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.