of waking weary old idioms to new life and driving them over the edge; but it is also a matter of playing with mythology. What if the world just is the way we think it is? What would it mean for reality meekly or wildly to live up to our largely stereotyped assumptions about it?
Neither of the novels under review is just a tour de force, as I think several of Robert Coover's recent books have been, notably A Night at the Movies and Pinocchio in Venice. Of course it's absurd to speak of any brilliant work as just a tour de force, when most of us would be glad to manage a tour of any kind, even of relative faiblesse, and it is no small thing to reimagine Casablanca, for instance, as comic pornography, as Coover does in A Night at the Movies, or to combine the reinvention of Pinocchio with the re-creation of Mann's Death in Venice. The very ideas are worth the ticket, and there is never anything less than verve and endless fluency in Coover's fiction, always the pleasure of a furious narrative energy. But verve and energy can be tiring, or more precisely, aimless, and you don't always know why you are continuing with these books, if you are continuing. John's Wife is different, although at first sight it looks the same.
Its mode might be described as hear-say soap opera, or Our Town scored as a scabrous fairy tale. “… Once,” it begins, “there was a man named John. …” “Once …” it ends, inviting us to start again, retrace our steps through the magic forest where nothing is what it used to be. John is the developer and pretty much the owner of this “quiet prairie town,” also described as “this sad little town,” the man who chooses the mayor and the police chief, builds the malls and the airport, destroys the old city park, erects the new civic center. When asked by a friend what the principal activity of the town is, John says, “Ass scratching. Two-handed.” But then he adds, “Like every other place I know.” It is a haunted place, “everyone's lives so intertangled, no way to get rid of anything, it all just kept looping around again, casting shadows on top of shadows, giving hidden meanings to everything that happened by day, turning dreams into nightmares by night.”
Coover conveys this nightmare effect by giving his characters first names but no second names, and by telling all the town's stories in a breathless, thinly punctuated prose almost imperceptibly divided into nineteen unnamed, unnumbered sections. The text is not hard to read but it requires a readjustment of reading habits. Instead of trying to remember individual characters and backgrounds, or looking them up in the kind of chart you are often given at the beginning of Russian novels, you learn to wait for them to come round again, with their attendant reminders of who they are, and you come to know them the way you know gossip, fragmentary, repetitive, familiar, hazy, going blank, suddenly returning to sharp focus.
Waldo, one of John's managers, is mostly drunk and always randy; his wife Lorraine is stranded in self-disgust. Old Stu, the used-car dealer, is very happy with his wife Daphne, although not as happy as she is with the young mechanic Rex. Trevor is the nervous accountant, Marge is his politically active wife. Lenny is the laid-back preacher and Beatrice is his spaced-out wife Floyd, who runs the hardware store, has a psychopathic past which is waiting to sandbag him. Oxford, the pharmacist, is deeply disappointed in his sons, because one is dead in Vietnam, another is gay in California, and the other is a halfwit at home. Oxford has a daughter, but how could that help?
Certain old stagers float about: Mitch, John's father, amiable, well-off, bigoted, complete with capitalist's cigar; Barnaby, John's father-in-law, parting company with his mind in an old folks' home; Opal, John's mother, who keeps visiting Barnaby because he is one of her few links to a world she can recognize; Alf, the widowed doctor, still competent but short of sleep, and drinking too much. The young children dream of sexual experiences which are beyond their reach; and then suddenly, comically or calamitously, they are within their reach after all. Various out-of-towners get to play a role: John's rich, thrill-seeking friend Bruce, the frantic French painter Marie-Claire, the fitness freak adventuress Nevada.
On balance, John's description of his town's principal activity doesn't seem quite fair. What folks do there, compulsively and out of all proportion to anything except our fantasies and travelers' jokes, is screw. They also drink. If they have any time or mind or motor ability left, they then get back to ass scratching. Like any other place, this town has its habitual incest and child molesting, its high-tech voyeur, and a man who blew his brains out in despair. The riotous doings at and after the stag party on the eve of John's wedding form a central part of many people's memories. The novel climaxes at John's annual Pioneers Day picnic.
Here is how John's wedding is announced:
The entire area at the time was in something of a recession, lying dormant, waiting for something to come along and wake it up, and the wedding was like a fresh breath of life, a real pickup for everyone.
Scarcely a phrase there that isn't past its best, chosen for its blur, like the stuffy, dragging sentences of the “Eumaeus” chapter in Ulysses. Sometimes the spoof is a little more elaborate—“Meanwhile, back at the center of the dying day's doings in John's backyard …”—and often the characters think in the language of their trade or persuasion (“Stu was aware all along of Rex's hatred, thought of it as a sick streak in the boy, a transmission failure of a sort”). We are told that when old Floyd talks about the fires of hell it sounds “more like the farce of hail.”
But Coover has another style, in which he releases himself from parody and mimicry and goes for straight jokes or sharp images—“it was disgust at first sight,” “his misery's sour peace.” “For God so loved the world that he eschewed mere abstractions”—and there are moments when he enters a territory which seems to lie somewhere on the other side of parody:
In such manner the entire town might be said to have been shaped, its streets laid out by what, though against all probability, might yet be, its daily dialogue sustained by what had not, as though it might have done come true. …
Thus, John's annual Pioneers Day barbecue drew, somewhat abruptly, toward a close, for some a pleasure, others not, some lives changed by it, most merely in some small wise spent, a few wishing it could go on forever, others that it had never happened, or, having happened, that it could be forgotten, of all wishes wished, the one most likely to be granted. …
What makes these passages elusive is the sense that the faint, drawling familiarity of their language conceals some sort of urgent message about possibility and desire and oblivion. At one point late in the book Opal is caught in what she calls a conundrum, represented by the conflicting points of view of two of her dead friends: everything that happens has happened before, and nothing ever happens twice. What if both of these propositions are true? How could they be?
Kate, the pharmacist's wife, is one of those dead friends, but when alive she took her job as town librarian to mean she was the town sage and epigrammatist, and the novel is littered with echoes of her sayings, all a little flowery, but many of them shrewd and evocative: “When the edge becomes the center, Opal, then the center becomes the void.” The town does seem to be unusually well supplied with mouthpieces and surrogates for the artist—there is also Ellsworth the newspaperman, who is writing a novel which is most of the things this novel is not, and Gordon the photographer, whose quirky pictures represent the town's secret history—but it may well be that mirrors are everywhere, if you're looking for mirrors.
What's central to the novel, thoroughly internalized by the characters and inventively pursued by Coover, is the notion of story. “All life's an artifice,” Kate says, “We are born into the stories made by others, we tinker a bit with the details, and then we die.” “If John's a story,” Bruce modestly remarks, “then I'm an anecdote.” “She didn't want one story to have to cancel another,” we learn of Daphne, caught in a murder plot she is too stewed to understand.
Why couldn't life be spread out like memory was, with past and present all interwoven and dissolving into one another, so you could drift from story to story whenever the mood struck and no one really hurt by it?
And closest to home, in a sentence which seems to name the challenge Coover has set himself, Ellsworth worries about the sheer mass of narrative that even a small, ass-scratching town throws up:
More than anything it was the mind-numbing volume of mazy detail, the surfeit of story, life's disorderly abundance not death's neat closure, that defeated him.
Yet what holds John's Wife together and makes it such a weirdly persuasive picture of America picturing itself, what gives it the aim it appears to lack, is neither the surfeit nor the management of story, neither the lurid appeal of the stories themselves nor the final portrait we get of John's town, but the sense of stories overwhelming everything, leaving nothing in their wake. They are like time itself. History, memory, personality, flesh, forest, buildings—all are swallowed up in legend, some of them while they are still standing, like the truth about the man who shot Liberty Valance, in John Ford's film of that name.
The book is dedicated to Angela Carter and to Ovid, and a number of its stories involve transformations: a sexually abused woman into a voracious giant, an aborted foetus into the snarling cartoon baby out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a womb into a version of 42nd Street, and an anxious and innocent young girl into an anxious and innocent prostitute. Not all of these transformations are dreams or fantasies. But the subtlest and most significant form of shape-shifting in the novel, and one which most firmly underlines the endless disappearance into story, concerns John's wife, never otherwise named. She is beautiful, kindly, thoughtful, proper; everyone is in love with her; and she keeps vanishing, as if she perhaps doesn't actually exist. “This was a strange thing about John's wife: a thereness that was not there.”
This is clumsily put; and more than we need to know. But elsewhere in the book, in much more interesting fashion, John's wife keeps suffering the opposite of sightings. Her car seems to drive itself around, and gets left in unlikely places. At one moment she is at the bridge table, the next she is not. “She seemed almost to dim as a light might do, and for a strange moment, Marge could not even be sure she was there.” The photographer wonders whether “anyone besides himself” has noticed “that she seemed to be vanishing, not as when someone leaves town, but as an image might fade from a photographic print.” She is John's exact complement. He has made the town what it is; she is what keeps fading from it, she is what the town isn't. Later in the novel she starts to appear at people's sides when they need help or encouragement, the calm voice and presence of what they want and can't have. We shouldn't allegorize her more than she is already allegorized, but we can scarcely miss the implication of what it might mean to live only as a story.
SOURCE: Upchurch, Michael. “Dreams and Nightmares: Robert Coover Probes the Disparities between Reality and Might-Have-Been.” Chicago Tribune Books (9 February 1997): 5.
[In the following review of Briar Rose, Upchurch praises the novel, though notes that Coover's “manneristic flourishes and acrobatic syntax” will make the work inaccessible to some readers.]
It's a truism that certain authors write their books with future film options in mind. With this sly new retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, however, Robert Coover opens up another, quintessentially 1990s possibility for media rights. His Briar Rose seems custom-designed to make a nifty computer game.
This shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Coover (The Public Burning,Gerald's Party) teaches electronic and experimental fiction at Brown University, and of all our literary novelists, he has been the most vocal in championing hypertext fiction: computer texts in which readers, clicking away at their mouses (mice?), choose their own paths through imaginary worlds.
The story mechanics of this elegant, intricate, enigmatic novella will certainly be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in “Myst” or tried to track down reliable reference material on the Internet—for Briar Rose consists of almost nothing but false starts, wrong turns, spiral staircases, a “door that is not a door” and other endlessly mutable narrative pathways that frustrate its beleaguered heroes. Both the castle-bound princess, waiting to be woken from her hundred-years sleep, and the prince, tangled in a briar thicket while trying to reach her, inhabit a shape-shifting dream in which everything has a “double life.” Controlling this dream—or, at least, idly toying with it—is the “old crone, hideously ugly and vaguely threatening” who put Rose and the castle under a spell in the first place.
Under this crone's influence, Rose's dreams of rescue have a nasty habit of going off-track. One recurring nightmare is that her rescuer is already married, with a wife at home who is “as you can imagine, a very unhappy lady.” In other versions, Rose is woken by the wrong man (or men), kissed by a toad and turned into one herself (“But that's terrible!” she protests), or roused not by a kiss but by someone sinking his teeth into her throat (oops—wrong story!). As for the prince, his vivid imaginings of the princess he will rescue are equally susceptible to transformation. Though he dreams of making his name with his act of heroism, deep down he suspects he has met his match and will soon die, as have all his predecessors who tried to reach the castle, their bones now “rattling in the brambles down below.”
Though it picks up—after a fashion—where John's Wife, Coover's uproarious previous novel, left off (John and his nameless wife were the “prince” and “princess” of their scandal-ridden Midwestern town), Briar Rose is less raucous than most of Coover's fiction. True, it offers plenty of antic humor. Yet the book is predominantly meditative in tone, and the subjects it ponders—unsustainable romance, thwarted ambition, mortality—have as much to do with the workaday world as any fairy-tale realm. The blunders, misgivings and regrets of prince and princess alike reveal disparities between life as it is imagined and life as it is lived, and there's an urgency to these revelations that renders Coover's story-scrambling mischief strangely poignant. The book is a might-have-been and never-will-be fantasia that ends up striking close to home, despite its Brothers Grimm furnishings.
That said, Coover's prose, with its manneristic flourishes and acrobatic syntax, won't be to everyone's liking. Briar Rose is a short but challenging read, demanding and rewarding close attention. Those who navigate it carefully will enter a world in which there are always surprises behind the next door or up that darkened staircase, and even if its structure and imagery suggest an elaborate game in which the reader feels invited to savor myriad alternatives to the narrative sequence at hand, Coover's control over this non-linear, multiple-choice world is crucial. Enthusiastic readers may well be tempted to option any hypertext rights up for sale—but they should also be happy to leave all “what-happens-next?” decisions in the hands of a master, now at the height of his powers.
SOURCE: Bronson, Daniel R. Review of John's Wife, by Robert Coover. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 385.
[In the following review, Bronson criticizes Coover's weak characterization and loose plotting in John's Wife.]
With the opening line of Robert Coover's latest novel, “Once, there was a man named John,” the reader enters a prairie town wherein resides John, a native son “whose considerable resources matched his considerable desires.” A successful builder/developer, John has looks, luck, the cocky assurance and total self-absorption of a former high-school football star, and the town's most beautiful woman as his wife. His is a fairy-tale existence.
John develops things to fit his vision, from the new shopping mall or recreation center to his fellow citizens. Beneath a smooth exterior, he is a ruthless manipulator, crushing any disagreement. That is rarely necessary, because John has something on everyone, both lifelong residents and college friends he has invited into town.
Coover introduces a multitude of other characters, many resentful of John's control over the town and them, all linked by a series of sexual facts and fantasies. The facts deal with what John has done to and with many of the women; neither one lover's abortion nor another's suicide disturbs him. The fantasies involve what most of the men would like to do with John's wife. A photographer, obsessed with her image, sneaks pictures of her. The newspaper editor sees her as the Model inspiring his novel's Artist. The police chief concludes she is a madonna. Others dream of sexually dominating her as John dominates them. Everyone is fixated on her, except John.
Curiously, no one can recall what John's wife looks like when she isn't there, and some find it increasingly hard to focus on her when she is. As the only character in the novel given neither a name nor the opportunity to tell what she thinks, she is less a person than an accumulation of longings. If John represents the dark underside of the American Dream, his wife may become the town's vaguely realized hope for something better.
Midway through, John's Wife veers into the surreal: an aborted baby comes back to haunt its guilty mother; the photographer's sluttish wife eats her way to gargantuan proportions; the novelist finds a character in his book taking control while his Model disappears. In a related, hallucinatory scene, another man watches John's wife take off her clothes and vanish. Random acts of sex and violence break out. People die.
Whether readers will have the endurance to reach the novel's conclusion is a major question. Moments of sharp satire do not compensate for a rambling plot and too-frequent, long, tedious passages. Moreover, the characters never engage us very deeply. Coover tells us from the start that, “In spite of all that happened to his wife and friends, John lived happily ever after, as though this were somehow his destiny and his due.” Unfortunately, there is no reason to care.
SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Briar Rose, by Robert Coover. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 272.
[In the following positive review, McLaughlin compliments Briar Rose, calling it a “classic by a contemporary master.”]
Last year, Robert Coover marked the thirtieth anniversary of his first novel with John's Wife, a huge, sprawling narrative tracing dozens of characters over thirty years or so of their town's and our country's history. Now, less than a year later, Coover has given us another novel, Briar Rose, but this one is a compact, focused story with only three characters, but nevertheless a story as timeless as people's desire to know exactly who they are and why they're here.
Coover has frequently found new ways to tell old stories, from Noah's Ark to Pinocchio to Casablanca. And he has frequently told stories through shifting points of view, repetition, and variation, to create a circular structure rather than a straightforward linear narrative. He uses both techniques and uses them brilliantly in Briar Rose, a revisiting of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The short chapters alternate among three points of view. The first is the handsome prince, who has heard about the mysterious, entranced beauty, waiting to be awakened by a kiss, and who is now hacking his way through the briars that surround her castle, planning to make a name for himself. The second is Rose, the sleeping woman, who dreams over and over of waking up and of hearing a strange old woman tell stories about other entranced beauties who woke to lives far from happy ever after. The third is the evil fairy who first entranced Rose and who now cares for her and inhabits her dreams, tempting her to prick her finger over and over again and torturing her with those stories about other entranced beauties. As the novel progresses, the chapters seem to repeat. The prince loses sight of the castle, and his fantasies about the sleeping maiden become nightmares of entrapment and unfulfilled longing. Rose in her sleeping state grows disillusioned as she becomes less and less able to distinguish among her dreams, fated to repeat the unreal cycle of pricking, sleeping, and waking. The fairy becomes dissatisfied with her role of observer, above it all, but detached and cold. She is tempted to feel desire, to be like Sleeping Beauty, to want both the pricking and the prince.
Briar Rose asks what happens to our notions of identity when beginnings are ambiguous, quests are never fulfilled, desire is never gratified, and events never progress but forever repeat. Like the story it's based on, Briar Rose is a classic by a contemporary master.
SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, no. 4 (fall 1997): 609–19.
[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a generally positive assessment of Briar Rose.]
“What's the story, Wishbone?” the song asks the fox terrier as though even a dog in a PBS children's program would know that stories are the secret of meaning, our way of making sense of our lives. Beginnings, middles and ends. Cause and effect. Character and plot. This happened because this other thing had happened before. Or because someone of a certain kind was the doer of the deed. Ever so often we think that the non-story-ness of our experience is the truth about it—and writers write postmodern novels. But the ache these induce! How we want someone to put it all together, to make a tale!
Robert Coover—who has written postmodern fiction and directs, at Brown University, the study of the serendipitous cohesions of hypertext—is still at it when he rewrites a fairy tale, one of the oldest of narrative forms. His jeu d'esprit called Briar Rose is as riddling as it is exquisite, and not at all the Legend of the Sleeping Beauty to which Charles Perrault gave nursery form in the seventeenth century. Wishbone would have difficulty telling it to the kids. The little chapters that compose this novelette each seem to return to the beginning or arrive at the end, though always with a difference, and there is never a clear sign that the story has progressed at all. There is certainly a prince who has undertaken the great adventure, but “not for the supposed reward—what is another lonely bedridden princess?—but in order to provoke a confrontation with the awful powers of enchantment itself.” But, as he struggles in the “flesh-rending embrace” of the briars, the bones of his predecessors speak to him of the futility of his quest, for “all affirmations are grounded in willing self-delusion, masks, artifice, a blind eye cast toward the abyss.” On and on the prince struggles in the briar hedge till he reaches the princess's room which is stinking with decay. Or never reaches it. Out in the thorny hedge he wonders if there is a castle or a princess at all, or, if she exists, whether she is not “more briar than blossom,” and whether winning her might not prove worse than failure. In the castle, he wonders if he had ever really come through a hedge. Either way, he is propelled by his desire to “fulfill his own emblematic destiny.” But what if he succeeds? “What is happily ever after, after all, but a fall into the ordinary, into human weakness, gathering despair, a fall into death.”
For a hundred years the princess sleeps, and her dreams repeat themselves, though always in new forms. Again and again she dreams she is wakened by others than the designated prince—as by a gang of marauding peasants or by a woolly monkey who tickles and pinches. The witch who controls her fate recounts the Sleeping Beauty legend in horrid variations. In one, all the many princes who sought the princess were successful, and babies spilled from her as she lay in her bed—“a kind of wayside chapel for royal hunting parties.” The princes' wives (for, of course, they had wives) boiled her babies in a hundred savory dishes and cooked up the princess herself in a foul stew for the poor. The princess protests, “real stories aren't like that.” But what are real stories like? When the princess questions her fate and asks who she is, the witch tells her—“a door, accessible only to the adept … a secret passageway to nowhere but itself.” What is Coover's antistory about if not about story-telling and its insatiable desire for The End?
“Sleeping Beauty” is, of course, a primordial love story, one that shows love's supposedly transformative power—but, in Coover's version, the story also suggests the delusiveness of that emotion which sustains itself not on fulfillment but on deferral—a theme which may lie coiled within the recesses even of the original legend.
SOURCE: Quinn, Paul. “The Lone Cowboy.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5002 (12 February 1999): 21.
[In the following review, Quinn praises the reissued edition of The Public Burning and offers a positive assessment of Ghost Town.]
Imagine a re-worked Mount Rushmore, sculpted in dynamite. Looming large in the Dakota sunlight are the conjoined forms of monumentalized media-age presidents: JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton flank a frowning Richard Nixon, the shadow at five o'clock spilling off his granite chin into the valley below through which a lone cowboy rides. Such a landscape, of history and mediated myth—and the increasingly uncertain territory between—is conjured up when one moves from Robert Coover's reissued magnum opus, The Public Burning, through his subsequent work, arriving finally at the bleached Old West of his latest novel, Ghost Town.
As the century itself rides into the sunset, a great deal of critical received wisdom is due for revision; not least the caricature of the kind of postmodern writing, exemplified by Coover's generation and reaching its height in the 1970s, as narcissistic, lost in a hall of mirrors, and self-defeatingly concerned with formal games. In fact, much of this writing is more socially and politically engaged than the realist writing which finds it wanting. This is most tellingly illustrated in a remarkable sequence of encyclopaedic works, published in close succession; Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) with its military-industrial complexity, William Gaddis's JR (1976), whose multi-voiced capitalist critique can be read as an elaborate illustration of the way “money talks”; and Coover's The Public Burning (1977), with its coruscating satire, form a kind of unofficial trilogy, a subterranean history of the century, intent on identifying and unravelling the ideologies that bind us.
The Public Burning, ostensibly an account of the trial and punishment in 1953 of the “atom spies,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (their execution, in an inspired piece of alternative history, is re-located to the neon altar of Times Square), is the least known and understood of these works. (The Rosenberg story has been tackled elsewhere in fiction, by E. L. Doctorow in The Book of Daniel, which is a fine, subtle novel, but too guarded to deal with the grotesqueries of the period, “the whole panorama of the event,” as deftly as Coover.) The principle reason for the novel's neglect is its own subterranean history. The main character and dominant narrator of the novel is Richard Nixon—Vice-President in 1953. When the publishers realized the inflammatory nature of Coover's portrayal (which includes Nixon's thwarted wooing of Ethel Rosenberg—an in appropriate ardour of Richard III proportions—and his sodomization by a personified and priapic Uncle Sam), their publish-and-be-damned credo withered, before the prospect of Tricky Dicky in his post-Watergate litigious state. The atmosphere of acrimony and suspicion was such that one imagines Coover's meetings with agents and lawyers were conducted in underground car-parks, down tapped telephones, on park benches. Eventually the book was sneaked out, and, in spite of nonexistent publicity, gained acclaim and sold well. It was then swiftly removed from the shelves lest it come to Nixon's attention. Now, finally, more than twenty years after the original publication, The Public Burning, one of the great books in a great decade of American writing, is available in a new edition, complete with a stylish and informative introduction by William H. Gass.
Paradoxically, one of the things that makes the book so historically acute is its focus on form: “form, form, that's what it always comes down to! In statesmanship get the formalities right, never mind the moralities”—as Nixon says at one point, and the book is full of official forms, rhetoric, ceremonies (the execution in a mocked up Sing Sing is “imagineered” by a committee including Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney, and preceded by a satyr play performed by the Marx Brothers). Nixon's awareness of the performative nature of politics is mirrored by the stagestruck Ethel's childhood hankering after a Broadway career. Informing everything else in the novel is the Cold War theatre; aware of the crude binary logics of these scenarios, Coover gives us Uncle Sam as a mutating huckster-peddler, the embodiment of American values and ever-ready to be incarnated in subsequent Presidents. His nemesis is The Phantom a comic book spectre of Communism haunting the globe. Against this Manichaean allegory, Coover pits a Menippean satire replete with brimming carnivalesque and answering complexity.
The Public Burning is, above all, a profound meditation on mediation, and, beyond the slapstick and satire, sometimes manages to push this preoccupation towards a near-tragic register. This is seen when one of the Rosenberg's children watches news of his parents' impending execution filtered through a televised baseball game, his sense of value and perspective blurred somewhere between channels; or when Nixon displays a rare moment of sympathy in trying to imagine “the mysterious ghetto” where the Rosenbergs were born, only to recoil in realization that his idea of the Lower East Side is hopelessly imbricated with popular culture—“the invention of Warner Brothers … probably those skylines of my mind may have been painted a few miles away in a Hollywood studio.”
The truth, then, lies somewhere beyond the forms that we cannot escape from; even the compensations of the truly tragic are denied us, given all the noisy intermediaries between heath and storm. Certainly, the traditional organs of information are not the places to look for truth. Here, Time magazine is metamorphosed into a propagandistic “National Poet Laureate,” and the New York Times contains “no breakaway wildness, no terrible conjurations, just the easy knell of names in mild parade.” The excess and paranoia of the era that spawned these events, must be approached by more supple forms, like the novel itself with its range of styles. In particular, Coover perfects a sentence structure fit for the sheer speed of the times, swift as a media feeding frenzy. This is most evident in the newsreel style sections in which a typical sentence is comprised of clusters of clauses, greased by ellipses, listing onwards toward the execution hour.
The Public Burning deforms a variety of forms, demystifies many an American mythology, and unpicks a variety of ideologies that can be tracked through Coover's subsequent work. Nixon remained an obsession, and resurfaced, transposed from log cabin to grid-iron, as the American Footballer in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? (1987). The beautifully realized scene in The Public Burning where Nixon approaches Sing Sing, towering like an impregnable fortress, apparently destined to rescue Ethel, his damsel in distress, is echoed in Coover's many pioneering deconstructions of folklore and fairy tale (Coover is acutely aware that the roots of the stories that govern us are ancient and deep): most recently in Briar Rose (1996), where the meeting of prince and sleeping beauty is constantly and hilariously deferred. The idea of a public burning takes on another sense in the masterly John's Wife (1996) in which a climatic conflagration coincides with the inferno of civic values in the small town over which John presides, and where, as the title suggests, the only real relation is the possessive.
Coover's delightful new novel Ghost Town explores one of the main ideologemes mapped in The Public Burning—where High Noon is a constant allusion, where Eisenhower grows up in the town where Wild Bill Hickock was sheriff, and where Nixon feels like a bad guy in a western. While the earlier novel is all controlled anger, however, the later one is cunningly good-humoured horseplay. Coover takes his lone cowboy and subjects him to virtually every behavioural variant ever enacted in dime novel or B-movie (or even that sprightly sub-genre, the postmodern western—one senses, the ghostly presence of Ed Dorn's Gunslinger and Richard Brautigan's The Hawkline Monster, for example). He is, variously, a sheriff, an outlaw, and even, in one very funny episode, an Indian changeling forced to undergo an initiation ceremony which is as involved as it is excruciating. Yet, as always with Coover, these shenanigans still have something to tell us about the arbitrary nature of all rule-based games, be they anthropological ritual, baseball or literature. In this spirit, Coover sometimes reads like Vladimir Propp let loose on Zane Grey and the notion of manifest destiny. At the heart of the story is The Kid's sensual struggle between the saloon chanteuse and the town school marm; however, this being a ghost town, and peculiarly accommodating to the unconscious, the two are increasingly allowed to blur in a bewitching play of desire.
A repeated phrase in this text, and in much of Coover's recent work, is “One of the things that happened was.” He is always keeping alternatives in mind. Similarly, at another point, we get: “He might have been a hired gun or a scout, or he might have been one of the pioneers, it's not clear.” The refusal to deny us other options, the determination to keep various forking paths in sight and on the trail is not some lazy softening of Jamesian solidity of specification, but, rather, an honorable attempt to be truer to the nature of reading and desire—an attempt Coover has spent recent years trying to further, using the new technology of hypertext. Texts like Briar Rose and Ghost Town often read like analogue hypertext; more importantly they can be seen in light of a literary career dedicated to combating reductive and linear thought, to subverting the inexorable logic that sends knight to princess, cowboy to sunset, or the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. That Coover can examine our entrapment by forms through intense formalism is a considerable achievement. If Times Square is the popular place to greet the new millennium, reading The Public Burning is a chastening and exhilarating way to reflect on the current one.
SOURCE: Davis, Robert Murray. Review of Ghost Town, by Robert Coover. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 344.
[In the following negative review, Davis criticizes Coover's prose in Ghost Town.]
Like Mel Brooks, Robert Coover relies heavily upon pastiche and parody, but his attempt at a western is in quality more like Robin Hood: Men in Tights than Blazing Saddles. Coover's central character in Ghost Town is a man with no name; in fact, none of the characters or settings has a name. The anonymity probably results in part from Coover's desire to write as generically as possible—this is observable in the language, which is part Louis L'Amour, part Cormac McCarthy—in part from the shape- and role-shifting of people and places. For example, the saloon girl metamorphoses into the schoolmarm and back again, though this is not clear until well into the novel.
The central character is moving from where and what he can't clearly remember to an unknown destination on a horse, or sequence of horses, that die and revive. He comes to a nameless town filled with maimed and homicidal Republic Pictures rejects who can't hit spittoons, discovers that he has been made sheriff, and stumbles through a series of misadventures ranging from killings to a near-wedding (dressed in the bride's bloomers), a near-hanging, and other near misses. At the end, the people and town have rushed into the sunset, leaving him lying on the darkened street with “nothing to be seen except the black sky riddled with star holes overhead.”
A reviewer could, like Sven Birkerts in the New York Times Book Review, find refuge in talk about postmodernity. But even Birkerts admits that much of the book is dull and confusing. Prospective readers who are less trendy should pass by this horseman and read Alvin Greenberg's masterful and neglected work The Invention of the West (1976) to see a really witty and inventive take on the West of pulp fiction and “B” movies.
SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Ghost Town, by Robert Coover. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (spring 1999): 174.
[In the following review, McLaughlin provides a positive assessment of Ghost Town, commenting that Coover “has hit his target with brilliant force.”]
Throughout his career, Robert Coover has examined, parodied, and deconstructed the conventions and discourses of a plethora of literary genres. In Ghost Town he turns his attention to that most American of genres, the Western.
The novel follows a nameless drifter, familiar from any number of stories and movies, yet also vague, more a type than a character. He moves from adventure to adventure, or, more accurately, the adventures—all recognizable from the conventions of the Western—come to him: he makes a name for himself in a barroom brawl; he's tricked into a wedding ceremony with a brassy chanteuse, while he pines for the prim, unattainable schoolmarm; he's made the sheriff, then becomes an outlaw, then becomes sheriff again as he tries to save the schoolmarm from hanging. Moreover, we're told he has vague and contradictory memories of having been initiated into an Indian tribe, of having a wife and family and sheep ranch, of having a near-fatal affair with a prairie nymph. More narratives are concentrated on him than his character can support coherently, and as his sense of self is lost so too are senses of time and space—both operate arbitrarily. The drifter moves through this topsy-turvy frontier world with no sense of motivation beyond a dim awareness of some force (the Western's narrative conventions) pushing him on.
The master narrative beneath the surface narratives here is Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, the argument that encountering the frontier defined fundamental American qualities. Coover seems to agree, but his view of the resulting American character is much darker than Turner's. The people the drifter meets are all misshapen, violent, racist, misogynist, and androcentric, an anarchic community, whose cruel whims—in a sort of Alice in Wonderland logic—become immediate rules. The drifter too participates in a cultural amnesia (his “history escapes him even as he experiences it”), which allows him to deny responsibility for his acts.
In subverting the narrative conventions of Westerns, Ghost Town reveals a version of the American and a vision of America they usually keep masked. Coover has aimed at the dangerous absurdities of our national myth, as embodied in our stories of the frontier, and has hit his target with brilliant force.
SOURCE: Seaboyer, Judith. “Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice: An Anatomy of a Talking Book.” In Venetian Views, Venetian Blinds: English Fantasies of Venice, edited by Manfred Pfister and Barbara Schaff, pp. 237–55. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.
[In the following essay, Seaboyer locates Pinocchio in Venice within a tradition of literary works about Venice and examines the novel's intertextual references and philosophical discourse, including allusions to Dante Alighieri, James Joyce, and Carlo Collodi, as they relate to the theme of metamorphosis, Menippean satire, and the Bakhtinian concept of carnival.]
Given the evidence in this volume for the long-standing fascination of Venice for the anglophone imagination, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice (1991) is one of a flood of Venice novels written in English and published in the 1990s. Even before the English Renaissance, when Thomas Nashe invented a visit for The Unfortunate Traveller and Shakespeare staged The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Venice had come to serve as a trope for an urbanised, civilised perfection whose underside was a seductive—and conveniently foreign—sink for greed, lust, and deceit.1 It was with the rise of Romanticism, however, that it truly became a key symbolic landscape for English literature. The attraction of the Other persisted, but by the end of the eighteenth century, its status as a world trading power no more than a memory and a thousand years of independence at an end, Venice became the perfect stage and the perfect metaphor for Romantic loss, and for the horror of moral failure. For similar if sometimes more self-righteous reasons it continued to be important for the Victorians—Ruskin, for example, saw in the fall of this island republic a warning for England, grown fat on the spoils of empire—but after the turn of century, while it didn't cease altogether, literary production waned. It seemed as though, as Henry James had noted, with a self-consciously disingenuous rhetorical flourish, there was “nothing more to be said on the subject.”2
By 1902 James had published his last Venice fiction and his last Venice essay and, after 1907, he ceased even to visit. The contemporary account continued to be produced and to find a wide readership—neither Mary McCarthy's nor Jan (James) Morris's, for example, have ever been out of print—and Pound and Anthony Hecht contributed to the tradition of Venice poetry in English. What I find intriguing, though, is that in the first eighty years of the century fewer than twenty Venice fictions seem to have been published, and while they include The Wings of the Dove (1902) and Frederick Rolfe's decadent masterpiece The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1909, pub. 1934), most of them are much less substantial than these.3
As we approach the millennium, however, there has been a remarkable increase in the production of Venice fiction. Ten novels were published in the eighties alone and, by my count, three dozen from 1990 to 1998.4 Some of the new writing is genre fiction—detective, historical, gothic, romance, and various combinations of these5—trading, sometimes to very good effect, on Venice's historical reputation for duplicity and secrecy and its ongoing popularity as a tourist and honeymoon destination. But well over half of it may be classified as literary fiction. Novelists like Ian McEwan (The Comfort of Strangers 1981), Barry Unsworth (Stone Virgin 1985), Michèle Roberts (The Book of Mrs Noah 1987), Jeanette Winterson (The Passion 1987), Robert Coover (Pinocchio in Venice 1991), Maggie Gee (Where Are the Snows (1991), Harold Brodkey (Profane Friendship 1994), Rod Jones (Night Pictures 1997), Caryl Phillips (The Nature of Blood 1997), and Louis Begley (Mistler's Exit 1998), are drawn to Venice for much the same reasons as their “popular” counterparts, but their writing is also part of a tradition of writing about Venice that is linked to a broader literary continuum that interprets and shapes culture by reading and writing cities. Pinocchio in Venice is paradigmatic in that it is an overt response to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and at the same time it is an overtly postmodernist response to James Joyce's quintessential modernist city novel, Ulysses. Joyce's Dublin is not a modernist space, and Coover's Venice is not a postmodernist one: each city is something of a cultural and technological backwater. But standing waters can be rich, and Joyce sees in his city, as Coover sees in Venice, a historical matrix in which the traces of a cultural past, present, and future are held in synchronous, kaleidoscopic suspension. Joyce reworks three thousand years of Western literary history within his Dublin world in little, on a single June day in 1904. Coover constructs a similar linguistic teatro del mondo in fin-de-millénaire Venice, during the four days leading up to martedì grasso, the highpoint of carnival, and this essay will consider the renovatory effects of that construction in terms of literature and contemporary literary theory.
VENETIAN CIVITAS AND MUSEAL DESIRE
The interest Venice holds for urban theorists is instructive. Despite its physical vulnerability and social instability, contemporary urban planners venerate Venice as a lost and longed for model of civitas, a city that grew into its ideal wholeness in response to a community's changing needs and desires, and now rests in perfect, perfected stasis. The material traces of the order of meaning by which the West has constructed itself are preserved here in a kind of time warp, and as edge cities and malls seem to sprawl out of control, flattening before them both history and the landscape which once defined the boundary between city and country, Venice, its feminised body exposed to the world's gaze, promises a meaningful story of the past. This is, of course, only one view, and writers like Coover recognise any such promise of plenitude to be profoundly illusory. He favours instead the second city of fluid meanings and border crossings discovered behind the fixed classical mask. Pinocchio in Venice describes in realistic detail the constructed city, the acknowledged work of art, but is determinedly, deliciously situated in its abject other. Venice is
the last outpost of the self-enclosed Renaissance Urbs … a kind of itchy boundary between everywhere and somewhere, between simultaneity and history, process and stasis, geometry and optics, extension and unity, velocity and object, between product and art,6
and, most uncomfortably in these days of industrial pollution and acqua alta, between land and water. Pinocchio's redemption follows the Lion of San Marco's carnivalesque revelation that the city as work of art is a fraud, “a kind of mask the old Queen put on to hide her cankers and pox pits.” Its “true face,” “dark and filthy” but nonetheless beautiful, is worn, of course, on its carnivalesque behind. The traces of this Venice, founded piecemeal by migrations of desperate refugees fleeing a succession of invasions, may still be discerned in the backwaters of Canareggio and Castello, but they are largely masked by the construction of the heroic narrative of a heavenly ordained urban utopia, and what the Lion terms “bloody glorious empire.”7
REPETITION AND THE DEATH DRIVE
Pinocchio in Venice is both a retelling of and a sequel to Carlo Collodi's children's story The Adventures of Pinocchio, first published in serial form in 1881–82. At the end of the original story, the wooden puppet has undergone a metamorphosis to become a flesh-and-blood adolescent boy;8 at the beginning of Coover's, he's over a century old, and fast reverting to wood. Despite the promise of the conclusion of Collodi's story, Pinocchio's life as “a proper boy” has been a disappointment. Like many young Italians, he left behind village life for the New World, where he anglicised his name to Pinenut, got himself an education, and spent time in Hollywood as an actor and as a scriptwriter. Determined to live up to the Blue Fairy's faith in him, (in other words, driven by filial guilt), he turned his back on Californian hedonism for the cloistered and virtuous life of an academic. This act of second-stage repression ensured his lifelong misery. Now a “world-renowned art historian and critic, social anthropologist, moral philosopher, and theological gadfly”9 and professor emeritus at an American East Coast University, he is as comically repressed and self-righteous as the puppet was irrepressibly wicked, and he is as self-deluded as ever. His quest in search of self is not over, and one by one on his journey through the Venetian labyrinth, he will repeat his old puppet mistakes—misjudgements that in his former life had led to a catalogue of trials including death by hanging, death by drowning, metamorphosis into a donkey and, by far the most painful, a series of separations from the Blue Fairy, whose maternal “tough love” included not just disappearing but regularly pretending to have died of grief because of Pinocchio's failure to behave as a dutiful son.
His plane has been diverted to Milan because Marco Polo airport is fogbound, and so he arrives in Venice by train. From the moment he crosses the threshold at Santa Lucia Station, he enters a labyrinthine space of transformation that is a dizzying pastiche of Hades, Saturnalia, mystery cycle, and commedia dell'arte, a wonderfully abject mixture of Dante's Purgatorio, Bloom's Nighttown, Prufrock's fogbound city, and Aschenbach's Venice, and he contains something of each of these travellers.
Collodi's Pinocchio was Tuscan10 but for the kinds of reasons discussed above Coover leads him “home” not to Florence or Pisa, either of which might have stood in for his unnamed birthplace, but to Venice, a city that has no place in the original story. Pinocchio has been drawn back to his “roots” because he feels Venice holds the key to the completion of his capo lavoro, tellingly named “Mamma.” In keeping with his flair for contemporary confessional criticism, it is to be
a vast autobiographical tapestry in which are woven all the rich, varied strands of his unique personal destiny under the single predominating theme of virtuous love and the lonely ennobling labor that gives it exemplary substance … but the book's conclusion, like rectitude itself in an earlier unhappier time, continues to elude him.11
On another level Pinocchio knows he has come home to die, and the opening pages present a mise-en-abyme that foreshadows the vertiginous nature of Pinocchio in Venice. To complete his oeuvre, Professor Pinenut is entering the body of the city that is itself “a universally acknowledged work of art” and that gave birth to his career as an art historian, and he is returning to the place of his actual birth, to complete his life, which he also happens to view as “a work of art.”12
Two aspects of Coover's text reinforce this sense of Pinocchio's experience of the city as a kind of vortex. First, he takes up the familiar Venetian leitmotif of metamorphosis and, second, he structures his text in terms of Menippean satire, and Bakhtinian dialogism and the carnivalesque.
First, it is a literary commonplace that Venice is, like Pinocchio, the product of a metamorphosis, a magical transformation of nature into art. Byron's Childe Harold sees a fairy-tale city conjured up from the mud of the lagoon “at the stroke of an enchanter's wand,”13 and Ruskin a city made of frost-bound breakers transfixed into glittering marble and crenellated stone set with semi-precious jewels.14 Pound, with Dante's dark wood as well as the reality of the city's foundation on millions of piles made from Istrian pine transmuted by water into stone in mind, describes “a forest of marble,”15 and Witi Ihimaera's Venice is a manifestation of Hawaiki, the luminous mythic Maori citadel anchored at the navel of the universe.16 Coover's city, on the other hand, is undergoing a world-upside-down metamorphosis that will return it to the Real of its swampy origins. In San Sebastiano, the paintings and frescoes come alive to torment him, and like scenes from a macabre Disney animation, pews “[slide] apart and then together again with great clashing noises like monstrous gates,” and the floor rises and falls and splits apart beneath his feet to reveal heaps of bones.17Acqua alta turns the Piazza San Marco and its surrounding buildings into a storm-tossed ship about to loose its moorings from the surrounding labyrinth and carry its ancient mariners out to sea and a delicious “watery doom.”18 As though Hell were yawning beneath it, whole sections of San Michele heave and tremble, and headstones are sucked into oblivion before Pinocchio's eyes.19 This destruction will be hastened by a rebirth of the ruthless entrepreneurism that once made the Serenissima great. In a discomfiting burlesque of reality, Coover's Venice is being sold off to become a kind of time-share resort for the feckless rich, and there are plans for dredging “a channel deep enough for sixty-thousand-ton tankers [to service] the Third Industrial Zone, making the Veneto region the rival of Osaka, Manchester, and New Jersey.”20
In true Romantic style, Pinocchio's human flesh is undergoing a mirroring metamorphosis, as it becomes a bundle of wooden sticks. The physical manifestations of his great age are not rheumatism or hardening of the arteries but dry rot and infestations of woodworm, and he has become so thin a friend is moved sadly to observe, “They could use you as a foldout in an anatomy book.”21 It's a nice piece of self-reflexivity that leads me to my second point.
MENIPPEAN SATIRE, BAKHTINIAN CARNIVALESQUE, AND THE DIALOGIC
Pinocchio in Venice fulfils the broad requirements of the Menippean satire, or literary anatomy, as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin and by Northrop Frye. An anatomy mockingly dissects a wide range of abstract ideas as well as contemporary theories and issues; indeed, Bakhtin sees it as “the testing of an idea, of a truth [or] philosophical position” rather than of a particular human character or type. The menippea is the adventure of an idea; the protagonist is simply its vehicle.22 It is structured around such set pieces as parodically erudite digressions, deipnosophistical interpolations (feasts accompanied by mock-philosophical speeches and dialogues), dialogues of the threshold, and dialogues with the dead.23 It is marked by “a special type of experimental fantasticality” and representations of insanity that include “passions bordering on madness”24—what Frye refers to as “diseases of the intellect” and “maddened pedantry”25—and Bakhtin drives home the links between the menippea and the carnivalesque. For example, both are distinguished by sharp contrasts and transitions from one position to another and by ambiguous oppositions whose design is to reveal that all things are interrelated. For example, the sacred can be profaned because it carries within itself the seeds of its profanation, the fool or servant is crowned only to be decrowned, the wise man's folly is exposed and the fool shown to be wise and, just as surely as birth leads to death, ritual death leads to renewal. Since everything contains within itself the potential of its opposite, everything is ambivalent and nothing is ever final: the carnivalised world is always in a state of becoming.26
Frye illustrates his discussion with references to Apuleius's The Golden Ass, Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Kingsley's Water Babies, and Joyce's Ulysses, all of which are intertexts for Coover. In the course of Coover's anatomy, not only will Pinocchio's body undergo a Dionysiac dismemberment, but his intellectual and professional positions within late-twentieth-century academic discourse will be dissected and revealed to be, like the old professor himself, pedantic, solipsistic, fraudulent, and ludicrous. From this new perspective, the puppet's turning “from bad to good” that resulted in his acquisition of human subjectivity,27 complete with a viciously well developed superego, looks less like salvation than corruption. In order to be redeemed, he must undergo a last Dionysiac and parodically Dantean metamorphosis in the course of which not only his sins and imperfections but his hard-won human flesh will be painfully stripped away so that he may be lifted from the dry rot, the “appalling human sickness”28 which characterises his life of the mind and returned to the grotesque bodiliness and changeful becomingness of the puppet. Pinenut will be tortured and killed so that the puppet may be reborn and, paradoxically, this process, which includes a cruelly comic purification by fire in a pizza oven,29 will “humanize him [as] ambivalent carnival laughter burns away all that is stilted and stiff” to restore his “heroic core.”30
As a site of the carnivalesque, Venice further suits Coover's mocking purpose in that since 1980 local authorities have resurrected carnival to keep the tourists coming during what used to be the low season. It's been a commercially successful but inevitably somewhat bloodless and uncarnivalesque exercise, but Coover's is carnival at its funniest, and blackest.31 According to the laws of the carnivalesque as Bakhtin famously explained them, not only Professor Pinenut but also Coover and his reader will be drawn into this theatre-without-footlights. While Pinocchio is mocked as the Menippean philosophus gloriosus, Coover, in the masterly creation of this intellectually stunning text, takes up with brio the role of the mocked virtuoso.32 The role of critical reader is less comfortable. As I undertake the dismemberment of this text, as I attempt to peel back Coover's textual laminations and fix the grotesque vitality of his protagonist and his “disintegrating but multilaminous island”33 into something resembling the kind of coherence required of an academic essay, I am faced with the folly of such an enterprise. Inevitably I flatten his comic savagery and revitalising power, and I find myself in the role of Menippean loquacious pedant, a figure for the contemporary theoretical obsessions that have rendered Pinocchio “stilted and stiff.”
Venice is the perfect setting, too, for Coover's virtuoso exegesis of Bakhtinian dialogism. Coover places himself in a long line of literary thieves of language in the construction of his text, and raids the history of western literature, art, architecture, and philosophy, much as Venice raided the Eastern Mediterranean in its self-construction as a legible, urban text. Pinocchio in Venice is like the façade of San Marco, a collage of disparate bits and pieces that are nonetheless of a piece. Coover brings dozens of heterogeneous literary historical voices into dialogic collision and coexistence in a single moment in time and space, and this linguistic chaos brims with potential. In a Rabelaisian feast of scatology, profanity, and learned allusion, he takes up where Collodi left off and parodies and brings into “joyful relativity” an encyclopedic selection of western literature. In addition to the texts already mentioned, he brings to his dialogue fragments from (for example) the Christian gospels and “The Dream of the Rood,” Plato's Phaedrus, Euripides' The Bacchae, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Congreve's The Double Dealer, Gogol's “The Overcoat,” Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, Derrida's “Plato's Pharmacy,” and his own The Public Burning. Such an anatomisation is a destructive process, but each text becomes part of a flexible structural frame that is grotesque in its Joycean “Here Comes Everybody” capacity to extend, incorporate, and transform. For example, Joyce, Bakhtin, and Derrida all, like Coover, engage in word play that is eccentric and communicative, and along with Dante, Pound, Eliot, Mann, and the writers of the gospels, they all expand the horizons of their own texts by writing in the margins of other people's. By means of linguistic belly-laughter, Coover skillfully brings all these texts into contact as he reinterprets them in the light of each other. It is part of a literary tradition, but at the same time it is, in the words of Coover's female commedia hero Columbina, “a whole new lazzo.”34 By means of this carnivalesque destruction and renewal, he offers alternative endings for a huddle of angst-ridden wandering literary heroes who haunt Pinenut's journey.
Coover's is in a long line of rereadings of Dante, which include those of Collodi, Eliot, and Pound. The latter is, like Dante and like Coover's Pinocchio, an exile with links to Venice, and it is interesting to contrast his response to Dante with Coover's.35 The Cantos are structurally and thematically based on the Commedia, and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is an ironic inversion of it. In the latter, Dante's dignity is replaced by Mauberley's self-pity, an inheritance of classical, Italian, and Provençal poetry gives way to nineties decadence, and love fails.36 Coover's pilgrim is self-pitying, and dignity has always escaped him. He throws tantrums, for example, when his university attempts to withdraw his franking privileges, or deprive him of his second office, and in the crisis that leads to the first Menippean dialogue of the threshold at Santa Lucia Station, La Volpe is able to play on his irascibility to steal first his dignity and then his precious manuscript. He blames his failure to command respect on the fact that he has never managed to look the part of the scholar philosopher. Not only does his recalcitrant nose continue to make a fool of him, but he complains that even after he “put on flesh” he continued “to look like a spindly unstrung puppet … a veritable insult to the rules of human proportion—where was the heroic frame, the hairy chest, where—someone has a lot to answer for!—were the powerful thighs?”37
Dante's Commedia, like Collodi's and Coover's stories, hinges on metamorphosis and the Christian drama. Coover borrows the doubled structure of the Purgatorio as Pinocchio undertakes a literal journey through a city that becomes the intermediate, liminal space that lies between the Inferno of his life as a human subject and the Paradiso that will succeed it. A parallel spiritual journey takes him toward a level of understanding that will enable him to discard intellectual knowledge—philosophy—in favour of love. During four days over Easter, Dante Pilgrim journeys toward Beatrice and redemption; in the four days leading to the culmination of carnival before the grim days of Lent, Pinocchio travels through Venice-as-purgatory, toward the Blue Fairy. Like Dante, he has been lost in a dark wood and he has lived a life of exile. Like Dante, he is driven by the desire to know that is underpinned by another, less worthy desire, for fame. And as with Dante the constant inspiration of his life's work has been a long-dead girl he fell in love with when they were both children, and she has since, like Beatrice, watched his every move, and marked his every error.
An abiding theme of the Purgatorio is reunion and reconciliation, and Dante brings together not only old friends, enemies, families, and lovers, but dispersed communities of texts. In carnivalised Venice Pinocchio is reunited with the ghosts of his past as, within the text, dozens of disparate literary voices are brought into dialogue. Dante is spiritually reunited with Beatrice, a type of Christ. Pinocchio's reunion with the Blue Fairy, on the other hand, is concerned ultimately with the body rather than the soul.
In the century that has followed the publication of Collodi's Pinocchio, a flourishing industry has developed that encompasses long-nosed souvenir puppets and masks hawked at shops and market stalls in Italy and in Little Italies from Toronto to Melbourne, together with adaptations in various media. Disney's 1940 animated film—a “vandal's raid” Jackson Cope notes has already been repulsed by Coover with The Public Burning38—is still widely available on video and is re-released in cinemas from time to time. Perella points out that more recently the academy has taken “this most fortunate of Italy's minor classics” to its heart, because of the subtlety of its linguistic and narrative strategies, its literary and sociocultural allusiveness, and its use of archetypal patterns and images.39 At conferences and in scholarly journals Pinocchio is earnestly compared to Odysseus, Aeneas, Christ, and Dante, and even to Renzo, the working-class hero of Manzoni's revered political novel I Promessi Sposi.40 (It is no comfort to be reminded I am not alone in my loquacious pedantry!)
Coover's Pinocchio, then, parodies as it joins a tradition of adaptation and interpretation that includes popular and academic culture. But Coover is manifestly outside the tradition, too, in that his reading of Collodi's puppet is as expansive and all-encompassing as most translations, rewritings, and interpretations have been “monolithically reductive.”41
Perella notes that “Collodi himself was among the first to feel uneasy about [his] tale's ending … which he once told a friend he could not remember having written [though] the manuscript copy leaves no doubt.” In what he suggests “may well be the story's cruellest image,” the chestnut-haired, blue-eyed “real boy” eyes his discarded puppet self “propped against a chair, its head turned to one side, its arms dangling, and its legs crossed and folded in the middle so that it was a wonder that it stood up at all.” He says “with a great deal of satisfaction: ‘How funny I was when I was a puppet! And how glad I am now that I've become a proper boy!’”42 “His subsequent uneasiness,” suggests Perella, “betrays the ambivalent attitude he had toward his wayward, unregimented puppet and the deep-rooted sympathy he had for the free-living street kid.”43
Coover takes advantage of Collodi's ambivalence toward his protagonist to address questions relating to the acquisition of bourgeois subjectivity and to “rescue” Pinocchio. As he does so he emphasises ambivalences in Mann's semi-autobiographical novella about artistic creativity and the role of the writer in the early twentieth century.44 The result is a seriously funny critique, and a self-reflexively parodic study of the role of the artist and thinker in Coover's own historical moment—our historical moment—of literary and theoretical discontent. Aschenbach's earnest tones may be heard in Pinocchio's thoughts from Coover's opening pages. For example, his own great epic, Maia (the mother of Hermes), a “richly patterned tapestry … that gathers up the threads of many human destinies in the warp of a single idea,”45 sounds suspiciously like Pinocchio's Mamma. Both men have spent their adult lives striving for perfection, in the pursuit of idealised beauty and truth, and both have achieved a public dignity Mann and Coover agree to be inimical to the artistic imagination. Both doubt their intellectual capabilities, and both are physically frail; their success is a “heroism born of weakness.”46 Both are deeply dissatisfied, both are drawn with uncharacteristic spontaneity to visit Venice, and both will die there. Both see premonitory visions on arriving in the city: Aschenbach sees an old fop pretending to be a youth, and Pinocchio a crazed figure fleeing through the streets. Aschenbach will “become” the fool he despised, as Pinocchio will “become” the fleeing madman, and Aschenbach's fool. Each has a strange encounter with an impertinent gondolier, and each has problems with missing luggage, which lead to an immersion in the city that would not otherwise have occurred. Each contemplates his life from a deck chair on a Venetian beach, though Aschenbach's beach is the Lido and Pinocchio, whose meeting with carnival has snatched him from wealth and respectability into homelessness, occupies the no-man's-land where a derelict boatyard meets the lagoon. Both have doubts about being in Venice at all but their desire for what lies beyond the pleasure principle means neither has any intention of leaving. Both feverishly hunt an unsuitably young lover through the labyrinth, and both delude themselves as to the nature of their passion with parodic readings of Plato's Phaedrus. Aschenbach dreams of a Dionysiac orgy, and Pinocchio's carnivalesque rebirth depends on his becoming the object of its terrifying reality.
Homer's Odyssey is an intertext for Collodi, but it is Joyce's response that is most clearly heard in Pinocchio in Venice. Coover's text shares characteristics with Joyce's in its structure and in its details. For example, Joyce plays on his text as anatomy by devoting different sections to different bodily organs. Coover in turn devotes sections to the ear (Pinocchio's are the first of his organs to be shed, reminding us he never was much of a listener), the tongue, the intestines, the kidneys, the flesh, the skeleton, the locomotor apparatus, and the genitals. Pinocchio's famous phallic nose is the only organ to remain in good working order until the end. It continues to embarrass him almost until the moment of his death, but in true carnivalesque fashion, what was folly for Aschenbach is revealed to be wisdom for Pinocchio as he is led by the “nose” to paradise in the arms of the Blue Fairy.
Dublin and Venice are distinguished by the juxtaposition of land and water—along with the littoral, tidal space of its Bay and the Liffey, both of which are central to the narrative construction of Ulysses, Dublin even has a Grand Canal. Both texts reflect the liminality of their topography, subsuming earlier texts, breaking them down and bringing them together in a destructive-reconstructive flood of words. For all that both are in some respects so novelistically realistic that routes may be traced down to the narrowest lanes and alleys, both are labyrinthine, disorienting, and nightmarish. Both are filled with the hubbub of hundreds of voices—those of their protagonists competing with those of their intertexts. Both are peopled with ghosts, including Stephen Dedalus's revenant mother and the Blue Fairy (Pinocchio's surrogate mother) who, from her inception in Collodi's text, has never been able to make up her mind whether she is dead or alive. Bloom and Pinocchio each pay a visit to “Hades,” represented by a cemetery.47
Both contain set pieces devoted to Platonic discourse in libraries: Joyce's “Scylla and Charybdis” section is set in the National Library in Dublin and Coover's chapter 21, “Plato's Prank,” in the Salone Sansoviniano of the Libreria Marciana, the original Venetian state library. Pinocchio, perched between Plato and Aristotle who have been his own Scylla and Charybdis and whose portraits flank the entry to the Salone, rehearses a mock-Platonic speech to the Blue Fairy (disguised as Bluebell, a buxom college co-ed) as Phaedrus.48
At the end of the Cyclops section, Bloom/Jesus/Moses becomes Elijah as he escapes The Citizen to ascend into heaven amid clouds of angels—“like a shot off a shovel.”49 Pinocchio has visions of angels, too, but he escapes the carabinieri to experience a bathetic descent rather than Bloom's mock apotheosis. Ignoring Arlecchino's warning to stick to him “like shit to a shovel,” he is distracted by a glimpse of the Fairy, “just drifting by as though in an angelic vision.” He staggers through a tiny underpass, the Sottoportego del'Uva, misses his footing, and as though “pitched from a slick shovel,” he undergoes a second lustration, not in Dante's Lethe but in the “slimy ooze” of a side canal, Rio di Santa Margherita.50
As the end nears, Pinocchio comes to regret a life in which he rigorously repressed any impulse toward pleasure, and his snappish “No, no, … that's not what I mean at all”51 brings into focus echoes of Eliot's Prufrock that have been present since Pinocchio's arrival in Venice. Both men walk the streets of an unreal city in search of an elusive answer. On his arrival at Santa Lucia, Pinocchio's aged body makes its way along the platform “like a crab,” reminding us of Prufrock, whose tough outer shell has protected him from pain but also from love and who, in his loneliness, soliloquizes: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”52 When his old enemy Il Gatto, disguised as a female tourist bureau clerk, drops his key, it “clatters to the floor like a coffee spoon.”53 Both cities are wreathed in fog. It “rubs,” “licks,” “lingers,” “slips,” and “curls” about Prufrock's city and, yet another avatar of the shape-shifting Blue Fairy, it haunts Pinocchio's: “swirling,” “coiling,” “like teasing wisps of bluish hair,” it exacerbates his short-sightedness and the descending fog of old age.54 Prufrock holds up a mirror to Professor Pinenut's sorry hairless thinness and to his fussy sartorial vanity as well as to his much-regretted failure to have “dared,” and his dawning realisation that he may indeed have been “obtuse,” “ridiculous,” “the Fool.” He predicts people will say of him: “How his hair is growing thin!” and “how his arms and legs are thin!” A friend, on seeing Pinocchio's body, sighs “He's thin as a nail, he's lost all his hair.”55
THE BAKHTINIAN LOOPHOLE AND THE POLITICS OF BOURGEOIS SUBJECTIVITY
The text as anatomy reflected in the body-in-bits-and-pieces is reinforced by the repetitious use of that stock scene in Menippean satire, the marvelously termed deipnosophistical interpolation. Within an hour or two of Pinocchio's arrival, the first of three Menippean feasts takes place. It's a recapitulation of the dinner the puppet shared with Il Gatto and La Volpe at the Gambero Rosso, the Red Crawfish Inn, in Collodi's Pinocchio. The first time, because of his greed and naivety, the young puppet was tricked into parting with the gold coins that were supposed to change his life from poor to rich, from bad to good. This time, Il Gatto and La Volpe are rather thinly disguised behind commedia masks. Pinocchio is gulled again. To be fair, he is tempted by what he falsely believes to be a free meal, but this time he's vulnerable not because he's a poor child who would like to be a rich one, but because he's an old man who wants to belong. Again, Pinocchio eats little while his companions consume what is this time a meal of truly gargantuan proportions, but he does join them in drinking rather a lot of good local wine and grappa. Punningly foregrounding the role anatomy will play, the menu includes tripe, sweetbreads, kidneys, “pickled spleen and cooked tendons … slick and translucent as hospital tubing … sliced stuffed esophagus [and] calf's liver alla veneziana.”56 In carnivalesque terms, this feast is only a precursor to the one that counts.
Deserted by his companions and lost in “the snowy night” of the Venetian labyrinth, Pinocchio's digestive organs collapse under the assault of so much wine on an all but empty stomach. Other figures appear from his past as he relives the nightmare of his puppet past and the “galantuomo, and universally beloved exemplar of industry, veracity, and civility” is apprehended by the law for, among other things, “indecent exposure” and “polluting the environment.”57 Collodi's puppet had friends as well as enemies, however, and Pinocchio is rescued by Alidoro, the police mastiff who in the earlier narrative had rescued him from death-by-frying at the hands of a fisherman. He and his philosophical watch-dog friend Melampetta begin the process of reconstructing Pinocchio's clean and proper wooden body. As the old professor discourses, the dogs deconstruct his confessional monologue and his hard-won human body with their tongues.58 Amidst much blasphemy and good-natured Rabelaisian punning, and with a cheerful fortitude that contrasts starkly with Pinocchio's “in spite of” heroism, they lick away his excrement, and make a start on his solipsistic metaphysics and his subjectivity. Careful as they are, “the little duck's as brittle as croccante and flaking like puff pastry”59 so that they inadvertently lick away scraps of flesh, and an ear.60 It is the first step toward the revelation, literal and metaphorical, of the puppet beneath (“it's the naked truth we want, the unvarnished reality!”61 It is an example of Coover's excess-with-a-purpose, since this feasting followed by literal purgation and cleansing links commedia dell'arte to that other Commedia—the purgation and cleansing undergone by Dante Pilgrim as he makes his way through his Purgatorio to seek redemption in the presence of his dead beloved, Beatrice. His sins and imperfections, too, are slowly, painfully stripped away until he is a new man.
A third and equally astonishing cena is the Dionysiac cannibalism that occurs at the height of carnival. Again, Pinocchio is the feast. Wrapped in pizza dough and baked to a donkey-shaped crisp in memory of an earlier metamorphosis, he's delivered up to a maenadic throng of tourists and Juventus fans, who begin to tear him apart, and eat him. A few fingers and his feet are demolished along with the pizza dough before the commedia puppets rescue him and he's flown to safety behind the Teatro Malibran, by the Lion of San Marco. He's reached the heart of the labyrinth, and is one step from his destiny, the lost and longed for body of the Blue Fairy, his Beatrice, his Penelope, his Molly Bloom, his Anna Livia Plurabelle, the first object of his desire.
In order to explain how Coover creates the possibility of Pinocchio's carnivalesque redemption, it is necessary to go back to Derrida. I have mentioned that Plato's Pharmacy, Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus, is an intertext, and although his voice is not as clearly heard in this dialogic engagement as many others are, its influence is insistent. Coover reminds us that his wooden-headed puppet was born from a wooden log, and in one of a series of droll “wooden” puns that run through his text, he links log to the logos, word, logic, reason. This leads him neatly into Derrida's critique of the metaphysics of presence, the privileging of unity over difference, speech over writing.
The Phaedrus is central to Mann's Death in Venice. He parodically rereads that part of the dialogue which focuses on love, and the role of beauty in guiding us toward a higher realm.62 Derrida discovers an ambivalence in Plato's attitude to the morality of writing, and also asks, again self-reflexively, whether the writer can ever “cut a respectable figure.”63 These are of course also concerns for Mann. Coover parodies Mann's version of the dialogue, and Derrida's text informs the whole of Pinocchio in Venice.
The dialogue between Plato and Mann and between Plato and Derrida is straightforward, but it is Coover's genius that, by means of his reading of Derrida, he is able to bring Collodi and Mann, who are to say the least an unlikely couple, into jarringly disjunctive yet productive dialogue, bringing to light elements in each that allow for the possibility of new readings. The cruelly repressive aspect of Collodi's Bildungsroman is made to chime with Aschenbach's own repression, and Coover focuses on that repression rather than on the “happily ever after” of Pinocchio's metamorphosis into a human child. He rereads Collodi through a darkly carnivalesque lens, interweaving Aschenbach's encounter with Dionysiac passion into a reversal of Collodi's puppet's journey to create an apocalyptic voyage into the labyrinthine Real that is at once funny, and cruelly shocking.
Coover makes this link by means of Derrida's investigation of Plato's use of the word pharmakon and its cognates in the Phaedrus and elsewhere. In the Phaedrus it is used to refer to writing as opposed to speech as a kind of drug, and Derrida uses this to illustrate the difference that constitutes language. He argues that pharmakon must be translated as both remedy and poison, not as one or the other. Coover takes this up when he reminds us that Collodi's Fairy's gift of life to Pinocchio, which entailed his metamorphosis from puppet to human, hinged on his learning to take her bitter “good medicine” that transformed him into un ragazzino per-bene, which might be translated only somewhat ironically as “a bourgeois masculine subject.”64 Coover exploits the element of ambiguity in Collodi's ending to make it clear that the hand the Fairy has dealt Pinocchio is a far from straightforward one. The Pharmakon, as Derrida reminds us, always “partakes of both good and ill, of the agreeable and the disagreeable,”65 and it becomes clear that the Fairy's medicine, her cruel normalising bourgeoisifying pedagogy, may have given Pinocchio life and enabled him to achieve worldly success, but it destroyed in him everything that was life-affirming.
Collodi's story is a didactic fable for children about a puppet who comes to life, but the subtext is the construction of a new Italian bourgeoisie. Pinocchio was written in the years following Unification, when it was felt that if Italy were to compete with her Northern neighbours, a hardworking bourgeoisie would have to be created from a largely peasant working class, perceived to be lazy and essentially anarchic. Collodi's text is part of that improvement project, and Pinocchio's is an instructive example of the carnivalesque grotesque body that must be excluded in the creation of the modern state. His is a lazy, far from docile, and with that famous nose, inappropriately sexual, body.
But as Perella pointed out, Collodi is ambivalent, and here we have an example of the Bakhtinian loophole that is essential to Coover's project. It makes possible the double movement that makes present what was absent. Coover's dialogue with Collodi (via his dialogue with Derrida and Bakhtin) shows the redeemed ‘proper boy’ who transcends his puppet self to be an unpleasant prig who in Coover's ‘sequel’ grows up to be a self-absorbed if highly respected fool. It is a reading Collodi would have appreciated, and through the Bakhtinian loophole Coover constructs an alternative narrative that exposes the horror of the bourgeoisification Collodi half recommends, half resists. Everything Pinocchio does in his effort to be good is aimed at pleasing the Blue Fairy, and at regaining oneness with her. In Coover's version, Pinocchio's friends are quick to recognise that her maternal influence has been far from healthy—she is, after all, an avatar of death. Collodi's Fairy is a gruesome necrophiliac who likes to play unpleasant, spooky games with little boys, games which Coover's text reveals are designed to leave them intimidated, guilt-ridden and dependent, to say nothing of sexually perverse. Her medicine, far from doing Pinocchio good, seems to have ruined his life. It is pharmakon as poison.
Mann has said he intended the outcome of Death in Venice to be a shift away from his usual coolly analytical style. He had been reading Nietzsche, and considered whether a bringing together of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac might not be the key to a renewal in German art. T. J. Reed's convincing reading suggests that the ambivalences in the text, which include its ambiguous ending and its “strange mixture of enthusiasm and criticism, classical beauty and penetration, elevation and sordidness,” may be attributed to the fact that he found himself unable to complete the text as he had planned it, and that it was only finished after he read Lukács's essay on Socrates. Lukács “provided a sterner, potentially moral view at a time when Mann was deeply dissatisfied with the story as he had begun it.”66
Mann's ambivalence toward contemporary art and the role of the artist is engaged through parody in the irascible, reactionary, monologic views of Professor Pinenut. Art's endeavour must be the ceaseless striving for perfection in which eternity is what counts. History is the bit that goes wrong. Any kind of provisionality is abhorred as some kind of shilly-shallying pluralism. What the world needs is Professor Pinenut's self-righteous ‘good medicine,’ a good dose of absolutes.
But Pinocchio learns much through his suffering, and as he dies he rejects the self he has become in favour of the part of him he has denied. Through this acceptance Coover is able to suggest the “something more positive” Mann could not allow Aschenbach, and at the same time Pinocchio as Prufrock dares to leave behind his crab-like shell, and Pinocchio as Bloom—in no uncertain terms—renews his physical relationship with the Fairy/Molly. Like Aschenbach, and like Collodi's puppet, Pinocchio dies at the end of Coover's narrative, but this is the longed for Lacanian “second death.” He is able to make a good death as the last fragments of his human body are removed, and the anarchic puppet is revealed. With great courage, and a mixture of terror, excitement, and serenity, he faces the abyss of the Real, and makes peace on his own terms with the Blue Fairy as the monstrous feminine. Before the altar of the Miracoli church, and in a blasphemous Pietà, the Fairy cradles Pinocchio's broken, anatomised body, no more now than a bundle of crumbling wooden sticks. He is fit only for recycling and—recycling yet again the trope of self-reflexivity—she whispers “We'll make a book out of you!” In response to Derrida's invisible presence, to difference, and to the pharmakon as remedy and poison, the pharmakon as speech and writing, Pinocchio undergoes a last metamorphosis. “[W]ith his vanishing voice” which will not vanish because it will be part of the endless dialogue of literature that contains past, present, and future (and with a wink to Henry Louis Gates's “signifyin[g]”), he replies “But a talking book, Mamma! A talking book …”67
The central Derridean différance that informs every aspect of Coover's Pinocchio's journey, and is central to my reading of it, is crystallised as the text ends not with a whimper but with Pinocchio's theft and modification of Molly Bloom's Joycean “yes … ! Good …”68 which brims with potential and denies linguistic boundaries as it denies Mann's tragic ending. The difference hinges in large part on the linguistic play that dances across a carnivalesque world-upside-down, and is achieved by means of a Derridean “double gesture” that refuses to simply reverse Platonic oppositions but unsettles and displaces them (as Bakhtinian dialogism doesn't merely reread earlier texts but opens them up to new interpretations), and so creates a new and productive medium.69
Bakhtinian theories of the dialogic and of carnival and Derrida's questioning of western metaphysics become part of the complex matrix of the grotesque body of the text that is a figure at once for the palimpsest that is the mythologised textual city of Venice and for the grotesque body of the city itself, in a process that shatters in order to reincorporate and revivify the fragmented body of western literature. Coover's text becomes an exemplum of Plato's pharmakon in that it is an interweaving of texts that is a remedy against forgetting at the same time as it is a risky unravelling of that history from which a new fabric may be formed.
Coover's text is not merely an engagement with différance; it is a seriously ludic, infinitely iterable “staging” of Derrida's questioning of the metaphysics of presence. In a neat reverse mirroring of Derrida's own practice of bringing literary texts to bear on his critique of western philosophy, Coover undermines that tradition's logocentrism by an overt inscription of philosophy—in particular a rereading of Derrida's rereading of Plato's Phaedrus—on the grotesque body of western literature.
For Coover, as for most of the late-twentieth-century writers listed in the introduction to this essay, Venice “works” as a setting for reasons that can be defined as post-Romantic—that is, the attraction to “beauty in decay” remains. But there's an extra resonance now, as Venice also becomes a figure for global environmental degradation. In terms of the city as culture, Venice stands for all we have made, and for all we stand to lose. Linked to this, it is also an object of what Andreas Huyssen terms “museal desire.” Huyssen points out that we live in a period that has witnessed, paradoxically in a time characterised by the waning of history and by cultural amnesia, “a memory boom of unprecedented proportions.”70 Coover's city is a realisation of Huyssen's creative fissure that occurs between the past and the present and between historical events and their contemporary representation. It is both a productive theatre of contestation, and “an anchoring space” within millennial uncertainties that enables an engagement with the present and with the future. This does not make it a symptom of conservative nostalgia; the crumbling stage on which Pinocchio finds himself is hardly an exquisite representation meant to stand in lieu of the perfect city that is slipping from our grasp. Rather, the perfection of Venice preserved as the consummate medieval-Renaissance urbs, the kind of space Huyssen might term a “burial chamber” of our collective western past,71 is smashed open, in a defiant and loving carnivalesque act of creative destruction.
Tony Tanner refers to Sir John Mandeville's prototypical and influential Travels, first published in Anglo-Norman French in 1356–57 and soon translated into English, and he credits a description by Sir Roger Ascham (1570) as identifying “Venice as a place, the place, of love, lechery, sensuality, prostitution as well as a place of wise rulers, and just laws” (Tanner 1992, 5).
This comes from the opening paragraphs of his essay “Venice,” first published in Century Magazine in 1882. He quickly qualified his statement by adding that when it comes to writing about Venice “the old is better than any novelty” and that “[i]t would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say” (Italian Hours 1), presumably since that could mean either that the city had been desecrated by the ill-considered and poorly executed renovation and modernisation Ruskin had warned against, or—perhaps worse—that it had been successfully saved from its gorgeous decline. For all that he considered it to have become nothing more than “a battered peep-show and bazaar” (7), he went on to write two novels and a novella and three more essays for which Venice is the focus.
It is of course difficult to trace “popular” fiction once it is out of print, and so it is difficult to confirm these figures, but I have taken account of the Marciana's eccentric Tursi Collection, a gift made to the library of modern non-Italian literature set in Venice. I thank Marino Zorzi, director of the library, for giving me access to this archive.
This number doesn't include novels in translation, or those in which Venice plays only a small if significant role.
Examples include Anne Rice's gothic romance Cry to Heaven (1982); historical novels by David Thompson (The Mirrormaker 1993) and Ross King (Domino 1995); detective novels by Donna Leon (the Guido Brunetti series, 1992–98), Anthony Appiah (Another Death in Venice 1995), and Michael Dibdin (Dead Lagoon 1994); and romances by Erica Jong (Serenissima 1987), Ardythe Ashley (The Christ of the Butterflies 1991), and Judith Krantz (Lovers 1994).
Coover 1991, 20.
Coover 1991, 291.
Collodi 1986, 456–61.
Coover 1991, 47.
Carlo Lorenzini was born in Florence, and he took the pen name Collodi from the Tuscan town in which his mother was born. Nicolas Perella, in his excellent introduction to his parallel text of Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, notes that although there is some disagreement, “not a few Italian readers have claimed that the environments in Pinocchio bear the unmistakable character of Tuscany,” and they note not just signs of “a mid-nineteenth-century Tuscan mentality” but “a characteristic recourse to linguistic provincialism and witticisms—the famous arguzia toscana” (Perella 1986, 1, 63). Coover produces a parodic late-twentieth-century Venetian mentality, and replaces arguzia toscana with Venetian dialect slang crossed with traditional commedia dialogue and carnivalesque curses and blasphemy.
Coover 1991, 14.
Coover 1991, 14.
Byron 1986, 4.1.
Ruskin 1851–53, Vol. 2, 67–68.
Pound 1964, Canto XVII.
Ihimaera 1986, 430.
Coover 1991, 128.
Coover 1991, 185.
Coover 1991, 216.
Coover 1991, 202, 203.
Coover 1991, 72.
Bakhtin 1984, 114–15.
Frye 1957, 308–12; Bakhtin 1984, 114–19.
Bakhtin 1984, 116.
Frye 1957, 309.
Bakhtin 1984, 124–25.
Collodi 1986, 456–61.
Coover 1991, 285.
Coover 1991, 271.
Bakhtin 1984, 133.
Pinocchio in Venice is Coover's second rewriting of Collodi's story. The first, The Public Burning, is also a highly carnivalised, dialogic novel, although as Jackson Cope points out, Coover could not have read or even known about Bakhtin by the time that novel was completed. The influence of carnival came to him first through literary history rather than through literary theory (Cope 1986, 72).
Cope notes that Coover “exists” in The Public Burning, through “dozens of allusions to his former novels, to his own novelistic obsessions. “He sees him as rendered “a bit singer in his own chorale, “pushed aside by the “cacophony of views, overlapping of voices “in that text (Cope 1986, 71–72). The same could be said for Pinocchio except that Coover also, self-mockingly, inhabits the body of his protagonist. Pinenut teaches at an East Coast university, for example, and when, near the end of his life, he nestles into the soft bosom of the Blue Fairy, it reminds him of a cornfield in Iowa. Coover is a member of the faculty at Brown University, and by birth an Iowan.
Coover 1991, 295.
Coover 1991, 307.
In political exile from Florence, Dante wrote the Commedia in Ravenna and spent time in nearby Venice. Unlike Pinocchio he was not able to return home. The Arsenale is said to have influenced the hellish imagery in the Inferno; Coover renders the whole city hellish.
Hutcheon 1989, 88.
Coover 1991, 118.
Cope 1986, 16.
Perella 1986, 2, 5.
Perella 1986, 4.
Perella 1986, 2.
Perella 1986, 54–55; Collodi 1986, 460–61.
Perella 1986, 55.
In an autobiographical sketch, Mann states that a trip to the Lido furnished him with all the material for the novella, and that his task was merely to interpret it. Like his protagonist (and like Pinenut), he was at a literary standstill, and at a crossroads in his development (Gronicka 1964, 46; Reed 1974, 149). Like Pinocchio, Aschenbach comes to Venice because he finds himself unable to complete the work he has undertaken: “it would not yield either to patient effort, or a swift coup de main” (Mann 1989, 7, 8).
Mann 1989, 7. Compare Coover 1991, 14.
Mann 1989, 11.
Joyce 1968, Ch. 6 “Hades”; Coover 1991, Ch. 19 “At L'Omino's Tomb” and Ch. 20 “The Original Wet Dream.”
Coover 1991, 236.
Joyce 1968, 449.
Coover 1991, 140, 154, 155.
Coover 1991, 175; Eliot 1917, 1. 97.
Coover 1991, 15; Eliot 1917, 1. 73–74.
Coover 1991, 17; Eliot 1917, 1. 51.
Eliot 1917, 1.15–22; Coover 1991, 13, 178, 258, 293.
Eliot 1917, 1. 117–19, 1. 41, 44; Coover 1991, 68–69.
Collodi 1986, 166–69; Coover 1991, 34.
Coover 1991, 47–48.
Coover 1991, 66–78.
Coover 1991, 76.
Coover 1991, 99.
Coover 1991, 76.
Mann 1989, 70–71.
Derrida 1981, 74. “Is writing seemly? Does the writer cut a respectable figure? Is it proper to write? Is it done?”
Collodi 1986, esp. Ch. XVII and Ch. XXXVI.
Derrida 1981, 99.
Reed 1974, 166.
Coover 1991, 329.
Coover 1991, 330.
Derrida 1982, 329.
Huyssen 1995, 5.
Huyssen 1995, 15.
Appiah, Anthony: Another Death in Venice. London 1995.
Ashley, Ardythe: The Christ of the Butterflies. New York 1991.
Bakhtin, Mikhail: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Emerson, Caryl (ed.): Minneapolis 1984.
Bakhtin, Mikhail: The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Emerson, Caryl, and Holquist, Michael. Holquist, Michael (ed.): Austin, Texas 1981.
Begley, Louis: Mistler's Exit. New York 1998.
Brodkey, Harold: Profane Friendship. New York 1994.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord: Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. 1812–18. McGann, Jerome J. (ed.): Oxford 1986.
Collodi, Carlo: The Adventures of Pinocchio. Trans. Nicolas J. Perella. Berkeley and London 1986.
Coover, Robert: Pinocchio in Venice. London 1991.
Cope, Jackson: Robert Coover's Fictions. Baltimore, Maryland 1986.
Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy. Trans. Mandelbaum, Allen. Berkeley/Los Angeles 1980–82.
Derrida, Jacques: Dissemination. Trans. Johnson, Barbara. Chicago 1981.
Derrida, Jacques: Margins—Of Philosophy. New York 1982.
Dibdin, Michael: Dead Lagoon. Toronto 1994.
Eliot, T. S.: Collected Poems: 1909–62. London 1974.
Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ 1957.
Gates, Henry Louis: The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Oxford 1988.
Gee, Maggie: Where Are the Snows. London 1992. Gronicka, André von: “‘Myth plus Psychology’: A Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice.” In: Hatfield, Henry (ed.): Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York 1964, 46–61.
Hecht, Anthony: The Venetian Vespers. New York 1979.
Hutcheon, Linda: “Modern Parody and Bakhtin.” In: Morson, Gary Saul, and Emerson, Caryl (eds.): Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Evanston, Illinois 1989.
Huyssen, Andreas: Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. London and New York 1995. Ihimaera, Witi: The Matriarch. Auckland 1986.
James, Henry: Italian Hours. New York 1987.
James, Henry: The Wings of the Dove. London 1902.
Jones, Rod: Night Pictures. Sydney 1997.
Jong, Erica: Serenissima. New York 1987.
Joyce, James: Ulysses. London 1968.
King, Ross: Domino. London 1995.
Krantz, Judith: Lovers. New York 1994.
Mann, Thomas: Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York 1989.
McCarthy, Mary: Venice Observed. New York 1956.
McEwan, Ian. The Comfort of Strangers. London 1981.
Morris, James (Jan). Venice. London 1960.
Perella, Nicolas J.: “An Essay on Pinocchio.” In: Perella, Nicolas J. (ed.): The Adventures of Pinocchio. Berkeley/London 1986, 1–69.
Phillips, Caryl: The Nature of Blood. New York 1997.
Pound, Ezra: Cantos. London 1964.
Pound, Ezra: Selected Poems: 1908–59. London 1975.
Reed, T. J.: Thomas Mann: The Use of Tradition. London 1974.
Rice, Anne. Cry to Heaven. New York 1982.
Roberts, Michèle: The Book of Mrs Noah. London 1987
Rolfe, Frederick (Baron Corvo): The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. New York 1953.
Ruskin, John: The Stones of Venice. 1851–53. 3 vols. London 1905.
Tanner, Tony: Venice Desired. Cambridge, Mass. 1992.
Thompson, David: The Mirrormaker. Toronto 1993.
Unsworth, Barry: Stone Virgin. London 1985.
Winterson, Jeanette: The Passion, London 1987.
SOURCE: Cioffi, Frank L. “Coover's (Im)Possible Worlds in The Public Burning.” Critique 42, no. 1 (fall 2000): 26–37.
[In the following essay, Cioffi explores the problematic representation of real and fictive worlds in The Public Burning, particularly as evident in the character of Richard Nixon, whose fictional persona in the novel subverts his actual historical identity, thus unsettling the reader's assumptions about American history and fiction itself.]
Even without the reminding analog of the recent, ritualized executive pillorying, Robert Coover's The Public Burning still resonates like a venerable B-52 pressed into service. It still comes loaded with chaos and destructiveness, with a version of bottled lightning not usually available in stores—nor even over toll-free phone numbers or on the Internet. Indeed, even after the latter-day “public burning” cum impeachment of the current American president, there is still something disjunctive, unintegratable, and disturbing about Coover's world view, about his novel's development of character, about its importations from fantasy, about its resolution or pseudoresolution. That the novel's plot line has played out for the public with Kenneth Starr as the Nixon figure, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky as the Rosenbergs, and House prosecutors as Uncle Sam suggests not merely the novel's prescience but its uncovering of an American archetype.
Characterized by one verbal pyrotechnic display after another, culminating in perhaps the most carnivalesque scene in American literature since the forest covenant in “Young Goodman Brown,” it is, nonetheless, far more than surface flash and virtuosity. It's a roman à thèse, but at the same time almost picaresque, with its main character—half-time narrator, Richard M. Nixon, as a number of critics have attested, gradually working his way into the reader's heart.1 Yet mixed with the views and emotional “development” of that apparently historical character are portraits of “Uncle Sam,” a transhistorical, otherworldly entity, a character from fantasy, a god from myth, a being of superhuman abilities who embodies and espouses an almanacky American folk humor, wisdom, bluster, braggadocio, and boyishness. In brief, the world of The Public Burning is not really mimetic, nor does it follow nonmimetic generic formulas (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, allegory), patternings that might accord with readers' expectations. Its hybrid or mosaic status further complicates through Coover's inclusion of not only a picture of Nixon at once sympathetic and damning, but a whole bevy of historical personages, including the Rosenbergs, Eisenhower, the Supreme Court justices, and all the United States senators. Even William Faulkner makes an appearance, as do other celebrities from all walks of culture. Finally, beings from patently imaginary realms make their way into the novel, including The Phantom, Betty Crocker, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Tom and Jerry, all of whose addition makes the mélange almost impossible to consume, a literary version of the meal that Nixon concocts for himself in chapter 9:
I'd found a rib bone in the refrigerator for Checkers, a bowl of vanilla pudding, three overripe slices of tomato, a french-fried chicken back, a partial tin of Spam, a plate of soft fudge, cole slaw, a Dr. Pepper, some sour gherkins, a peach half in syrup, and a cold hamburger for myself—more or less in that order and eaten as discovered. I was very hungry and it all tasted good. There was actually some red Jell-O in there with canned mixed fruit in it: I wasn't sure of the flavor, but I ate it up anyway, thinking: Who knows? it may be the last of its kind. I'd also cleaned up what was left of a jar of apple sauce, bottle of skimmed milk, bowl of tapioca, and tin can of cold baked beans, followed by caviar and strawberry ice cream, lit up a ceremonial pipeful of Rum and Maple, and sat down in an armchair to digest.
And if the comparison is lost on the reader amazed at the excess of gluttony, Coover speaks through his narrator to spell out in the next paragraph an important motivation for fiction: “Foo. I'd eaten too quickly. I felt terrible. But one had to be uncomfortable, I knew, to do one's best thinking” (178). The novel is in some ways hard to digest, but as Coover tells Frank Gado in a 1973 interview, “I've never turned away from unpleasantness in order to provide escapism” (149), a remark that suggests “foo” might be the kind of response Coover was looking for after all.
I argue that this novel, particularly its climactic series of scenes in the last hundred pages, is meant to disturb readers ontologically. Coover effects that curious unsettling through a series of tamperings with “reality” or the so-called “Actual World” (AW) of the 1950s: he portrays a cast of characters who inhabit at once the historical, actual world that the reader knows surrounded the figures of the 1950s political scene and a paraworld that shows the reader again and again that his or her assumptions about the unstated features and nature of this world are mistaken. Although I think Arnold Weinstein, in his Nobody's Home, might be going too far to suggest that this is a “bomb-text,” “in its systematic assault on linear narrative, its proliferation of discourses, its prodigious display of power in all its modalities, its associative logic and multiple circuitry” (256), he is basically correct that it is a novel meant to explode rigidly held notions about the sovereignty of fictional and nonfictional realms.
I would like to suggest that Coover uses his novel to theorize about the world-making and reading processes of fiction. Specifically, Coover uses his novel to short-circuit three different kinds of inferences that readers and writers inevitably make: inferences about the outlines of a fictive world, about the motivations of characters, and about the designating power of proper nouns. He intends his novel's distorted version of events to lay bare some of the ontological problems with stories based on the historical record. Those can be stories told in a court of law, or stories told in an annal of events, or stories about particular figures—historical fictions. They all blend fiction and fact. Some measure of their disautonomy stems from the mental machinations of the reader, who to grasp the rules and outlines of the fictional universe “fills in” AW information that the text does not specify. Some arises from the depicted inner lives of the characters, that is, the author's notions of people's (characters') motivations and drives that a narrative about history will typically proffer; and some comes from the use of well-known names, which in an important sense always carry the same referent and have “actual world” reverberations, whether in a world of fiction, the newspaper, or in the historical record. If there is a bomb, it is one that gradually implodes in the reader of this book who tries to sort the real from the fictional, the history from the tall tale, the prototype from the character, and the suggested from the inferred.
The way readers view fictional worlds in relation to an “actual” one is the concern of possible worlds literary theory, an approach little used in practical criticism, and never applied to Coover's works.2 The methodology, although not fully systematized, rests on the philosophical notion derived from Leibnitz that there are many, perhaps an infinity, of “possible worlds,” of all imaginable shapes and make-ups, one of which is the “actual world” (usually called AW). The privileging of one world—and the labeling of it as “actual”—gets a lot of theorists in a bind, but most of them end up putting the concept “in brackets,” that is, setting aside issues of whether there is one actual world amid the billions of subjectivities, of whether that world can be “represented” in any way through words. Possible worlds theorists simply assert the existence of an actual world. As one of the principal forces behind possible worlds literary theory, Lubomír Doležel, remarks, “We grasp fiction in opposition to reality. If reality is called fiction, a new word for fiction has to be invented” (x). Lest that formulation sound too high-handed, Doležel goes on to specify the relation: “[I]n constructing fictional worlds, the poetic imagination works with ‘material’ drawn from actuality; in the opposite direction, fictional constructs deeply influence our imaging and understanding of reality. However, the exchange can be properly observed and described only if we insist on a distinction between the actual and the fictional” (xi). Doležel is essentially stating that there is, if not an actual world, then something in an antipodal relation to fiction and that most people can recognize the dividing line, even when writers self-consciously attempt to blur or erase it.3
To an extent, though, all fiction blends an actual world with its own text world, insofar as readers infer elements of the AW into a text. Umberto Eco writes, “everything that the text doesn't name or describe explicitly as different from what exists in the real world must be understood as corresponding to the laws and conditions of the real world” (83). Yet Coover's novel frustrates that particular ordering device of “filling in” or inferring a world. For example, readers might infer that when Nixon gets into a cab, it is an internal combustion engine vehicle, and the cab driver is probably sane, has a license, and so forth. But then we discover that the cab driver is The Phantom himself and seems less interested in his fare than in insulting “Nick” and hitting two copulating dogs. Or perhaps the reader might infer that Uncle Sam is a being of superhuman strength, but that is clearly not the case when he confronts Justice Douglas, who defies him. Indeed, the reader will be fooled if he or she assumes that the characters' ontologies will remain consistent throughout the course of the novel. Like monsters in some science fiction movies, these characters' powers, weaknesses, and proclivities evolve and mutate, constantly frustrating any ordering principles.
The most strikingly powerful “fillings-in” concern the character of Richard Nixon. Readers, for example, might think that Nixon is basically a decent person, sympathetic to a degree (see note 1), despite his political opportunism. But then the vice president ignores a gang rape taking place in front of him on a train, in fact uses it as an occasion for some insight into his own political manipulations:
And then, as they'd dragged the dazed woman out of the seat and spread-eagled her down at one end of the car, it suddenly came to me what I had to do! I had to step in and change the script! It was dangerous, I knew, politically it could be the kiss of death, but it was an opportunity as well as a risk, and my philosophy has always been: don't lean with the wind, don't do what is politically expedient, do what your instinct tells you is right!
Of course this ironically dramatizes how self-deluded (and abstracted, not to mention impotent) Nixon is, but it is also an example of how Coover is constantly unsettling us by showing how our assumptions, our inferences, are just plain wrong.
The last scene certainly does that as well, catching us unexpectedly off guard, demonstrating how our fillings-in had been mistaken all along. Uncle Sam has seemed to be avuncular, cantankerous, but by no means loathsome or dreadful. Richard Walsh points out that Sam is not dislikeable enough (I think he means not dislikeable enough throughout to justify the last scene): “his [Coover's] use of humor in the novel also make[s] a sly appeal to the reader. In the case of Uncle Sam, it generates a degree of affection quite at odds with the ethical response he provokes” (336). But it is plain that any “fillings-in” about that figure from another realm are likely to be incomplete, likely to naturalize rather than fully or accurately delineate that entity.
Critics confronted with the last scene, which reverses notions of Uncle Sam's ontology, tend to view him and Nixon in figurative terms. For example, Weinstein “supernaturalizes” Sam, which I think might be a mistake:
This scene, gruesome though it is, and distasteful though some may find it, displays the final transmutation of the elements, the final alchemical trick that Coover has in store for his readers. Nixon resists heroically, but he yields at last when Sam threatens to open him with a hatchet: ‘No!’ I shrieked, giving way. And in he came, filling me with a ripping, all-rupturing force so fierce I thought I'd die! This … this is not happening to me alone, I thought desperately, or tried to think, as he pounded deeper and deeper, destroying everything, even my senses, my consciousness—but to the nation as well!’ […] It is a sublime line, a final audacious transformation of hackneyed political cliché into American myth, worthy of the classical writers; depictions of Jove's sexual exploits, conceiving power once again as sexual, showing that the pastime of the gods is to put it to the nation: Uncle Sam is fucking America.
Weinstein is “filling in,” using myth as his script: Nixon has become America, and Uncle Sam is the embodiment of the gods. (Some critics, of course, see Sam as the embodiment of America.) However, those particular inferences diminish the force of the scene. First, it is Nixon who “realizes” he is the “nation,” and by that point in the novel it seems that Nixon's intuitions and perceptions should be viewed with much suspicion. In addition, although Uncle Sam certainly resembles the gods in terms of some of his powers, his ontology is not fully clear (not just the confrontation with Justice William O. Douglas but also Sam's inability to figure out where Nixon had gone just hours before the execution suggest a very limited power that does not square with the power he has, for example, over the natural elements). And finally, the scene showcases not so much “power once again as sexual,” but rather the movement of power into violence, which appears as explicitly homosexual, explicitly rape. The scene is no more about sex than is “the rape of the Kalmuks” scene in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, or the homosexual rape scene in James Dickey's Deliverance, or the prison rape-castration scene in James Edward Olmos's American Me. It is so shocking because the reader had been naturalizing Uncle Sam all along, seeing him as outrageous, but not really dangerous—more a ringmaster than an exploiter—garrulous and racist, but so dazzling, electric, and charismatic that one almost forgave him. Through that last scene Coover shows him as ultimately far more sinister than that, and shows us a Nixon who, as he himself moves toward a supernatural explanation, is once again ignoring a rape that is happening in his presence—but this time, to himself.
I propose a different series of inferences. In her book Intimate Violence, Laura E. Tanner suggests that victims of rape and torture experience a “disorganization of the self”: “Violence […] has the capacity to destroy not only the form of the victim's body but the familiar forms of understanding through which that victim constructs him or herself as subject” (4–5). The final, violated Nixon hardly embodies America; he more closely resembles the all-but-lobotomized Winston Smith at the end of 1984:
The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
That is a man whose mind has been completely homogenized, an emotional discombobulate whose emotions have been brutalized and drugged into submission and confusion. Nixon at the end of The Public Burning is in almost as bad shape:
His words warmed and chilled me at the same time. Maybe the worst thing that can happen to you in this world is to get what you think you want. And how did we know what we wanted? It was a scary question and I let it leak away, unanswered. Of course, he was an incorrigible huckster, a sweet-talking con artist, you couldn't trust him, I knew that—but what did it matter? Whatever else he was, he was beautiful (how had I ever thought him ugly?), the most beautiful thing in all the world. I was ready at last to do what I had never done before. “I … I love you, Uncle Sam!” I confessed.
Equally unable to see the actual events before him, Nixon is a shattered consciousness grasping at the straws of delusion. Coover suggests here something that most readers had not really inferred throughout, namely that in order to want to succeed in politics, one has to love being a victim; one has to be completely mad.
Such a realization makes the reader go back and reinterpret much of the novel, realizing that various inferences about its world and characters that he or she made along the way were probably wrong: the fillings-in of an AW where the text did not specify were probably, in many cases, mistaken. That brings up yet another ontologically unsettling issue raised by Coover, who himself is something of a theorist of fiction: How much of what Marie-Laure Ryan calls a “contaminated” fictional world (one that mixes historical and fantastic elements) is entirely set off and autonomous, and to what extent has it to do with history or biography per se?
Coover blurs an AW with something patently non-AW in another interesting way by dramatizing the imaginings, dreams, fantasies, and noetic machinations of characters within a text. Those are inferences that the author makes about what could have been going through the minds of his characters. Called “sub-worlds” by Eco, they can be difficult to distinguish from a depicted AW. The effect is to create a dissonance and disautonomy: by presenting to readers a complex, specific panoply of a historical character's thoughts, dreams, motivations, and fantasies, Coover essentially grafts a consciousness onto the historical characters' intricately detailed inner lives, one that in some ways enlarges readers' notions of the actual figures and in some ways usurps or contravenes them. Thus the characters are, in Brian McHale's term, “amphibious,” neither fully fictional nor fully historical.
In The Public Burning, the Ethel-Nixon love scene (“its most unforgettable,” Raymond Mazurek remarks ) is a good example of Coover's tampering, by way of “subworlds,” with ontological states. First, it is important to note that it is preceded by a masturbatory fantasy (an obviously full and elaborated “subworld”) involving Ethel that colors the “actual” scene. Hence any narration by Nixon of his meeting with Ethel is likely to be suspect, for at this point in the novel, it is fairly evident that much of Nixon's world is a projected subjective reality that bears only passing relation to the things happening around him. Although Mazurek says that “One cannot, finally, make Richard Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg embrace” (41), Daniel E. Frick, in evident agreement, simply sees the scene as being not about Nixon and Ethel, but involving Nixon and (likely) J. Edgar Hoover in drag (85). But the scene, which so vividly comes across through Nixon's subworld version of it, lives as a four-page-long kiss between Ethel and Nixon. The subworld of Nixon is so intense, so elaborated, that it takes over what might well be the reality of the text world (that Hoover, not Ethel is involved). Indeed, if Frick is correct (and I vacillate in my belief about whether he is or not), such a reading suggests that Nixon is not merely “ontologically insecure” to borrow a term of R. D. Laing's that John Guzlowski employs (58), but a near solipsist. Were that the case, then the reader is making inferences about Coover's inferences about a historical figure whose inferences about what happens around him are unreliable. Essentially the novel uses “subworlds” to thematize the whole idea of “filling in” details about, or “ordering” one's world. And in the novel, this “zeal for pattern” generates more entropy than order.
The Public Burning is on one level a realistic character study rendered fantastic by the Nixon-narrator's own fantasizing, his internal creation of possible worlds (here he indeed resembles Coover himself, as Frick suggests; but he also resembles the reader, an insight suggested by Richard Walsh's analysis). What is further unsettling is that a large percentage of his mental activity leads him to what seem to be “correct” conclusions. He may be mad, he may be deluded, he may be a solipsist, but he seems to have some insights. For example, Nixon concludes that the Rosenbergs' trial was very unfair. Coover himself confesses to believing that (“If you read the trial record […] you pretty well have to conclude that the Rosenbergs were innocent of the charges against them” [Bass 297]). And Nixon's inferences about the witnesses, the trial, the judge's bias, and the like all seem not only correct, but quite astute. He even realizes why the Rosenbergs were convicted: “with this jury, dowdiness was guilt” (122). Of course, he alloys his perceptions of the trial with his Walter Mitty-like fantasies of how he could have successfully defended the Rosenbergs. In his own “subworlds,” Nixon blends genuine insight with a weirdly self-promoting cant, almost as if, at every turn, he were trying to buck himself up through shibboleths or delusion. He frequently, for example, compares himself to Lincoln, Horatio Alger, and even Clark Gable. At the same time he uses words such as “heterochthonous.” He feels good about the way he can carry on a conversation but think about entirely different things. He feels sorry for those people he defeats, or for people who have to die, but adds, “my mother taught me this” (84). In short, Nixon's “subworlds” create for the reader an ontological “thickness” to the character. In many ways, he seems likable and admirable, just slightly misguided, unclear about how to construct a personality and public persona. Through those maunderings and complex ruminations the reader senses the many masks Nixon wears and how much he revels in such masquerading—a proclivity that is not so bad in itself: hadn't Emerson, too, wanted to play all the roles, especially that of the “herb and berry woman”? The masquerading serves more as buffoonery than deception. Only when one recalls the public record of the AW Nixon do these masks and roles take on a genuinely evil cast: in the novel, the masquerading serves more as buffonery than deception.
Those sections, I think, make the strongest argument for the fictional autonomy of The Public Burning—its disconnection from history and the AW. They help the reader construct a character whose consciousness has a degree of moral uncertainty and logical subtlety that swerves rather widely, it seems to me, from received knowledge about an AW Nixon.
Yet, the historical connection still exists, despite Nixon's nearly winning, nearly fictional hyperconsciousness. John Ramage points out that the Nixon of the novel is much like the Nixon from Six Crises: “Coover's Nixon is simply a caricature of the historical one of Six Crises, who converts his life into a series of carefully staged ‘crises,’ featuring himself as the embattled but detached hero alert to turn every historical gap into personal gain” (61). Coover's version of Nixon excessively extrapolates the Six Crises AW Nixon; the biography's framework by contrast is only a skeleton-like version of the Nixon of the novel, but he is still Nixon. Coover's Nixon sees himself as a hero struggling against difficult odds, but the novel, more than Six Crises, fleshes out and foregrounds a Nixon who does not work with a defined notion of self. Rather, he fights against it. His hyperconsciousness, his intellectualizations force him constantly to shape the flux of experience and the swings of emotion (not to mention the unceasing “bodily principle” he confronts, namely his beard, his body odor, his clothing) into a graspable and understandable paradigm, but his greatest revelations are that there are no real ordering principles that hold. Coover has given us a Nixon who certainly differs from an actual world Nixon, but he has equipped him with an inner voice that explains and justifies the differences so convincingly that the reader is able to accommodate him to a pre-existent AW version.
In short, the subworlds of Coover's Nixon show him to be a rounded, apparently autonomous character while at the same time subsume and form something of a between-the-lines version of the Nixon of Six Crises. They also create a character whose mode of thought might be consonant with the public image of historical record, someone involved in the Watergate break-in (“let the best man win so long as it's me” ). Nixon's imagined but conceivable subworlds highlight or perhaps render more chiaroscuro the hazy boundary between fiction and AW. As Coover himself remarks, “The world itself being a construct of fictions, I believe the fiction-maker's function is to furnish better fictions with which we can re-form our notions of things” (Gado 149–50). Paradoxically, The Public Burning is the “better fiction” because it tells us about the way things are in an Actual World: Nixon's consciousness must have been far more complex than “received knowledge” has suggested. He was an opportunist, in many ways a scoundrel; but at the same time his influence was considerable and his rise to fame rather remarkable. By presenting the elaborate, imagined subworlds of this character, Coover is forcing the reader to re-examine his or her own reading of history and question to what extent it has been shaped by “orderings” whose narrative lines or voices may well have modified important details.
Finally, actual names, which Coover uses rather liberally, carry considerable resonance; and the novel seems to be asking what happens to these names, what ontological weight do they carry, once they are removed from the AW and transported into a rather nonrealistic fiction. As Peter Nesselroth notes, “More than any other words in a language, real names, whether historical or fiction, have the potential to produce new stories. That is because they already come with built-in stories (or ‘definitions’) from other contexts, either fictional or supposedly factual, like encyclopedias” (142). But what happens in a narrative about a widely known historical figure, especially when that narrative, existing in a nonrealistic, nonhistorical-novel mode, allows the reader access to a very complex consciousness, one that often contradicts the one in popular imagination? Is Coover's Nixon the AW Nixon? In fact, a defiantly “strong” reading of the text would posit that all the fantastic elements of the novel could be creations of Nixon's (subworlds), his imagined possible world within the possible world of the novel. Yet I maintain here that even as the character departs from an AW Nixon, it retains its essential “Nixon-hood.”
Saul Kripke's notion of a “rigid designator”—a name that “in every possible world” “designates the same object” (48)—might be of some help here. In Naming and Necessity, Kripke writes much about Nixon, though he is discussing an AW Nixon and various possible Nixons. (He does not allude to Coover's Nixon, however, though I think his discussion relevant to Coover's Nixon.) He suggests that we analyze Nixon by looking at the Nixon available to us, the AW Nixon, and then asking what “might have been true” of him:
Theorists have often said that we identify objects across possible worlds as objects resembling the given one in the most important respects. On the contrary, Nixon, had he decided to act otherwise, might have avoided politics like the plague, though privately harboring radical opinions. […] So we do not begin with worlds […] and then ask about criteria of transworld identification; on the contrary, we begin with the objects, which we have, and can identify, in the actual world. We can then ask whether certain things might have been true of the objects.
In that analysis, Coover's Nixon is the real Nixon, because the name is a rigid designator, and The Public Burning is a novel that explores “what might have been true” of Nixon. That seems unproblematic. A difficulty arises, however; we as readers can be fairly certain that much of the novel could not have been true of Nixon and was constructed by the author to be patently false.
Kripke goes on to use an example from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that, I think, helps explain the curious case of how a rigid designator retains its “rigidity” even within a fantastic, fictional universe:
There is one thing [Wittgenstein writes] of which one can say neither that it is one meter long nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris. But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it but only to mark its peculiar role in the language game of measuring with a meter rule.
Kripke explains that the meter stick standard obviously varies in length somewhat—because it is an object subject to heat, moisture, and the like—a variability that suggests it cannot ever be a fixed meter in length. At the same time, though, it “fixes the reference” of a “meter,” so it is the standard meter. The difficulty Wittgenstein points out is, in Kripkean terms, that the word “meter” is a “rigid designator,” but the stick, being part of a physical world, is not.
I think something of the same situation works with Nixon in Coover's novel, and that causes readers ontological difficulties. The Nixon of the text is fluid, changing, confusingly like a character from a novel: He narrates; he tells his inner feelings; he describes events around him and happening to him; a third person narrator tells about him. But Nixon, the name of a famous person, is a rigid designator. It already exists in people's minds as a more or less complete entity or object. So readers find themselves rejecting Coover's picture of Nixon as an AW Nixon because it fails to match up with information from their own AW experience (what Doležel calls their “AW encyclopedia”). At the same time, though, to read the novel, to understand, even apprehend it—to feel its considerable emotional impact—readers must conceive as real the AW character of Nixon. So readers are caught in the same situation as Wittgenstein with the meter stick: they can neither say that Coover's Nixon is an AW Nixon nor that he is not an AW Nixon.
Brian McHale discusses a similar problem of Coover's novel, though focusing on the character of Eisenhower, who is historically real and also an incarnation of Uncle Sam:
Integration of the historical and the fantastic, especially integration within a single character, exacerbates the ontological hesitation which is the principle of all fantastic fiction, for here the hesitation is not between the supernatural and the realistic but between the supernatural and the historically real.
But I think that misses the point. The reader is not in the position of hesitating about whether Coover's Ike is real or supernatural. I think that most mature readers understand that there are no such beings as Uncle Sam, that he does not “transubstantiate himself” into presidents (and that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are cartoon characters, and the laws of physics do not work as they do in the novel). So the reader, even if she or he is not especially alert, is not hesitating between envisioning a supernatural and a historically real character; the hesitation, rather, concerns one's own conception of the AW rigid designator (Eisenhower) and how that accords with Coover's variation of it (him). Can I modify my picture of the late President Eisenhower to accommodate Coover's conception of him? In what way does Coover's picture enlarge or deepen mine?
“There was just action and then more action” (362), Nixon reminds us, suggesting that any theory is likely to be false. Coover would agree. In discussing the “great sociologues” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Coover tells Thomas Alden Bass, “I treat all these ideas ironically […] as generators of metaphor, poles of energy. But they are all finally partial, and therefore, lies” (295). Kripke is getting at the same issue when he discusses the “cluster theory of names”: “It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It's wrong. You may suspect me of proposing another theory in its place, but I hope not, because I'm sure it's wrong too if it's a theory” (64). Making up an idea that would order reality, abstract notions, history, or what-have-you will inevitably be incomplete, wrong, a distortion of the actuality it attempts to organize. Yet at the same time, such “ordering” is necessary for life, for fiction making, and for reading.
It seems that Coover is not so much modifying history to suggest what might have been as setting up an apparently fully autonomous other world, one that happens to be populated by characters whose names are those of figures from American culture of the 1950s. Although we can see these characters as “counterparts” to their historical eponyms, the novel will not let us do so confidently for very long. It specifically frustrates our attempts at historical pattern making or ordering. We might first see this story as about the Rosenbergs, one that sympathetically shows their martyrdom, but ultimately it's not that at all. Their characters flatten out as the novel progresses, largely because we see them through Nixon's eyes and in “intermezzo” sections where their characters are as stereotyped as those in commedia del'arte. If the novel seems a portrait of Richard M. Nixon, well, that works for awhile, too; but again, his portrayal fairly rapidly departs in several ways from the biography of the thirty-seventh president. Allegorical readings also offer difficulties: what might this be an allegory of? A one-to-one correspondence between the events of the novel and those of some other ur-story or history fails to emerge—although it might be an allegory of itself (or the events depicted), which would be a strange but conceivable generic extension. In short, I suggest that Coover has constructed the novel to defy interpretive strategies, generic categorizings, and characterological pigeonholings. It is finally historical, realist, fantastic, allegorical. As Vincent Balitas conceives it, “We think we are reading one thing while all the time we are actually reading something quite different” (379). That feeling persists until the very end, at which time it is difficult to figure out what we have just read.
Many critics have noted that the novel is about how the factual is essentially a fictional construct and that Nixon was perhaps best able to exploit the political advantage that such a position would provide. Bernhard Reitz, for example, suggests that Nixon “reveals himself as a vacuum that craves to be filled by fictions” (236). Perhaps. But I wonder to what extent this novel is also about how some fictions are better orderings of an AW than others. Certainly the Procrustean orderings and Manichean dualities in the novel eventuate in a primitive, carnivalesque sacrifice of human dignity and life. Justice William O. Douglas chides Uncle Sam, “Don't you think it's about time you got down off this Sons of Light and Darkness kick?” (77); as the only completely positive character (and the novel's dedicatee), Douglas may have the privilege of giving Coover's “message” that easy categorizations are wrongheaded. It is not a surprising one, considering the elaborate complexity of the novel and the manner of its composition. Coover tells Larry McCaffery that it was “made up of thousands and thousands of tiny fragments that had to be painstakingly stitched together. […] It was like a gigantic puzzle” (Kennedy 108). The unsettling blend of fiction and nonfiction, the disautonomous text, and the toying with rigid designators are all devices in Coover's postmodern armamentarium that take aim at exploding our notion of what reading is like, presenting us with an experience in “dream-time” itself, an appropriately named cognitive realm that seeks to “weaken and tear down structures so that they can be rebuilt, releasing new energies” (Gado 157). The “dream time” that the novel depicts (namely the public burning itself) seems somewhat unproductive, but that is because it is in some way the wrong kind of “dream-time”: its value is instrumental. The productive “dream-time” rituals are valuable in and of themselves. One such ritual is that enacted by the novel itself, in its entirety—or the act of reading it. For finally, the energy that spins off The Public Burning, although not exactly nuclear, redeems its excesses so much that they will be neither forgiven nor forgotten; it allows the reader to see, if only by a subfuscate glow, the “swarm of black thing” (346, 524), the scary but fascinating welter of experience that cannot be understood, classified, or subsumed—the abyss of collective desire, events … the thick rotundity of the world.
In an interview with Geoffrey Woolf, Coover himself admits that Nixon is a sympathetic character: “You can't have an unsympathetic clown” (qtd. in Andersen 123). Daniel E. Frick contends that Nixon is a “version of [Coover's] authorial persona” (82), his “secret sharer” (83) who, at one point, “is the model of the kind of writer that Robert Coover aspires to be” (85). Lois Gordon calls Nixon “sympathetic” and “heroic” (62, 80). Robert Morace writes of Nixon ‘“Although he is not entirely likable, Nixon does share with Coover's most sympathetic characters the ability to see through the fantasies of others” (203). Richard Pearce goes a bit too far, I think, contending that when Nixon kisses Ethel, “he comes to life as a man of feeling, sensitivity and sincerity” (135). Somewhat more soberly, Richard Walsh writes of Nixon, “he is the only character the novel makes available for any degree of empathy, yet this intimacy is achieved through the presentation of a huge quantity of ludicrously detailed self-analysis” (343).
Brian McHale comes closest to applying a “possible worlds literary theory” methodology to the novel in Postmodern Fiction. He writes how the novel includes “characters of different ontological statuses […] gathered together in an impossible, heterotopian locus” (21).
As might be expected, Doležel is impatient with postmodern fiction and probably does not find Coover's work to his liking: “[T]he current boom in transworld travel and transhistorical parties has made it as easy for a writer to move a fiction person from one world to another as it is for a child to move a Lego piece from one tower to another. The game is no longer exciting, and it is time to invent a new one” (226).
Andersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Balitas, Vincent. “Historical Consciousness in the Novels of Robert Coover.” Kwartalnik Neofilologiczny 28 (1981): 3–4: 369–79.
Bass, Thomas Alden. “An Encounter with Robert Coover.” Antioch Review 40 (1982): 287–302.
Coover, Robert. Interview with Frank Gado. First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing. Schenectady: Union College P, 1973: 142–59.
———. Interview with Larry McCaffery. Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction. By Thomas E. Kennedy. New York: Twayne, 1992. 98–111.
———. The Public Burning. New York: Grove, 1998.
Doležel, Lubomír. Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.
Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Frick, Daniel E. “Coover's Secret Sharer? Richard Nixon in The Public Burning.” Critique 37 (1996): 82–91.
Guzlowski, John Z. “Coover's The Public Burning: Richard Nixon and the Politics of Experience.” Critique 29 (1987): 57–71.
Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.
Mazurek, Raymond A. “Metafiction, the Historical Novel, and Coover's The Public Burning.” Critique 23 (1982): 29–42.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Morace, Robert A. “Robert Coover, the Imaginative Self, and the ‘Tyrant Other.’” Papers on Language and Literature 21 (1985): 192–209.
Nesselroth, Peter W. “Naming Names in Telling Tales.” Fiction Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics. Ed. Calin-Andrei Mihailescu, and Walid Hamarneh. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996. 133–43.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: NAL, 1950.
Pearce, Richard. “The Circus, the Clown, and Coover's Public Burning.” The Scope of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert Collins and Howard D. Pearce. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. 129–36.
Ramage, John. “Myth and Monomyth in Coover's The Public Burning.” Critique 23 (1982): 52–68.
Reitz, Bernhard. “The Reconstruction of the Fifties in E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel and Robert Coover's The Public Burning.” Historiographic Metafiction in Modern American and Canadian Literature. Ed. Bernd Engler and Kurt Muller. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoningh, 1994. 223–40.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Possible World in Recent Literary Theory.” Style 26 (1992): 528–53.
Tanner, Laura E. Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth Century Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Walsh, Richard. “Narrative Inscription, History, and the Reader in Robert Coover's The Public Burning.” Studies in the Novel 25 (1993): 332–46.
Weinstein, Arnold. Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
SOURCE: Cornis-Pope, Marcel. “Rewriting the Encounter with the Other: Narrative and Cultural Transgression in The Public Burning.” Critique 42, no. 1 (fall 2000): 40–50.
[In the following essay, Cornis-Pope discusses Coover's evocation of “otherness” and marginality in The Public Burning, especially as portrayed through the novel's composite voices and Nixon's interactions with the tyrannical Uncle Sam character and the scapegoated Ethel Rosenberg.]
Though his eyes are closed, his senses withdrawn, for one vivid moment he sees himself at a distance in the Fairy's arms. […] What he sees up there is a decrepit misshapen creature, neither man nor puppet, entangled in blue hair and lying in an unhinged sprawl in the embrace of a monstrous being […] grotesque. Hideous. Beautiful. […] Somewhere, out on the surface, distant now as his forgotten life, fingers dance like children at play and soft lips kiss the ancient hurts away.
(Pinocchio in Venice 329–30)
Thus ends Pinocchio in Venice (1991), Robert Coover's most intriguing dramatization to date of the self's dangerously exhilarating embrace with the “other.” In Coover's imaginative rewriting of Carlo Collodi's children's story, the boy-puppet turned Nobel-winning art historian returns to Venice (rather than to Collodi's native Florence) in search of his lost muse-savior-teacher, the protean Blue-Haired Fairy. By moving his protagonist to a decadent Venice reminiscent of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Coover suggests that the failure of male imagination to deal with metamorphic femaleness is linked to the more profound failure of modern civilization to balance order and contingency, system and fluidity, self and other. Professor Pinenut cannot solve the enigma of the Blue-Haired Fairy without simultaneously pondering modern civilization's problematic divisions between life and art, nature and metaphysics, body and spirit. Pinenut's solution at the end of the novel allows him, however imperfectly, to transcend some of those oppositions. In an act of “creative communion,” which both annihilates and reconstructs him, the professor melds with a polymorphous Blue Fairy who, in Coover's vision, represents an emanation (rather than an idealized denial) of “Venice's corrupt and mongrel history” (175–76). The novel's narrative structure backs up this denouement, moving from the deceptive linearity of its opening chapters to an increasingly mixed and disruptive narrative approach. Narration is “carnivalized,” its rules of verisimilitude stretched to include character conversion and an irreverent recapitulation of history that valorizes the disruptive energies of human desire, “mongrelizing” plots and identities.
The encounter with protean femaleness has been at the center of other Coover fictions from Spanking the Maid (1981), a novella that exposed the patriarchal treatment of the woman's body and soul as a “blank” on which the master can write his sadomasochistic ideology, to Ghost Town (1998), which confronts the Western hero with the unwieldy task of reconciling two versions of femaleness representing civilization and the wilderness, order and lawless desire. Another recent novel, John's Wife (1996), suggests that contemporary culture is still largely unprepared for the kind of “mystical communion with the Other” (266) that Pinenut experiences in Pinocchio in Venice, lacking the visionary power or willingness to perform the polymorphous bonding that violates conventional onto-logical and cultural boundaries. As another character in John's Wife muses, “We are born into the stories made by others, we tinker a bit with the details, then we die” (138). “Tinkering” with the details of the stories available to us is not enough. What we need is a radical “reset[ting of] the basic patterns,” “breaking down the boundaries for a moment, producing monsters we secretly know to be more real than the good citizens who eventually subdue them” (224, 225).
Much of Coover's fiction has been concerned with approaching traditional plots from “the other side,” recovering the silenced or victimized point of view. Robert Morace has suggested that “the basic plot of Coover's plays, stories, and novels” pits “the pattern-keeper, who accepts the determinacy of a teleological universe, versus the pattern-breaker, who embraces indeterminacy and imaginative freedom” (193). Although Morace has focused on Coover's concern with “the tyrant Other” as pattern-keeper and oppressor of individual imagination, I want to argue that equally important in Coover's fiction is the identification of the other with the excluded and repressed. Coover's protagonists seek out those excluded “others” (female or ethnic) because they function as expanding mirrors for the self, promising to complete and gratify the ego with the experience of lost alterity. Coover prods his characters to engage those figures of replenishing otherness (what Jacques Lacan called le petit autre or the “small other”—Séminaire. Livre III 50); but he also discloses the contradictory dynamic that underlies this effort, with the self desiring both to master and to be mastered by an idealized other. The first impulse leads to the incorporation of the other; the second to submission to an idealized other. As Coover's fiction shrewdly points out, that idealized figure of otherness may end up looking very much like the “tyrant Other.” In Lacanian terms, they are both versions of the grand-autre (Séminaire. Livre III 68), the great other in whose gaze the subject seeks its identity.
The most complex articulation of the encounter with a replenishing—challenging “other” can be found in The Public Burning (1977). Reread from the perspective of Coover's more recent work, The Public Burning offers the first successful model of narrative and cultural reinscription of the excluded other. The novel is too complex and polysystemic for a mere political reading, encouraging alternative anthropological-narratological concerns with the circus imagery and rituals of scapegoating (LeClair 106ff), metafictional critiques of the “language of power” (Mazurek 30), or the mixture of high and low narrative styles in the Cold War “narrative[s] of containment” (Nadel 159–60). Still, those issues cannot be properly understood without some reflection on Coover's revisionist politics of history that reconsiders relationships between centers of power and margins, selves and others. Coover's novel foregrounds the confrontational narratives of the Cold War, tracing their origin back to a Manichaean collective ideology embodied in Uncle Sam—the novel's official reflector and “Tyrant Other.” At the same time, Coover's book attempts to destabilize the official ideology of history, denouncing it as a performance benefiting those in power, and opening it up to excluded voices. The narrative perspective is split among a composite third person voice (of the “culture”) or composite first person voice (of Uncle Sam), which regurgitate official descriptions and attitudes; the first person narration of Vice President Richard Nixon; and occasional voices of dissent. Nixon's voice is analytic and self-justifying, arguing the American ideological position without always taking it for granted. The third person narrative reads like a “pastiche of the topical junk gathered from newspapers, magazines, films, television and radio shows, Broadway plays, advertisements, popular songs, baseball scores, and the like” (Andersen 123). Mixing official pronouncements with the choral resonances of “Bible-belters, ex-FBI agents, Catholic hard-liners and anti-Zionists, ladies' clubs, Hearst newsmen, the legendary China Lobby, patriotic queer-bashers” (The Public Burning 17), that composite voice provides both background and ideological motivation for the Rosenberg trial. Coover's novel creates the impression that America's entire culture participated in the construction of a hysterical narrative that cast the other as the archetypal enemy.
Jackson Cope has rightly argued that The Public Burning makes a significant effort to move from monologic to dialogic discourse: “The novel incorporates at times a dialogue about history (Ethel's operetta with Ike), but more usually supplies an immense cacophony of views, overlapping of voices that wedge Coover out as a bit singer in his own chorale. Nixon has no more privilege than the author, though he is so desperately trying to listen into history's conversation” (71–72). But The Public Burning stops short of creating a truly “heteroglossic” structure capable of distinguishing “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices,” and a polyphony of “consciousnesses with equal rights and each with its own world” (Bakhtin 6). In spite of its structural heterogeneity, the novel remains trapped in the ideological “chorale” that has shaped America's mythic narrative. As Coover explains, “I was striving for a text that would seem to have been written by the whole nation through all its history, as though the sentences had been forming themselves all this time, accumulating toward this experience. I wanted thousands of echoes, all the sounds of the nation” (Interview in LeClair and McCaffery 75–76). Few of those echoes are radically dissonant, capable of putting forth effective alternatives to the official narrative. The public performance in Times Square is dominated by the composite voice of Uncle Sam as the “tyrant Other.” Coover's archetypal creation is the unchallenged master of “a lot of styles” (89), a “pieced-together semiotic Frankenstein” (LeClair 128). But his voice is pseudodialogic as long as Uncle Sam admits no alternative points of view and has “nothing to believe in except himself. An audience of one” (233). In spite of his protean, folksy vocabulary, Uncle Sam is too class- and race-conscious to represent genuine American “heteroglossia.” His pronouncements parrot the languages of power and discrimination, from the “old style of Holy Writ” (63) to the contemporary rhetoric of ideological division. Uncle Sam is “clearly not partial to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Voodooists, or Romanists. If he had any favorites at all, they were among people like Ezra Benson's Mormons, the eccentric, evangelical, and fundamentalist sects nurtured here on this soil” (345). Unlike his political incarnations (for example President Eisenhower) who pursue a more hypocritical version of American fundamentalism, Uncle Sam proclaims not only “America's election” but also her right to annihilate its cultural others (“those who expects to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of […] massacreein'”—7).
Alternative voices such as those of the Rosenbergs or their defenders are not absent from Coover's novel, but they have difficulty in breaking through Uncle Sam's dichotomic discourse. Although The Public Burning pursues a historical vindication of the other, the Rosenberg counter-narrative remains uncertain and mediated. On the rare occasions they are allowed to take center stage, the Rosenbergs alternate between dignified silence and bombastic statements that are immediately framed by Uncle Sam's or Nixon's comments. Both underscore the provocative nature of the Rosenberg diatribes against the “American system” (101), their political “grandstanding.” The traditional interlocutors of power (the press, creative writers, political philosophers) are also subdued. With the exception of a few references to Arthur Miller's politically charged play The Crucible (1953), which had the McCarthy era as much in mind as the Salem witchcraft trials on which it was based; Einstein's statements in defense of the Rosenbergs; W. E. B. Du Bois's writings on race that brought him the accusation of being a Russian agent in 1951; and the fiction of Steinbeck, Farrell, Caldwell, and Moravia, denounced in Congress for their “filth, perversion, and degeneracy” (215), Coover presents high culture as a reinforcer of political power. In Coover's sweeping perspective, all political and cultural institutions are responsible for maintaining the Manichaean narrative that pits America against its cultural and ideological others. Time magazine, personified as “The National Poet Laureate,” revives his “great poetic affinity for War” (323), “quickening” it with “audacious [Homeric] imagery and original prosody” (320). Applying his agonal imagination to history, the Poet reduces historical experience to linear confrontations that reinforce “deep tribal” prejudice (328). The New York Times embodies the “Spirit of History” in a more raw, more manipulative form. Its newspeak reports promote “arbitrariness as a principle,” replacing logical relations with “randomness as design” and objectivity with “a willful program for the stacking of perceptions” (191). The “vast, intricate, yet static tableau” produced by the New York Times dismays Julius Rosenberg. Julius would like to destroy “all this so-called history so that history can start again” but realizes that his martyrdom would become “just another thread in the fabric, another figure in the eternal tableau, one more exemplary parable for the hucksters to amuse themselves by” (195).
And yet the very discourses that try to repress the humanity of the other end up by being disrupted or contaminated by it. The historical vindication of the other thus takes place within the dominant discourse that is rendered uncertain and pluralized. Under Uncle Sam's very nose, a “rash of evil doings” spreads around the world and the Times Square stage undergoes subversive distortions: a mannequin dressed like Uncle Sam with a Hitler mustache is strapped into the electric chair, and the luminous slogan “America the hope of the world” is distorted to read successively “dope,” “rope,” “rape,” “rake,” “fake,” “fate,” “hate,” “nate,” “nite,” and “joke” of the world (36–41). The novel lists other similar disturbances that mark a continuous linguistic and ideological slippage away from the official order of history. Uncle Sam's own language is submitted to a deconstruction that exposes the cynical meaning hidden behind the surface rhetoric:
[…] It is our manifest dust-in-yer-eye to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplyin' millions, so damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead, fellow ripstavers, we cannot escape history! […] I tell you, we want elbow-room—the continent—the whole continent—and nothin' but the continent!
Despite Uncle Sam's successful restoration of the Times Square slogans to read “America the Poke of the World / America the Pope of the World / America the Hope of the World” (65), the memory of the subversive errancies cannot be wiped out. The more control power exercises over significance, the greater the risk of entropic breakdown. Marginalized perspectives such as those of the Rosenbergs return to haunt the official discourse, exposing its monologic blindness and creating a partial transfer of symbolic potential from victimizers to victims. By summing up the forces of alterity under the code of the “ungraspable Phantom,” “made of nothing solid,” Uncle Sam exposes himself to the haunting of the repressed specter that for Jacques Derrida is always disruptive and revolutionary, mixing a “coming back” with “coming for the first time” (4, 6–7, 10–11).
The most dangerous disruption for Uncle Sam's triumphalist spectacle ensues during the Times Square blackout, just before the executions. Plunged “into a nighttime far deeper than that from which this morning they awoke” (492), the crowds undergo a “tribal implosion.” Though Uncle Sam returns promptly to blaze a “New Enlightenment” on his people, his light reveals a scene of “rampant nihilism, bestiality, liberated freak shows, careless love and cheating hearts, drunkenness, cock-sucking, and other fearsomely unclean abominations […] not exactly Cotton Mather's vision of Theopolis Americana” (495). That scene parodies the apocalyptic “end of history” imagined by the Cold War ideology, suggesting that the seeds of darkness are sown by the self-proclaimed champions of light. That the blackout occurs when Nixon calls on Uncle Sam to drop his pants as part of a collective ritual of self-baring indicates that the custodian of the Cold War ideology is himself a version of the Phantom Other he created.
When the “enemy” other is brought onto the execution stage in Times Square further disturbances are created. Julius's frailty suggests a Christ figure to some, but Uncle Sam dismisses that impression as a ploy, “the Phantom's last weapon” (508). Ethel's execution disrupts the official script even more profoundly: her defiance prevents the crowd from commiserating with her, and her unexplainable survival of the first electrocution attempt robs watchers of their catharsis. Ethel momentarily escapes the stereotypic roles of “witch-like phallic mother” and recalcitrant spy (Carmichael 96), insisting “on being herself, forcing them to think about something or someone other than themselves, which is both disquieting and exciting” (The Public Burning 513). The doctor's horrified announcement, “This woman is still alive,” points to Ethel's irreducibility as the official culture's “other.”
Of all Coover's characters, Nixon understands best the seductive power of the other. In the novel he tries to negotiate a balance between a conformist political career in the service of a “Tyrant Other,” Uncle Sam, and moments of “breakaway wildness” that bring him perilously close to a subversive other, Ethel. Nixon begins by patiently exploring the Rosenbergs' lives to understand the centrifugal forces that pulled them out of the mainstream. He is intrigued by how close his own destiny as a struggling middle-class young man had come to intersecting theirs. Ethel's career resembles his own: daughter of poor immigrants, Ethel Greenglass hoped to establish an identity by performing as singer, actress, and union speaker. Like Nixon, she was committed to politics and the public dimension of language, speaking always as if “to a vast audience” (408). But Ethel remained trapped in her marginality through lack of opportunity and political craftiness, while Nixon managed to drift to the center of power. In an ironic reversal of the stereotypical definition of the other, the Rosenbergs remind Nixon of Horatio Alger's self-made Americans (129): they are resourceful and committed, even though to the “wrong” ideology. Their entire existence—from their “beggardly childhood on the Lower East Side, [to] their clumsy romance, their abandoned children, their depressing withdrawn lives”—haunts the establishment “with a strange dark power” (352). For Nixon, this is the power that brings “History itself alive—perhaps by the very threat of ending it!” (352).
Coveting that power for himself, Nixon seeks a rapprochement with the other. As he moves beyond stereotypical definitions to the intimate aspects of the Rosenbergs' existences, Nixon is filled with an unexpected longing to touch their lives. That longing can be explained in part through the parallels that Nixon draws between Ethel's adolescence and his own. But Nixon's moments of identification with the scapegoated other have a deeper motivation: the other represents for him the energy and “dream of life,” the “trance of timelessness” (315). In his secret reveries, Nixon pictures himself in the role of the other's champion, sharing stories and feelings with his rediscovered sister-lover, Ethel. Or he loses himself in hallucinatory visions of otherness, exotic ethnicity, homosexuality, and animal gluttony. Despite his efforts to contain the damage done by opening the subconscious “gates and flood[ing] the syntax routes” (181), Nixon is periodically detoured from conventional reality, made aware of his incontinent and fallible body. He also begins to function like an empathetic historical medium, remembering “things that had never happened to me, places I'd never been, friends and relatives I'd never met who spoke a language I didn't know” (144). His identification with others makes him feels awkward and yet “richer somehow” (145).
Nixon's reveries of cross-cultural rapprochement are interrupted by Uncle Sam's angry reminder that it is his patriotic duty to participate in the war against the “arch-degenerate, alien to us in ever' way—habits, hopes, blood even” (336). The Rosenbergs are for him just the most recent incarnation of that historical enemy. But when left alone, Nixon returns to his troubled questions about his own marginality and subaltern position as Uncle Sam's “whipping boy” (340). In Coover's words, Nixon lives “close to the center, yet not quite in the center, off to the edge a bit, an observer” (LeClair and McCaffery 74–75). Feeling vulnerable in spite of his exemplary Cold War track record, Nixon courts the Republican elite, trying to gain access to its inner circle by playing golf with Uncle Sam. Yet he suspects that he will remain an outsider for the Eastern Establishment with its “unchallenged customs and a blind loyalty based on the blood of Party” (58).
As Nixon becomes more tolerant of his own in-between position, he undertakes “Something Truly Dangerous” in chapter 21: a journey into that “strange space between” to “reach” the other. Propelled by a desire to “provoke a truth for the world at large to gape at: namely, that nothing is predictable, anything can happen” (365), Nixon takes a train to Sing Sing, moving against the general flow of the crowds toward Times Square. His contradictory motives for seeing the Rosenbergs reflect his ideological “in-betweenness”: he wants to get the Rosenbergs' confessions and stop the executions; to establish “a partnership in iconoclasm” (368) with them, exposing the arbitrariness of the power structures; and to act as a mediator between Eisenhower and Julius Rosenberg, or small-town traditions and city revolution. As he draws closer to his destination, disguised as mustached poet-clown, Nixon discovers a riskier reason for his journey: that of rescuing the distressed Other from her dungeon. Inside the prison, he moves deftly through a number of studied roles (as debater, “progressive” Republican, champion of minorities); but then he startles both Ethel and himself by becoming emotional and addressing her as a human being. Renouncing his inhibitions, Nixon embraces Ethel, exhilarated by the “tart bite of danger” but also by the “delicacy of innocence, the tang of the unexpected, the nutty flavor of playfulness, the subtlety of the first encounter” (437).
Nixon and Ethel seem to gain a momentary sense of togetherness from this interaction. But Nixon's gain is far greater. Without risking self-cancellation like Professor Pinenut, Nixon experiences a similar instance of “mystical communion with the Other, the most ecstatic and visionary moment in his life” (Pinocchio in Venice 266). Through his identification with Ethel, Nixon rediscovers his potential for feeling and adventure, as well as the memory of an America of “warmth and brotherhood I had not known since those mornings we all huddled around the kitchen stove in Yorba Linda” (The Public Burning 439). Ethel functions both as an object of desire (Lacan's “petit object a”) and a signifier of otherness (Lacan's “grande autre”) that replenishes and expands Nixon's identity, giving him self-recognition: “It was incredible this rapport, this perfectly reflected image, it made shivers run down my spine” (441). “[W]as this what the dialectics of history was all about,” he wonders, this “ecstasy” of reunion? (439) Through his reunion with this replenishing other, Nixon feels a new freedom from both Uncle Sam and the Phantom: he believes he has escaped “outside guarded time” (442), in a nonpolarized posthistory. Ethel, on the other hand, does not feel empowered by their embrace that ends in a grotesque dance entangled in clothes that would not come off and real life emergencies that interrupt fantasy. Nixon's self-congratulatory notion that “he is making history this evening, not for [him]self alone, but for all the ages!” (439) does not benefit Ethel. As the guards approach to take her to her execution, Nixon runs away, abandoning Ethel to her fate. His effort through the remainder of the novel is to atone for his transgression and rescue his political career. Finding himself transposed inexplicably onto the Times Square execution stage, “his pants a tangled puddle at his feet” (469) and the message “I am a Scamp” written by Ethel on his buttocks, he turns the humiliation of being caught with his pants down into a face-saving political speech on the theme of national vulnerability (“we have ALL been caught with our trousers down!”—473) and the sacrifices that all patriotic Americans need to make in order to meet their “responsibilities in the world” (482).
In spite of his retrenchment effort, Nixon remains suspended between the remembrance of Ethel's “life-giving embrace, where everything seemed possible, once more” (475), and his capitulation to the crudest political game. Nixon's voice in the epilogue is troubled, illustrating Bakhtin's definition of the bifurcated consciousness of the “traveler” who combines the voice of the “public apologist” with that of the “self-inquisitor” (see Cope 79–81). The two final episodes he narrates—his effort to justify himself to his wife, groveling like a dog, and his submission to Uncle Sam's sodomizing embrace—put even his human identity into question. The scene of his violation by Uncle Sam suggests what Ethel must have felt in his own crude embrace. Nixon responds to Uncle Sam's attention with a mixture of terror and love, accepting his “election” to power as his own execution and acknowledging the irreducible ambiguity of the other (he begins to suspect that his Sing Sing encounter had not been with the victimized Ethel but with a disguised Uncle Sam). Nixon himself can be read as a version of the other, at once a victim and victimizer. He is, in Daniel E. Frick's description, Coover's “secret sharer,” a “double” that spotlights “the tug-of-war between Coover's designs—his desire to expose the corruption of America's dominant culture—and his artistic self-doubts, his troubling visions of political powerlessness. Put simply, the creation of this alternative self allows Coover to explore the shadowy fears of failure” (Frick 83).
By making Nixon the book's main narrator, Coover created not only an authorial alter ego, but also a credible focalizer for the process of historical construction and manipulation. Politics for Nixon is an all-encompassing, fateful performance in which he tries to play multiple roles: as stage manager, assistant director, producer, and even hero in the failed attempt to rescue Ethel from the towers of Sing Sing. Nixon competes for ownership of that performance with other resourceful scriptwriters: the Prosecuting Attorney who turns justice into a form of entertainment through “backstage manipulations imaginative and exhaustive” (121); Uncle Sam who, as “our Superchief in the Age of Flux,” is “still hungering after some kind of shape to things” (341); the cynical Poet Laureate Time, who argues that “only through the frankly biased and distorting lens of art is any real grasp of the facts—not to mention Ultimate truth—even remotely possible” (326); and President Eisenhower whose own concern “is in the area of stagecraft,” “the effect of the action” (230). Nixon's first instinct as a political performer is to fall back on the tested roles of “tragic lover, young author, athlete, host, father, […] businessman” (361), played in school shows. But as his awareness of personal and national crisis increases, Nixon decides “to step in and change the script” (363), taking risks against the master narrative controlled by Uncle Sam. The liberated “random movements” he experiences during his trip to Sing Sing make Nixon feel “closer to reality, closer to God” (366). Through his “rival act of authorship” that disrupts Uncle Sam's story about the Rosenbergs and challenges the “narrative of America's election as the ‘stuff we make up to hold the goddam world together,’” Nixon becomes an agent for Coover's own “subversion of a national mythology […] from the inside” (Frick 84–85).
Nixon performs as an authorial surrogate in other areas: in his political memoirs, the vice president uses his awkward “in-betweenness” to deliver scathing portraits of his associates, from John Foster Dulles and Jack Kennedy to President Eisenhower. In his review of the Rosenberg case, Nixon's lawyerly instinct perceives “a lot of backstage scene-rigging and testimony-shaping” (82). His lengthy musings confront the “riddle of history” (115), wavering between a belief in “case history, the unfolding patterns, the rewards and punishments, the directed life,” and a suspicion that we live in a “lawless universe” where if “there was a certain power of consistency, there was also power in disruption” (363). The latter hypothesis scares Nixon with its radical polysystemic possibilities: for if “there was no author, no director, and the audience had no memories,” being “reinvented every day,” then perhaps “there is not even a War between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness! Perhaps we are all pretending!” (362). Intellectually, Nixon can admit that the struggle against an ideological other is a cover-up for “the motive vacuum,” the “lie of purpose” (363). Politically, however, he finds that lack of determination unacceptable. Therefore, Nixon the ideologue prevails over Nixon as author-historian. Betraying his polysystemic belief “that all men contain all views, right and left, theistic and atheistic, legalistic and anarchical, monadic and pluralistic; and only an artificial—call it political—commitment to consistency makes them hold steadfast to singular positions” (363), Nixon chooses a “singular position” in the end, allowing himself “to be possessed by Uncle Sam, be used by him, moved by him” (261), like “public property” (262). In surrendering his body and intellect to Uncle Sam, Nixon acknowledges the more masterful author. The grand author is literally and symbolically a rapist, violating the order of history so as to assert his domination over the private and public domain.
The one who suffers most from that reassertion of the master's voice is not Nixon but his other. In spite of its momentary disruptions, the misogynist master discourse reasserts itself periodically: Eisenhower refuses to grant the Rosenbergs a pardon because “in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character [… t]he man is the weak one” (249); Uncle Sam advises Nixon to keep his “little wife well tilled, willed, I mean” (332); and Nixon himself exchanges his risky fantasy of identification with subversive femininity for a profitable homosocial bond. By comparison to The Public Burning, Coover's more recent novels challenge the masculinist discourse more successfully. Still, The Public Burning remains the best demonstration of the manifold ways in which dogmatic ownership over history can be challenged at a narrative and ideological level. The presence of multiple authors (Uncle Sam, Nixon, FBI agents, the Poet Laureate Time), representing partly different interests, creates unexpected gaps and revelations in the official narrative, like the “H-polarizer” 3-D glasses carried into Times Square by a forgetful moviegoer. As he staggers out of a horror movie about a Frankensteinian professor who dips living people into hot wax to make them into historical figures, the unnamed spectator superimposes the apocalyptic blaze he saw at the end of the movie over the Times Square pageantry. Though literally a “misreading” produced by the “eye-straining, H-polarizer haze of alcohol” and 3-D glasses (283), the moviegoer's hallucinatory vision reveals deeper truths. By seeing the Times Square “public burning” for what it symbolically is, a “final spectacle, […] [an] atomic holocaust” (286), the 3-D spectator proves “the only sane person left on the face of the earth” (287). He is also an excellent illustration of the kaleidoscopic vision of the “dissident” writer who “maximizes the effects of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and paradox with a view of occupying the domain of the excluded middle” (Maltby 145–46). Dragged away by the guards when he tries to offer himself as sacrificial substitute in the electric chair, the 3-D spectator leaves a weighty message with us (“BEWARE THE MAD ARTIST” ) that simultaneously affirms and warns against the power of the word to rewrite history.
Andersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne/Hall, 1981.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Carmichael, Virginia. “Death by Text: The Word on Ethel Rosenberg.” Discourse 13.2 (Spring-Summer 1991): 83–101.
Coover, Robert. Ghost Town. New York: Holt, 1998.
———. John's Wife: A Novel. New York: Simon, 1996.
———. Pinocchio in Venice. 1991. New York: Grove, 1997.
———. The Public Burning. New York: Viking, 1977.
———. Spanking the Maid. New York: Grove, 1982.
Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover's Fictions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.
Frick, Daniel E. “Coover's Secret Sharer? Richard Nixon in The Public Burning.” Critique 37 (Winter 1996): 82–91.
Lacan, Jacques. Séminaire. Livre III. Les psychoses 1955–1956. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1989.
LeClair, Tom, and Larry McCaffery, eds. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983.
Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.
Mazurek, Raymond A. “Metafiction, the Historical Novel, and Coover's The Public Burning.” Critique 23 (1982): 29–42.
Morace, Robert A. “Robert Coover, the Imaginative Self, and the ‘Tyrant Other.” Papers on Language and Literature 21 (Spring 1985): 192–209.
Nadel, Alan. Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
SOURCE: Coover, Robert, and Larry McCaffery. “As Guilty as the Rest of Them: An Interview with Robert Coover.” Critique 42, no. 1 (fall 2000): 115–25.
[In the following interview, Coover discusses the cultural impact of the Rosenberg trial and the creative process behind his writing of The Public Burning, as well as the potential of hypertext literature and the significance of film, dreams, and literary theory in his work.]
[McCaffery]: Do you recall where you were on the night of June 19th, 1953—which is to say, the night the Rosenbergs were executed? What sort of an impact had the trial had on you at that point?
[Coover]: I was in Nebraska. It was the summer after university graduation, and I was doing odd jobs, waiting to be taken into the Navy, those being Korean War days. One of those jobs was driving a delivery truck for my Dad's newspaper through the back country; it was a small-town newspaper, and I was delivering it to even smaller towns—and, unreliable as it was, it was my main source of news. What I knew about the case, I read there. If anyone else in town was opposed to the executions, I wasn't aware of it. My own opposition was more against capital punishment in general, especially as applied to political cases such as this one. As for their trial, I had no reason to doubt they were guilty as charged and was as taken in as everyone else regarding the presumed weight and veracity of the FBI evidence and the confessions of Ethel's brother and his alleged contact person.
I take it, then, that you weren't involved with any of the sort of public protests that the Rosenberg Resistance Movement were staging to protest the execution.
No, not happening in that part of the world. Indeed, I heard very little about it. Wasn't considered newsworthy out there, I suppose. Something overeducated pinkos were doing out east. It was a completely different era in terms of access to public events. News as showbizz and data overload may have their drawbacks, but in that time and place we were largely in the dark. So my main response out on the prairie in 1953 was simply a rejection of the death penalty, irrespective of who was being executed or why.
What happened later on to make you decide that the Rosenberg executions might be worth exploring in your own work?
Sixties activism in part. I was teaching at Bard College in 1966 and involved in the antiwar movement, and the Rosenberg case had come to seem to me a watershed event in recent American history. By that time the blinders were off. When I talked to others at the college about it, though, I discovered that most had forgotten the case altogether and few students even knew who the Rosenbergs were, though this was only a little over a decade later. So it seemed the right moment to do something with their story that would reintroduce it into the national dialogue.
Just now you used the same phrase you've used in other interviews concerning your sense of the Rosenberg case—that it was a kind of “watershed event.” In what sense do you mean this? That it represents a kind of high-water mark of governmental deception and manipulation?
It seemed to me to be the event that most dramatically encapsulated the Cold War madness. We were caught up in something that more resembled myth than reality; and the Rosenbergs, it would seem, no less than the rest of us, were insignificant in every way, except for the manner in which they played out their archetypal role as scapegoats. It was, after all, a scary time. The fear of a nuclear holocaust was genuine and justified. There was a war on, distant and baffling, in Asia; and it was felt that another could break out at any moment along the Iron Curtain in Europe. The press, while technically free, was seriously intimidated. Those were the days of the ascendancy of Joe McCarthy and his witch-hunts on one side, Stalinist rigidity on the other. Americans had just elected a hero and general as president—for fear that anyone else would be soft on Communism—and a vice president made famous by the Hiss case; the Soviet Union meanwhile was itself going through the traumas of a change in leadership, and they were fearful that the West might take advantage of any seeming weakness they might display. So it was a time of extremes, a moment when people on both sides really felt that we were on the verge of a nuclear apocalypse. The situation seemed precarious enough that anything might trigger it. So it's not surprising that patriotism was more like a fundamentalist religion.
Your reference to the way that McCarthy's version of patriotism winds up being associated with religion links up with the notion of America's “civil religion” that seems so central to The Public Burning.
The concept isn't original with me, but I found it a useful metaphor for containing and organizing all the disparate elements of American mythology. From the beginning, I've wanted to get inside all the stories by which we as a people are shaped and guided. “Educated” is the word, I suppose, though I mean by that everything from Sunday School and Fourth of July jingoism to locker-room banter, comic books, and the movies. All part of the American civil religion. Of course, all genuine religions at their inception are civil ones. Only as they spread do they lose their attachment to the specific body politic and become, as it were, theology. It was a concept useful to me, not only in The Public Burning, I should say, but earlier in The Origin of the Brunists,Pricksongs and Descants, and The Universal Baseball Association.
You've said in earlier interviews that your original conception for this Rosenberg material was as a kind of theater idea. What sort of theater approach were you envisioning early on?
I was at Bard College, just up the river from New York City, and it occurred to me the Rosenberg executions might work as Times Square street theater. Something attached maybe to one or another antiwar protest march. There was a lot of radical street theater going on at the time, and I imagined restaging the executions as a cruel circus act, with Uncle Sam as a kind of carny barker and master-of-ceremonies.
So at that point, you weren't thinking in terms of actually “moving” the executions to Times Square so much as putting on this theater piece about the execution in Times Square.
That's right, but it wasn't a very practical idea. I didn't know many theater people in New York for one thing, and my seven-course teaching load at Bard hardly left me time to breathe, much less organize grand public events. But at least the germ of an idea had got stuck in my head, and I began to think about recasting the executions as a national circus held in Times Square, the very center of America's knowledge and entertainment industry, and bringing there all the common and not-so-common folk of the nation as witnesses and participants. Fellow executioners. That national circus idea, which became the central dramatic device in the novel, grew directly out of the street theater notion I was playing with briefly at Bard.
Did this original street theater idea remain purely conceptual or did you actually write any of it up?
I composed a number of scenes. I worked up a few Uncle Sam spiels and some other acts that I thought might work well in the theater idea. Some of this moved easily into the narrative, which I imagined at the time to be a short, noisy, parodic piece, suitable to the showbizz setting, though from the outset it was a hard thing to contain. I wanted a kind of Cecil B. DeMille Bible-epic production; in fact he was put in charge of the organizing committee. And whereas I had earlier imagined just a few key players appearing, I now imagined having everyone coming. Suddenly the whole American population was at my disposal for participation in this enormous theatrical spectacle. I brought myself there, too, I might add, guilty as all the rest.
Richard Nixon, then, wasn't part of this conception at all?
No, for a while he was waiting in the wings, not even aware he was going to be called on to make an appearance.
At what point did he begin to edge out onto center stage?
I'd begun with all the people directly involved in the trial and appeal process—judge, prosecutor, witnesses, the government figures who pushed through the executions, including the president, the members of Congress and the Supreme Court, the media advocates, Cold War warriors, and so on—and soon had a cast of hundreds, with the narrative getting bigger and bigger. With Uncle Sam at the center of it, it was loud and fast and driven by a lot of highwire acts and rhetoric to match, and I realized I needed a quieter voice as contrast or balance. I considered using Sing Sing Warden Denno, for example; also the executioner. Various comedians came to mind. Unidentified voices like the guy who staggers out of House of Wax with his 3D glasses on. Meanwhile, a couple of heavy years of teaching and moving went by. Then, in the winter of 1968–69, thanks to a quiet four-week stint at Washington University at St. Louis, I was finally able to return to it, and that moment coincided with the inauguration of Nixon as president. As Eisenhower's vice president, he'd been excluded from the inner circle, and I could see how he might ache to play a bigger role. The circus was already underway. And now I had my clown.
By now was it becoming obvious that what you were working on was something much bigger than what you had originally thought?
It should have done, but actually I still perceived of it as a short book. I had a Rockefeller grant just after that, so I finished a film I was making about anti-war protests in Iowa City, and then we packed our bags and headed for England. I took the Rosenberg material with me, but not thinking it was going to be my next project. Just then, partly as a result of the Iowa filmmaking exercise, I was starting up a large new work centering on a pornographic film hero, one that now, thirty years later, I'm still playing with. I spent the first year or so in England working on it, but then in early 1971 with new presidential elections brewing, I decided I'd interrupt that big book and knock off this little novella on the execution of the Rosenbergs as a kind of election-year gift to the incumbent. So I dashed off to the British Museum Library in London to do the research I felt needed to go into it. Well, needless to say, pretty soon I found myself simply falling down that deep black hole we call history. By the time 1972 rolled around, what I had was a substantial piece of a novel—and a lot of research still left to do. I was running out of money, so I accepted a visiting teaching job at Princeton for a year; I also had a play, The Kid, premiering in New York at the time, and I wanted to be back for that. The Princeton libraries were good sources for the kind of research I was doing, but that research now seemed endless, and the prospects of extricating myself from it in any kind of timely fashion grew more and more remote. I also did a bit of traveling. To get the settings right, as you might say.
All this research you were doing—were you aware early on that all of this vast tapestry of historical information was going to wind up being incorporated into the fabric of the book?
Yes, inevitably. Everything seemed relevant from movie titles to marbles tournaments. If I was to bring the entire tribe to Times Square that night, then they had to be doing all the things the tribe was doing. These seemingly innocuous acts had to be seen in the context of the executions and the international malaise. And then, having Uncle Sam as interpreter and participant in world history, meant that nothing in the rest of the world could be easily excluded either, and if I did exclude it, I had to know what I was excluding, not be ignorant of it. Consequently, I read newspapers from that time period from all over the world, an almost overwhelming undertaking. Hundreds of pages ensued. It's a big book, but earlier drafts of it were much bigger. Moreover, one of my operating principles from the start was that everyone in the book had to speak with their own actual language, their own words as much as possible. So when Eisenhower or McCarthy or the judge or the Rosenbergs or any of the other principals open their mouths, it's their own words coming out, even if they're broken up a bit and resorted. That meant, of course, that I had to get all the appropriate texts and copy them out and then break them all down into the component bits and pieces that could then be collaged fittingly into my book. That was true of Nixon, too; though in his case, as my principal narrator who went on at more length than anyone else, it was more a matter of learning his rhythms and mannerisms, while incorporating a number of his key, self-identifying phrases. Getting his voice right.
One of the most impressive—and complicated—examples of that collage technique is what you did with Uncle Sam.
Yes, Uncle Sam was the most difficult, but also the most fun. As an iconic superhero whose incarnations included all former presidents, in the way, say, that Captain Marvel dipped in and out of Little Billy, he would naturally, I assumed, have picked up phrases from all those previous embodiments, as well as those of all the early American settlers, revolutionaries, pioneers, war and sports heroes, movie stars, and so on. He is the repository of quotations, famous and not so famous. My idea was essentially that whenever Uncle Sam spoke, he would be speaking, literally, in the collective voice of the people. It's as though he has not so much passed through all of those characters, as they have passed through him, depositing their rhetoric and memories. So, I collected thousands of one-liners and typed them all out with carbon copies, cut them up and spread them around on the tables and floor, and played with them in the context of the events and Cold War fever of June 1953.
Meanwhile, how was the Nixon character evolving at this point? I gather that at about this point your whole conception of him began to change: it deepened, became more complex, and even somehow sympathetic in a way.
It did, yes. In the spring of 1973, I'd planned to leave Princeton and return to England, when suddenly the Watergate scandal began to break. So we couldn't go home. I rented a house there for the summer, stayed near the TV to watch the Senate hearings, while carrying on with the research and writing. Much of the research I'd done into Nixon's life and had used in clownish ways in the book was now the everyday stuff of the news media. It was as if they were stealing my material, and Nixon himself was outclowning my character. I realized I had to rethink the whole book, at least his role in it. I could still use a lot of the material I'd gathered; he could still be my fool; and I could still use some of the guiding principles I had for developing him, but at the same time I knew I had to get somewhere that those news guys and Senate committee people weren't reaching. And arriving there was going to involve a lot more work. It was a bit dispiriting, especially because I had serious doubts the book could ever be published, but I pressed on. What else could I do? In the end, this was all for the better, even though it cost me an extra couple of years. Hard years. I went back to my little Kent cottage and rarely left it. I would sometimes get up from my desk and open up the double doors leading out of my study onto a kind of jungle that was once a garden, brushing away the cobwebs that had collected on those doors, and I'd realize that I hadn't stepped out of the house for weeks. I was completely cloistered inside my own imagination. Or the nation's.
Was this eagerness mainly because you were excited about the book, knowing you were onto something important, or were other factors involved?
I was excited by it, but mostly it was a case of tiger-by-the-tail. I'd put too much time and creative energy into it and couldn't let go. And with Nixon's fall, I felt I had to finish it soon. My brave young editor Hal Scharlatt died suddenly the year after we returned to England and, without his support, I supposed the book would never be published, not in the lifetime of any of us. But I had to complete it, and I felt the work as it had developed was worth it. Writing as vocation, not profession. Taught to me by Beckett.
Among the specific results of your research were the pop cultural materials you introduced into the book in various ways, ranging from fairly casual references to baseball, songs, films, and TV shows from that period to more extended allusions, such as your treatment of High Noon and House of Wax. Could you discuss the ways you approached those pop cultural materials, why they seemed important enough to use as you did? Maybe we could begin with High Noon. Of course, you had been working with Western elements and archetypes from early on.
High Noon was Eisenhower's favorite movie—he loved to go down to the basement of the White House, put it on and fall asleep in front of it; so it more or less insisted upon being introduced into the book in some way. Then, of course, one of the key events that led up to the Rosenberg executions actually happened at noon—the Supreme Court Justices met on the morning of June 19th and vacated Douglas's stay of execution of the day before so that the executions could still be held that same night. Otherwise they might have been delayed at least a week because of the Sabbath—and, who knows, a week later there might have been yet another stay. So from the viewpoint of Attorney General Herb Brownell and President Eisenhower, they had to haul these justices back from holiday and press them to vacate the stay very quickly or they might lose the opportunity to execute the Rosenbergs at all—and thereby look soft on Communism. The decision had to be obtained before noon, so that the president could then step out onto the balcony before he hit the golf course and announce that he was not granting them clemency. The whole situation unfolded like a theatrical melodrama; they were all working hard to make it come off, and they succeeded. The melodramatic staging of the episode made it perfect for framing within the High Noon metaphor. And of course, hidden within the High Noon story is its pacifism subplot, represented by the Grace Kelly character, which links to a similar sort of subplot running under the execution drama: the disturbing ambivalence many Americans were feeling toward the idea of executing both parents of two small boys, and particularly Ethel, their mother. On top of everything was the ironically appropriate review of the film in Time magazine, its rhythms were such that I was able, with very little manipulation, to turn the review itself into a parody of the High Noon ballad. Time of course was another character in the book, my national poet laureate.
Clearly a huge formal difficulty was involved in the composition process that you've described. All that research, quotations, narrative bits, and so forth, typed, with carbon copies, that you were cutting up and rearranging. It sounds like trying to put together an enormous mosaic of thousands of little tiles that weren't obviously related to one another. I'm wondering, did you ever think how The Public Burning might have been different if you had had access to a word processor or hypertext software while you were composing it.
It would have been faster to write, but not different in any fundamental way. It was an incredibly laborious process and maybe there's too much evidence of that. In those days we didn't even have photocopiers, much less computers, so I had to make carbon copies of everything I was writing, especially if I was going to cut it up, and so lose the original. That was tedious and slow. Moreover, I was living in a remote village, far from libraries or decent bookstores. In the British Museum Library, which required travel and overnights, one could check books only to the reading desk and could not use copiers; that meant I had to write all my notes by hand, then type them up at home later. Revisions required retyping whole sections. Sometimes they meant starting all over again. I probably retyped page 1 a hundred times over the years. Just keeping track of so much stuff was hard without the file systems of word processors.
I recall one reviewer referring to John's Wife as being “a book in search of a hypertextual form.” Would you say that's true of The Public Burning as well?
No, I don't think The Public Burning would ever have been a hypertext work. Somebody else might have worked it up that way, allowing the reader to examine all the documents, attend the trial, and so on, but I felt that this text had to unfold in a linear fashion, utterly foreign to the format of hypertext. The whole book is meant to have the feel of a ticking clock; it's a countdown to the moment that the Rosenbergs are going to die; a rush toward catastrophe; everyone knows that; the doo-oo-oom that's expressed in that High Noon song appears in each chapter. There's a beat pounding through here, and even Nixon feels it as he keeps screwing things up, over and over. He feels he's running out of time while he's trying to sort things out, getting more and more anxious until he pulls his final desperate act. By the way, I would also say that this is just as true of Gerald's Party and John's Wife. Perhaps in some cases I was suggesting—as I did back in some of my earliest short fictions in Pricksongs, before I knew what hypertext was—ways in which the line can be substantially disturbed. But part of the way that stories like “The Babysitter” and some of my other fictions work is by resisting the power of the line in which they find themselves. If you take the line out and move the story into hypertext, the feeling of resistance vanishes, and you have a very different kind of reading experience.
This sense of resistance to the line is not only evident in the works of Faulkner, Joyce, and many modernists, but it's there in much earlier works, from Tristram Shandy, even The Odyssey.
Sure. All good writing tends to resist the limitations of its form and of the technologies implicit in its form. That is going to be true of hypertext as well, so the best hypertexts are going to be ones that find the characteristics of the form that are troublesome and either exploit or resist them.
You've been actively involved in teaching and promoting hypertext and electronic writing for almost a decade now. What's your sense of how serious writers are going to be able to adapt to these forms? Are books as we know them about to become obsolete?
The main concern of literature right now is how to survive in what is becoming the dominant expressive medium. We are all moving rapidly into the electronic world, and those who are not yet on the Internet soon will be, so one would anticipate that virtually all human discourse will soon be taking place there. And a lot of the younger writers these days are interested in exploring how literature will survive and hopefully even prosper in this new electronic space. My guess is that in the immediate future—the next ten years or so—we're going to see less classical hypertext in the form of a half-decade ago and more hypermedia, often linear. I anticipate efforts by writers to collaborate with designers, composers, graphic artists, and other hypermedia people for help with their new literary projects. Hypertext and hypermedia will impact even print texts, not only altering the way they get written, but also the way they get published and distributed. Print books will have on-line versions enhanced by hypertextual and hypermedia elements. So if readers wish, they will be able to move from the text version of the book toward the Net version, which will have electronic materials unavailable in the print version. The principal worry now is preserving the traditional reading experience, the imaginative engagement with text that is hard to achieve in aural and visual media. There is a fear that the power of the word to make a world is being lost. The Web, as it exists, is somewhat hostile to text, not to say length, depth, and continuity. There is a pervasive and compelling restlessness that does not bode well for the reading experience.
Are you optimistic about these developments? Can they wind up resulting in a kind of literary experience that isn't just different but also richer?
My attitude is not to be overly pessimistic. I feel that writers are inevitably going to have to move into this arena and rescue writing from being transformed into something that's increasingly a minor component of hypermedia. Although there's a lot involved in the struggle, it's also foolhardy to suppose that one can just duck back into books and save literature that way. There seems to be no question that books as physical objects are going to be a less and less dominant form of artistic expression in our culture; the question is to what extent writing itself is going to be able to find a way to continue, and even flourish, within this new expressive domain. There's a new nonprofit we've just formed called the Electronic Literature Organization that I hope is going to have some impact on this struggle. It will be bringing electronic writers and readers together, as well as engineers, designers, publishers, and the like, will sponsor symposia, readings, and workshops, award prizes, and so on.
Let's go back for a minute to the other film that figures so prominently in The Public Burning, House of Wax. What was there about the film that made you decide it would be useful in this context? Also, in the case of both that film and High Noon, did you actually watch them carefully while you were working?
Sure. It was curious about the movies. As with everything else happening at that moment, especially in the vicinity of Times Square, I wanted as much detail as possible and supposed that at least four or five of the movies being shown that day would resonate with what was going on in the novel. But, amazingly, almost every single advertised title was in some manner relevant. Even comedy titles suddenly took on a sinister aspect in the context of the executions and the Cold War. One of the movies showing everywhere was House of Wax, which I had seen at the time and remembered well, partly because I was a big advocate of 3D movies. I was one of the last to give up the glasses. I used to draw a comic book in red and green ink that you could look at in three dimensions, using glasses with green and red lenses. The burning in the film was an obvious linking metaphor, the house of horrors with its wax figure executions, the crazed and vengeful museum director, his pathetic but ruthless assistant who even looked a bit like Nixon, and even the fact that this 3D technological marvel was being made by a one-eyed filmmaker seemed appropriate in this book about blind justice and technological theft. There were no VCRs in those days, so I couldn't check the film out and watch it in slow motion, pause, back up again, etc., but it was being shown on the telly, and I was able to copy out much of the script in repeated viewings. Finally, the idea of seeing different images through the two lenses allowed me to line up contrary elements that were going on during that day inside this one man's head. So it became a metaphor for the ambiguities and paradoxes of the moment that were leading straight to the grotesque deathhouse conclusion.
Rereading the book recently, I was struck with all the strange, disturbing, and often comic effects you achieved by creating collages of the newspaper materials, headlines and so forth. Was Burroughs's cut-up method any kind of direct influence on your method of generating new texts out of these found materials?
No, I think not. I was aware of Burroughs's experiments from early on because they appeared in places like Olympia and Evergreen Review where I'd also published some of my earliest work. They reminded me of some of the games played by the Oulipo crowd and by the surrealists. I found them amusing, with a certain creative potential and played some with these ideas myself in short fictions. But the only elements of chance in The Public Burning are those thrown up by history itself; my arrangements of them are not random. I was consciously working my way through all the ways that Uncle Sam was thinking and that Nixon was figuring things out, or trying to, and though I was always willing to try ways of collaging that might elicit new insights, occasionally even producing happy accidents like those of Burroughs's cut-up method, I was basically using collage as a very rational constructive process. Burroughs's Doctor Benway had more impact on me than his cut-ups. A better comparison might be to Max Ernst's illustrated dream novels, in which the collaged material is not fortuitous at all, but revelatory of a conscious inner psychic journey, just as my book is a kind of sociopolitical mythic journey, inner but tribal.
Dreams have played an important role in many of your works, from early stories like “The Marker” up through Ghost Town, which seems dreamlike in all sorts of ways; and of course, there are a number of important dream elements in The Public Burning as well. Do you ever work with your own dreams, the way that some of the surrealists you've mentioned used to do?
No, I don't. I don't really draw a firm line in my writing between dream narrative and other kinds of narrative, though I always draw a clear line between when someone's dreaming and when they're not. No one's dreaming in “The Marker,” for example. But in terms of narrative forms, a narrative that describes a dream experience is still a realistic narrative. If you saw somebody flying, you'd distrust what you'd seen and probably try to figure out what really happened; but if you saw someone flying in a dream, there wouldn't be anything particularly unusual about it, so you would describe the flight, however bizarre itself, very realistically. The notion that the dream narrative is dramatically different from so-called realistic narrative just isn't the case. Dream narratives have a lot in common with myth narratives, and as I am engaged with the national mythology, it's natural that seeming correspondences should arise. I'm at heart a realist willing to use any imaginable narrative mode to get at the real.
In Jack Cope's book-length study of your work, he suggests that one shift that occurred in your work during the ten years that separated the appearance of The Universal Baseball Association and The Public Burning was a great emphasis on what Bakhtin called “the dialogic imagination.” Was Bakhtin in fact someone you read during this period who might have had some impact on your writing practices?
No, I read him later, more as confirmation than as inspiration. I don't think any literary critic has ever had any influence on me, though probably I should have listened to some of them. Valéry maybe in his essaying mode. Northrop Frye. I don't know. I tend not to read them. I was always more affected by psychologists and sociologists, physicists, philosophers, and theologians. And, above all, other writers.