Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

Robert Coover 1932–

(Full name Robert Lowell Coover) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Coover's novels. For further information on Coover's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 15, 32, and 46.

A respected contemporary experimental writer, Coover intends...

(The entire section contains 47875 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Robert Coover 1932–

(Full name Robert Lowell Coover) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Coover's novels. For further information on Coover's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 15, 32, and 46.

A respected contemporary experimental writer, Coover intends his fiction to startle and fascinate the reader, believing, with fellow American author John Barth, that traditional literature has exhausted its narrative possibilities. In his search for new approaches to literature, Coover produces works in which the distinction between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. By placing standard elements from fairy tales, popular culture, biblical stories, or historical events in a distorted context, he attempts to deconstruct the myths and traditions which people create to give meaning to life.

Biographical Information

Coover was born in Charles City, Iowa, and, at the age of nine, moved with his family to Indiana, where his father worked as a newspaper editor. He began writing short stories and poems while a young boy and later wrote for school newspapers. Coover attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, but received his B.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington in 1953. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving from 1953 to 1957, and published his first work, One Summer in Spain, in 1960. Since earning his M.A. in 1965 from the University of Chicago, he has taught in universities throughout the United States.

Major Works

Coover uses familiar mythic or popular cultural materials as well as various literary forms and techniques to illustrate his belief that history and truth are human inventions. By parodying popular and traditional forms of narrative and by subverting myths, Coover attempts to alert his audience to significant new literary patterns. His novels The Origin of the Brunists (1966), The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), The Public Burning (1977), and Gerald's Party (1986) particularly exemplify these characteristics. While The Origin of the Brunists, a chronicle of the rise and fall of a fictitious cult, follows a more conventional structure than later novels, it displays Coover's typical investigation of the human need to create myths, not only to order an individual's perception of the world, but also to imbue it with some sort of meaning. Coover moves further away from the traditional novel in The Universal Baseball Association, where the protagonist devises an imaginary game in which he decides the futures of eight baseball teams by loaded rolls of the dice. In an obvious parallel to the Hebrew god Yahweh, J. Henry Waugh creates a world complete with histories, newspaper articles, and interviews with the players. Waugh becomes so involved that the reality of his life merges with the reality of the game, leading the reader to question which of the worlds is invented. Similarly, Coover's portrayal of the conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in The Public Burning demonstrates, according to Chester E. Eisinger, Coover's "conviction that reality, history and truth are 'made' or invented, that appearances are everything, that forms are really substance, that poetry is the art of subordinating facts to the imagination, and that objectivity is an impossible illusion." In Gerald's Party, Coover creates a disorienting, kaleidoscopic effect through continual disruptions of dialogue and action, and extensive use of non-sequiturs intended to subvert the conventions of the English detective story. Amid murders and slapstick, Gerald and his friends urbanely ruminate on art, time, love, and memory. Although the book is intended to be outrageous, Gerald's Party raises serious issues, according to Robert Christgau, including "the intransigence of death, the persistence of regret, the inadequacy of memory, [and] the unfathomability of causation." Updating the legend of the Italian puppet who longs to be real, Coover's 1991 Pinocchio in Venice focuses on such themes as physical existence and literary artifice, and has been cited for its humor, use of double-entendres, and references to popular culture.

Critical Reception

Coover continues to receive critical acclaim for his experimental approach to fictional forms and for his originality and versatility as a prose stylist. He is frequently compared to such authors of postmodern literature as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon. Paul Gray commented that "Coover has earned his reputation as an avant-gardist who can do with reality what a magician does with a pack of cards: shuffle the familiar into unexpected patterns."

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

One Summer in Spain: Five Poems (poetry) 1960
The Origin of the Brunists (novel) 1966
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (novel) 1968
Pricksongs and Descants (short stories) 1969
A Theological Position (plays) 1972
The Water Pourer (novella) 1972
The Public Burning (novel) 1977
Hair o' the Chine (short stories) 1979
After Lazarus: A Filmscript (novella) 1980
Charlie in the House of Rue (novella) 1980
A Political Fable (novella) 1980
Bridge Hound (play) 1981
The Convention (short stories) 1981
Spanking the Maid (novella) 1981
In Bed One Night, and Other Brief Encounters (short stories) 1983
Gerald's Party (novel) 1986
A Night at the Movies; Or, You Must Remember This (short stories) 1987
Pinocchio in Venice (novel) 1991

∗This work includes A Theological Position, The Kid, Love Scene, and Rip Awake.

Kathryn Hume (essay date Winter 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8682

SOURCE: "Robert Coover's Fiction: The Naked and the Mythic," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 127-48.

[Hume is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she defends Coover against charges of pitilessness and sadism, and argues that Coover's fiction demonstrates the interconnected nature of "the naked," symbolizing human inadequacy, and "the mythic," through which characters attempt to overcome this sense of impotence. Focusing on the novels The Origin of the Brunists, The Universal Baseball Association, and The Public Burning, Hume also traces parallels between Coover's fiction and the postmodern works of such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut.]

Reviewers of Coover's novels respond—critically, in the main—to his flamboyant use of archetypes. "Patterns, myths, symbols, and folklore are Coover's stock-in-trade" (Commonweal [28 October 1977]). Newsweek [8 August 1977] complains of the "predilection for theology, which has been an identifying thumbprint since he published his first novel." Although his interest in ritual and faith is non-religious, Coover does lead us through the overgrown byways of "GOD literature," [Leo J. Hertzel, Critique 11, 1969] into realms of messiahs, sacrificial victims, apocalypses, and even a down-at-heels god. Other reviewers [such as Donald Hall in National Review, 30 September 1977, and Paul Gray in Time, 8 August 1977], bothered by an indefinable coldness in the novels, recoil from what they take to be Coover's attitude toward mankind.

The book's structure is not intellectual; it is comic and passionate obsession—and satire as moral and as repulsive as Swift's. Outrage is the book's method and its message…. The burden is human weakness, everywhere, in marriage, in public life, in journalism, in private life. And Coover's response to weakness is more misanthropy than compassion.

Manias stalked the land in the '50s; public and private life had the quality of a Manichaean morality play. Coover knows this, presents all the evidence, and then denies his book the ability to touch hearts or minds instead of nerves. What might have been a long, compassionate look becomes a protracted sneer.

Coover's fictions are "overdetermined." This dream characteristic makes it all too easy for the reader to seize on one concern and ignore others of at least equal significance. To give but one example, Bruno McAndrew, O.S.B., sees The Origin of the Brunists (1966) as a vile travesty on the origins of Christianity [Best Sellers, 1 November 1966]. To someone with a different set of mind-forged manacles, the same story seems rather to explore the nature of religion—any religion—and the human cravings it satisfies. But both are possible. Indeed, most of Coover's stories may be read from a mythic, or theological, or archetypal standpoint, and each approach yields a slightly different significance. Likewise, one can respond to Coover's bleak portrayal of human nature by drawing back from the contemptible weakness displayed by his characters, or one may wince with them at their acute and helpless vulnerability.

But these are only two facets of Coover's stories. Other characteristics have attracted attention both favorable and hostile. Coover creates and presents obsessed men with what can only be called obsessive care for detail. Many of his stories describe violence, some of it sadistic or sexual. Coover is also a humanitarian. "The City of Man is all there is," and in Noah's brother, as Margaret Heckard observes [in Twentieth Century Literature 22, 1976], Coover shows us "the suffering of the everyday people who were left behind to drown…. It does not matter [as far as the Bible is concerned] that some of those left behind were pregnant, had selected names for their ill-fated unborn children, had built cradles with carved animal figures, or had even worked on the ark itself." "Behind the razzle-dazzle and the intentional bad jokes, Coover is deeply angry, heartsick about his country and pessimistic about its future" [Walter Clemons in Newsweek, 8 August 1977].

Beyond the humane, there is also the humor. Black, slapstick, or witty: all abound. The philosophical jokes of Damonsday in The Universal Baseball Association, Nixon's taxi ride in The Public Burning, or the outrage and discomfort of the priest in A Theological Position, whose hand is bitten by the vagina dentata of the talking cunt whose utterances he is trying to stifle: these hilarious scenes are not much commented upon by reviewers, but they and others like them mark Coover's work indelibly.

Some attention ought also to go to the explosive vividness of his fictive worlds. The Universal Baseball Association encompasses an imaginary eight-team league through 157 seasons of play. The Origin of the Brunists presents a mining town: its ethnic diversity, life above and below the surface of the earth, life in the high school and the town hall, in Church, in bedrooms and dining rooms, in the back seats of cars, in the hospital and news office. The Public Burning creates nothing less than the American public of the early '50s—the government, the entertainment world, the newsprinted word, the radio tunes, the "culture" that gave man his structures of meaning. I say "creates" deliberately, for Coover's procedure is poesis, not mimesis, and the harshest criticisms yet levelled at him concern his refusal to label episodes fact, fiction, or faction.

The nature of Coover's achievement to date is not rightly reflected in the fragments which reviewers have isolated for comment. It manifests itself in the integration of these pieces, in their necessary interrelationship. Coover's works are not archetypal or Swiftian. Rather, his stories flow from a balance of forces. One of these, a nexus of ideas I call "the naked," consists of Coover's representation of man's weaknesses (for which man is at least partly responsible) and his vulnerability (which is inherent). The other force, "the mythic" or archetypal, is both an authorial structural device, and a part of his characters' spiritual lives. It is their response to their nakedness. Coover analyzes the fashions in which man summons up mythic value systems. Sometimes man creates such systems deliberately; at others, the archetypal patterns loom up in man's path, and man embraces them for their mysterious otherness, unaware that his unconscious needs have called them into being. The tension between these two sets of values, the mythic and the naked, provides the basic dynamic for all three novels. Once their informing presence is recognized as a common denominator, we can better appreciate the rich diversity of Coover's secondary worlds, and can make better sense of his bitter, controversial spectacular, The Public Burning.

By calling attention to "the naked," I do not mean merely the visibility of unclad flesh, for that need not express any sense of weakness or vulnerability.

The nude is the idealized human body, both erotic and heroic in the noble tradition begun by the Greeks: the nude is appropriate to the context of Eros (undressing for bed) or for the athletic-heroic (stripping for the games); it is the apotheosis of human anatomy. The naked, on the other hand, means undressing in a wholly in-appropriate context: the naked man is caught with his trousers down, caught in the act of guilt or shame…. Nakedness thus reduces man from the godlike to the animal. [Mark Hodgart in his Satire, 1969]

Both spiritual and physical nakedness are common in Coover's world. Again and again, his characters are forced to feel their own humiliating shortcomings. Some of the miners in The Origin of the Brunists cannot find work when the mine closes: their helplessness is social. For others, the realization of their unprotected state is somehow related to the animal nature of their bodies. They must die, or they feel threatened by sexual relationships, or they remain ignorant of their vulnerability, yet we see and respond to it.

The cultists in The Origin of the Brunists are terribly vulnerable, although themselves largely unaware of this. Eleanor Norton's spirit guide gives her such assurance of righteousness that she is unmoved by adverse opinion. Nonetheless, she and those who cluster about her are drawn by their fear of death, more especially by a terror of the void. They crave signs, a pattern, a mystery that exalts them in their own minds in compensation for their dreary lives. When a mine disaster kills nearly 100 out of 300 men, there is no logical cause to get excited just because Giovanni Bruno lives while six men trapped near him do not. Yet this "miracle" catalyzes intense response from dissatisfied townsfolk. Despite evidence of brain damage from mine gas, his every cryptic utterance is received as flaming word from the Beyond. When a note from a dead miner-preacher comes to light, a painful scribble expressing his expectation of their all standing before the Lord "the 8th of … [note unfinished]," the inchoate yearnings take a definite apocalyptic turn. The preacher's widow, a lawyer crazed by numerology, Mrs. Norton, Marcella (Bruno's sister), two school boys, and the local newspaperman form the core of the cult. Justin "Tiger" Miller does not believe. He wants copy. Yet he goes to great lengths to stay involved with the movement. He shares the dissatisfactions of the others, despite his sophistication, for he is a "prince become a frog, living grimly ever after, drowned in debt, sick to death of the disenchanted forest, and knowing no way out."

The psychic vulnerability of West Condon's inhabitants sometimes crystallizes into images of physical nakedness. The final apocalyptic happening turns into a sadistic and masochistic orgy, whose roots in their sexual repressions are patent. Miller is attacked by the Brunists, and nearly castrated and killed. We see him spread-eagled, helpless in his nakedness. Others not directly involved in the cult are also displayed in their nakedness. The miner Vince Bonali destroys his chance of civic position by getting drunk and trying to take a former mistress by force. He is caught trying to get his pants up when the police arrive. Bonali's daughter loses her maidenhead, and we see her shy physical nakedness transformed to psychic vulnerability when she breaks up with the boy a few days later. A sadistic preacher forces his children to strip themselves bare before he beats them.

In The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Coover explores the ramifications of such vulnerability more subtly. Waugh has created a baseball game which increasingly rules his life. Eight teams play out seasons through the offices of three dice. Waugh compiles ledgers on the play by play of each game, tape-records interviews, writes obituaries, outlines the history of the league politics, develops names and personalities and families of great players. He composes satires, newspaper columns, and even the ballads the players sing. Why his unconscious has called forth this particular world becomes apparent when we notice the themes of the songs. All but two concern being forced to retire, death, and the uselessness that follows upon outliving one's physical prime. Henry shares his athletes' acute awareness of the impermanence of the flesh. In their company, he surrounds himself with the locker-room world and locker-room language, a taboo tongue which excludes women. He shares with the men the intensity of awareness which the game-ritual gives to their lives. Winning matters desperately to him and them, even though a man running over a white mat on the ground is meaningless sub specie aeternitatis.

He shares the paradox of their lives: aside from the game, sex is their main bulwark against awareness of death. (The whore Hettie Irden "made them all laugh and forget for a moment that they were dying men"). Yet these men ultimately equate the feminine with death. Their psychic defenses are therefore doubly vulnerable, first because of their reliance on the body, and second, because sex threatens them with Otherness and death. In the religion they develop, "the whore of whores, Dame Society," measures the players sexually, lusts for their bodies, and roars for their sacrificial destruction.

Henry cannot face death, yet it fascinates him. He rolls dice at the end of each season to produce the necessary deaths.

He dreaded, in short, the death blow, yet it was just this rounding off in the Book of each career that gave beauty to all these lives…. As to how they died, he made his own decisions while composing the obituary; if he was uncertain, he had another chart that provided him general descriptors, but usually he just knew, a certain definite feeling about it that would come on him suddenly while considering the ballplayer's past—Abe Flint's heart failure, Verne Mackenzie's liver, Holly Tibbett's tumor, Rupert Allen's suicide.

The same déjà vu "knowing" makes him assign his own age to the veteran star Brock Rutherford on "Brock Rutherford's Day" for the game at which Brock's son, Henry's favorite rookie, is killed by a bean ball. Damon Rutherford's death nearly destroys Henry. It cuts too near the bone. He works off his grief as the other players do: with solemn music, the wake, drink, and sex. The will to live overcomes the will to grieve when, at the book's center, those at the wake call for the ballad of Long Lew's rape of Fanny McCaffree. But death has so upset Henry's fragile sense of meaning that he can preserve it only by making a conscious, deliberate leap into ritual. He sets the dice down to the combination he wants, and kills the bean-balling pitcher, Jock Casey. With passing seasons, this life-for-a-life becomes the players' central religious myth, a Manichean duel, annually re-enacted. Physical nakedness plays a negligible role in this novel, yet everyone in it, creator and his creatures, are terrified of their unaccommodated state as poor, bare, forked animals. They do not need to be undressed to feel their own helplessness.

The Public Burning is notorious for its use of literal nakedness. Richard Nixon appears by magic on the Rosenbergs' execution scaffold in Times Square, his pants about his ankles. And after the execution, his helplessness is driven home when he cannot prevent Uncle Sam from buggering him. In a review of The Public Burning, Robert Towers observes: "The image of a bare-assed man humiliatingly exposed as he stumbles about with his pants or underpants tangled around his ankles recurs in several climactic scenes in Coover's fiction." He mentions The Public Burning, The Origin of the Brunists, and Pricksongs and Descants. One could add that there are slight variations on this situation in "The Cat in the Hat for President," A Theological Position, and "McDuff on the Mound."

Whatever its private significance for Coover, the figure of the bare-assed, encumbered man is expressive of the emotional bias of his fiction. This I would describe as highly aggressive, directed toward domination in all its forms. But this macho stance carries with it, inevitably, a fascinated horror of masochistic subjugation, passivity, and shame, a horror so intense as to suggest a covert attraction…. There is seldom room for tenderness or even for fun except at someone's expense. The atmosphere is perpetually heated, the emotional terrain either arid or scorched. Human flesh tends toward mechanization. Women, when they are not cast in the role of dominatrix, are largely presented as objects to be collected, used, and pushed around—or as receptacles for phallic thrusting. [Robert Towers, New York Review of Books, 29 September 1977]

Towers over-emphasizes the humiliating side of the image. Pants down for the miner Bonali are embarrassing, but far more lingering a shame are his buddies' taunts calling him mayor. On that same memorable night, he was drunk enough to reveal this pipe-dream, and cannot escape its mocking echo. Tiger Miller's nakedness has no humiliation, at least to his modesty or privateness. His situation embodies pure fear of castration and death. Nixon is humiliated, but only momentarily. He stumbles his way through a brilliant piece of chicanery, and ends by persuading the entire execution audience to drop its pants for America. We enjoy, with him, this lunatic triumph…. Yes, Coover's characters bear "marks of weakness, marks of woe." And Yes, the image of dropped pants or some near equivalent recurs with unusual frequency. To see this as a sado-masochistic expression of Coover's psyche, as Towers does, may have some validity, but is not the whole truth. Coover uses the image to embody many forms of helplessness and weakness. To Coover, man is quintessentially vulnerable—through his fears, through his inability to feel comfortable with a meaningless cosmos, and through his dying flesh. For such nakedness, the image is appropriate, if repetitious.

Something which feels vulnerable cries out for protection. The naked craves the mythic. By "mythic" I mean a wide variety of patterns that refer implicitly or explicitly to an extrinsic meaning-giving system. These patterns operate within the plot, and also as part of the fictional work's structure. The characters in the stories seek such value systems in their myths, rituals, and games. The stories themselves rely on mythic exostructures. The human situation, as Coover portrays it, is too like the drifting, formless misery of the Inferno's first circle to have an intrinsic form. The fiction and fiction-making both are vulnerable to the formlessness of misery and meaninglessness. Therefore the stories need myth to give them visible form. Readers too have need for the mythic shapes. We want to find some sort of pattern, some explanation, of the unhappiness we face in the stories.

Within the plot, Coover's characters seek meaning in at least four basic patterns. Religion is one. Political or social myth another. Game is a third. Magic, a fourth….

The seriousness with which Coover uses such extrinsic patterns varies markedly. A superficial mythic layer is very prominent in many stories, often functioning as an in-joke for the reader to enjoy. Pattern is indulged in for the pure fun of creating pattern….

The gamut from joke to the resacralization of everyday life is run by the fleeting myths in the final chapter of The Origin of the Brunists. As Tiger Miller recovers in the hospital from near dismemberment, he undergoes a protean list of mythic metamorphoses. "He rises from the dead." The nurse, whom he nicknamed Happy Bottom,

pierced his side with a needle, and the nerve coated over. He relaxed, and though he plunged once more toward darkness, he plunged now without dread; the nails in his palms were basketballs and his legs were lean and could run again. "I'll be back!" he said, and, distantly, he thought he heard rewarding laughter.

His own connection came by then to lower him, turning a noisy crank at his feet: mechanized Descent. Later, she would prepare spices and ointments. For now, she only wrapped his body in the sterile linens, stuck a thermometer in his mouth….

In a shadowy part of his mind, one possibly connected with the haze of drugs, he realizes that he is Judas too. He had betrayed the Brunists, and with them, the prophet's sister Marcella, whom Tiger had loved. When Happy confirms her pregnancy, she speaks of the embryos as "Sons of Noah," to which Tiger responds "Aha! sign of the covenant." When the two of them hammer out what is to be the new framework for their common life, he is Peter:

"Listen, Happy," said Miller, celebrating the bath hour, "let's set up a private little cult of our own." He saw doubt cross her eyes, as she looked up from his wet belly to study his face. "Trade rings, break a pot, whatever it is they do these days, build for perpetuity." Blushing, she turned back to the belly, rained suds on it from a sponge squeezed high. "Anyway," he said, "it'd be something different."

She dipped an index finger into his navel. "And on this rock …" she said, and they both watched the church grow….

[Miller and Happy] are also Adam and Eve, the ascended, the beginning and the end. And they are an ordinary couple enjoying a holyday/holiday. They have learned not to expect too much out of life. They narrow their sights and accept a very imperfect order, one they know can be destroyed all too easily.

Born to be caught and killed. Frail cages. Containing what? Staring at X rays of his fractured clavicle, right thumb and left humerus, which Happy held out for him to see one morning while one of her buddies gave him an enema, both of them joking about his torn ear, rooted-out hair, broken nose, blackened eyes, and chipped and loosened teeth, he suddenly felt himself out there on the hill again, being danced on, bedded with corpses, splayed for a good Christian gelding, saw again the massed-up nameless bodies, the mad frenzy for life, the loins giving birth, and deep despair sprayed up his ass and inundated his body. "Why did you bother, Happy?" he asked.

He expected her to make some crack, but instead she only smiled and said, "I don't know. I guess because I like the way you laugh."

Yes, there was that. Not the void within and ahead, but the immediate living space between the two. The plug was pulled and the sheet lifted, and the despair, a lot of it anyway, flooded out of him with a soft gurgle. "My message to the world," he said, and if he hadn't been afraid of swallowing half his teeth in the process, he might have laughed along with them.

In Happy's Last Judgment, one of her parables about God and divine doings, Jesus' offer of his blood and body becomes her husband's "come and have breakfast"—mundane, yet as meaningful as the religious equivalent

A similar spectrum from joke to new myth exists in The Universal Baseball Association. J. Henry Waugh (JHWH, Jahweh) creates his baseball world. He mourns the loss of Damon, and half leads his friend Lou to believe the dead boy is an illegitimate son. An overturned can of beer nearly "floods" the game out of existence. Henry considers "burning" the whole lot, rather than go on. But instead, he interferes with the dice to kill off the pitcher whose ball had killed Damon, and with Jock Casey's death, Henry is once more caught up in the game as his primary reality, forever. As he sets the dice down in the fatal combination, "a sudden spasm convulsed him with the impact of a smashing line drive and he sprayed a red-and-gold rainbow arc of half-curded pizza over his Association, but he managed to get to the sink with most of it." God has interfered with his creation, and now makes his rainbow covenant and withdraws.

The insanity of Henry's commitment to the game world is not in doubt. Insane also is the devotion lavished by later generations of players on a misunderstood bit of history. Yet even if we can stand back and condemn their religion as delusion, we have to recognize that Henry and his players get from their lives something that they could not if deprived of the game and the religion: the sense of intense involvement, the focus for all conscious thought which gives the feeling that life has meaning. What Henry liked about Damon (aside from his phenomenal success) was his cool, intense commitment to the moment in a game.

Ingram expected him to reach for the rosin bag or wipe his hands on his shirt or tug at his cap or something, but he didn't: he just stood there waiting … he looked back out at Rutherford, he saw that the kid still hadn't moved, still poised there on the rise, coolly waiting, ball resting solidly in one hand, both hands at his sides, head tilted slightly to the right, face expressionless but eyes alert.

But the same quality also characterizes Jock Casey.

He [Henry] kept seeing Jock Casey, waiting there on the mound. Why waiting? Who for? Patient. Yes, give him credit, he was. Enduring. And you had to admit: Casey played the game, heart and soul. Played it like nobody had ever played it before…. Lean, serious, melancholy, even. And alone. Yes, above all; alone…. Casey waiting there … but still Casey waited, and his glance: come on, get it over, only way….

Henry got up…. He picked up the dice, shook them. "I'm sorry, boy," he whispered, and then, holding the dice in his left palm, he set them down carefully with his right. One by one. Six. Six. Six.

Many seasons later, two promising rookies re-enact the duel, not sure if participation in the ritual will lead to the death of one of them or not. The one impersonating the catcher Ingram walks the ball out to "Damon."

He hands it to Damon, standing tall and lean, head tilted slightly to the right, face expressionless but eyes alert. Paul tries to speak, but he can find no words…. And then suddenly Damon sees, must see, because astonishingly he says:

"Hey, wait, buddy! you love this game, don't you?"

"Sure, but…."

Damon grins. Lights up the whole goddamn world. "Then don't be afraid, Royce," he says….

And he doesn't know any more whether he's a Damonite or a Caseyite or something else again … doesn't even know if he's Paul Trench or Royce Ingram … 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.

"It's not a trial," says Damon…. "It's not even a lesson. It's just what it is." Damon holds the baseball up between them. It is hard and white and alive in the sun.

He laughs. It's beautiful, that ball. He punches Damon lightly in the ribs with his mitt. "Hang loose," he says, and pulling down his mask, trots back behind home plate.

What matters is the moment, an awareness of what is happening which is so intense that one hardly notices oneself anymore. Commitment to the game—to the crowd, the sun, the noise—frees one from past, from the future (which may be death). And as he lives each moment with these men, Henry achieves much the same intensity. He may be a shabby god, an unhappy fifty-six year old bachelor, fired and going insane. But he has a revelation—a mystic vision, the blazing illumination of the moment—to cling to.

Coover jokes about theology and cosmology: "God exists, and he is a nut"; the sun says 100 watt; another player remarks "I don't know if there's really a record-keeper up there or not…. But even if there weren't, I think we'd have to play the game as though there were." Man is homo ludens. And that is perhaps a good way for him to define himself. A game involves accepted rules; one limits one's actions and expectations to fit the game situation. By taking part, one takes part in a system which has built-in rewards. "Games were what kept Miller going. Games, and the pacifying of mind and organs. Miller perceived existence as a loose concatenation of separate and ultimately inconsequential instants…. Life, then, was a series of adjustments to these actions and, if one kept his sense of humor and produced as many of these actions himself as possible, adjustment was easier." He models his marriage on this game interpretation of life. Likewise, Henry is a game player. So are his creations. Insofar as they stick to games, their enjoyment is harmless. When religion intrudes, the results are serious and sinister.

Aside from using the mythic to modulate from the entirely comic to the tentatively serious, Coover uses it also in ways that are serious from the start. A related triad of archetypes—victim, sacrifice, scapegoat—is fundamental to his vision. Society devours its own members….

Lacking compensation or consolation for the meaningless suffering in life, Coover's characters seek it in the non-material. In The Origin of the Brunists, the scribbled message from the dead preacher, Bruno's mystic phrases, and Eleanor Norton's spirit guide provide the millenialist framework to contain the longings and give them form. The cult's religious hysteria is riddled with Christian symbols and vocabulary because Christianity is the only code most of them have for discussing the sacred and mysterious. But Christianity has not supplied them with the sense of meaning they crave.

Henry seeks meaning in the game. His job as an accountant with Dunkelmann, Zauber, and Zifferblatt offers no challenge, no friends, and no rewards. The game provides him with a sense of the fitness of things (his déjà-vu experiences) and of meaning. Real baseball could not supply this.

There were things about the games I liked. The crowds, for example. I felt like I was part of something there, you know, like in church, except it was more real than any church, and I joined in in the score-keeping, the hollering, the eating of hot dogs and drinking of Cokes and beer, and for a while I even had the funny idea that ball stadiums and not European churches were the real American holy places…. But I would leave a game, elbowing out with all the others, and feel a kind of fear that I could so misuse my life…. Then, a couple of days later, at home, I would pick up my scoreboard. Suddenly, what was dead had life, what was wearisome became stirring, beautiful, unbelievably real…. I found out the scorecards were enough. I didn't need the games.

Communion with those crowds still left Henry alone. Real baseball gave him no creative role. Nor could it provide any barricade against death. In the company of his imagined players, he can suffer with them through the little-death of retirement, take comfort in numbers as they all grow old together. Each of the players, of course, reflects some part of Henry's mind. Fenn McCaffree can recognize that Sandy, the balladeer, "did [the men at the wake] a disservice, provided them with dreams and legends that blocked off their perception of the truth." In that instant, Henry is Fenn. But Henry is also Sandy, who provides the dreams and legends.

… like the cloudburst outside, a whole new Sandy Shaw ballad for the UBA had poured suddenly out of him. Nothing to it. Everything came easy today. He'd explained to a curious Hettie that songwriting was a kind of hobby. No, no luck so far, he's lied. In the UBA, after all, they all sang Sandy's songs.

All the responses to Damon's death are Henry's, from the solemn reverence at the Dies irae to the mad, hysterical giggling as he listens to Purcell.

Ruefully, the sackbuts poop-poop-dee-pooped, discreetly distant…. Trompetta! blaa-aa-att! and a mocking rumble of the tympanic gut! Man that is born of woman, woman that is laid by man! Blaa-aa-att! He cometh out! He goeth in! Raunchy giggle of trumpets…. Hee hee! Spare us, Lord!…. "Oh no! he is much lamented!" Tee hee hee hee hee, hee, boo hoo hoo hoo, tee hee hee hee, boo hoo hoo hoo, ha ha ha ha—oops!… "Oh, Lou!"… "why do we go on?"… A tavern song, after all! The secrets of our hearts! "Tonight!" whispered Rooney, jigging along under the burden. "Jakes!" The Hole in the Wall. Tweet-tweet-tootle and a rattle of tin spoons on a hollow hilarious bouncing skull!

At the carousing wake, Sandy Shaw triggers release from sorrow and forgetfulness of death when he sings his ballad about Long Lew's rape of Fanny McCaffree. This assertion of power over failure, of life over death, and the symbolic form the assertion takes, tell us much about the failures and imperfections of the world Henry comes from.

In The Public Burning, the American public derives its sense of meaning from a political religion. Americans are the sons of light, communists the sons of darkness. The Phantom (Communism) is pledged to destroy Uncle Sam, motherhood, and apple pie. Onto this spectre, Americans project all their own weaknesses, fears, and sins. From hating the Phantom, they gain a sense of power, a sense of community, and a sense of purpose. They also relieve themselves of their anxieties by projecting these fears of being different, unliked, dowdy, and weak on the Rosenbergs. The scapegoats will bear this burden of sins to the electric chair. Not just the nation, but Richard Nixon too, is shown to need the Rosenbergs for his own personal relief. He needs so desperately to feel that he is winning, that despite his attraction toward Ethel, he too craves their death. That way, someone other than he bears the label of failure….

People in Coover's fiction are haunted by their vulnerability. For the most part, their work gives them no sense of protection or of belonging, or even of usefulness. Sex and society are variously unsatisfactory as well. Nothing provides the characters with belief or compensation for the sensed inadequacy. Ultimately, they are up against death, and few of them show much confidence in their answers to that riddle. In their quest for mythic clothing to hide their nakedness, people try to infuse the myths with life so their faith will seem justified. Feeding the myth blood—the blood of a victim, sacrifice, or scapegoat—is the most emphatic action open to them, and one they turn to all too readily in Coover's worlds. One could say, as Towers did of the dropped pants, that this victim/scapegoat/sacrifice archetype is overused. But here too, it signals the urgency of man's desperation, at least as much as it embodies his actions. When we put on the mythic, we feel, however briefly, that we transcend our weaknesses. Like Jurgen's shimmering, unearthly shirt, or the armor borne by the Red Cross Knight, the myth gives the sense of transpersonal identity, of defined relationship to the cosmos. For Coover's heroes, however, the myth is not an absolute (as Christians claim theirs to be). Like the little child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," we see the nakedness, and so do the characters themselves in their more honest or more depressed moments. The only characters who escape this cycle at all are Tiger and Happy, and their victory is severely circumscribed.

The criticisms levelled at Coover's work have tended to divorce the naked and the mythic, and have not taken into account their necessary connectedness. Separate, the naked can indeed seem to indicate a Swiftian perspective—sneering and unsympathetic. And the mythic, taken alone, emerges as a superficial gimmick rather than as something intrinsic to the subject. Other criticisms of this fiction seem similarly askew. To object to the obsessive qualities of the works is to dislike them on personal grounds, for Coover's obsessions are his statements of meaning, and they are not so eccentric that they can be dismissed as the ravings from one in a padded cell. Obsessions characterize many of the writers of the last six or seven decades. Coover's works benefit from comparison with those of authors often deemed similar—Borges, Kafka, Joyce, Barth, and Vonnegut. The nature of Coover's achievement—both its weaknesses and strengths—is discernible when the novels are contrasted to those works with similar concerns.

That Coover's creations are obsessive at several levels is undeniable. The characters in The Origin of the Brunists are obsessed; the unhappy care with which Coover piles up detail can be called obsessive. Towers responded to this quality in The Universal Baseball Association, calling it "the most painfully claustrophobic novel I have ever experienced and I doubt that even the most single-minded baseball freak could find it endurable…. It lingers like a certain kind of nightmare. Undeniably, a power of sorts has been exerted." Donald Hall likens Coover's creations to the construction of a man who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower from three million toothpicks, and he points out that all three novels deal with obsessed individuals. What differentiates Coover from Borges, also an obsessed and obsessive writer, is partly Borges' lack of personal involvement in his fiction, and partly a matter of scale. Some of Borges' most famous ficciones exemplify a truly astonishing purity of obsession. The "Library of Babel," and "The Babylon Lottery" are classics in this line. In each, a single institution—the library, the lottery—gradually unfolds until it comes to represent the entire world. In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a peculiar volume of an encyclopedia calls into existence an entire other world. But what we respond most to in Borges' ficciones is this crystallizing image—library, lottery—rather than the scope of the implicit world which unfolds from it. Borges crams very diversified worlds into his little stories, but his stories are little, and character remains largely undeveloped. Waugh's baseball game is a similar seed crystal, but the personalities which Coover allows the players give these creations a size and substantiality which would burst the bonds of a refined, cameo world. The sophistication of Borges' lapidary productions seems to us now praiseworthy. Coover's works, like English sheep dogs, are boisterous and hard to control, and seem worlds apart from Borges' cool gems. Yet the English (and even more the American) literary tradition has specialized in Coover's approach rather than Borges'. Elder Olson describes the two kinds of literature in his famous comparison of Shakespeare and Racine:

Shakespeare is concerned with processes, Racine with situations. Shakespeare individualizes, particularizes, circumstantializes; Racine generalizes. Shakespeare correlates action with action, character with character; Racine selects…. The technique of Shakespeare is that of aggregation; the technique of Racine, like that of the ancients on whom he modelled, is that of isolation. [Tragedy and the Theory of Drama, 1961]

As Donald Hall points out, "If the novel [The Public Burning] survives, it will survive as a monster—but then, American literature is a collection of monsters." Monsters grow familiar with time, and lovable in their monstrosity. We come to cherish such additions to the aggregate as the porter in Macbeth. But they are not always lovable on first sight….

The number of episodes portraying fatal or near fatal violence in Coover's fiction is very high. He has experimented extensively with physical brutality and disaster. But whereas the violence is raw in The Origin of the Brunists, and sexual in some of the short stories, it becomes symbolic and allusive by The Public Burning, thematically subordinated to the whole. Kafka's deaths are less often direct murders, but they serve much the same function of directing attention to the tormenters. Coover is hardly unique in displaying such torment.

Obsession, elephantine scale, and violence are also found in Barth's later fantasies. Moreover, Barth creates in Giles Goat-Boy, a secondary world as skewed, yet as rich, as that of The Public Burning. Where these two authors are perhaps most usefully compared, however, is in their humor. Coover flashes with verbal wit: The Public Burning reaches some of its most distressing depths on humorous notes. The brilliant parody of the Marx brothers on the execution scaffold, for instance, is funny in its own right, funny as parody, and gruesomely funny as contrast to the coming execution. In The Universal Baseball Association, the players' jokes, Coover's theological parody, the black comedy of the wake, are all painfully funny. But Coover's laughs rarely escape the realm of desperation. Almost always there is an edge of self-awareness and pain. Barth's humor in Giles, The Sot-Weed Factor, and Chimera sometimes escapes the pain by embracing the absurd. Tertullian embraced Christianity enthusiastically quia impossible, because it is absurd and impossible. Barth laughs because unself-conscious laughter is impossible, and this absurd assertion helps us win free from our self-awareness and awareness of pain. "The Dunyazadiad" ends on just such a quia impossible note.

"Let's end the dark night! All that passion and hate between men and women; all that confusion of inequality and difference! Let's take the truly tragic view of love! Maybe it is a fiction, but it's the profoundest and best of all! Treasure me, Dunyazade, as I'll treasure you!…"

"It won't work."

"Nothing works! But the enterprise is noble; it's full of joy and life, and all other ways are deathy. Let's make love like passionate equals."

"You mean as if we were equals," Dunyazade said. "You know we're not. What you want is impossible…."

"Let it be as if!…"

"It's absurd. You're only trying to talk your way out of a bad spot."

"Of course I am! And of course it's absurd! Treasure me!"

He wins the argument, and all four main characters emerge from the dark hour before dawn having learned that the key to the treasure is the treasure. Barth achieves a rollicking effect, partly made possible by his retreat to various distant and thoroughly fictional pasts (Colonial America, Ancient Greece). Coover mostly stays within what is recognizably twentieth-century America: all three novels start from a realistic setting. As a result, his plots do not convert pain to ornamentation as readily as do Barth's. Moreover, Barth concentrates on individuals almost exclusively, and sees some hope of salvation for them. Coover sees society as well as the individual, and sees the individual only in terms of his relationship to society, and therefore finds salvation far more tenuous, and the overall future of man more hopeless. Because he insists on affirming the human, however, he does not escape to the absurd as readily as Barth does, for Barth can make even the individual absurd. For Coover, laughter offers no easy or total escape.

This quality of being rooted in the twentieth-century American experience characterizes Coover's fictive worlds when they are compared to those of Barth, Pynchon, or Joyce. Pynchon works with America, but projects it as the paranoid, schizophrenic fantasy of his characters. Coover's America in The Public Burning may be as skewed, but the narrative stances he uses are ostensibly those of objective reporter, so his America gives the impression of existing outside of any one character's mind. Only Joyce works similarly grounded in a specific national and temporal location, and clearly Ulysses has heavily influenced The Public Burning. Joyce's one day is replaced by three. The Nixon sections play about the same role as Bloom's Instead of Stephen and Molly, however, the other voices are those of the Rosenbergs, of divers politicians, of vox populi, and of Uncle Sam. Both Coover and Joyce develop characters' minds, wishes, and weaknesses. Pynchon, who created secondary worlds nearly as stupendous in Gravity's Rainbow and V, rarely gives us coherent enough human portraits for us to accept the characters as people. They embody psychoses. They blunder through insane settings primarily to display those settings. Joyce and Coover create settings in order to display, echo, and magnify the problems of being human.

Critics who castigate Coover for his lack of pity seem to me to misunderstand the nature of his fiction. They are quite correct that we are not invited to feel pity. But then pity allows the pitier to feel superior to the pitied. Pity enforces a distance, because we who pity are aware that we do not suffer as the protagonist is suffering. Vonnegut is a master at inducing pity. It feels so good to join him in his low-keyed, sohisticated indignation. We feel flattered at our own moral wisdom. His objects are entirely worthy, his causes just, and his own response may be deeply felt. But his creations do invite facile sympathy, or even sardonic pity toward his fantastically exaggerated victims—such as the man who is deprived of livelihood, status, Ph.D., M.A., and B.A. when it is discovered that he never completed the physical education requirement necessary for college graduation. We enjoy ourselves all too readily when pitying some of Vonnegut's creations. We enjoy the lump in the throat which rises as we realize that prelobotomized Unc wrote a letter which his post-operation self reads (Sirens of Titan). We share Vonnegut's indignant pity toward tertiary stage syphilitics who have been turned into jerky, faulty machines by their diseased nervous systems; toward the poor—black and white—oppressed by the capitalist system (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast of Champions), toward those firebombed in Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five).

Coover does not allow us the luxury of such pity. The anesthetic quality of some of his violence may indeed be prompted by a desire to discourage pity. The Rosenbergs' electrocuted bodies are reduced to jerky, mechanical things. As bodies, their vulnerability is all too apparent. But the response evoked is partly miserable whimpers of laughter. Bergsonian reification makes the jerking marionettes funny as well as sickening, even while forcing us to acknowledge that we too are just as vulnerable to death through our bodies. The one character we are inclined to pity is Nixon. Pity may be Coover's ultimate weapon, for in a way, pity degrades the recipient.

Misunderstandings like that concerning Coover's lack of pity have dogged the reception of The Public Burning. Paul Gray of Time, after dismissing it as an "overwritten bore," expresses one version of this discomfort:

Political figures, so the paranoia goes, are fair game. It is assumed in this genre that the most scabrous inventions can be brandished publicly and still fall short of the awful truth. Coover handles the rather limited demands of this artless form with ease. Those who are amused by gross fantasy will find much to admire in The Public Burning: Supreme Court Justices slipping and sliding in a pile of elephant dung; an aspirant to the presidency being sodomized by Uncle Sam.

Norman Podhoretz (in Saturday Review [17 September 1977]) attacks with more deadly precision:

But the more important difference lies in the freedom Coover grants himself from respect for the evidence, respect for the known facts, by which any historian is bound, no matter how politically tendentious he may be. When it suits Coover's polemical purposes, he too relies on the record—which incidentally helps to establish the credibility of his thesis with the innocent reader: he certainly seems to know what he is talking about. But when the evidence for his position is either weak or nonexistent or goes against him altogether—which is, in truth, most of the time—he simply turns his back on it and (to use one of his own favorite tropes) "shazams" himself from a historian into a novelist. In the guise of a novelist, he is liberated from the limitations and restraints of the ordinary mortal historian. He can soar above the evidence or below it.

Podhoretz goes on to call the book

… a lie. And because it hides behind the immunities of artistic freedom to protect itself from being held to the normal standards of truthful discourse, it should not only be called a lie, it should also be called a cowardly lie.

One answer to this kind of judgment is offered by Celia Betsky [in Commonweal (28 October 1977)]:

The Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence is immaterial in The Public Burning and they are not really the center of attention. Coover is more interested in putting an entire generation, era, and system on trial. His book condemns the accusers and along with them an American tradition of persecution from the Salem witch-hunts to Sacco and Vanzetti.

For me, at least, the arguments for innocence were far less interesting than the indictment of our national outlook. Thomas LeClair offers another answer in his review in The New Republic [17 September 1977]:

… his anthropological perspective suggests history is a fiction, perhaps finer-gauged than most yet without finality. But it is by stretching fact past "faction" to myth that Coover obviates history and makes The Public Burning a major achievement of conscience and imagination.

Clearly the American public did want scapegoats, and created them on a grand scale during the McCarthy era. Coover exposes this longing for a mythic pattern which will explain experience and protect one from knowledge of one's own weaknesses.

The third answer to Podhoretz's wrath lies in Coover's determination to break down readers' mental barriers. Insofar as we label and classify what we read, we are using our intellectual concerns as a defense against emotional response and commitment. We feel satisfaction when we can label an episode fact or fiction. In The Public Burning, Coover invites such frustration as to throw our mental equilibrium out of balance, and leaves us without some of our usual defenses. Clearly any strategy to violate the reader's sense of security can backfire: stories centering on rape will lose one segment of an audience; stories treating Christianity irreverently will lose another. That Podhoretz cannot tolerate someone playing fast and loose with history merely exposes the myth which he clings to for meaning in his cosmos….

We may resent Coover's varyingly successful acts of violation. We certainly resent his calculated destruction of all the comforting myths we hide behind. Coover offers us little compensation for their destruction. We may find some comfort in a tenuous shared physicality; we may grow brave from facing our human limitations, especially if we face them together with a partner. We may find intensity of involvement in a game, which is less destructive than involvement in most religions, sacred or political. We may become involved with an inner struggle, and derive our sense of meaning by coming to terms with ourselves. We may find some release from the tension of awareness in humor.

[In an interview in Critique 11 (1969), Coover says], "I tend to think of tragedy as a kind of adolescent response to the universe—the higher truth is a comic response … there is a kind of humor extremity which is even more mature than the tragic response." Walpole's apothegm that tragedy is for those who feel, comedy for those who think, may not tell the whole truth. One may find the stimuli of the world so painful that some protection is necessary. But laughter, ambivalent or absurd, is a possible, if only partial, protection. We sense Coover's contemptuous amusement at the earnest discomfort we feel when deprived of our myths, and of the luxury of feeling pity. Yet the laughter that echoes through his novels suggests that he feels—at some level—all too sharply the pain of existence. And he shows us an alternative defense to be used in place of myth. Laughter is no complete escape. We are still aware of the pain. But laughter can be shared, and even when solitary, it can induce an outlook which helps shield our naked nerve ends.

Larry McCaffery (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10177

SOURCE: "Robert Coover and the Magic of Fiction Making," in his The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 25-97.

[McCaffery is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, originally published in slightly different form in 1979, he examines Coover's portrayal of the human tendency to manufacture myths in The Origin of the Brunists and The Public Burning.]

Although flawed in certain respects, Robert Coover's first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, presents a clear, fairly comprehensive view of his metafictional impulses. Using the founding of the Christian religion as its primary analogue, The Brunists seeks to examine the hold which the fictions of religion and history maintain over men. Based in part on some actual experiences Coover had as a youngster in southern Illinois, the plot of the book is built around a mining disaster which kills ninety-seven men. One of the survivors is Giovanni Bruno, a quiet, enigmatic man disliked by most of his fellow workers. Due to a variety of circumstances, coincidences, and local needs, Bruno becomes the unlikely center of a small religious cult, "the Brunists." The story climaxes when most of the participants gather together on the Mount of Redemption (a small hill near the mine) in a wild, orgiastic finale. Here they wait (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) for the end of the world or the coming of the White Dove—no one is quite sure which. As the book concludes, we discover that despite the failure of the predicted cataclysm, the Brunists have struck a responsive chord in the world's religious needs; their cult has spread to all the major areas of the United States, prospects for overseas recruitment look excellent, and scriptural books and records are topping all the best-seller lists. Meanwhile the faithful are solemnly being prepared to meet their maker "on the eighth of January, possibly next year, but more likely 7 or 14 years from now."

Such a general plot summary gives little sense of what happens in the novel because apparent digressions and subplots dominate its development. More than any of Coover's other works, the strengths of this book are drawn from traditional fiction, especially the realistic novel. Thus The Brunists has more than twenty vividly drawn, realistic characters and provides most of the other elements of plot and setting familiar to conventional fiction. Indeed, it often seems as if Coover is using his first novel to polish up conventional narrative methods before he moves on to more ambitious, unusual approaches….

Yet if Coover is "paying his dues" to traditional fiction in The Brunists, his payments often seem to be made with ambivalent feelings. For example, he constantly undercuts the realistic impulses of the book by borrowing elements from the surreal, the fantastic, and the absurd. Like Thomas Pynchon and Herman Melville—V. and Moby Dick are the two books which most obviously influenced The Brunists—Coover often halts his plot to present asides such as anecdotes, jokes, songs, and esoteric information. Such techniques make it obvious that Coover is more interested in exploring a complex idea through any fictional means than he is in following the conventions of realism.

The focus which holds the disparate parts of the novel together—and which ties this work firmly to Coover's other fictions—can be explained by some remarks he makes in the prologue to Pricksongs and Descants. The novelist, says Coover, should use "familiar or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader … to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation." Thus in The Brunists, as in most of Coover's other works, we are presented with a plot founded upon a prior "mythic or historical" source from which we will eventually be released by what Jackson Cope has termed an "anti-formal revelation." In other words, Coover hopes to use the familiar forms—be they the Christian analogues of The Brunists, the popular mythologies of sports (The Universal Baseball Association), fairy tales (Pricksongs), or the factual events of the Rosenberg case (The Public Burning)—to undercut the hold which the content of these forms still has on people. In The Brunists Coover uses the familiar, narrow Christian contexts but extends them so that the book becomes a metafictional commentary on the fictive process of history itself or, rather, on the ways in which human experience is conveniently translated and mythicized by chroniclers and historians.

By focusing The Brunists on religion and religious history, Coover provided himself with an obvious context in which to show the way that human intervention is imposed upon the world to give it meaning. In times of crisis or chaotic disruption, religious and historical perspectives have always provided men with the attractive notion that events actually contain a recognizable order and meaning despite their apparent absurdity. Coover makes it clear that the initial impetus for the Brunist development is the desire on the part of the survivors of the dead miners to attribute some purpose to the catastrophe, to justify it somehow. Faced with a destructive event of such major proportions, the townsfolk find in the Brunist religion a fictional system which endows the terrible events they have experienced with an illusion of order and purpose.

After Bruno is found unconscious but alive in an area of the mine where most of the men were killed, Coover sets several subplots in motion which gradually converge. Although nearly every conceivable potboiler element can be found in these subplots (adultery, incest, adolescent sex play, sadism, voyeurism—all the usual soap-opera materials), none is gratuitous or included merely for sensation's sake. All of them in fact serve Coover's central purpose of establishing the wide range of elements which eventually contribute to the rise of the Brunist cult. Coover is well aware that it takes more than small-town religious fanaticism to start a major religion. Helpful circumstances, unlikely coincidences, unwitting and unwilling support, and just plain luck are all also essential. Perhaps most important of all, a religion needs an effective prophet or PR man to get the word out and drum up interest. Christianity, of course, had all of these factors operating in its favor; and so do the Brunists.

The original Brunists are mainly satirized as answer-seeking fanatics who see in Bruno the fulfillment of their various needs. Their cause attracts such crackpots as Eleanor Norton and Ralph Himebaugh who develop their own fictional systems in ways that illuminate the approaches of later Coover characters such as J. Henry Waugh and Richard Nixon. What all of these characters share is the tendency to rely on mythic notions of causality—notions which operate differently from the more recently developed views of science and logic. Ernst Cassirer, who examines mythic thought in great detail in the second volume of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, remarks that for mythic thought "every simultaneity, every spatial coexistence and contact, proves a real causal 'sequence.' It has been called a principle of mythic causality and of the physics based on it that one takes every contact in time and space as an immediate relation of cause and effect." It is easy to see how religious explanations of events grow very naturally from such mythic conceptions of reality. A similar mythic basis of thought underlies the numerological orientation of Norton, Himebaugh, and many of Coover's other characters.

Numerology relies in an obvious fashion on a mythic notion of causality. Like astrology—which also influences Mrs. Norton—numerology assumes that some sort of causal relationship exists between two entities (in this case, number and event) which do not have any logical or scientific (i.e., empirical) connection. Ela Norton, for example, tries obsessively to decipher hidden meanings in everyday events. In her frantic desire to discover these veiled implications, she relies on "divine dispatches" sent to her from a spirit called "domiron." Not surprisingly, one system of hidden order which she has uncovered is based on numerological inferences, especially relating to the number seven.

Lawyer Ralph Himebaugh is also a firm believer in numerology and is, as well, a parody of the mathematically oriented post-Renaissance scientist. Himebaugh's metaphysical notions amusingly parallel what has been called the "mathematical metaphysics" which developed after Galileo. Like Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and other formulators of the metaphysical foundations of modern science, Himebaugh is confident that all events can be explained in terms of mathematically determined forces and formulas:

Ralph's system was nevertheless for him a new science, and if he did not yet embrace the whole truth of the universe, it was only because he still lacked all the data, lacked some vital but surely existent connection—in short had not yet perfected his system.

Thus Himebaugh fills his spare time collecting and graphing statistical information, attempting to discover within the numbers before him a pattern, a basis for predictability. Ralph's theories, like those of the empirical scientist that Coover is satirizing, are "founded always in some concrete event in the world" and are "altered, revised with each discovery of new data." Yet, despite his carefully formulated statistics and graphs, Ralph is also clearly a crackpot: not only does he devote most of his time to deciphering very un-empirical numerological signs, but also he is convinced that all events are controlled by a demonic force called "the destroyer."

Mrs. Norton's confident overview of events (from above by divine dispatches) and Ralph's slow assimilation of facts and numbers into a general framework seem to represent comic analogues of the two basic methods of achieving all knowledge—the rationalistic, deductive approach and the empirical, inductive method. In this case, as in the case of science itself, the two systems help support each other. As the novel's main character, Tiger Miller, summarizes at one point, "They shared, that is, this hope for perfection, for final complete knowledge, and their different approach actually complemented each other, or at least seemed to." As we might expect of people who are seeking "final complete knowledge," their search for "final complete knowledge" ends in failure, just as all similar searches end in Coover's fiction. Thus Coover pokes a great deal of fun at both these methods and makes it obvious that Mrs. Norton and Ralph Himebaugh are simply projecting their own distorted personalities onto the world. Yet Coover also subtly undercuts this view by establishing a "real" numerological foundation in his own novel and thus indirectly creates an "objective basis" for the positions he mocks.

It isn't too difficult to uncover some sort of numerological pattern in the events of The Brunists. We probably laugh first at Ralph Himebaugh's analysis in the following passage, but further consideration may make us wonder if the pattern Ralph is describing isn't really there after all:

The number ninety-seven, the number of the dead, was itself unbelievably relevant. Not only did it take its place almost perfectly in the concatenation of disaster figures he had been recording, but it contained internal mysteries as well: nine, after all, was the number of the mine itself, and seven, pregnant integer out of all divination, was the number of trapped miners. The number between nine and seven, eight, was the date of the explosion, and the day of the rescue was eleven, two one's or two, the difference between nine and seven. Nine and seven added to sixteen, whose parts, one and six, again added to … seven!

Just as in a Nabokovian puzzle, certain patterns do mysteriously appear if we follow these numerological hints. If we take the number seven, for example, we find that Tiger Miller's high school basketball number was seven; the number of miners trapped was ninety-eight, which is itself composed of fourteen sevens (with fourteen itself being another multiple of seven); ninety-eight, if taken in a series leads first to seven (the number of miners trapped with Bruno) and then to six (the number who died); on the night of the mining disaster the basketball game is stopped with the score 14-11 (as noted above, fourteen is a multiple of seven, and is also the date Bruno is rescued); Vince Bonali just happens to have seven children. After just a little of this sort of number-chasing, we sense that Coover is playing a joke on us—inducing us to establish fictional patterns in much the same way that we laughed at Ralph and Ela for doing. But Coover also seems to be demonstrating a more subtle point which is often made by Nabokov (most notable in Pale Fire): that seemingly random appearances, under subjective human scrutiny, do often cohere into a pattern which can be applied to the world. And as we follow this game of creating a system from this series of elements, we are inevitably pointed back to the original fiction maker of the story—Coover himself. As he does in many of his stories, Coover begins by laughing at analytic machinery when used by his characters, turns his humor upon our own tendency to dig up hidden meanings, and all the while he mocks himself, the reader-critic within the writer, the creator who can't resist exposing himself in his formal strategies.

If the fiction-making impulses of the original small cult of the Brunists are fairly clear, it is even more evident that Giovanni Bruno himself is nothing more than a befuddled pawn who is manipulated by the religious needs of others. Certain that Bruno is "the One who is to come," Eleanor Norton becomes the unofficial spokesperson and high priestess of a small group of devoted believers. Most of these believers are people like Clara Collins who are desperately seeking some means of making sense of the recent tragedy at the mine. Bruno himself is brought home to sit in bed and mutter bizarre, often incoherent remarks ("The tomb is its message"; "Baptize … light"), each of which is reverently noted and carefully "decoded" by the message-hungry followers.

Coover's handling of the cult itself often seems one-dimensional and at times slips into pure farce; his treatment of the response of the West Condon folk to Brunism, however, is more complicated and ultimately less sympathetic. Without exception the townspeople of West Condon are shown to act solely in terms of their own selfish interests. Although these interests are not religiously motivated as are those of the Brunists, they nonetheless all unknowingly aid the Brunist cause—and this is what ties their sections to the novel's primary structure. Banker Ted Cavanaugh, for example, is never sympathetic to the Brunist cause and in fact recognizes them for the crackpots that they are. But because he is also concerned about the town's dismal economic situation and its inability to attract outsiders, he is willing to use Bruno for a little free publicity. Thus when Bruno is ready to leave the hospital, he sees to it that Bruno is brought home in style:

Bruno's big homecoming was Ted Cavanaugh's idea. There was a national—even international—focus on the man, why not put it to the whole town's service? Already Bruno had emerged as something of a town hero, a symbol of the community's own struggle to survive, so why not make the most of it?… For the moment—no matter how arbitrary it might seem—he stood for West Condon, and they all had to lift West Condon high!

Even less sympathetic to the Brunists is preacher Abner Baxter, who inherits his job when Ely Collins is killed in the blast. Uncertain of his congregation's loyalty, Baxter sees the Brunist movement as a threat to his own security. Hopeful of stabilizing his new position—and supported with historical parallels to religious situations in the past—Baxter declares a holy war on the Brunists and urges his parishioners to use any means to drive the new religion from their community. Thus begins the "Brunist Persecution" which, as was true with Christianity and many other religions, only serves to draw the Brunists together and publicize their cause. Baxter's children, after making off with the disembodied hand of a charred miner, play cruel and devilish tricks on the neighborhood (feeding ground glass to dogs, placing excrement in the rival preacher's pulpit) under the "Sign of the Black Hand"; the Brunists, who are willing to assimilate anything which will fit into their pattern of beliefs, quickly interpret these pranks as otherworldly messages or warnings. Like almost any organism which hopes to prosper, the Brunists deftly take advantage of whatever local conditions might aid in their development. Thus in the process of establishing their creed—a purely arbitrary, invented fiction—they provide an excellent example of why fiction-making is so useful to man.

By far the most important figure to aid the Brunists is the local newspaper editor, Justin "Tiger" Miller. Miller's name supplies the first clue about his role, for Justin was a second-century writer and apologist for Christianity. But Miller and his newspaper The Chronicle are peculiarly modern sorts of religious apologists; although Miller becomes the Brunists' public relations man, their historian, prophet, and gospel-maker, he also is aware that they are a hoax. He also introduces an important concept which is found in many of Coover's fictions: the concept of game.

Tiger Miller's background may remind us of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom (in Rabbit Run), for it too is dominated by his legendary feats as a high school basketball player. In a revealing passage, we are told that games help provide some semblance of order in Miller's life:

Games were what kept Miller going. Games, and the pacifying of mind and organs. Miller perceived existence as a loose concatenation of separate and ultimately inconsequential instants, each colored by the action that preceded it, but each possessed of a small wanton freedom of its own. Life then, was a series of adjustments to these actions, and if one kept his sense of humor and produced as many of these actions himself as possible, adjustments were easier.

This passage helps explain Miller's role in the book as a pseudo-historian or fiction-maker. It also offers a view of the world and man's position in it that seems to coincide with Coover's own view. The idea that life is a "loose concatenation of separate and ultimately inconsequential instants" directly opposes, of course, the historical view which attempts to explain and define meaningful relationships between events. Indeed, the notion that each moment possesses "a small wanton freedom of its own" opposes any concept of an externally imposed system of order. Once this view is accepted, the alternatives are evident: either man can adopt the despairing outlook that life is fundamentally and irrevocably absurd and chaotic; or he can consider the "freedom" of each moment as a sign that man can create his own system of order and meaning. If this latter alternative is accepted—and it is accepted by Miller, Waugh, and Nixon—the attraction of games, sports, and rituals of any kind becomes obvious—for here there is order, definite sets of rules to be followed, a series of signs that can be interpreted, noncapricious rewards and punishments, and a sense of stasis and repetition that seems somehow freed from the demands of process. The meaning and order of games are fictitious and arbitrary in the sense that they are invented subjectively and then applied to the transformational possibilities within the system. But unlike the equally fictitious sense of order provided by history, politics, or religion, games allow man to act with awareness of his position, without dogmatic claims to final truths and objectivity.

When the novel opens, Tiger Miller is presented as a game player without a "big game" to look forward to. Then when the Brunist controversy arises, Miller sees a chance to become involved in a new, potentially amusing game whose rules he is familiar with from his knowledge of the Bible and history—that is, the game of creating a religion. That Miller consciously conceives of his role in the Brunist affair as that of a player in a game is evident in the following passage:

Their speculations amused Miller—who himself at age thirteen had read Revelations and never quite got over it—so he printed everything he thought might help them along, might seem relevant to them…. Once the emotions had settled down and the widows themselves had established new affairs or found mind-busying work, their eccentric interest of the moment would be forgotten, of course. Which, in a way, was too bad. As games went, it was a good game, and there was some promise in it. (emphasis added)

Late in the novel when Miller explains to a minister his own role in the Brunist affair, we discover that, for Miller, historians and theologians have always been engaged in the game of fiction making:

"Exactly! It doesn't matter. Somebody with a little imagination, a new interpretation, a bit of eloquence, and—zap!—they're off for another hundred or thousand years." Miller passed his hand over the heap of manila folders on his desk. "Anyway, it makes a good story."

Edwards gazes down at the folders. "But Justin, doesn't it occur to you? These are human lives—one-time human lives—you're toying with!"

"Sure, what else?"

"But to make a game out of—"

Miller laughed. "You know, Edwards, it's the one thing you and I have got in common." (emphasis added)

The point established here is crucial: Edwards recognizes that to Miller the process of creating a religion and presenting a historical version of it is a game, an arbitrary fiction conjured up by an imaginative mind. Miller agrees and adds that Edwards is likewise engaged in game playing. But while Miller is very much aware of the fictional basis of his game, Edwards and the Brunists are unaware of what they are doing (or at least they are unwilling to acknowledge it). This directly anticipates the situation that J. Henry Waugh (in The UBA) and most of the American public (in The Public Burning) find themselves in.

Ironically it is precisely Miller's game playing which enables the Brunists to develop and maintain their tenuous foothold in the community. As Miller has told Edwards, history has always been presented by men willing to embellish some here and add a little there to "make a good story." The fact that historical perspective result from human intervention and selection is usually ignored by an uncritical public hungry for order and truth. Such a public is an easy prey for an "entertainer" such as Miller:

Once a day, six days a week and sometimes seven, year in, year out, the affairs of West Condon were compressed into a set of conventionally accepted signs and became, in the shape of the West Condon Chronicle, what most folks in town thought of as life, or history…. That its publisher and editor, Justin Miller, sometimes thought of himself as in the entertainment business and viewed his product, based as it was on the technicality of the recordable fact, as a kind of benevolent hoax, probably only helped to make the paper greater.

This view of the historical procedure being "a benevolent hoax" is dramatized even more clearly early in the book: when Miller discovers that a United Press representative has considerably embellished a wholly falsified report that Miller himself dreamed up about the mine rescue, he laughs and comments, "Such are history's documents."

A good fiction promoter, Miller meets with great success in furthering the Brunist cause. Near the end of the novel, however, when Miller tries to remind everyone that the whole Brunist uprising has only been an amusing game, he discovers too late the tenacity with which people cling to their fictions and is nearly killed by an angry mob of Brunists. Like some of Coover's later characters who do not fully understand the appeal of arbitrary systems (the sheriff in The Kid, Lou Engels in The UBA, Julius Rosenberg in The Public Burning), Miller is underestimating the fanatical desire of people to cling to their illusions of order and meaning. When he encounters a frenzied mob of Brunists on the Mount of Redemption, an ironic reversal occurs as Miller-the-Tiger nearly becomes a sacrificial lamb.

The Brunists eventually go on to establish themselves as a major religion. They succeed in welding a creed and church hierarchy and set the foundations for precious and sacred traditions—all bearing considerable resemblance to the early stories, miracles, and wonders of Christianity. Naturally these parallels serve to parody the origins of Christianity; but as Leo Hertzel notes, Coover hopes to extend the range of the implications of this book into a "commentary on history, on the fantastic complexity and ignorance that lie at the root of all recorded and revered experience." Coover also includes a brief, puzzling epigraph to his novel entitled "Return" which—like the final chapter to The UBA—throws into doubt many of the mythic and historical parallels and associations developed earlier. For example, we probably have identified Marcella Bruno's death with that of Christ, for it unites the Brunists and is even presented to us in a chapter entitled "The Sacrifice." But the last chapter invites us to see Miller's near-death as being the Christ parallel. Thus the first thing that Miller's girlfriend, Happy Bottom, says to Miller when he revives is, "And how feels today the man who redeemed the world?" Later while Miller is delirious, he identifies himself on the cross: "He saw himself, crosshung, huge below, head soaring out of sight…. Something knocked against his cross: vibrations racked him and screaming, he fell." But before these new parallels are firmly established, we are reminded that Miller also betrayed the new religion and helped cause the death of the first sacrificial victim, Marcella Bruno. Not surprisingly, then, Miller is also identified at times in this last section with Judas—a confusion of mythic parallels that continues when Miller considers his own role in the rise of the Brunists and decides that "crucifixion was a proper end for insurgents: it dehumanizes them." The closest thing to a resolution of this mythic mixup comes in another ambiguous passage in which the Christ analogue vaguely seems to win out over that of the Judas:

Jesus, dying, disconnected, was shocked to find Judas at his feet. "Which … one of us," Jesus gasped, "is really He: I … or thou?" Judas offered up a hallowing, omniscient smile, shrugged, and went away, never to be seen in these parts again.

All this may be a metaphorical way of demonstrating the struggle going on within Miller to assess his role in creating the rise of the Brunists. Or it may be a puzzling diversion, included by Coover for reasons that Miller would appreciate: it makes a good story. At any rate, it is obvious that although Coover invites us to establish parallels and note associations, he also does not want us to create too many easy one-to-one relationships. As he continually reminds us, life just isn't as straightforward and easily interpreted as most fictions—including those of history, religion, and realistic novels—would like to make it seem. This brief epilogue thus tears down, or at least calls into question, some of the mythic and archetypal machinery that Coover has earlier set in motion. In doing so, it reminds us that such pattern is useful in guiding our responses to both literary works and to life, but this utility is maintained only if we are aware that other perspectives are also possible. Only if we are able to develop an awareness of our own participation in the creation of fictions can we reject dogmatic attitudes and begin to take advantage of the fiction-making process. In short, we can be free only when we can distinguish our own creations from those which exist in the world….

In certain fundamental ways, The Public Burning extends the vision of a chaotic, disruptive universe and the enormously complex operations of history that Coover presents in all his fiction. Likewise, the metafictional intent behind this work is again very evident as Coover examines the relationship between man's fictional systems and the reality they seek to explore. But although Coover continues to deal with man's need for order and the incredible variety of ways he has developed to cope with flux, The Public Burning is in almost every way a broader and more ambitious work than anything he had previously published. Beyond these major thematic concerns, The Public Burning, at its most accessible level, does a brilliant job of recreating the apocalyptic mood and paranoiac spirit of the early 1950s; even more remarkably, its portrait of Richard Nixon proves to be a subtle, credible, and strangely compassionate characterization.

The complexity and breadth of Coover's vision here results in part from his intricate interweaving of an enormous amount of factual data into his fictional narrative. Indeed, in a very important sense this book is a tribute to language's ability to create coherence, and it literally embodies Coover's central point about man's talent in manipulating the elements of his existence into new, exciting plots and patterns. As Coover commented, the role of the artist—the exemplary fiction-maker who represents us all—is to become "the mythologizer, to be the creative spark in this process of renewal: he's the one who tears apart the old story, speaks the unspeakable, makes the ground shake, then shuffles the bits back together into a new story." Much like Joyce in Ulysses (probably the best analogue of Coover's attempt), Coover meticulously builds his mythic framework out of a welter of facts, figures, dates, public testimony, and other real data. Everything that might possibly have a bearing on the Rosenberg case—from the cold war crisis (including the Korean War background) and political intrigues in Washington right up through a wide range of cultural and pop-culture events in America—is included here. As a result the book seems to operate on what we might term a deliberate strategy of excess, with the reader's difficulties in approaching the text mirroring Richard Nixon's own dilemma in unraveling the complexities of the Rosenberg case. Like Nixon, we are confronted with a bewildering assortment of facts, figures, lists, quotes, pseudo-quotes, song lyrics, trial testimony, movie plots, and dozens of other potential clues. It seems as if everything that was going on in America and around the world during this period had some sort of direct bearing on the Rosenberg case—even the significance of such films as High Noon and House of Wax which are repeatedly referred to and which provide meaningful cultural analogues to the larger dramas that are unfolding. All this material is transformed by Coover's hand to create a vivid sense of exactly what was occurring in the public consciousness on June 19, 1953 when the Rosenbergs were executed. The central magic of this work is therefore similar to Joyce's achievement in Ulysses or Pynchon's in Gravity's Rainbow and V. in that Coover succeeds in making his encyclopedic details seem aesthetically appropriate: all the details seem to be meaningful, seem to be forming themselves into the shapes and patterns that Coover wishes to establish. And it is precisely the nature of these shapes that is the focus of Coover's metafictional concern here, for these shapes represent the fictions that we all generate to create a bulwark against chaos: the shape of history, the shape of paranoia, the shape of simplistic oppositions (us versus them, communism versus democracy, God versus the devil, good versus evil), the shape of art, the shape of literary narratives.

The story of The Public Burning is told in twenty-eight sections which are narrated alternately by Richard Nixon and, in various voices, by Coover. Although a prologue and epilogue extend the action somewhat, the book focuses on the two days and nights that precede the execution of the Rosenbergs. Coover stages this execution at Times Square—the "luminous navel" of the United States, a "place of feasts, spectacle, and magic … the ritual center of the Western World." The actual execution itself, which is highly reminiscent of the climactic ending of The Origin of the Brunists, is presented as a powerful, circus-like finale that serves as a public exorcism and ceremonial return to what Coover has called "dreamtime." As he explains, "dreamtime" involves "the inner truths, legends, mythos of the race, the origins, the mysterious beginnings of the tribe…. The point of a ceremonial return to dreamtime is basically regenerative: to recover belief in the tribe and get things moving again." It is crucial to understanding Coover's intentions in The Public Burning to see that the Rosenbergs are supposed to represent something much more than mere pawns of the cold war strategy or cogs destroyed when our judicial machinery runs amuck. Instead, Coover presents the Rosenbergs as archetypal victims, the central participants in a celebratory ritual which Uncle Sam hopes will enable America to recapture a sense of community and momentum which it has lost in its battle with the Phantom. That their execution takes place in the spring at Times Square—"an American holy place long associated with festivals of rebirth"—helps underscore this fundamental association. At one point Uncle Sam bluntly explains to Nixon the specific purpose of the extravagantly staged execution: "Oh, I don't reckon we could live like this all year round … we'd only expunctify ourselves. But we do need an occasional peak of disorder and danger to keep things from just peterin' out, don't we." The execution is a blatantly theatrical spectacle designed to combine ritualistically elements of entertainment (Cecil B. DeMille chairs an entertainment committee and is assisted by Busby Berkeley, Betty Crocker, Walt Disney, Ed Sullivan, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—among others), religious archetypes celebrating rebirth and regeneration, and various anarchical and sexual impulses which will presumably free the populace for renewal once they have torn everything apart.

Although Coover fills nearly all the sections of the book with a sense of bitterness, irony, and outrage, he also manages to suggest a sympathetic understanding of how communities are led to such destructive results. The chief danger to which all of the major participants in the novel succumb—except, curiously, Richard Nixon—is the familiar mistake made by so many Coover characters: the danger of dogmatizing beliefs, the danger of taking self-generated fictions too literally, the danger of relying too completely on fragile, oversimplified systems (such as historical or political perspectives) and of not seeing how utterly inadequate they are to deal with the enormously complex, constantly shifting nature of reality. Thus all the major characters—the Rosenbergs, Uncle Sam, Nixon, the Phantom—react to the prospect of randomness in the same way: they storify it, creating soothing possible fictions that they can feel comfortable with. Like The Brunists and The UBA, The Public Burning exhibits Coover's obvious fascination with the power of history to subjugate events to pattern—to create connections, causal relationships, and stories when most observers can find no meaning at all. As a result, one of the central preoccupations in the novel is with "the mosaic of history," how man is able, through language, to arrange and rearrange the random elements of existence into historically significant events. In trying to uncover all the relevant facts in the labyrinthine Rosenberg case, Richard Nixon is soon led to ponder the nature of man's efforts to organize his experience and to analyze the crucial role which language has in creating this system:

What was fact, what intent, what was framework, what was essence? Strange, the impact of History, the grip it had on us, yet it was nothing but words. Accidental accretions for the most part, leaving most of the story out. We have not yet begun to explore the true power of the Word, I thought. What if we broke all the rules, played games with the evidence, manipulated language itself, made History a partisan ally? Of course, the Phantom was already onto this, wasn't he? Ahead of us again. What were his dialectical machinations if not the dissolution of the natural limits of language, the conscious invention of a space, a spooky artificial no-man's land, between logical alternatives?

Nixon here voices a view of history-as-artifice that we have seen being developed in much of Coover's earlier fiction, and he is also perceptive about the ability of the Phantom to organize the random elements of history into fictions useful to his cause. But what Nixon fails to realize at this stage is that Uncle Sam is also involved in such deceptive manipulations. While making a complete fool of himself in a hilarious game of golf with Uncle Sam, Nixon listens as his boss presents his own cynical view of history:

Hell, all courtroom testimony about the past is ipso facto and teetotaciously a baldface lie, ain't that so? Moonshine! Chicanery! The old gum game! Like history itself—all more or less bunk … the fatal slantindicular futility of Fact! Appearances, my boy, appearances. Practical politics consists in ignorin' facts! Opinion ultimately governs the world…. And so a trial in the midst of all this flux and a slippery past is just one set of bolloxeratin' sophistries agin another—or call'em mettyfours if you like, approximations, all the same desputt humbuggery.

Nixon at this point is still too desperate for Uncle Sam's favor to see the deeper relevance of this message ("I still hadn't figured out what Uncle Sam was up to," he admits). Uncle Sam, relying on the American public's bewilderment and rage over their loss of world power, has constructed a simple fiction which conveniently reduces the complex political and historical realities of the world into a neatly organized black-and-white scenario: the Phantom (communism) is after us (the "Free World") and is willing to do anything to destroy us, including the adoption of any number of insidious disguises; anything connected with us is good and must be protected at all costs, while anything connected with the Phantom is evil and must be destroyed.

This simplistic good-versus-evil world view is subtly assisted by news media anxious to present their own picture of a tidy universe reducible to the "5 W's." Coover is careful to establish that the role of supposedly neutral news disseminators such as Time or even the more reputable New York Times is to grab onto details and organize them into coherent patterns. Like the role of historians, then, the function of journalists exactly parallels the role of Coover in this book, or the role of any artist. But journalists also falsify this experience for the public by pretending that the circuit is closed, that interpretation and ingenious organization is actual fact. Like the West Condonites in The Brunists and Dame Society in The UBA, the American public in The Public Burning is shown to be desperate for assurances and frighteningly susceptible to effective manipulators who wish to establish their own rules. Certainly it is not an accident that the actual deaths of the Rosenbergs and the near-deaths of Tiger Miller and the Association's ballplayers all derive from the public's inability to accept the arbitrary nature of fictional systems.

Although Coover is once again mocking our tendency to be uncritical in accepting the literal veracity of our inventions, he is also well aware of man's basic fear of paradox and transformation. Here, as in all of Coover's fiction, the desire for coherence is presented as intimately related to the artistic impulse itself which seeks to organize a selective number of elements drawn from life's overabundance into an aesthetically pleasing and significant whole. As we read The Public Burning, we are constantly aware of Coover's efforts to transform the events of history into the system of language called the novel. Richard Nixon informs us that language is used "to transcend the confusions, restore the spirit, recreate the society!" In a crucial sense, then, Coover's efforts in this novel become an exemplary achievement of the imagination to cope with confusion via language; 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. In one of the most important theoretical passages in all of his work, Coover summarizes his view of how man tries to deal with disorder and randomness with the fiction-making process:

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. It is, as Mother Luce has said, "fakery in allegiance to the truth," a kind of interpretive re-enactment of the overabundant flow of events, "an effective mosaic" assembled from "the fragmentary documents" of life, quickened with audacious imagery and a distinct and original prosody: "noses for news lie betwixt ears for music." 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. More: he would argue that objectivity is an impossible illusion, a "fantastic claim" ("gnostic" is the word on his tongue these days), and as an ideal perhaps even immoral, 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.

This passage, with its acknowledgment of the "frankly biased and distorting lens of art" and its insistence on "subordinating facts to the imagination" could well stand as Coover's assessment of his own attempts in The Public Burning to present "an effective mosaic" of the age. It also demonstrates the combination of irony, sympathy, and honesty which typifies Coover's presentation of man's efforts to discover reliable and objective systems.

The Uncle Sam of The Public Burning embodies a peculiar mixture of wild energy, folksiness, meanness, and opportunism—a mixture which has helped shape the United States. In the novel's shocking epilogue, however, all of his folksiness disappears and the ugly realities behind his cruel, power-seeking nature are unmasked. When Nixon accuses him of being "a butcher," "a beast," and "no better than the Phantom!", Uncle Sam defends himself by saying that death and destruction are part of what we must accept if the "game" is to be kept running smoothly: "It ain't easy holdin' a community together, order ain't what comes natural, you know that, boy, and a lotta people gotta get killt tryin' to pretend it is, that's how the game is played." Moments later as he prepares to sodomize Nixon—thereby investing him with the "Incarnation of Power" that will manifest itself publicly fifteen years later—Uncle Sam brutally announces that if he is to be loved, he should be loved for the powerful, lusty figure that he has always been:

You wanta make it with me … you gotta love me like I really am: Sam Slick, the Yankee Peddler, gun-totin' hustler and tooth-n'-claw tamer of the heathen wilderness, lusty and in everything a screamin' meddler, novus ball-bustin' ordo seclorum, that's me, boy—and goodnight Mrs. Calabash to any damfool what gets in my way!… You said it yourself: they's a political axiom that wheresomever a vacuum exists, it will be filled by the nearest or strongest power! Well, you're lookin' at it, mister: an example and fit instrument, big as they come in this world and gittin' bigger by the minute! Towerin' genius disdains a beaten path—it seeks regions hitherto unexplored—so clutch aholt on somethin' an say your prayers, cuz I propose to move immeejitly upon your works!

This frightening revelation, which seems uncomfortably accurate even as a caricature, suggests that the real source of evil in America grows precisely out of its strength and power and its willingness to use these assets to dominate others.

Caught in the midst of these titanic struggles, the Rosenbergs are presented as tragic, largely sympathetic pawns who are perhaps too eager to accept their roles as exemplary victims. Part of their trouble, as Nixon sees it, is their "self-destructive suspicion that they were being watched by some superhuman presence," a suspicion which dehumanizes them by suggesting that they are acting out predetermined roles in a drama controlled by exterior forces. At one point Nixon wonders if the whole Rosenberg case might be simply a complete fabrication, a story which the main characters have duped themselves into believing: "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 court-room full of fantasists … the Rosenbergs, thinking everybody was crazy, nevertheless fell for it, moving ineluctably into the martyr roles they'd been waiting for all along, eager to be admired and pitied." The Rosenbergs are destroyed, in part, because of their foolish trust in the operations of such arbitrary systems as history and justice. Even Nixon, who is at once both naive and cynical about the operations of history, is quick to realize that "they've been seduced by this. If they could say to hell with History, they'd be home free." Julius especially seems to have been too quick to place his trust in the judicial process, and thus he becomes an easy victim for men like J. Edgar Hoover who know the rules of the game and are able to manipulate all the angles to their own benefit. Unaware that the opposition has changed the rules and rigged the outcome with the umpire, Julius continues to believe until it is too late that justice will somehow prevail. Ethel, on the other hand, is a less passive and more passionate victim; because she is more cynical and self-conscious about the struggle she is engaged in, she is less gullible than Julius and ultimately her death is therefore more heroic. Certainly their willingness to accept their tragic roles is nurtured by their involvement with communism with its own dogmatic insistence that there exist objective systems (historical patterns, economic forces) which are inevitable but which man can decipher to his advantage. Consequently the Rosenbergs not only are victimized but even emphasize their "stage roles" as abstract pawns.

Remarkably, Richard Nixon emerges as the novel's most perceptive and sympathetic character as he lurches, clownlike, toward his destiny "at the center" of apocalypse in Times Square. Coover obviously did extensive research into Nixon's background, from his youth right up through his early political career. All the familiar Nixon qualities are here: the smug self-righteousness, the obvious malice and insecurity masked by a phony affability, the self-pity combined with an appetite for power and success. But Coover's portrayal is no mere caricature, for Nixon emerges as a resilient figure who manages to get up after every pratfall, whose intentions are often misunderstood and misrepresented, and whose paranoia and other peculiar personality traits are convincingly portrayed. We are probably expected to laugh at Nixon's constant comparisons between himself and various other American heroes like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Horatio Alger; but one of the most telling aspects of the way Coover uses Nixon is the fact that Nixon's career really does seem to embrace a lot of the American Dream. In his own bungling but energetic manner, Nixon's desire to be near the sacred "center" represents a fundamental faith in the American way. As he explains, "I have faith: I believe in the American dream, I believe in it because I have seen it come true in my own life. TIME has said that I've had 'a Horatio Alger-like career,' but not even Horatio Alger could have dreamed up a life so American—in the best sense—as mine." From our perspective today—a perspective that is crucial to the many oppositions and juxtapositions that Coover wishes to establish—our awareness of the many abuses and deceits that would follow Nixon's eventual "incarnation" allows us to realize that his career does indeed teach us a great deal about what has gone wrong with the American Dream.

Nixon's role in The Public Burning is really twofold: he is both clown and middleman. First of all, he plays the important role of clown who assists the ringmaster—Coover—by creating laughter which will release tension and allow the audience to refocus its attention on the main entertainment at hand. As Coover explains in an interview, this first role helps explain why Nixon was created as a basically sympathetic character: "My interest in Nixon—or my story about him—grew out of my concept of the book as a sequence of circus acts. That immediately brought to mind the notion of clown acts, bringing the show back down to the ground. You have to have a thrilling high-wire number, and then the clown comes on, shoots off a cannon, takes a pratfall, drops his pants, and exits. And then you can throw another high-wire act at them. So naturally I looked for the clownish aspects of my narrator, and you can't have an unsympathetic clown." Obviously the clownish aspect of Nixon's role is very evident: we watch him smear himself with dog excrement, make a fool of himself in front of his family, unwittingly hand Uncle Sam an exploding cigar, and—as a capper—become magically transported from a sexual encounter with Ethel Rosenberg onto the stage in Times Square with his pants down.

Nixon's second role is more complex and difficult to define, but it is equally significant: it is the role of middleman caught between his desire to be loyal to Uncle Sam (and perhaps move himself closer to the day he can be transformed into Sam's incarnation) and his sympathetic identification with the Rosenbergs. As Nixon himself explains his role, "Dwight Eisenhower and Julius Rosenberg would never understand each other, but I could understand—and contain—both." A bit earlier, Nixon had elaborated on his "middle" position by saying, "As the villain, I was also the hero, the bridging took place in me, and I had ever since been the healer of rifts, the party unifier, the fundamentalist who could perceive the Flux." What Nixon wants desperately is what all of Coover's major characters want: some sort of balance, a center point which will provide relief from paradox and the freedom to operate within the extremes of chaos and rigidly fixed patterns. "Paradox was the one thing I hated more than psychiatrists and lady journalists," he admits, and much later in the novel he complains, "Ah, why did nothing in America keep its shape, I wondered? Everything was so fluid, nothing stayed the same, not even Uncle Sam." Nixon yearns for assurances and stability, but as he begins to involve himself in the incredible maze of clues and false scents of the Rosenberg case, he finds himself—like the Unwilling Participant in "Panel Game"—drowning in a sea of undecipherable signs and ambiguous messages. Ironically, Nixon's "drive to center," to which all the events in the book serve to propel him, can only serve to defeat his quest for final answers, for Times Square "is the most paradoxical place in all America." Nixon's role as a sort of super sleuth offers some interesting parallels (and contrasts) to the attempts of the American public at large to uncover meaning. Despite his vested interest in the case, Nixon actually shows more sensitivity and perceptiveness in the Rosenberg proceedings than does the general public. Realizing that the easy explanations of the prosecution and news media are false and oversimplified, Nixon is the only major character other than Justice Douglas who seriously doubts the Rosenbergs' guilt and is willing to do something about it. There is a lot of J. Henry Waugh in Coover's Richard Nixon: his numerological speculations, his mythic concept of names, his corny dramatic daydreams into which he is constantly projecting himself. Above all, Nixon shares with Waugh a terrifically active imagination which he uses to link up details into theories, to constantly invent false scents, and strained, improbable connections. For poor Nixon, everything seems to reverberate with a mysterious significance; thus finding a story he can believe in becomes an almost impossibly heroic effort. "I felt like I'd fallen into a river and was getting swept helplessly along," he whines during the middle of his investigations. In his humorous and occasionally poignant efforts to make sense of a shifting, ambiguous universe, Nixon represents us all.

One of the most fascinating results of Nixon's overactive imagination is his tendency to discover—or invent—identifications between himself and the Rosenbergs. As he gradually begins to sort through the details of the case, Nixon soon decides that he and the Rosenbergs are at once both psychic doubles and mirror opposites of one another. In thinking of Julius Rosenberg, for example, Nixon gets right to the heart of the matter when he suggests that their "mirror images" of each other also reflect an intimate bond: "We were more like mirror images of each other, familiar opposites. Left-right, believer-nonbeliever, city-country, accused-accuser, maker-unmaker. I built bridges, he bombed them…. He moved to the fringe as I moved to the center." Nixon's sympathetic identification with the Rosenbergs results in part from his finding in their shattered lives a distorted echo of his own Horatio Alger career. Like him, for example, the Rosenbergs were always anxious to uncover the secrets of political and historical events and to participate in the destiny of America. In considering their radical days as college students, Nixon concludes that the Rosenbergs wanted to "get out of the overt activities of college days and withdraw to the very center of the heresy that excited them: why not? After all, I'd become Vice-President of the United States of America by a chain of circumstances not all that different, one thing drifting into the next, carried along by a desire, much like theirs, to reach the heart of things, to participate deeply in life." More fundamental to understanding his obsession with the Rosenbergs, however, is the fact that the Rosenbergs represent to Nixon a secret side of himself that he has always longed to explore but which he has never been allowed to acknowledge publicly. Extremely self-conscious about his own personal inadequacies, Nixon is especially drawn to Ethel Rosenberg, for he finds in her the warmth, idealism, and passion that have been absent in his own life. In his vivid daydreams of the courtship of Ethel and Julius, Nixon, like Henry Waugh, constantly projects himself into the scenes. Significantly, one of his most striking conjurings involves the moment when Ethel said to Julius concerning his political involvements, "I'll help you." To this, Nixon—who has felt rejected and victimized since childhood—comments with a sense of bitterness and longing, "No one had ever said anything like that to me."

Nixon's desire to be at the center of things, to be a part of Uncle Sam's vision, is clearly a yearning for power, but just as importantly, it is a yearning for love. Certainly these desires help illuminate the book's final scene in which Nixon is first of all raped by Uncle Sam and then responds to Sam's conciliatory remarks—"You're my everything, sunshine—you're my boy!"—by thinking, "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." Nixon is now "ready at last to do what [he] had never done before," and confesses, "I … I love you, Uncle Sam!" These same impulses had led Nixon to various sexual fantasies about Ethel Rosenberg earlier in the novel and eventually to a dramatic confrontation with her at Sing Sing in which, for the first time, he is able to act out the role of impassioned lover that he always imagined he could play. Spouting all sorts of melodramatic corn—"Admit it, Ethel! You've dreamed of love all your life! You dream of it now! I know, because I dream of it too!… You're an artist, Ethel, a poet! You know what love is, what it might be! All the rest is just lies!"—Nixon finally grabs Ethel and urges her to reject all the "lies of purpose" that have led her to the gas chamber:

"We've both been victims of the same lie, Ethel! There is no purpose, there are no causes, all that's just stuff we make up to hold the goddam world together—all we've really got is what we have right here and now: being alive! Don't throw it away, Ethel!"

This comic but occasionally moving love scene between Nixon and Ethel is Nixon's finest moment in the novel, for it is the one time that he is able to overcome his role as clown and victim and become his "own man at last!"

In his efforts to sort out meanings and create for himself a freedom in which to maneuver, Nixon should remind us of the UBA's ballplayers. This analogy works on several levels. Like them, Nixon is trying to unravel myth and separate fact from invention; unknown to Nixon, just as it was unknown to the players, everything within his sphere of action has been laid out in advance, in part by Coover (the shaper of elements within the novel) and in part by history itself. Just as Paul Trench struggled in the last chapter of The UBA with his tragic role, Nixon is constantly bothered with the sensation that he is an actor in a play that has already been written: "Applause, director, actor, script: yes, it was like—and this thought hit me now like a revelation—it was like a little morality play for our generation!" What distresses Nixon about this realization is what lies behind the classic existentialist argument against the existence of God: to admit a higher order is to deny one's own freedom to operate. Yet to deny this higher authority and confront the "lie of purpose" is also difficult for Nixon, as is indicated by his desire to discover final answers and assign everything to predetermined categories. Thus part of his attraction to Uncle Sam is that he views Sam as "our Superchief in an age of Flux." In one of the book's most important scenes, Nixon takes a harrowing ride with the disguised Phantom, whose later designation as "The Creator of Ambiguities" helps crystallize the opposition, and is given a lecture which should sound familiar to readers acquainted with Coover's previous work:

"Look," he said, his voice mellowing, losing its hard twang, "can't we get past all these worn-out rituals, these stupid fuckin' reflexes?" It wouldn't do any good to grab him, I knew. The ungraspable Phantom. He was made of nothing solid, your hand would just slip right through, probably turn leprous forever. "They got nothin' to do with life, you know that, life's always new and changing, so why fuck it up with all this shit about scapegoats, sacrifices, initiations, saturnalias—?… life's too big, you can't wrap it up like that!"

At this stage, Nixon is too frightened to grasp the importance of this message; later, however, he begins making discoveries of his own that confirm the Phantom's basic premise. Realizing that what has been bothering him all along was "that sense that everything was somehow inevitable, as though it had all been scripted out in advance," Nixon goes on to provide a neat summary of what much of Coover's work suggests:

But bullshit! There were no scripts, no necessary patterns, no final scenes, there was just action, and then more action! Maybe in Russia History had a plot because one was being laid on, but not here—that was what freedom was all about! It was what Uncle Sam had been trying to tell me: Act—act in the living present!… This, then, was my crisis: to accept what I already knew. That there was no author, no director, and the audience had no memories—they got reinvented every day!… It served to confirm an old belief of mine: 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.

It is because of his recognition that "nothing is predictable, anything can happen" that Nixon decides to work out his own script: to go to the Rosenbergs and try to extract a confession, even though he rightly senses that "in a sense [he] was no more free than the Rosenbergs were, [they had] both been drawn into dramas above and beyond those of ordinary mortals." Nixon's few moments with Ethel Rosenberg represent the culmination of his efforts to extract a kind of freedom within the rigid confines of history; the portrayal of these struggles, which blend comedy, pathos, and tragedy in near equal proportions, is The Public Burning's major triumph.

David Montrose (review date 5 May 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1197

SOURCE: "A Hell of a Party," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4335, May 5, 1986, p. 486.

[In the following review, Montrose faults Gerald's Party for being uninspired and for failing to attain Coover's "usual standard of excellence."]

In form, if not in quality, Robert Coover's latest novel, Gerald's Party—his first full-length work since the savage Cold War burlesque, The Public Burning, eight years ago—is reminiscent of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. Both feature a murder as the starting-point for a chain of comic bizarrerie recounted by a hero—on this occasion, Gerald himself—who, though regularly disconcerted, sees nothing fundamentally unnatural about each new turn of events.

Coover begins in media res: the eponymous shindig—densely populated by the affluent and arty—is advanced enough for widespread insobriety to have set in. Then a body is observed face-down on the carpet, stabbed to death: Ros, an untalented but beautiful actress who has been the lover of almost every man present, Gerald especially. The police are summoned. The ensuing investigation, commanded by the metaphysically-inclined Inspector Pardew, lampoons the conventions of the detective story. Pardew, like the best Golden Age sleuths, appears to be a man of superior intellect:

Murder, like laughter, is a muscular solution of conflict, biologically substantial and inevitable, a psychologically imperative and, in the case of murder, death-dealing act that must be related to the total ontological reality!

His methods, however, prove unreliable: having, for example, confiscated everyone's watch in order to calculate (quite how is unclear) the time of the killing, he pinpoints it at half an hour after his arrival. What's more, "for all his fancy talk", as one of his two underlings remarks, Pardew "still seems to suspect foreigners, perverts, freaks and bums, just like the rest of us". He also presides over hard-boiled interrogations: early on, claiming self-defence, his men beat to death (with croquet mallets) the much-cuckolded husband of the deceased. The plot-twists are familiar to the genre. Possible clues and murder weapons come to light and puzzling incidents occur. And, of course, there are further corpses, including one supplied by Gerald, who puts a mortally wounded friend out of his misery. Coover, though, offers obscurity rather than fair and square mystification. Little is clarified.

While the investigation proceeds, the party—recharged by an influx of new arrivals—picks up and flourishes riotously. As in The Public Burning, Coover's humour relies heavily on ribald slapstick. Ros's corpse is its chief butt. Kept on the premises at Pardew's insistence, the dead girl suffers frequent indignities: assorted maulings and gropings; having her panties removed, cut into pieces, and distributed among the party-goers as souvenirs; being posed for sensationalist press photographs; and, finally "playing herself" in a play mounted on the spot by former theatrical colleagues.

Meanwhile, the characters tell each other weird stories and consume huge quantities of food and drink; sporadic outbreaks of violence cause damage to persons and property (Gerald's furnishing undergo extensive maltreatment); sexual couplings and triplings occur. Gerald's stream-of-consciousness enhances the prevailing air of strangeness and ambiguity: his perceptions are hazily incomplete, the line of his narrative regularly fractured by snatches of overheard speech, things glimpsed, reminiscences, meditations on love and drama. Unfortunately, this time, Coover's black comedy rarely shows inspiration.

Gerald's Party is intended as social satire, exposing the crude sensualism which underlies the guests' cultural pretensions, the moral insensibility which blinds them to all but pleasure: "You know what kind of world we live in", one tells his host in a rare moment of gravity, "so why are they letting you even have parties like this?" The signs are, indeed, that the cartoon universe they inhabit does not merely represent modern America, satirically distorted, but (as in The Third Policeman) a circular hell they, or perhaps Gerald alone, have earned for such vices. O'Brien's nameless hero was condemned forever to repeat a series of terrible adventures, on each occasion experiencing them—together with the attendant surprise and fear—as for the first time. Gerald recurrently experiences vague feelings of déjà vu from the start of the novel, finally being reminded—when he laments, "It will never be the same again"—that the night's events are not unique: "You said that last time, Gerald. After Archie and Emma and …." On the closing page, he remembers, without sharing the memory, "why it was we held these parties. And would, as though compelled, hold another."

Significantly, too, one of Pardew's orotund pronouncements concerns a theory of time similar to that advanced by the philosopher, J. W. Dunne, whose influence O'Brien acknowledged. In The Third Policeman, the nature of hell fits the sin. If the same applies here, Coover's damned have earned, through self-indulgence and callousness, an afterlife where those sins are unconfined. These parallels do not, alas, prevent the novel failing by some distance to reach Coover's usual standard of excellence.

Janusz Semrau (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8584

SOURCE: "Robert Coover," in his American Self-Conscious Fiction of the 1960s and 1970s: Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, Poznan, 1986, pp. 64-98.

[In the following excerpt, Semrau cites The Origin of the Brunists, The Public Burning, and The Universal Baseball Association as examples of Coover's "musicalization of literature."]

Robert Coover ranks unquestionably among the most versatile contemporary authors. A "literary polyglot," as one critic has called him, he has tried his hand at poetry and translation, has written a collection of plays, a book of short stories and many uncollected short fictions, six novellas (two of them in the form of film-scripts), and three novels ranging from the mere two-hundred-page The Universal Baseball Association—through the solid, four hundred pages long The Origin of the Brunists—to the truly encyclopedic The Public Burning.

While Barthelme foregrounds artifice in his writing basically through miniaturization, contraction and linguistic terseness, Coover secures it very often through flamboyant, almost extravagant elaboration. Though it is largely a function of the author's style, in his two longest works it is also very much a structural property. In general, however, Coover's fiction lacks overtly self-reflective or otherwise aggressive strategies aimed at instantaneous piercing of the reader's habitual universe of discourse by, as Barthelme would have it, "kicking him in the knee." "I don't like, on the whole, assaults on the audience. I don't like assaults on anybody really" [Shanti, Summer 1972]. Commenting on the innovative writing of his generation (both Barthelme and Sukenick are mentioned here), Coover said: "We were all working in a vacuum. It was only our books appeared in the … early sixties that we realized we were dealing with the same kinds of things" [Antioch Review, Summer 1982]. The "same kinds of things" had to do with the growing sense of dissatisfaction with conventional formulas of literature and the subsequent radical reaction against them. The main character of Coover's first novel voices a rather desperate reflection: "Should have never invented the written word. Kept folly hopelessly alive." It clearly partakes of Barthelme's observation that signs are only signs and some of them are "lies" or, even more closely, of his motion to retract "the whole written world."

The Origin of the Brunists (1966) is, both from a critical and biographical point of view, a rather uncomfortable book. As the author has repeatedly stressed, it is not his first work, most of Pricksongs and Descants and the core story of The Universal Baseball Association having been written before it. Although formally acknowledged as the best first novel by an American author of the year, its reception was from the beginning mixed, and in the overall perspective of Coover's writing it is not regarded as his outstanding work.

By saying that his intention was to present an exemplary realistic narrative, the author himself seems to be "responsible" for the misinterpretation of the book. Actually, on more than one occasion he has identified himself as a realistic writer. But then the same label could be easily applied to Barthelme who, having found the world to be absurd committed himself to affirm its absurdity by simply recording it. This is also the essence of Coover's understanding of literary realism: "All these topics … of the realistic novel are not realistic topics. They are not out there in the world" [unpublished interview with Janusz Semrau]. Although with The Origin of the Brunists he thought of it as "paying dues"—"I didn't feel I had the right to move into more presumptuous fictions until I could prove I could handle the form as it was"—in the process he "turned it into [his] kind of book" [Frank Gado, First Person, 1973]. As Larry McCaffery notes: "From our perspective today, it is obvious that The Origin of the Brunists shares with other innovative books of the time (V., Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, Barthelme's Snow White, Sukenick's Up) a sense of self-consciousness, outrageousness, and a flaunting of artifice" [Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2]. In formal terms the sense of artistic self-consciousness derives here basically from the use of certain organizing principles of musical composition. The paradox about The Origin of the Brunists is that as far as events are concerned there is really nothing unreal in it, but the novel's design is born of "something else," namely the nineteenth-century symphonic form: "I was looking for a way I could get the movement set up and the way the sections inside could work." In larger terms, Coover explains that he has a vision of narrative as "a certain kind of motion":

Music is a particularly strong example of this because you're riding the time line in a very specific way. It's a time line that is so abstract, and yet carrying us from here to there in a very clear narrative way.

The earliest attempts at systematic musicalization of literature are usually attributed to the German Romantic poets and the French symbolists of half a century later André Gide and Aldous Huxley were the first to theorize about the role of music in the novel, and to implement the idea on a large scale in their own work. As William Freedman says, the aim of the musical novel is "not to halt time in pattern of imagery, but somehow to reproduce its insistent flow in moving patterns of narrative, memory, and thought" [Laurence Sterne and the Origins of the Musical Novel, 1978]. The symphonic form, normally taken to signify an extended and thoroughly developed work for orchestra, seems to be very well suited for this kind of undertaking.

The Origin of the Brunists opens with a short prologue adumbrating the story and anticipating its resolution. The section can be compared to the first, fast allegro movement of a symphony which provides a point of departure and often also the title for the whole composition. Coover's prologue is very lively and quick:

Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. What did he really expect?

In the classical symphony the allegro is followed by a slow movement introducing some variation of form. Accordingly, the beginning of Part One in Coover's novel is marked by a perceptibly different tempo than the Prologue:

Clouds have massed, dooming in the small world of West Condon. The patches of old snow, crusted black with soot in full daylight, now appear to whiten as the sky dulls toward evening. The temperature descends. Slag smoke sours in the air.

As the narrative sketches leisurely its setting, we are also introduced in the first ten pages of the chapter to most of the characters. Soon, the work reveals its full, orchestra-like amplitude, with the impressive, diverse cast of over twenty vividly delineated major figures and a host of lesser ones. When the story gets properly under way the book begins vibrating with a dazzling variety of styles and voices, resembling the symphonic principles of transformation and flexibility. Combined with conventional third-person narration and occasional journalistic reportage are sermons, lyrics, monologues, unattributed dialogues, stream-of-consciousness passages and voices from the supernatural. Some sections are written in italics, some in boldface, some are typographically spaced out. There are also sequences endowed with rhythm and musicality of their own, and later in the novel the scale of its narrative technique is enriched with the epistolary form and elements of staged drama.

On the thematic plane the book achieves the symphonic effect of multiformity and kinetic movement through a number of apparently independent subplots, digressions, anecdotes, and jokes.

Meditate on Beethoven. The changes of moods, the abrupt transitions. Majesty alternating with a joke, for example, in the first movement of the B flat major Quartet. Comedy suddenly hinting at prodigious and tragic solemnities…. All you need is a sufficiency of character and parallel, contrapuntal plots.

All these ideas of musical contrast, transition and modulation on which Philip Quarles speculates in Point Counter Point are very much present in The Origin of the Brunists. Exemplary in this respect is the theme of love and sex. Idealism and purity of feeling are juxtaposed with adultery and crude desire; adolescent initiation is set next to voyeurism and sadism. This is, incidentally, where Coover reveals at one point more conspicuously than anywhere else in the novel his playful, "manipulative" authorial disposition. Part Three closes with a routine, forced marital bed-scene:

She runs her hands inside his pajama pants. He is still irritated with her for having turned him on…. "Is he risen?" she asks in his ear then, astonishingly resurrecting this old premarital collegetime joke of theirs…. "Indeed," he whispers, rolling on his back to receive her: "he is risen!"

The opening of Part Four continues this play on words, but the context is totally different:

West Condon, as though unable to gaze and longer look upon the deep black reach of night, rolls over on its back to receive the Monday sun, now rising, as men say….

In traditional literary terms, Coover's first novel follows, as Richard Andersen has noted, a variety of modes: novel of manners, psychological novel, social satire, fabulous story, religious parody, black humor novel, soap opera, and radical protest novel [Robert Coover, 1981].

Obviously, musical expansion is not endless and the classical symphony is probably more than any other form marked by unity of design and rigor of execution. It usually consists of four distinct major movements and is characteristically circular, being governed by the principles of exposition, development, and return or dramatic recapitulation of its motifs. The Origin of the Brunists is made up of four parts and all the subplots eventually converge to produce a quasi-apocalyptic ending. The musical idée fixe introduced into the symphony by Berlioz at the beginning of the nineteenth century is present in the book in the guise of an obsessive religious cult whose growth is its principle, immediate theme. The novel ends with an epilogue entitled appropriately "Return," which rounds off the main story lines. In this sense—with its tail in the mouth, so to speak, as well as its movements of repetition and return—the novel clearly departs from the linearity of structure inherited from Aristotle and basically observed in literature until the twentieth century. As we have suggested earlier and as Larry McCaffery stresses in The Metafictional Muse, "if Coover is 'paying dues' to traditional fiction in The Brunists, his payments often seem to be made with ambivalent feelings [since] he constantly undercuts the realistic impulses of the book."

An interesting, if familiar, element signalling (the need for) creative self-consciousness is the figure of Justin Miller, a newspaper editor who is the central character of the novel. "[His] name supplies the first clue about his role, for Justin was a second-century writer and apologist for Christianity" [Larry McCaffery, in The Metafictional Muse, 1982]. Miller becomes somewhat inadvertently the new cult's public relations man and its historian, and thus sets much of the story in motion. However, although he does not altogether lack a sense of order and is aware of the "fictionality" of the movement, he gets entangled in it like most of the others. As Coover explains elsewhere, "his confused vision of things spreads through the narrative like a mild high, comforting, sleep-inducing." The only one to preserve personal integrity and to maintain distance toward the maddening Brunists controversy is Miller's enigmatic assistant, Lou Jones. Though seemingly a marginal character, this is precisely where the author of the book, Robert Coover, otherwise practically absent from it, can be located.

Jones had a knack … [for] a goddamn song-and-dance act that had had the whole klatch laughing and crying at the same time…. [He was] gifted with an uncommonly facile feedback system, making his way any way he could, keeping a perverse eye out and telling good stories about what he saw … though his humor sometimes had a way of biting too deep.

In this respect The Origin of the Brunists reminds of King, Queen, Knave with its minor figure of perverse old Enricht as Nabokov's Machiavellian double. Enricht passes noise lessly through this apparently conventional narrative only to declare surprisingly at one point: "I do everything … I make everything. I alone." When he reveals later in the novel to be a "famed illusionist and conjuror," we need not even be told that "the whole world was but a trick of his, and all those people … owed their existence to the power of his imagination." Although Coover does not grant his own surrogate just as much power, Lou Jones likewise leaves an occasional imprint on the progress of the story:

"Mount of Redemption," said Sal.

"I never heard it called that," Vince said.

"When did it—?"

"Tiger Miller's old buddy Lou Jones made it up."

"What's the point?"

"What's the point of any cunt?" asked George, and they all laughed idiotically at that.

Significantly enough, the Mount of Redemption provides setting for the climatic scene of the novel, and Lou Jones is the sole person who remains unaffected by the general frenzy of the moment. This is only natural since he seems to be in fact orchestrating the whole event. The posture in which he is presented brings to mind none other than that of Velazquez in "Las Meninas":

… now Miller saw him, moving impassively up the hill, photographing them as he went, kneeling for angles…. Jones, in drooping fedora and glistening raincoat, shaped like a big dark bag made an odd contrast to the frenetic worshipers who performed for his lens. There was something almost contemplative … almost statuesque about him as he crouched to peer into the instrument in his lap…. [Again] he … saw Jones, slyly amused, in modest retreat partway down the hill, photographing it all.

The book divorces itself from the earnestness of its proclaimed/supposed genre also through various, often quite elaborate patterns of numerological coincidences and recurrences. Most of them center on the number 7. Initially, with epigraphs like "Write what you see in the book and send it to the Seven Churches," "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to three seven and seven, the male and his female …," they might seem to add to the atmosphere surrounding the evolution of the new religious cult. However, after just a little of this sort of number-chasing, "we sense that Coover is playing a joke on us—inducing us to establish fictional patterns in much the same way" [McCaffery, in The Metafictional Muse]. Indeed, as a subjective choice, any given number can generate imaginative and perfectly autonomous games and fantasies. In this case seven and its multiples can be in fact regarded as the writer's peculiar self-conscious trademark or ironic signature. The frequency with which it appears in the world of The Origin of the Brunists, or rather the way it is forced upon it, clearly defies all standards of probability. When we first meet Justin Miller, he is sitting in his office staring out the window—"unwashed in fourteen years." His high-school basketball number was 14, and so is the sum of the figures on the license plate of his car. One night he realizes within a dream that all this had happened to him when he was "in the seventh grade." Vince Bonali, the other major character of the novel, happens to have seven children; a shot of whiskey hits him one morning like "seven hundred blazing bicarbonates," and one of his sons is reported to have been AWOL "since the seventh of April." When the novel opens the Brunists history is in its fourteenth week, and at this point the community is "just seven short months" from city elections. The mining disaster which sparks off the movement "reduces itself to numbers," and so does the whole cult. In the fatal accident from which Giovanni Bruno emerges as a prophet he is the only survivor out of 98 trapped miners ("the infamous product of fourteen and seven"). There are six other men with him at the time, they entomb themselves up in a room around the fourteenth east and seventh south shaft of the mine, and on that particular night a local basketball game is stopped with the score 14-11. Furthermore: "The number between nine and seven, eight, was the date of the explosion, and the day of the rescue was eleven, two one's or two, the difference between nine and seven." Fourteen is the number of weeks separating the critical event and the expected end of the world; March 21 proves to be "the first day of the sign of rebirth and the night Mrs. Collins' house burned, marking mystically the commencement of their final trial," and the new creed itself is based on "the seven Words" Giovanni Bruno ever manages to utter following his rescue. Finally, all but one of the four Parts of the novel consist of seven chapters; the other one has twelve sections, but together with the Prologue and the Epilogue it makes another multiple of the notorious number. It is also in this context that we may say after Barthelme that "repetition is reality" since by recalling again and again the number 7 The Origin of the Brunists creates its arbitrary and independent, numerological, reality. What emphasizes the nature of the book are frequent, deliberately baffling time-checks. They may contribute to the growing intensity of action, but their ultimate inconsequentiality and obtrusive manner in which they are presented clearly punctuate the text with another bluntly artificial element.

Five years after the appearance of The Origin of the Brunists Coover published a quasi-novella The Water Pourer which was originally to be included as a chapter in the novel. In a two-page preface to it the author explains "the process of something coming in and going out of the text and what the text is like." This short essay can be seen in itself as an outline of his creative aesthetics. Since in general, Coover argues, art is "a polarizing lens" and the narrative—"like the universe"—is "explosive," at some point you have to "contain" it. Obviously, "weak vision is not suited for these explosions." The symphonic form and numerological games (the principles of design and modulation) is what informs the strength of Coover's vision in The Origin of the Brunists. They contain its narrative flow and draw the reader to see what the author himself sees, thus preventing "the loss of the reader to the explosion itself." The general idea is to "make an attractive and curious shape and drive the narrative through it, absorbing part of [the reader's] peripheral vision." In more personal terms, Coover has explained in an interview:

Even though structure is not profoundly meaningful in itself, I love to use it. This has been the case ever since the earliest things I wrote when I made an arbitrary commitment to design. The reason is not that I have some notion of an underlying ideal of order which fiction imitates, but a delight with the rich ironic possibilities that the use of structure affords.

The Public Burning (1977), a real whale of a book which established Coover as a major voice in contemporary fiction, brings considerable extension and refinement of the stylistic technique and the narrative strategy employed in The Origin of the Brunists. With all parts divided into seven chapters each and some pertinent (if only marginal) numerological speculations, the author's playful trademark is unmistakably present in the novel. Its four major movements, clearly marked opening and finale, sophisticated musical vocabulary, song lyrics and breath-taking rhythmical sequences seem to suggest another symphonic composition. Still, for all its disruptiveness as a structural principle in literature, the classical symphony goes historically only too well with the nineteenth-century concept of the realistic novel.

Apart from The Brunists everything else that I did does not belong to that time. People have heard me say about the influence of music on my writing and then have tried to find a parallel and have criticized me on the ground that they do not see what they expected. I tend to like best of all either pre-Monteverdian music or contemporary music. I like Penderecki, for example, or Ligeti. The idea of cramming tons and tons of little bits of sounds.

Donald Barthelme's appreciation of twentieth-century music [quoted in The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition, 1982] comes in particularly useful here:

… it has to do with bombardment … and that's a structural concept…. The aesthetic idea being what it would be like if we had all this noise pulled together and then turned up very high—increase the volume…. It's late twentieth-century music, which is, clearly, noise.

The subject matter of The Public Burning is even more "outrageous" than that of the previous book. It focuses on the famous and controversial Rosenberg spy case of the early 1950s and dramatizes a well-known political figure, Richard Nixon. Basically, the narrative deals with the two days and nights preceding the execution, but the novel includes absolutely everything that might have had any bearing on the trial—from the Korean War and contemporary government scandals and intrigues to cultural and pop cultural aspects of America. The author's vast and ironic vision makes him put in the pages of The Public Burning things that are normally considered to be outside the realm of belles-lettres. The mode of presentation deliberately confounds rather than expounds the action, which is thus immediately charged with literariness. We are bombarded with what appears to be an endless recitation of documentary facts, figures, dates, quotes, testimonies, speeches, interviews, autonomous essays, and various topical "debris" gathered from newspapers, magazines, movies, TV and radio programs, Broadway plays, advertisements, sports scores, etc.

… like the 4998732500 foreign aid bill, little numbers like the 5 tons of gravel and dirt that Jimmy Willi is buried under in Lambertsville. The 6-2 record of Vinegar Bend Mizell. The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. by Dr. Seuss—You've got to see 480,000-key piano hit an atomic clinker! WITH STEREOPHONIC SOUND! Allison Choate of Apawamis cards a 77. 55 Chinese are ordered out of the country, Eleanor Hortense Almond dies at 103. Volume declines to 1010000 shares on the New York Stock Exchange. The President is visited by 100 schoolchildren, and the Vice President tells Senator Taft: "I broke 100 at Burning Tree Sunday, Bob!"

As Coover appears to be somewhat teasingly explaining at the outset of the novel, the "reasons" for this general strategy of diffusion (more specifically of informational excess and radical recontextualization) are "theatrical, political, whimsical." While the book aims at and succeeds in projecting the sense of dynamism and constant movement of American life and character ("I was striving for a text that would seem to have been written by the whole nation through all its history…. I wanted thousands of echos, all the sounds of the nation."), its primary goal is to expose the complex and ultimately stupifying operations of history and social myths. The writer's frankly biased treatment of history goes back to the roots of his creative philosophy, namely to his commitment to a relativistic vision of reality. In The Public Burning he calls objectivity "an impossible illusion," and has Nixon wonder: "What was fact, what intent, what was framework, what was essence?" At this point, with his famous pronouncement that all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks, Melville invites another interesting comparison. Many of Coover's chapter headlines seem to be taken out of Moby Dick: "All Aboard the 'Look Ahead, Neighbor Special'," "High Noon," "The Eye in the Sky," "Spreading the Table of Glory," "A Rash of Evil Doings," "The Phantom's Hour," "How to Handle a Bloodthirsty Mob," "Something Truly Dangerous," "Uncle Sam Strikes Back." Both works share many features, such as proliferation of characters, improbable coincidences, dramatic tension, density of references and allusions, elements of other genres.

Based on the belief that "the more elaborate the attempt to hide fiction, the creakier it becomes," The Public Burning features artifice as an essential element of its total reality and brings the reader's attention to the fiction-making process or, in the author's own words, "exposes its activity as it goes along."

I've never had anyone come up and ask: "Were they really executed in Time Square?"…. The main thing, I think, is that anyone reading the book is aware from the very first line that he's reading a book of fiction.

Not only in this respect, but in a more general artistic sense the power of the novel resides just as much in its style as in its content. On the level of language the narrative seems to delight in elaboration and sheer extravaganza. Much of it is self-apparent or, to use the writer's favorite phrase, "look-ma-no-hands" virtuosity fiction. The book includes in its stylistic repertoire rhetorical parody, deliberate agrammatical utterances, abstruse and protruded puns and anagrams, finally various paralinguistic gestures.

"Who—Whoo—Whoop! Who'll come gouge with me? Who'll come bite with me? Rowff—Yough—Snort—YAHOO!"

"Knock knock!" Eh? Who dere? "Grassy!" Grassy? Grassyquien? "Grassy-ass, amigos! Mooch-ass grassy-ass! Ha ha, de nada, jefe!"

"Ah see no pahticulah point in sendin' may-un to Ko-REE-ya to dai, Mistah Cheymun," declaims Congressman Wheeler, "whahl ay-tomic spies are allowed to liy-uv heah at HOME! One Justice yieldin' to the voCIF'rous my-NOR-utty preshuh groups of this yere CUNT-tree is indee-FENsuble! Ah can-NOT sit ahdly by HEah in this yere layjus-LaY-tuv BAHDY without seekin' to DO somethin' abaout it!"

The new President was packaged and sold by BBDandO as "Strictly a No-Deal Man Clean as a Hound's Tooth Who Will Go to Korea Restore Faith in God and Country On a Crusade to Clean Up Creeping Socialism Five-Percenters the Mess in Washington Crook Cronies Mink Coats Deep Freezers and Rising Inflation."

"Too many have gawn CRAY-zy ovuh socawled SS-EVIL rahhts, a CUM-yunist propaganda FAY-vrit, and this heah class a PEE-pul is ri-SPWAN-subble fer this heah FOO-lishnuss!"

Earl Rovit's perceptive review of The Public Burning [The American Book Review, Vol. 15, December, 1977] concludes by asserting that it is not ultimately "about" the Rosenberg trial, the Cold War, or the early traumas of Richard Nixon—"Coover's central concern … is with words." In larger terms, the book is characterized by constant changes in point of view and narrative tempo, shifts from the present to the past tense, juxtaposition, montage and unexpected intercuttings. At one point Nixon comes up with an emotionally voiced reflection which proves to be an apt commentary on the novel's performance:

There were no scripts, no necessary patterns, no final scenes, there was just action, and then more action!… that was what freedom was all about!… Act—act in the living present!

The Public Burning underscores its fictionality with various graphic elements: captions, italics, ellipse and typographical designs, e.g.,

                          was a
                     sickening and
                  to americans almost
                incredible history of men
            so fanatical that they would destroy
              their own countries and col
                   leagues to serve a

Apart from song lyrics, similarly inserted in the text are Coover's own, rather peculiar, nursery rhymes:

      He's in here, boys, the hole's wore slick!
      Run here, Sam, with ye forked stick!
      Stand back, boys, an' le's be wise,
      Fer I think I see his beaded eyes!

There are also bigger, topological designs. The narrative assumes several times the guise of staged drama or musical/music hall, with scene descriptions (including costumes, props, etc.) and stage directions in self-contained "Intermezzo" pieces of some ten pages each. They might, as they do in music, connect the main parts of the composition, but their primary impact is only too obviously disruptive. Although the novel is so meticulously documented, it is unmistakably Coover himself who manages the stage and directs the drama. As Robert Alter observes [in Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre, 1975]: "the theater within the novel is a conspicuous vehicle of fictional self-consciousness, beginning with Master Pedro's puppet show in Don Quixote; and … we cannot escape … from the awareness that in abandoning the artifice of narration [the author] has adopted the artifice of the theater."

Five years before the publication of The Public Burning Coover said in a general context: "I love spectacle and virtuosity and risk-taking and the feeling of being surrounded by the setting." All these elements are certainly present in the book. In the final analysis the most intriguing of them is probably willed "risk-taking." One of the most ambitious and audacious contemporary works of fiction, the novel appears to be a precarious high-wire act. Initially, it may give the impression of disarray, uncontrollable narrative flow and ungraspable spatial realities. On closer scrutiny, however, it teems with symmetries and proves to be tightly contained. What gives the book an immediate sense of control and discipline of execution is its outer numerological organization. Inner balance is achieved by means of regularly alternating narrative voices of the author (text) and the main hero, Richard Nixon. The former offers chapters of straight impersonal presentation which, in general, are characterized by dynamism and linguistic as well as formal exuberance. The latter is by comparison more conventional, obtuse and meditative. The single most important structural (also thematic) entity is Uncle Sam. As the embodiment of the American spirit or, as is the case here, American hysteria and as such an apt extension of the atom bomb image, he/it is the centrifugal and centripetal pivot of the novel. As Sharon Spencer suggests in Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel [1971],

… an ideal image for the visualization of how motion is suggested by "constructed" fiction is the circle; its center must be thought of as representing the subject of the book; the circumference, the point of view or the perspective from which it is seen.

Although in the physical sense the author's stance is that of positive self-effacement, his personal bitter irony and hilarious humor (Nixon as clown) are readily recognizable and are felt throughout the novel. Even if, as defined self-reflexively through Justin Miller, Coover's humor sometimes has "a way of biting too deep," this is precisely the realm in which the book vests—next to imagination ("THIS WORLD IS BUT CANVAS TO OUR IMAGINATIONS!")—its ultimate message: "'always leave 'em laughin' as you say good-bye!'".

As for the overall intent and final effect of The Public Burning, Coover "uses [it] to fight a pestilential fire with a fire that purifies. And even if his success is limited and evanescent—as it must necessarily be—it is a success that aggrandizes all of us" [Earl Rovit].

Talking with Thomas Bass about characteristic features of his literary generation Coover mentioned—next to "the reaction against the sclerosis of old forms," and "the adoption of self-conscious narrators"—an interest in prenovel forms: "allegories, saints' lives, myths, epistolary romances, fairy tales, legends." The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) partakes of most of these conventions, with the concept of allegory as its most conspicuous lineament. The clue to it is the book's epigraph taken from Kant's Critique of Judgement: "It is not at all requisite to prove that such an intellectus archetypus is possible, but only that we are led to the Idea of it …" The novel leads us to origins of creativity and subsequently takes to grotesque limits the authorial dream and sacred privilege of long standing—the demiurgic, absolute control over the work of art.

The hero of the book, an aged and lonely bachelor, invents a complicated game played with dice and charts. The game has its own dialectics, a huge history behind it, and a potentially infinite horizon ahead of it. The title suggests, in fact, that it is a universe in its own right, with Henry not only its sole proprietor but also its fundamental "prop." As several critics have observed, his full name, J. Henry Waugh, makes an acronym translating itself as Yahweh—the Hebrew name for God.

All the while Henry brings to life new characters, controls their fortunes, and plays arbitrarily with time. He is most attentive to detail and concerned with effect. He thinks long, for instance, before deciding on a name for a new player:

Bus stop. Whistlestop. Whistlestop Busby, second base … Thornton's. He'd been looking for a name to go with Shadwell, and maybe that was it. Thornton Shadwell. Tim's boy. Pitcher like the old man? Probably. But a lefty.

The immediate excitement is obviously in the play itself but the part of it he "enjoys most" is "writing it up in the Book." Henry had always been drawn to games and experimented with a variety of them, but in the long run it was "the beauty of the records system which found a place to keep forever each least action—that had led Henry to baseball as his final project." Much as he hates his real job, this is actually where the game connects with his professional skill and career as an accountant. Henry's boss explains to him one day: "Accounting like baseball is an art … and a rough competitive business. Some make it and some don't." The same applies even more directly to creative writing which seems to be precisely Henry's art. Not only does he develop financial ledgers for each club, tabulate and file box scores, but provides each player with a comprehensive biography, invents dialogues, looks, mannerisms, and keeps a running and permanent record of the whole activity. "Now it consisted of some forty volumes…. He seemed to find more to write about, the more he played the game."

Henry's is indeed an artistic experience, and certain of its principles can be spelled out from his behavior. "The first phase in the creative process consists of frustration in reality. The creative person is faced with some dilemma … that cannot be resolved through ordinary problemsolving techniques" [Jay and Jean Harris, The Roots of Artifice, 1981]. Henry's game is not only a response to his humdrum personal existence but also to the devastating dreariness and absurdity of the world at large. To start with, "how could anyone take seriously" a sign like "Dunkelmann, Zauber and Zifferblat, Licensed Tax and General Accountants, Specializing in Small Firms, Bookkeeping Services and Systems, Payrolls and Payroll Taxes, Monthly, Quarterly and Annual Audits, Enter Without Knocking." Inside the drab office, "the clock on the wall … in its fat white roundness and hard black numbers always reminded Henry of Horace Zifferblat himself," and thus, befitting the boss' name and personal characteristics, of tyrannizing conventionality of time and dogmatic reverence for authority and hard work. As Waugh joins daily "the sour community on its morning pilgrimage," the streets appear to be "pregnant with the vague threat of confusion and emptiness," only to give him "a sober sense of fatality and closed circuits." The buses are often late and jammed, the drivers are heard "barking orders" and when a waitress sponges for him the table one morning, "the rag … smelled like something between an old goat and a dead fish." When he wants to buy flowers to commemorate a tragically "killed" player from his game, the florist offers him a prickly wreath which, to Henry's dismay and horror, turns out to be made of plastic.

… a deep gloom was on him. He looked out, not to sink in. A dog barked at a window. Cars passed. A child smashed ants on the sidewalk with an egg-shaped stone. No, not a stone. Plastic again.

Newspapers invariably speak about "Gold and silver shortages. Orgy that the cops broke up. Rapes and murder. Making of another large war." Henry registers more experience than others and he certainly does so with greater intensity:

Oh, yes, he was sick of it! He saw those news guys, writing it all down … a pack of goddamn leeches, inventing time and space, scared shitless by the way things really were.

Actually, Waugh is something of a philosopher. He finds it pleasant "to muse about the origins" and is often inclined to talk "about time and people and history and how everything seemed to flow confusedly together." As a larger version of the journalistic distortion of reality, history in fact deeply disturbs and depresses him: "History my god. An incurable diarrhea of dead immortals." Henry develops a similar attitude toward popular values and stereotypes symbolized in the novel by real baseball, "THE GREAT AMERICAN GAME":

"You don't go to games, real ones?"

"Not for years now. The first game I saw … I nearly fell asleep…. I would leave a game, elbowing out with all the others, and feel a kind of fear that I could so misuse my life."

In the essay "Poetic Creativity, Process and Personality" [from Creativity and the Individual, 1960], R.N. Wilson defines acquisition of technique as the second stage of the creative process. "Experience must be translated into form, and to do so, the poet must acquire technique…. Technical mastery develops from exposure to models and practice in skills." This stage of artistic development can be found in Henry's trial-and-error experimentation with other games. Also, before he finally plunges into the world of the Association he spends a long time meticulously perfecting its rules and the basic technique of play. Every artist is believed to entertain faith in his vocation and the unique significance of his own work. "Being refused a social recognition on the basis of his work is the professional creator's trauma. He resolves this trauma syndromatically through his pursuit of the fantasy of greatness" [Harris and Harris]. Even though his sole friend, Lou, suggests that maybe "it's not worth it," for Henry his enterprise is obviously "more than just another ball game," it is an "event of the first order." Actually, he is aware that some people might view his game as (at best) "a kind of running away," and he does not even try to achieve any social reputation along this line. Instead, he does indeed fantasize about greatness as such:

… what a wonderful rare thing it is to do something, no matter how small a thing, with absolute unqualified unsurpassable perfection!… to do a thing so perfectly that, even if the damn world lasted forever, nobody could ever do it better….

The simple statistics are ruled by the dice, but the logs are governed by Henry's imagination. This is where his disposition and behavior respond to the next two stages of the paradigmatically defined creative process: "the envisioning of combinations and distillations" and "elucidation of the vision" [Wilson]:

This has been called insight, inspiration, or intuition, [but it] cannot be planned or ordered … [it] may occur in a flash, at the end of deep consideration, or it may be set off by external stimuli. [Finally] conscious application of energy to master the insight gained arises.

With phrases for the Book flashing through his head,

Henry paced the kitchen, his mind on several things at once. He poured what was left of the coffee, put another pot on.

… to the refrigerator, to the sink, back to the table. He slapped the back of the chair with his hand. Incredible!

He wrote out a few possible lead sentences on scratch paper, but none appealed to him. He stood, poured himself another cup of coffee, carried it back to the table and stood there, staring down at the open Book.

Naturally enough, Waugh goes occasionally through "dull-minded stretches," feeling "much like giving up,"

until one day that astonishing event would occur that brought sudden life and immediacy … excitement, a certain dimension, color. The magic of excellence. Under its charm … it could happen! Henry reeled around his chair a couple. times, laughing out loud….

However overwrought and burlesque, the presented intellectus archetypus seems to contain a tacit autobiographical disclosure on Coover's part:

The way I can do work is … I get a kind of new idea about something. Sometimes it just happens itself … I see it and sit down and write it—not very often though; I'm very lucky when that happens.

"Attempting to accept the identity as an artist is a significant factor in the life of an artist. This is one reason the adult artist seeks the company of other artists" [Harris and Harris]. Appropriately enough, Lou is presented as an artist in his own right. He is a comical food-artist who can all the same be admired for his confrontation with the "raw stuff" of his vocation:

It was amazing to watch Lou when he really attuned to his eating. All clumsiness vanished and his fingers played over the food as upon a musical instrument, his face flushing with pleasure and mild exertion.

Henry's friendship with Lou does well to display two diametrically different levels or modes of creativity. As B. Chiselin would define it, Henry's art is of the higher, "applicative" sort, as it "alters the universe of meaning by introducing into it some new elements [and] some new order of significance"—Lou's vocation is "reproductive" since it merely "gives development to an established body of meaning through initiating some advance in its use." It is not surprising, therefore, that when Henry finally introduces Lou to the Universal Baseball Association, it does not stir any imaginative response in his friend and the evening's game ends as a pitiful disaster.

With his mind constantly drifting back to his table, Henry is able to feel himself perfectly and absolutely in tune with his characters, setting, and action: "sweating with relief and tension all at once, unable to sit, unable to think, in there, with them!… licking his lips, dry from excitement." Given also the fact that his Book is, essentially, a conventional project—"functional details of the game were never mentioned [in it]"—Henry can be instructively linked with the nineteenth-century novel and its tradition. "It was in this period that many major novelists began to talk about a hallucinated sense of the presence of their imaginary characters, began to record a feeling of loss when they finished a book" [Alter].

For all its immediate features such as brute force, boisterousness or crude jokes, the world of the Association offers precisely that which Henry's own life and reality as he knows it lack: beauty, affection, excitement, justice, magnitude, order, and—above all—a sense of achievement and self-identity.

The game was over.

Giddily, Henry returned to the bathroom and washed his hands. He stared down at his wet hands, thinking: he did it! And then, at the top of his voice, "WA-HOO!" he bellowed, and went leaping back into the kitchen, feeling he could damn well take off….

Waugh is not, at least initially, completely devoid of specifically authorial self-consciousness. Still, although he is also aware that it could be "a defining of the outer edges" and that "total one-sided participation in the league would soon grow even more oppressive than his job," Henry finally overestimates his capacities and underestimates the problems of his art. When in the 56th season of the game he plays nearly a quarter of it in just twenty-four hours instead of, as it usually required, two weeks, he loses the sense of his real self and of his situation. Consequently, his precarious equilibrium between neurotic and genuinely artistic disposition is destroyed. He can no longer discriminate among his experiences, begins to assume unconsciously the personalities of his players in public places, and mixes the world of the Association with the real one in general. As his personality keeps dissipating, Henry gives up his job, loses all control over the artifact, and in the end inexplicably disappears from the novel ("down there a couple blocks ahead: lead on, Barney! lead on!").

The Universal Baseball Association is not—formally—a work breaking new ground in literary self-consciousness. Also, it is self-conscious insofar that it is a self-reflexive (authorial) consideration of some larger problems involved in fiction-making. Still, it is certainly one of the most fascinating books about self-consciousness in art. Its message leaves no doubt about Robert Coover's own creative philosophy. A mature, truly self-aware artist will, as John Barth actually did, call the kind of histrionic disposition presented in the novel "a lot of baloney" [Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Winter-Spring 1965]. Barth can be cited in this context as a spokesman for postmodern literature at large:

You hear respectable writers, sensible people like Katherine Ann Porter, say the characters just take over. I'm not going to let those scoundrels take over. I am in charge…. When writers speak of … characters taking over and space-time grids, it's usually because they don't know why they do the things they do.

Even if, as Margaret Heckard for instance argues, "taken as a whole Coover's works do not form a single coherent canon" [Twentieth Century Literature, May 1976], the present novel is not only a kind of compendium of ideas about writing, but can be treated as a guidebook to the author's own fiction as well. Many of Coover's central thematic concerns and even formal concepts are ingrained in The Universal Baseball Association. Though published nearly ten years after it, The Public Burning echoes almost ad verbum Waugh's interpretation of history. Also, with the detailed analysis of Henry's Book, the author seems to have had developed the idea for The Public Burning in his hero's mind, as it were:

Into the Book went the whole UBA, everything from statistics to journalistic dispatches…. Style varied from the extreme economy of factual data to the overblown idiom of the sportswriter, from the scientific objectivity of the theoreticians to the literary speculations of essayists and anecdotalists. There were tape-recorded dialogues, satires, prophecies, scandals…. [Its] shifting mood oscillat[ing] between notions of grandeur and irony, exultation and despair, enthusiasm and indifference, amusement and weariness.

Given the fact that the core of the story (basically the second chapter) had been written before The Origin of the Brunists, that novel may also be linked along the same line with The Universal Baseball Association. The Brunists story seems to be indebted to it for one of its most interesting and complex characters—Ralph Himebaugh. Engaging the Nabokovian game of cryptograms and logographics we can detect here a fairly explicit reference to Henry Waugh. Capitalizing and turning upside down the middle "m" and translating "i" and "e" as id est, it reads: H(i)(m)(e)(b)augh, i.e., "b" rother of H. Waugh. The analogy is indeed amazing. Like Henry, Himebaugh is an oldish, lonely and eccentric bachelor. He is a brilliant file cabinet lawyer, and thus his professional skill is also to a certain extent an art of paper records and statistics. Dedicated to private ways of truth and obsessed by "the horror of existence qua existence," he devotes his life to the construction of a numerological system that would order the "universe of screaming particles" and thus reveal the "truth beyond phenomena." Like Henry, he develops the project in the seclusion of his home; his writing is "pedantic" and "precise," the "logs and papers" are always "spread on the kitchen table." Finally Himebaugh decides on the number 7 as his organizing principle, and goes on to give letters alphabet value in numbers. After a time he also finds himself totally imprisoned by his fantasy and experiences a similar fate: "they all noticed how his health had deteriorated," "he was really cracking up!"

With the bulk of it written later, The Universal Baseball Association in fact "takes up the concept of fiction-making where The Origin of the Brunists left off" [McCaffery]. What is to be noted about it first, however, is the background presence of some other element characteristic for Coover's writing: contentious attitude toward the Christian dogma, numerological structure, musical references, linguistic exuberance. Henry's game as well as his life translate themselves quite comprehensively in terms of numerological patterns and coincidences. All of them center, inevitably, round the number 7. Henry is 56 years old (as is the father of the all-time star of the league), we are introduced to the Association in its 56th year, and the 49th game of the season proves to be a turning point in its history. Seven is the number of opponents each team has, and there are fifty-six ways to advance players in the charts. The real sport of baseball itself is in a sense governed by the number—with its three main activities (pitching, hitting, fielding) performed around four bases. Although Henry's imagination is the prime mover of the game and its universe, they both depend just as much on intelligence, strategy and choice as on pattern, luck and accident. This is what gives him a feeling of some "ultimate mystery" since he is not aware, [though] his creator—Robert Coover—certainly is, that the game of dice is only seemingly devoid of assignable cause and final effect. Mathematical probabilities applying to it are predictable owing to the fact that the sum of the spots on each two opposite faces of a cube is constant, always totalling seven. The observant reader will note that all this is too neat. Although it might appear, as it does for example to Frank Shelton [Critique, August 1975], that "Coover suggests the possibility that another order of existence may be working behind the dice" and thus behind the number informing it, Henry's game is obviously meant to be ironic:

… the design, the structure of the book is so self-revealing—and it's not a gloss on the text from which it borrows its design [Genesis I.1 to II.3], in the sense of being a theologian's gloss; it's an outsiders gloss….

Everybody knows about the seven days of creation, the seven wonders of the world, the seven mortal sins, and the seven-year cycle of famine and plenty. Wisdom and Freedom are proverbially said to rest on seven pillars, and Shakespeare has platitudinized the seven ages of man in the famous passage "All the world's a stage…." Also, seven is believed to mark off the climacterics of human life, and there is the inexorable combination of three spiritual elements with the four basic corporeal ones which is said to account for all human existence. Numerology in Coover's fiction is not, however, an example of how man can "navigate" in the world, but rather a perfect illustration of how—in the writer's own words—we can "stumble through it." Coover's numerological games serve to underscore the "manmade" nature of his art. In larger terms this is to make us aware that it is "one of the ways that the mind gets locked in fixed distorting patterns."

The concept of game as such which is the immediate subject matter of The Universal Baseball Association is probably the single most important element in Coover's literary aesthetics. Games feature prominently as a thematic motif throughout his fiction, but they provide essentially a formal principle. Even though Henry is absent from the last chapter of the novel, his game (100 seasons later) still goes on, as if endowed with vitality and life of its own. The past is brought into the ongoing present, the game becomes self-reflective, and the chapter gives the whole book a puzzling, unaccountably open finale. In effect, it challenges the mainstays of so-called objective reality, such as causality, the possibility of isolating objects and events, the sense of purpose, absolute time and space. Reminiscent of Donald Barthelme's suggestion that "there are always openings, if you can find them," the author voices through Henry the fundamental belief: "the 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." Also, "the game on his table was not a message, but an event."

Jackson I. Cope (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7448

SOURCE: "Demon Number: Damon and the Dice," in Robert Coover's Fiction, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 35-58.

[Cope is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, Cope examines the significance of names and numbers in The Universal Baseball Association.]

[Coover] knows that baseball is America's religion, and that it is so because it is America's special reaction to its own wildness, dream (or nightmare) of a lack of limits: It is the play that can be reduced to number. Or almost so. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a meditation upon this paradox.

J. Henry Waugh, a fifty-six-year-old bachelor and petty accountant has invented a baseball game played with dice and charts, a double metonymy, a game substituted for a game. He is a genius at games, a mathematical genius who once invented "Intermonop," "a variation on Monopoly, using twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four boards at once and an unlimited number of players, which opened up the possibility of wars run by industrial giants with investments on several boards at once … strikes and rebellions by the slumdwellers between 'Go' and 'Jail.'" But his gameplaying originated in and ultimately returned to baseball. For a short time in his life he had gone to the ball park: "The first game I saw … the league's best pitcher that year threw a three-hit shutout. His own team got only four hits, but three were in one inning, and they won, 2-0. Fantastic game, and I nearly fell asleep … at home I would pick up my scoreboard. Suddenly, what was dead had life, what was wearisome became stirring,… unbelievably real … I found out the scorecards were enough. I didn't need the games." This "reality" is "the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team … no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history." And, as Henry remarks to his one friend, Lou Engel, "History. Amazing, how we love it. And … without numbers or measurements, there probably wouldn't be any history." "Reality" is defined, rationalized, indeed, created by a history that is number. And in its "game" aspect, that is, the superimposition of limit by rule, reality is controlled by number. An accountant is the precisely correct metaphor for a Platonic God who made the world by weight and measure.

But number has another side, mysterious, a pattern beyond the pattern, a will to its own symmetries for which there is no rational accounting. As one player in the Association says: "Numerology. Lot of revealing work in that field lately." And Henry marvels at length about the unconscious but compelling patterns that make it impossible to alter the structure of his league: "Seven—the number of opponents each team now had—was central to baseball. Of course, nine, as the square of three, was also important: nine innings, nine players, three strikes and four balls … four bases."

This doubleness of number is reflected in baseball's own doubleness. If it epitomizes statistical balance and comprehensive history, the ultimate rationality of codification, baseball paradoxically "at the same time" involves, as Henry says, "so much ultimate mystery." It was this something discernible yet inscrutable, which Henry felt when he was attending ball parks: "I felt like I was part of something there, you know, like in church, except it was more real than any church … for a while I even had the funny idea that ball stadiums and not European churches were the real American holy places. Formulas for energy configurations where city boys came to see their country origins dramatized, some old lost fabric of unity."

The double realization of baseball as game and as mystery rite lies behind a remark by Henry that lies behind the complicated allegories that begin with the forgivable puns in the novel's title, concluding that the "prop" of the university is JHW: "Everywhere he looked he saw names. His head was full of them. Bus stop. Whistlestop. Whistlestop Busby, second base … Henry was always careful about names, for they were what gave the league its sense of fulfilment … the dice and charts … were only the mechanics of the drama, not the drama itself." Like Adam, like his own prototype Jehovah, he knows that "the basic stuff is already there. In the name. Or rather: in the naming."

Let us look at the names, then, in the several "eras" of the novel, the "realities" that mediate, repeat, absorb one another. First, there is what can be labeled the "continuous era," in which J. Henry Waugh is an accountant. "Continuous," because in it Henry's employer is the German Zifferblatt ("clock dial"), the personification of "Ziffer" ("number") and its application to time. In this era Henry watches Zifferblatt and his clock, hastens out from work early, arrives late. He has lost all interest in his job, makes accounting blunders with ledger entries (which terrify him only because he might tragically miscalculate something in the annals of his baseball league), and plays a self-invented horse-race game surreptitiously at his desk. He talks to himself, drinks far into the night, rushes home to the baseball game on his kitchen table, and generally worries his fat, shy fellow-accountant Lou Engel, whom, in this Germanic context, one must presumably translate "Lucifer Angel." When he leaves the universe on his kitchen table, it is to abandon pastrami and beer and the labor of the game for brandy at Pete's Bar (where Pete has been renamed Jake because Henry recognized in him Jake Bradley, retired second baseman of the Pastimers). Here he has a hearty friendship with a saggily aging B-girl, Hettie Irden—presumably Gea-Tellus, the earth mother ("she's everybody's type"). Once Henry brings the celibate Lou to Pete's and offers to fix him up with Hettie, but in the end himself takes her home. Once also he makes the great decision to share his secret game with Lou, but the latter's misunderstanding of the spirit of probability and reality, plus his spastic clumsiness, almost wrecks the Association, and Henry drives him out of his life and restores order—but only at the point where he must institute ritual in place of game. In this era it seems clear that Jehovah offers participation to Lucifer, wrests from him the woman in the duel for the earth, repairs the ruins of his universe inflicted by Satan (by the sacrificial death of a player preposterously named to combine the baseball and fertility and Christian myths, Jock Casey).

But in this era, too, the allegory presses least upon our attention, its obviousness buried in the comic actions and reactions of J. Henry Waugh, picaresque accountant. Let us remember truisms for a moment to explain and place the function of the comic absurd in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.

"What terrible game will you play with us?" asks the narrator at the close of "The Leper's Helix." But he has surely learned in the brief but total revisions of his role that game is the opposite of play. Game implies an "end," a victory sought as the result of obeyed formulae with all of the statistics that Henry leans upon, the prop's props. Play is endless because pointless, mimesis of or escape from the unpredictable openness of causality. Plays are defined formally as unexpectedness: The "peripeteia," the untangling of comic and tragic patterns is, however often repeated, a recipe for the incalculable. There are so statistics for drama or child's play. Play denies the otherness even of that which it may mimic: There are no body counts at cowboys and Indians, no sickness in playing doctor, no funeral or finality at the end of Lear. We are gamesters and game, hunters and hunted, and as such we are deprived of that make-believe trying on of selves, masks, new starts that constitute the freedom of play. Even our freedom to make up the rules of the game turns into another measure of containment. These are the polarities between which Coover's creatures struggle toward definition or—that favorite word—fulfilment.

When he goes to Pete's (Jake's—old "Pastimer" he) Bar to relax from his game or to celebrate its triumphs, Henry is playful. He has imposed not only upon Pete but also upon Hettie and himself the names and images of his game. But he goes there as a "player" in every sense. And the players, unlike the statistics, the games, are names. Adopting the name of his favorite, an improbably successful rookie pitcher, letting that projected personality reproject into his own, Henry the aging recluse has a lavishly successful night of sexual play with Hettie.

"The greatest pitcher in the history of baseball," he whispered. "Call me … Damon."

"Damon," she whispered, unbuckling his pants … unzipping his fly … "Play ball" cried the umpire. And the catcher, stripped of mask and guard, revealed as the pitcher Damon Rutherford, whipped the uniform off the first lady ballplayer in Association history … then … they … pounded into first, slid into second heels high, somersaulted over third, shot home standing up, then into the box once more,… and "Damon!" she cried, and "Damon!"

Nothing could seem more mediated, and yet this is one of two unmediated moments in the novel. Coover here permits the Germanic allegory of the continuous (and comic) era, to accept and to absorb into its sex play the metonymic baseball metaphor of the game. "Irden," Gea-Tellus, "had invented her own magic version, stretching out as the field, left hand as first base." When Hettie and Henry play ball it is to accept the metaphor of baseball, that merely "mythic or historical form" that Coover's "prólogo" said literature must simultaneously build upon and transcend. Learning Henry's mythic game vocabulary, she absorbs its geometrical limits into the unlimited world of play, offers him the recognition that the magic in names, words, is their limitless possibilities (was he not, after all, the one who "everywhere he looked … saw names"?) for freedom from any source they may have had: "I got it, Henry, I got it! come on! come on! keep it up! Behind his butt she clapped her cold soles to cheer him on … And here he comes … he's bolting for home, spurting past, sliding in—POW!… Oh, that's a game, Henry! That's really a great old game!"

But the allegory turns upon its source. On the night before introducing Lou to his Association, Henry has his second bout with Hettie, this time in the role of another player, Damon's rival, the veteran pitcher Swanee Law. As they leave the bar to go home, he thinks, "Earthy … Won't be the same, he realized. No magic." And the following morning he is edging dangerously close to a fatal, Quijotelike awakening:

Not once, in the Universal Baseball Association's fifty-six long seasons of play, had its proprietor plunged so close to self-disgust, felt so much like giving it up,… an old man playing with a child's toy; he felt somehow like an adolescent caught masturbating.

With this mood upon Henry, Hettie discovers the imaginary nature of his enterprise, and it is with total silence that he rejects her humane understanding as she tries to reassure him of her affection. "Suddenly, astonishingly, she burst into tears. 'Ah, go to hell, you loony bastard!'… He heard her heels smacking down the wooden stairs and … out into the world." That same night Lou Engel physically and psychically all but destroys the Association, and Henry sends him out of his haven into hell with the appropriate curse: "You clumsy goddamn idiot!" Lou's last communication is a call from the office to inform Henry of his dismissal by Zifferblatt, a call highlighted by the final anguished and outraged cry of Zifferblatt, which sums up his, ours, and Henry's own attitude toward the strange conduct of J. Henry Waugh: "(WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN—!!)" And, finally, on this same tragic day the dice decree the death of the veteran Jake Bradley, Pete's player counterpart, so that Pete's Bar, too, must be given up forever.

Without the spirit of unmediated play which was only once possible in that magic night game between Hettie and Henry-cum-Damon, the old Pastimer's paradisal bar has no further function. All is gone, all lost now.

In the original days of the Association there began a breakdown into two political parties interested in capturing the chancellorship in the Association elections held every four years. One was the Bogglers, individualists led by the original chancellor, Barnaby North. The other was the Legalists, the party of Swanee Law, the star pitcher whom Damon Rutherford was about to transcend at his tragic death. Play is over, as Henry looks upon play, upon playing with oneself, as disgusting. J. Henry Waugh has joined the Legalists, as his assumption of Law's persona for his love games told us. He is an angry God of the Old Testament whose Pyrrhic victory now reverses the apparent reading of the German allegory. Hettie goes, like Eve, exiled out into the world of time; the world in which Lou the clumsy angel works for old clock face, Zifferblatt. And with Lou's call, Jehovah is exiled from that world, our world, into the solipsism imaged by his masturbating simile. Hettie's parting words ring prophetic: "Ah, go to hell, you loony bastard!" He did, by staying home. This is the novel's first version of, to borrow a phrase, the disappearance of God.

But with the world in shambles it does not end. And here begins the second and more complicated era of allegories: the era in which J. Henry Waugh is Proprietor of, and in closest touch with, the Universal Baseball Association. It is the "new Rutherford era," exciting and yet somehow melancholy. "Maybe it was only because this was Year LVI: he and the Association were the same age, though, of course, their 'years' were reckoned differently. He saw two time lines crossing in space at a point marked '56.' Was it the vital moment?" Numbers are having their mystic way again, to remind us that there are within Henry's Association the double aspect of rationalized history and of "ultimate mystery," which Henry found in baseball itself, mysteries ultimately hidden even from the Proprietor.

Let us recall the history of the Association. Under Barnaby North's chancellorship, the first truly great crop of rookies came up in Year XIX, the greatest being the Pioneers' pitcher Brock Rutherford; indeed, the glorious XXs became known as "the Brock Rutherford era." Now Brock, also fifty-six-years-old in Year LVI, had sired a second son (an earlier one only partially successful), Damon, the magic pitcher who might transcend the father, who pitches a perfect game, who overshadows veteran ace Swanee Law. But as Damon is pitching on Henry's complex Extraordinary Occurrences Chart a three-dice throw shows 1-1-1: "Batter struck fatally by beanball." The pitcher, innocent of intent, was the Knickerbockers' Jock Casey. Brock's former teammate Barney Bancroft, now manager of the Pioneers, and so of the fated Damon, carries on the season; so does J. Henry Waugh.

When Lou Engel is permitted to become the only other ever to share in Henry's game, it is at a point in the season when Jock Casey is once again to pitch against the Pioneers. Lou plays to win, and he wins against all logic, all averages, wildly. Henry has been playing the season through since Damon's death without keeping records, throwing and throwing the dice. He has lost imaginative contact with his players (but this is the first instance in which the contact is lost not by Henry's disengagement, but by that of his creatures): "It was strangely as though they were running from him afraid of his plan, seeing it for what it was: the stupid mania of a sentimental old fool." The "plan" becomes clear when Lou's rolls of the dice suddenly bring Jock Casey the killer into jeopardy upon the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart. Henry tenses in anticipation of order, throws the retributional dice, and sees "2-6-6, a lot less than he'd hoped for." At this moment Lou spills beer over the Association records and is cast out. After Lou's departure, Henry stands in terror at his crossroads: "Damon Rutherford … it was just a little too much, and it wrecked the whole league … He smiled wryly, savoring the irony of it. Might save the game at that. How would they see it? Pretty peculiar. He trembles … Now, stop and think, he cautioned himself. Do you really want to save it?… Yes, 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." Casey stands ready to pitch: "Why waiting? Patient … Enduring … Casey played the game, heart and soul. Played it like nobody had ever played it before." Waiting Casey stands "alone": "Sometimes Casey glanced up at him—only a glance, split-second pain, a pleading." St. Mark reminds us that "at the ninth hour Jesus cried … My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And then the agony is over. Henry picks up the dice: "I'm sorry, boy,' he whispered, and then … he set them down carefully … One by one. Six. Six … Six." The number of the beast: pitcher killed by line drive.

One allegory cries out for attention. UBA, USA. Rutherford for Ruth, certainly, but also for rue. The Rutherfords, leaders of the Pioneers (read New Frontier) are special: "Maybe it was just the name that had ennobled them, for in a way … they were … the association's first real aristocrats." The Kennedy myth of national renewal aborted is reflected in a series of killings following upon Henry's assassination of Jock after the death of Damon. Barney Bancroft—the latter-day echo of Barnaby North—eventually becomes chancellor and is assassinated, bringing on a revolt of the Universalists. The chancellor in Year LVI is, like Henry, a Legalist, and like LBJ, a paradox: "He looked old-fashioned, but he had an abiding passion for innovation. He was the most restless activist ever to take office … He was coldly calculating, yet supremely loyal to old comrades." And when the season continues in an unprecedentedly gloomy and unpopular course, like Henry he must say: "And there's not a goddamn thing I can do about it." His heir and alter ego is that grand southerner Swanee Law. Again, allegory by metonymy. We are directed to read through the layer of the accountant Jehovah to the history of the USA in the sixties, to see the sacrifice of Casey, the consequent helpless commitment of Henry and the chancellor as Vietnam, to hear the surge of revolution rolling in from the future. Politics and war are, after all, the great American games.

But if Swanee Law, in his symbiotic relationship with the current Legalist chancellor, focuses analogy upon LBJ, he can show us an even darker layer of the allegorical palimpsest. Nothing will come of nothing. The mystery of history is the regress of its sources, each carefully measured effect having its cause until we arrive at the Zenonian paradox inverted, infinity the ineffable first cause. "To be good," Henry once thought, "a chess player, too, had to convert his field to the entire universe, himself the ruler of that private enclosure—though from a pawn's-eye view, of course, it wasn't an enclosure at all, but, infinitely, all there was." Theologically, it is safest to assume that the first cause is the will of God; as the chess passage suggests, associationalogically it seems safe to assume that the first cause is the will of J. Henry Waugh. There it began, properly, precisely, in Year I. Or did it? Does that "beginning" only raise the question of inscrutability again, hint at another history, a mirrorcorridor in which JHW is only some middle term? The question worries him: "The abrupt beginning had its disadvantages. It was, in a sense, too arbitrary, too inexplicable. In spite of the … warmth he felt toward those first ballplayers, it always troubled him that their life histories were so unavailable to him: what had a great player already in his thirties been doing for the previous ten years?." Nothing can come of nothing. "It was, in fact, when the last Year I player had retired that Henry felt the Association had come of age, and when, a couple of years ago, the last veteran of Year I, old ex-chancellor Barnaby North, had died, he had felt an odd sense of relief: the touch with the deep past was now purely 'historic,' its ambiguity only natural."

"The basic stuff is already there. In the name." What then of the name, the, to Henry, always ambiguous nature, of Barnaby North, first chancellor and so first projection of the Proprietor himself within the Association; or, if JHW is only a middle term, perhaps the prototype of the prop himself? What this name tells us in conjunction with the rise of Swanee Law is that the Association's history has moved from North to South, a steady fall on any map.

The major portion of Coover's novel takes place in the critical Year LVI, the "new Rutherford era" in the Association. And the allegory is obviously written over the New Testament. It confuses because Damon Rutherford is so clearly the life-bringer; Jock Casey, his killer, is so clearly the Christ. But it is nonetheless obviously written over the new Testament, in which Matthew told of the Wise Men "saying … we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him" (Matt. 2:2). And it is in this sacred geography that one can place Henry's baserunner: "Out of the east, into the north, push out to the west, then march through the south back home again; like a baserunner on the paths, alone in a hostile cosmos, the stars out there in their places,… he interposed himself heroically to defy the holy condition … not knowing his defiance was merely a part of it."

The sun rises in the East; as runner he moves at once toward the North. Lucifer, too, who said in his heart, "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God [Swanee Law is a Star, Damon only a Rookie]: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north … I will be like the Most High" (Isa. 14:13-14). Is he, Barnaby North, original or image of the creator of the Universal Baseball Association? Or neither? Is he the founder because (infinite inscrutability of beginnings, or, mystery that denies beginnings) he is not the father but the son (remembering that, should this be so, the paradox is enacted twice over. Barney Bancroft, the Pioneer manager and future chancellor, being his namesake, whose assassination set off the revolution). So he seems when we recall, from the Acts of the Apostles, "Barnabas (which is being interpreted, the son of consolation)" (4:36).

Scripture speaks parables against the South (Ezek. 20:45-49), as does American politics, but we must return to the basic metaphors. Like JHW, the southerner is Law—the law of average, the opposite of Damon Rutherford who breaks them. "Law knew what he had going for himself: whenever sportswriters interviewed him, they were shown large charts he kept tacked to his wall, indicating his own game-by-game progress … ['Pappy'] Rooney [his manager] had to laugh at Law's prostrating himself before the dirty feet of history." Swanee Law the Legalist set against Barney Bancroft and his prototype, Barnaby North, founder of the opposed free party. The rationalization of history, number, the averages are where Henry, Jehovah, and the Association seem to be going, and we remember that it was Swanee who replaced Damon so tragically in Hettie's favors. But there is a countercurrent within the Association as there is within J. Henry Waugh. Damon Rutherford the son is dead, but Barney Bancroft—manager, elder father figure to Damon but nominally son to Barnaby North, the child (and yet the mysterious elder) of J. Henry Waugh—knows the limits of Henry's and Swanee Law's history. "Bancroft, the rationalist, disbelieved in reason. It was the beast's son, after all, not the father, and if it had a way of sometimes getting out of hand, there was always limits … Re: back again, the primitive condition, the nonreflective operating thing: res. His son."

When Damon was struck down, "the Proprietor of the Universal Baseball Association … brought utterly to grief, buried his face in the heap of papers on his kitchen table and cried for long bad time." Well he might, victim of his own laws: "Even though he'd set his own rules,… and though he could change whenever he wished, nevertheless he and his players were committed to the turns of the mindless and unpredictable—one might even say, irresponsible—dice." When Damon's fate is rolled, the players press around him crying "Do something! But do what? The dice were rolled." And yet, after this time of weeping Henry goes out into the accountant's world, and he carries into it his sense of deity: "Feeling sour. Undiscoverable sun at four o'clock in the hazy sky. But a kind of glow in the streets, mocking him. Later, he'd have it rain." God has not disappeared. He is a loony bastard, who thinks he controls the universe. But he has become mad because he has become a Legalist, lost contact with Barney Bancroft's, Barnaby North's boggling world, forgotten the paradox that he once had been able to apply to chess: "Henry enjoyed chess, but found it finally too Euclidean, too militant, ultimately irrational." Chess is game without the magic, without play; he found it, "in spite of its precision, formless really—nameless motion."

Names not numbers are the drama, that which defies the predestinarian, "irresponsible" dice to turn formulaic number into mythic formulae. That is what happened to the Universal Baseball Association when JHW did something about it and tipped the die that killed Casey. The consequences were cosmic: He ceased to have connection with Hettie, Lou, Zifferblatt, but with his commitment he paradoxically also ceased to have conjunction with his players.

Here we must notice a principal narrative technique: After Damon's death, while Henry is gradually withdrawing himself from his accountant's world, he inversely projects himself into the players to the extent that the interior monologue of Henry, which seems the chief device of the earlier sections as he imagines activities in his Association, becomes a series of interior monologues on the part of individual players through which Henry's direct persona emerges less and less often until the day with Lou and Hettie, when he surfaces to almost give up his universe.

Yet one important example of Henry's absorption into his players both bears out and immensely modifies this general truth. It demonstrates Coover's technique of creating unbroken chains of interillumination between Henry's life world and his created universe. And it does so at the crucial point of choice, the point at which Damon dead, he can go on by the rules, quit the game, or sacrifice Jock Casey.

Henry, sleepless and broken by the death, visits the puzzled Lou's apartment (unable to be alone) to "imagine" / attend Damon's funeral. He seeks out a recording of Mozart's Archduke, drinks; the alarmed friend listens to his jumbled talk, assuming, of course, that the death has been that of a close friend. His innocent question, "Did he leave any … family?" gives Henry the first suggestion for how he could continue: To himself he muses "A son? Yes, he could have, he could have at that, and his name …?" There is nothing in the previous image, imagings of Damon, of this golden child athlete, young hero, to make such a history probable, and Henry realizes it implicitly in his next move; fleeing Lou's apartment for Jake's Bar, he creates a wake, a death-drunk of all the Old Timers reflecting his own manic grief. Before it begins, he accounts for all who are not in attendance, including Damon's older brother, a failed second-class player from a few seasons earlier. But he had been a ballplayer, had his moment of history with the league, and bore the magic name. So Henry imagines through him a more plausible, if indirect route to continuities:

He'd bolted for home the minute the burial was over, dragging his missus behind him, and there, pressed by an inexplicable urgency, had heisted her black skirts, and without even taking time to drop his pants, had shot her full of seed: yes, caught it! she said, and even he felt that germ strike home.

They were right. Later, horny and half-drunk in a restaurant, Henry gazes on a waitress, a young frump, and thinks about her as the possible mother of this new potential: "Young Brock was handsome, elegant in his way, but it was easy to see that in a real ball game he just didn't have it. Something vital was missing. How would this son—Henry assumed it would be a boy—turn out?… Might be worth twenty more seasons just to find out." But clearly his heart was not in it, for Henry has already remade an improbable history on the little cue offered by Lou's innocent query.

Probably the oldest and most cynical of Henry's avatars among the Old Timers who gather for the wake at Jake's is Rags Rooney, whose idea it had been. Sycamore Flynn, the manager of the pitcher who had killed Damon, attends but leaves very early, and Rooney laments that "Sick Flynn was gone, he'd had a few more things he'd like to jab him with. Like shotgunning poor Damon for jumping his virgin daughter." While the wake is in progress, but before this remark, Hettie, unaware of the imaginary crowd at Jake's, approaches Henry in hopes of another great old game pitched at her by Damon:

He hadn't noticed her there before. She winked cheaply and asked: "How's Damon's pitching arm tonight?"

"He's dead."


"Damon Rutherford is dead."

It was as though he'd struck her in the face … When he looked up again, she was gone.

The incident merges with a reaction the others have to Sycamore Flynn, himself merging with Henry: "It was funny abou Sic'em: they all loved the bastard, pure gold the man's heart, yet this night they couldn't get close to him. Wasn't his fault. Yet something was happening." Then Flynn emerges from Henry, having left the bar. He is on a train, "his mind in trouble pitched here and there, rocked by the wheels' pa-clockety-knock, jogged loose from the continuum … the sons and the fathers, the sons and the fathers." There are three rationales for Flynn's parental concern. One is his emergence from Henry. A second is his long rivalry through his stellar playing years with Damon's father, Brock Rutherford. The two greats of their era, now known as the Brock Rutherford Era: "Brock the Great. Oh yes, damn it, damn him, he was?". The last is his own paternity, the guilt and the loss when his daughter, too, accepts some version (before or after the act) of Rooney's barb about Flynn having killed Damon out of a father's jealousy. When he killed Damon as her Damon lover before Hettie's face in Jake's, she had fled Henry. Now we learn the name of Flynn's daughter, fled like Hettie from the man who robbed her of Damon's young sexuality once, maybe twice:

His daughter had disappeared. She'd left no note. Hadn't been necessary. he knew what she was telling him and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing he could do that would bring her back. Harriet was as dead to him now as her Damon was to Brock. Even more so, because Damon died and left no hate behind. In a way, Flynn envied Brock. No, that wasn't true. You're just trying to smooth it over, ease the guilt.

It is an immense inner narrative developed in a few strokes by Henry's imagination. This is not surprising, in any of its aspects but one. He has been working fast with the idea of Damon having an heir; he has dismissed Henrietta by discarding his Damon avatar brutally, as Flynn has lost Harriet. But Flynn is Henry's alter ago, and so neither intentionally beaned Damon—that was the mindlessness of the dice. What then, and it is crucial at this juncture, is Flynn's "guilt"?

He descends from the train near the ball park, a short walk to his hotel, and enters us into one of the most successful and eerie of those deliriums, which are not quite dreams, that punctuate Coover's work, but especially in the psychic life of Richard Nixon in The Public Burning.

It begins on this problem of "guilt." Flynn is in Damon's hometown; he might be recognized and harassed, so he walks, choosing "the dark streets. What was hounding him? That he didn't feel guilty enough?" He passes the stadium, which "bulked, unlit in the dark night, like a massive ruin, exuding a black odor of death and corruption" (one remembers that Henry thinks that these now bare quires, "ball stadiums and not European churches were the real American holy places"). But Flynn's experience goes beyond this: the Pioneers' Park has become unfamiliar. "No, no gates. Not even the hinges for one. And inside: it shouldn't be that black in there." He feels about the walls of the suddenly unfamiliar passageways to the dugout, to the field. He discerns ghosts, he retreats, he finds himself disoriented. On the darkened ball field he feels the presence of all his players around him in the dark, Jock Casey, most poignantly, on the mound behind him. It is a ghost field because Casey is there: "'That you, Jock?' Turn around and look, you ass. Can't. Sorry, just can't … Flynn was near tears. Behind him, he realized, past Casey, past home plate, there was an exit. Maybe it was a way out, maybe it wasn't."

Flynn has absorbed Henry, Henry's grief, taken Henry home into the old ball park of his lonely spooky apartment full of the deaths of all these paper heroes. "Maybe it was a way out, maybe it wasn't. But he'd never make it. He couldn't even turn around. And besides, he wasn't even sure what he'd find at home plate on the way. 'I quit,' he said. But then the lights came on." In Henry's apartment. And when they did, he had given up the notion of quitting or continuing the Rutherford myth on the sheerness of chance of those dice, those numbers he had for so long thought of as order. Out of that dark dream, Henry had decided to intervene.

When young Damon is about to pitch in the fatal game succeeding his perfect performance, Henry's imagination works overtime: "'Go out and win one for the old man, son.' Who said that? Why old Brock! Yes, there he was, sitting in a special box … In fact, Henry realized suddenly, 'it must be Brock Rutherford Day at Pioneer Park.'" That "it must be" takes on a redimensioning ambiguity analogous to the ambiguous status of Barnaby North, when, observing the wake for Damon, Henry's consciousness is expressed through that of successive participants in the festivities until it emerges as that of the chancellor: "Brock Rutherford Day had been Fenn's own idea. The whole UBA was suddenly bathed in light and excitement and enthusiasm. Fenn had foreseen an election sweep … The Guildsmen [at the time it was written read Gold-waterites] couldn't find a candidate. Total mandate. And then that pitch. He wasn't sure what he could do about it … The only conceivable forms of meaningful action at a time like this were all illegal." But "illegality," breaking of the rules and the substitution of sacrifice for chance, commitment for causality, predestination for percentages—these are phrases to describe Henry's deliberate killing of Jock Casey with the number of the beast from the Book of Revelation: And we might here remind ourselves that Coover's "prólogo" speaks of fiction as the use of "familiar forms to combat the content of those forms,… to conduct the reader … away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation." The mediation is so intensified that we are led to search for answers to impossible questions, those that haunt Henry's sense of history: Is the chancellor Henry's "persona," or Henry the chancellor's? A familiar gambit, echo of the doubleness of Barnaby North, of Montaigne's puzzle about his playful cat. Until we arrive at the mythic era with which the novel concludes, "Damonsday CLVII."

Now JHW is gone; this the second, the defining disappearance of the god of the game. The world has become a ritual because he sacrificed Jock Casey to save his universe, not man's. The Christian myth is reenacted as a myth of the Beast who is anti-Christ. In this era, "some writers even argue that Rutherford and Casey never existed—nothing more than another of the ancient myths of the sun, symbolized as a victim slaughtered by the monster or force of darkness." The New Testament sources of Coover's allegories, like the Old Testament sources, are turned back upon themselves.

There is no narrative interaction now between Henry and his players—they have absorbed his consciousness both in narrative style and in literal fact: One player named Raspberry Schultz "has turned … to the folklore of game theory, and plays himself some device with dice." J. Henry Waugh reduced to a Bronx cheer. He exists only in the tangled confusions of skepticism and ignorance with which the players attempt to understand the meaning of the political parties that in a ritual world have become theological sects, attempts to wring some meaning out of the annual reenactment of the game in which Damon Rutherford was killed, the games of "Damonsday." The sun dominates the players and the imagery on this mythic day that closes the novel, and the old interaction between the two levels of phenomena mediated by Henry's consciousness is allowed to appear in reverse just once in a player's joke: "'Pull the switch on that thing, man!' Gringo hollers up to the sun … 'Yeah,' 'What does it say?' '100 Watt.'" They are all gone as though they never existed: JHW, Rutherford, and Casey. Only Damon remains.

The cynical rookie chosen for the role resents and fears it, lives in a surrealistic shadowland where an apparitional boy demands an autograph, where women surround him and tear at his fly as he struggles through an Orphic threat. He reviews the theological debate upon the meaning of the Parable of the Duel, which is about to be reenacted and rejects it all, all but one thing: "Damon the man, legend or no." "Just remember," he tells himself as he dresses for the Duel, "how you love the guy, that second son who pitched such great ball, and died so young" (read JFK).

Dressed, he stands on the mound as Damon feeling the mark of the Beast. He "flexes his fist, staring curiously at it,… thinking he's got something special there today," feeling that mark "in the right hand," as before and after "in the forehead" that is the Beast's (Rev. 13:6; 2:4). The doubter who must enact the catcher walks toward him. "He has read all he can find on the Association's history, and he knows he is nothing"; "His despair is too complex for plain speech … He is afraid. Not only of what he must do. But of everything." "He stares at the sky, beyond which there is more sky, overwhelming in its enormity. He,… is utterly absorbed in it, entirely disappears, is nothing at all." Perhaps Henry has heard Gringo's joking command and turned out the light over the table, for as the doubter contemplates his terror, he realizes that "it's coming, Yes, now, today, here in the blackening sun." And then he arrives at the mound. It is the second unmediated moment in the novel. He confronts Damon and sees that "it's all there is." And Damon sees, too, but inverts the sense of the vision. The joke of the 100-watt sun echoes an image from Henry's consciousness at the very beginning, when he realizes that sometimes his game is just dead statistics to him, no names: "just a distant echo … But then … someone like Damon Rutherford came along to flip the switch, turn things on." Damon sees, and gives light and life again: "He says: 'Hey, wait, buddy! You love this game, don't you?'… Damon grins. Lights up the whole goddamn world. 'Then don't be afraid' … he says. And the black clouds break up,… and his [Trench's, the battery mate's] own oppressed heart leaps alive to give it one last try." "'It's not a trial,' says Damon, glove tucked in his armpit, hands working the new ball … 'It's not even a lesson. It's just what it is.' Damon holds the baseball up between them. It is hard and white and alive in the sun."

Two young friends together in a numerical, Platonic world that defies cynicism. Damon, the Pythagorean who offered himself for Pithias in the name of friendship to save them both by love. To save them from death imposed by a tyrant.

Paul Trench's unmediated moment of life, like Henry's, is given through Damon. Both are moments in which the tyranny of game is converted into the improbability of play: "You love this game," he affirms for Trench; "That's really a great old game," affirms Hettie. The relationship of J. Henry Waugh and Jock Casey, Coover's God and Jesus Christ, had inverted the Christian myth upon which it was founded. But the third person of Coover's trinity rights it again, or rather rewrites it, with the central holy pun. J. Henry Waugh is inspired, as is his Association, by the presence of Damon, that holy name whose Greek original meant not only the inevitable divine power mediating between gods and men but also those souls of the dead whom we honor, especially, explains the OED, "deified heroes." As Henry said, "The basic stuff is already there. In the name. Or rather: in the naming." By naming, Coover converts the dark parable of our insane culture into an affirmation that salvation is still possible through that daemonic sense of play with which we are so richly endowed.

Let us now reconsider The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. (for that is what it is, Lou's flood of beer and Henry's rainbow wiping out the carefully penned box-scores and histories of a world gone wrong) under a different rubric; let us consider it as a sophisticated metafiction, a novel in the tradition of writings about writings. It has been examined in this context, and it is reasonable that it should be. It narrates a history perfectly separated from the ambiguities and impossibilities that separate the historical, even the least historical, novel—one mimetic only of a generalized place, time, space—from the text. Because here the history is of a text, a history that claims existence only in ink. A novel about a man, or a god, or a madman who substituted writing for life. And then, within that writing there were all those groups, the Bogglers and Legalists, conservatives and radicals, mythologists and rational demystifiers, who interpret the first seven chapters in the eighth. And we are left to play out our own critical fantasies in the missing ninth inning, chapter, life of the cat (is not Coover's story "The Cat in the Hat for President," like this novel, about a book that comes into independent life?). And none of this is true to our reading. John Barth's Chimera is about the telling of stories, about the impossibility of it. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. is not. Or rather, it uses the notion of authorship and its authority to tell a story, a history, a historia just as the Quijote does. As the author of the association is drawn into his game of chance measured against balance (is the book we read, after all, perhaps Barney Bancroft's history of the UBA in the Balance?), we are drawn with him into the names, not the numbers. The argument of "writing" becomes the vehicle of a larger argument. In this larger argument, characters may argue the ontology of their self-existence, as did Raspberry Schultz, Paul Trench, and others on "Damonsday CLVII," but we do not argue their existence, we embrace it as the function of narrative. The writer's vehicle is always the reader's tenor: This collusion makes a story seem a history. And that is what makes the novel novel: It always purveys news of a new life.

Christopher Ames (essay date Winter 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6652

SOURCE: "Coover's Comedy of Conflicting Fictional Codes," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 85-99.

[In the following excerpt, Ames discusses the variety of narrative codes in Gerald's Party, including "the patterns of detective story, slapstick comedy, masquerade, dream tale, and ritual sacrifice."]

Gerald's Party, Robert Coover's most recent novel, is a bruising book. Gerald, the host, ends up with numerous literal bruises, as do most of the surviving guests, who collide, trip, and fall throughout the novel and are beaten with nightsticks, croquet mallets, and fists. The reader also emerges somewhat battered, worn away by the assaults upon time, coherence, and verisimilitude. The bruising shocks of Gerald's Party, however, are in keeping with its essentially carnivalesque nature, which is exemplified in the festive setting of the party and the interplay of different fictional codes or conventions. The novel's excitement and tension arise from the collision of different narrative codes: the patterns of detective story, slapstick comedy, masquerade, dream tale, and ritual sacrifice. This clashing of different generic standards of verisimilitude displaces the reader's expectations. At the party, Gerald speaks of "all these violent displacements … it was as though we'd all been dislodged somehow, pushed out of the frame, dropped into some kind of empty dimensionless gap like that between film cuts, between acts." This sense of being between acts arises from an overdetermination of narrative cues—narrative codes are not lacking but are invoked in such fertile profusion as to subvert reader recognition. These displacements are often disorienting and frustrating, but, in the context of Coover's novel and Gerald's party, they become comic, parodic, and even liberating.

The subversive effect of a collision of narrative discourses highlights the intersection of festivity and the modern novel. In exploring how the novel, especially prior to the eighteenth century, combined actual folk carnival elements with a carnival-style multiplicity of viewpoints or dialogism, Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that "[carnivalization] determined not only the content but also the very generic foundations of a work." Gerald's Party vividly illustrates the way in which the modern private party can become a similarly dialogic locus, a fictional "town square" within the province of the modern novel. Although Bakhtin identified "carnivalization" with an earlier (and now displaced) folk tradition, his perception of the way in which form and content intersect in the multivoiced language of literary festivity remains illuminating in considering works of contemporary fiction such as Gerald's Party.

A fictional code or convention here means a subgenre of the novel characterized by a particular set of images, narrative patterns, motifs, and modes of discourse. To borrow M. H. Abrams's modification of [Roland] Barthes, a code consists of "artifices, arousing conventional expectations, which function entirely within the system of literary writing itself." When an author modifies a code and combines it with other fictional codes, however, those conventional expectations can be deliberately frustrated. Gerald's Party is not a detective novel, for example, but it invokes enough of the elements of the detective code to generate (and then frustrate) conventional reader expectations. "Every effort to speak of the world involves a kind of fiction-making process," Coover has commented. "There are always other plots, other settings, other interpretations. So if some stories start throwing their weight around, I like to undermine their authority a bit, work variations, call attention to their fictional natures." This notion of "undermining" aptly describes Coover's narrative technique in Gerald's Party, in which a hearty and remorseless dialogism plays with conventions and expectations, and structures the novel.

The most powerful convention a modern novelist manipulates is that of realism. Many of the innovations of contemporary fiction are modes of playing with the realist frame, a frame that has conditioned the modern reader to expect the events of a work of fiction to mirror standards of social and psychological probability commonly associated with real life. An author might dispense with the realist convention at the outset, either through an invocation of an alternate and exclusive convention, such as the fairy tale, or through the rapid violation of certain realist consistencies (or reader expectations). Coover does not choose either of these nonrealist paths. Instead, certain realist conventions exist throughout the novel so that the violations of realism continually have a disruptive or absurdist force. The setting recalls much realist fiction: a suburban house party of intellectuals and professionals with familiar food, drink, and furnishings. The narrative, although it frequently becomes improbable or bizarre, never broaches the impossible: the dead do not speak; people do not turn into butterflies or armadillos. Gerald's perspective is presented consistently, and his concern and unease—and finally his sorrow and inarticulate anger—suggest a realistic human response to the increasingly strange events.

Within these realistic parameters, however, Coover challenges the convention in several ways. He creates a sense of absurdity by presenting unusual or startling events without any reactions of shock or surprise from witnessing characters. The novel opens with the discovery of a corpse—someone has been stabbed to death at the party. The situation is contained within realist probabilities as people gather around the corpse, the police are summoned, and Ros's newly widowed husband goes wild with grief. When the police beat the husband to death with croquet mallets, and Gerald's wife (unnamed in the text) continues making hors d'oeuvres while the guests continue to eat and drink, the realist frame threatens to dissolve. As the party continues, three more guests die violently. The wife continues to cook, serve, and clean, and the guests continue to flirt, tell jokes, and drink. Eventually the juxtapositions become more startling: "'Yum!' enthused Bunky, stepping over Ros's body and plucking a melon ball."

The novel has many such discordant absurdities: as Gerald's wife is being tortured by police (for no apparent reason), she begs Gerald to check the nachos in the oven. When Gerald reports that his best friend, Vic, has bled to death, his wife asks him to carry coffee cups into the living room. As the police intimidate and torture people, the plumber is drafted to be a video cameraman, and as the child's toy soldiers are beheaded and his stuffed bunny dismembered, we sense that this is not a typical party of realist fiction. The reader's sense of verisimilitude is strained and revised, but never so thoroughly that the novel sacrifices the power of comically unusual events to disturb. The novel depends upon supporting and subverting the familiar realist parameters. This pattern is structured through gradually increasing chaos and grotesqueness as if the reader is being innoculated in his or her tolerance for the bizarre.

At the same time, the novel mirrors the cacophony of a wild party through its narrative interruptions. Scenes, paragraphs, and sentences are constantly interrupted. Parentheses abound, usually in mid-sentence to maximize the disruption. Gerald muses that, as with multiple parentheses, "all conversations were encased in others, spoken and unspoken…. It was what gave them their true dimension, even as it made their referents recede." Accordingly, Coover interweaves many dialogues without attribution. The effect is confusing but provocative. The reader becomes a guest at the party, concentrating on one conversation and ignoring others as "noise," or interpreting the interspersed dialogues as commenting upon one another in montage fashion. The reader can also "play back" the interrupted dialogues by rereading a passage and disentangling the different conversational threads. Much of the book's power arises from Coover's masterful involvement of the reader in such ways.

If the reader of a party novel is analogous to a guest, the narrator likely resembles a host. Gerald's haze infects us and renders the party more immediate, yet more blurred. We see through his eyes with immediacy, but they are not always well-focused. Amid the confusion, the general outlines of the action remain ascertainable. Unity of time and place helps to fix those outlines: the entire novel takes place at the party, and the narrative strays no further than the back yard.

The novel is also structured by the homicide investigation that occurs at the party. The police alter the closed system of the party when they enter, and they are directly responsible for the deaths of Roger and Vic. In between those deaths, Tania, the painter, dies mysteriously in the bathtub, evidently a suicide. Amid much eating and drinking, a panoply of sexual activities ensues, particularly in the outside garden and the downstairs rec room. Gerald has sexual involvements of various kinds with Alison, Sally Ann, and his wife. A long-standing couple, Cyril and Peg, breaks up when Peg leaves the party with Dickie, a notorious playboy. Meanwhile, the guests discuss artistic theory and tell dirty jokes, and Zack Quagg's theatre troupe enacts a funereal drama built around Ros's corpse. Yvonne breaks a leg, and Charley "Choo-Choo" Trainer slips a disc. Sally Ann and young Anatole become engaged. The party seems to epitomize Dick Diver's decadent desire in Tender Is the Night: "I want to give a really bad party … where there's a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette."

These bizarre events coalesce into a compelling tour de force through the collision of fictional codes and the rich symbolic associations of the party, which connect and reconcile the competing generic patterns of the novel. The abundance of fictional codes disrupts coherence, but the party setting (which allows for the interplay of many voices) restores it by celebrating the dialogic possibilities of festive and novel form.

The fictional code of the detective story permeates Gerald's Party and provides the most marked example of the way in which different fictional codes undermine one another. Detective fiction's distinctive relationship to fictionality per se and to the party in particular grants that subgenre special force in shaping reader expectations. Detective fiction is a kind of metafiction because it contains a narrative within the narrative—the detective functions as reader as he interprets and follows clues, and as writer as he presents them at the denouement. Coover exploits both of these fertile relationships in parodying and representing the detective story.

In general, detective fiction depicts an investigator creating a chronological and causal narrative retrospectively from its conclusion at the murder scene. To do so, he must assemble narrative elements that have become disorganized like pieces of a puzzle (a common metaphor in detective fiction). Reader and detective share this perspective as well as the desire to render the scene intelligible through assembling the narrative pieces. The beauty and appeal of the game of detective fiction are often enhanced by limiting or closing the number of possible narratives, particularly by limiting the number of suspects. Thus the closed house party or country weekend becomes a frequent setting for murder dramas because the boundaries of the house double as boundaries for the "game." In detective fiction in which a party is not the setting for the murder, it is often the setting for the resolution: all suspects gather at a dinner or party at which the detective reveals the murderer.

Gerald's Party uses both of these intersections between the closed system of the party and the finite world of the detective novel. The murder clearly occurs at the party, and Inspector Pardew predictably warns, "[n]obody moves!… Nobody leaves this house without permission!" Two hundred and fifty pages later, the Inspector initiates the classic detective denouement: "I have called you all here, here to the scene of the crime." In between these two events, Coover intensifies the dramatic unity by having the police conduct their entire investigation at the party: they set up a lab, interrogate witnesses, examine the body, develop and test theories, catalog evidence, and conduct similar activities. As in traditional detective fiction, the party becomes a social microcosm, allowing the plot of narrative reconstruction to be dramatized more readily.

Tzvetan Todorov cites detective fiction as an example of the way in which genres possess individual internal standards of verisimilitude. The detective plot must be believable and logical but must also conform to an apparent antiverisimilitude, such as the rejection of the most likely suspect. Thus the detective subgenre exists within a narrow margin between the need for surprise and the need for believability. Coover parodies this balance by skewing the investigation far from both poles: it is filled with crazy illogic and implausibility, yet the denouement (the revelation of the supposed killer) is absurdly anticlimactic. The humor emerges from the incongruity between the familiar detective form and the novel's farcical content.

Pardew initially (and predictably) tries to determine the time of Ros's death. He does this, however, by collecting all the guests' watches. Everyone cooperates as if this approach were reasonable; perhaps it comically exaggerates our tendency to look at a watch when asked how long ago something happened. The collection of the watches is also a comment on the temporal inversion of the detective act—working backward from the conclusion. Pardew is fascinated with such metaphysical implications of his own investigations: "It's a little like sorting out the grammar of a sentence…. You have the object there before you and evidence of at least the verb…. But you have to reach back in time to locate the subject." Fascinated with such paradoxes, he sees no contradiction in concluding from the watches that the murder took place half an hour after he arrived and examined the body. The characters do not comment on the strangeness of all this absurdity, which effectively lampoons the surprise element of the classic detective denouement: Pardew's conclusion is so ingenious that it is ridiculous.

Other absurdities enrich the investigation motif. The investigation includes such things as dismembering Gerald's son's stuffed bunny, Peedie; conducting comparative penis exams; and videotaping and viewing various moments of the party. Police laboratory procedures are comically exaggerated in the description of a Rube Goldberg-style temporary crime lab set up at the party. The most elaborate mockeries, however, are reserved for the narrative theories of detection. The Inspector speaks at times like a hard-boiled cop, at others like an obsessed literary critic analyzing crime detection. He is a self-parodying figure.

"Holistic criminalistics rejects these narrow localized cause-and-effect fictions popularized by the media! Do you think that poor child in there died because of some arbitrary indeterminate and random act? Oh no, nothing in the world happens that way! It just by such simple atavistic thinking that we fill our morgues and prisons, missing the point, solving nothing!" Pardew stormed about the room, waving his arms…. "Murder, like laughter, is a muscular solution of conflict, biologically substantial and inevitable, a psychologically imperative and, in the case of murder, death-dealing act that must be related to the total ontological reality!"

The detective as interpreter or reader is similarly parodied in Pardew's dramatic revelation to Gerald that he has found a blueprint of the murder. His lengthy and, at times, brilliant analysis is undermined by Gerald's identification of the drawing as his son's depiction of the "Holy Family." These excessive interpretations warn the reader against the potential solipsism of interpretive zeal. Caught between the fictional codes of detective story, parody, and realistic novel, Pardew is rendered absurd. In carnivalistic spirit, the most authoritarian figure is the most ridiculed.

When Pardew triumphantly announces that he has solved Ros's murder, his climactic moment is deflated by his own contradictions and absurdities. His conclusion that the murderer is Vachel, a dwarf who arrives well after the murder, is neither logical nor stunning: it simply does not make sense. Pardew violates the detective frame by not explaining his detective process; he offers no coherent narrative in which Vachel is the villain. His climactic moment is further weakened by interruptions and slapstick physical comedy. He has to begin his speech three times because of different interruptions, ranging from slightly suppressed yawns to ribald jokes. In an elaborately detailed description, Pardew gets his fedora stuck first on one shoe, then the other, then both, until he finally shoots it off with his revolver. When the hat tricks abate long enough for the perpetrator to be revealed, the Inspector's scene dissolves into a Keystone Kops melee as the vaseline-greased dwarf struggles with the police. The comical anticlimax reduces the power of the detective fiction code so that it becomes but one of many voices in the text.

Coover has made use of literary equivalents of film techniques in his earlier fiction, particularly the montage and cut techniques. Film's power to show motion as story—and the possibilities for imitating that power in language—seems the most significant cinematic legacy in Gerald's Party. In particular, Coover seems interested in the pantomime comedy of slapstick. The pratfall belongs to pre-cinematic forms, such as circus and vaudeville, but it attained its greatest power in film, particularly silent film in which gesture and body movement substitute for language. The physical comedy of falling, slipping, tripping, spilling, and bumping into things is even more appropriate in the festive setting because traditional decorum is suspended, intoxication encouraged, and the boundary lines between body and building blurred.

Gerald's Party is filled with instances of physical comedy, and the humor of the slips and falls intensifies as they accumulate throughout the novel and become increasingly violent or theatrical. In the first (rather tame) instance, Gerald pours drinks to overflowing as his attention strays to the alluring Alison across the room. Later, in the chaos of Roger's frenzy after Ros's death, there is much slipping and sliding on blood. Eyeglasses are shattered, drapes torn, and lamps smashed. Big Louise falls, and, as Patrick comments later, "[w]hen she hit the floor I skidded three feet in her direction." Guacamole dip dribbles off dentures onto chins, ashtrays tumble, and beer froths and overflows. Naomi shits her pants in fright; Yvonne tumbles down a flight of stairs and breaks a leg; Charley Trainer falls down the same stairs and slips a disc. The party becomes an arena in which ordinary movement is difficult or impossible, relentlessly transformed into slapstick.

But there is a difference. The slapstick performer uses grace and skill to pretend to be clumsy and awkward. The pratfall is a planned replication of something that is spontaneous by nature—falling down. The physical comedy in Gerald's Party is largely unintentional. In substance, the falls and spills are real, not theatrical, slapstick. In the theatrical context of the party and the literary context of the book, however, they take on the patterned artificiality of slapstick. Detective fiction plays with the tension between surprise and believability; similarly, slapstick plays with the tension between the planned and the spontaneous. Both the detective code and the slapstick code are transformed in the context of this novel.

We have seen how Coover manipulates the usual detective code of verisimilitude. Slapstick is similarly transformed, almost inverted. The good slapstick artist falls hard enough so that the planned physical comedy appears spontaneous. The party guests' hard falls are patterned enough (by the author) that they appear theatrical and comic: life imitates art. More appropriately, the literary representation of life imitates a cinematic representation called slapstick. One example demonstrates Coover's descriptive technique.

"Hole on, Yvonne! GodDAMN it! Ole Chooch is comin'!" But his knees started to cave about halfway down the landing and there was no negotiating the right angle turn there—Woody and Cynthia ducked, clinging to each other, as he went hurtling past behind them, smacking the banister with his soft belly and somersaulting on over the railing to the floor below: "PpFOOOFF!" he wheezed mightily as he landed on his back (I'd managed to jerk Mark out of the way just in time), bathrobe gaping and big soft genitals bouncing between his fat legs as though hurling them to the floor had been his whole intent. "Ohh, shit!" he gasped (Mark was laughing and clapping, my wife's mother shushing him peevishly), lying there pale and, except for the aftershock vibrations still rippling through his flaccid abdomen, utterly prostrate: "Now wha've I done …?!"

The slapstick feeling here is created not only by the attention to gesture and physical detail (which creates an almost slow-motion effect as the prose unfolds more slowly than the action described), but also by Charley's drunken bravado turned into sheepishness, the comic book-style sound effects, and little Mark's laughter and applause.

The point of the slapstick descriptions is, first of all, comic. The carnival spirit celebrates the body at play and the ability to laugh at the body's limitations. Pratfalls remind our minds of our bodies and make us laugh. The fall also illustrates loss of control. A wild freedom exists in the moment between slip and impact—a moment of flight. Loss of control—as parties often remind us—can be frightening. The intensifying physical comedy of this party manifests its increasing chaos. The slapstick fits perfectly and comically into the festive setting, but it hints at a darker loss of control and tests the boundary between pleasure and pain. The triple juxtaposition of realist comedy of manners, detective story, and slapstick comedy generates multiple incongruities and exemplifies the festive mixing of modes characteristic of the carnivalized novel.

Loss of bodily control also manifests itself in the attention to vomiting and excretion at Gerald's party. The novel is a self-proclaimed "vomedy," a dark comedy of festive excess. Parties accentuate what Bakhtin terms the "lower bodily strata," most obviously in their attention to physical appetite, eating, and drinking. Traditional carnivals also celebrated an earthy regard for the consequences of that physical excess, as Bakhtin notes in Rabelais. In contemporary Anglo-American parties, the taboos surrounding bodily waste are the least likely to give way. Intoxication may be acceptable and even encouraged in the festive setting, but vomiting and passing out remain serious breaches of decorum. Excremental taboos remain strong, as the comment that Gerald's parties have "too much shit and blood" reminds us. Blood inspires fear and horror when it crosses the boundary of the flesh, when it is "spilled." Excrement is similarly taboo when it passes the bodily boundary. Taboos stem, as Mary Douglas has argued, from such societal classifications or compartmentalizations, the very classifications that festivity traditionally suspends. By assaulting and exposing those taboos least willingly suspended, Coover dramatizes the transgressive force of the celebration and the increasingly futile attempts to control that transgression. At the same time, he extends physical comedy into a code that more explicitly invokes the carnival tradition.

Ros's murder initiates the flow of blood and shit. Her blood (and later Roger's) darkens drapes, carpets, and clothing; her murder causes Naomi to defecate in her pants. Throughout the evening, Gerald and his wife battle this rising tide with attempts to clean up. Gerald actually cleans Naomi and finds her new clothes. His wife does several loads of laundry and lends out her own clothes. Guests make various attempts (usually feeble) to clean up spilled ashtrays or to change their stained clothing, but their efforts never seem to catch up with the flood of waste and blood. The upstairs toilet clogs so badly that the plumber cannot fix it, and guests begin to relieve themselves in the garden until it is transformed into a morass of urine and feces. The breakdown of taboos becomes oppressive, not liberating, in its reminder of the body's physical essence. Roger's blood-spattered suit, the begrimed bedsheets of the master bedroom, Naomi's shit-stained clothes, the clogged toilet—all these images echo the ultimate corporeal reminder of Ros's body.

"The grotesque body of carnival" is, however, essential to the festive spirit. Some festive celebration of the body emerges in Gerald's party's relentless libidinal energy—another glorification of the lower body—but that aspect is also frustrated or dammed up. Gerald's intense longing for the seductive Alison epitomizes frustrated desire as his attempts to rendezvous with her are repeatedly blocked. By the end of the evening, Alison has been abandoned to unspecified humiliations, and her exit from the party is marked by her husband's pulling a long string of scarves from her behind in a grotesque parody of "theatre." The bodily elements of carnival tradition are surely present at this party, but the context renders them negative; they reinforce a bondage to physicality rather than a reveling in it. Such "bondage" is reified ludicrously in Gerald's sexual encounter with Sally Ann, in which his penis becomes partially caught in her and has to be extricated by the doctor, Jim. Like the slapstick code, the motif of the lower body fits the festive frame but does not necessarily celebrate it.

The futile attempts to clean or change clothes initiate a comic masquerade that highlights the body's monstrosity. Gerald's party is not officially a masquerade, but it becomes one as blood transforms dress clothes into costumes and the theatre troupe joins in with liberally applied stage makeup. In their desire to shed their stained clothing, many of the guests borrow clothes from the hosts, resulting in an informal masquerade in which few guests are wearing what they wore at the beginning of the party. Much of the individual distinctiveness of characters magically disappears in the confusion of costume. The primitive phenomenon in which costume erases individuality emerges in the confusion of identity caused by the clothing changes. Gerald mistakes Kitty for his wife because she is wearing borrowed clothing; Sally Ann pretends to be Alison with the aid of a dark room and Alison's knitted "peckersweater." Regina, arriving late, mistakes Yvonne for Ros. The injured Yvonne is also confused: "Honest to God, Jim, I think you guys pulled a fast one on me! This isn't my body." Talbot appears wearing a pair of Gerald's pants, as does Daffie later. In an extended comic scene, Ginger dons more and more articles of Inspector Pardew's clothing (overcoat, scarf, pipe); later, Fats appears wearing the Inspector's fedora "like a party hat." Modern equivalents of motley emerge in a variety of "patched" guests: Steve, the plumber, wears a name patch; a nameless guest is identified only by his patched elbows; Sally Ann adds various sexually suggestive patches to her clothing during the party; by the end of the evening, Alison sports a lewd road-sign patch.

The comical costume changes reflect a profound festive metamorphosis: the blurring of individual distinctions in the ritual setting. Identity depends upon certain taxonomic categories, and, in the chaos of the celebration, those distinctions can disappear. The primitive qualities of festive chaos remind individuals of their primal and bodily nature. All clothing becomes a masking of the bodily nature, and "even bare skin is a kind of mask." Such confusions of identity are temporary—even momentary—but they reflect the frightening side of the exhilarating potential of the party. The party reveals, for better or for worse, a monstrous side to the human.

What is the point of Coover's insistent invocation of the language of masquerade and monstrosity to describe the less formal costume changes of Gerald's party? The costume allows for and signals a release of that which is repressed by the mask of the everyday. As Terry Castle says of eighteenth-century masquerade, the transformation of public self represents "an almost erotic commingling with the alien." The dialogic natures of party and novel are especially receptive to this collective chaos of masking. The fictional code of masquerade fits naturally into the festive setting, but its context is deepened by the other codes of transformation—slapstick, injury, and waste—all of which depend upon illusion and metamorphosis, and contribute to the party's dreamlike, or nightmarish, character.

Distortions of the human image, visions of monsters, and the metamorphosis of the human form all suggest the logic of dream or nightmare, as well as the primitive festival. Gerald's party is not framed as a dream as are the "Alice" books or, in a sense, Finnegans Wake, but the party does contain specific retold dreams, and it does operate throughout with a certain visually associative dream logic.

When we call a fictional narrative "dream-like," first, we are identifying a kind of departure from novelistic realism. Dreams freely violate the realist conventions of fiction; time, causality, and probability are commonly altered or distorted. Dreams seem organized primarily by vivid images and dramatic moments. Most important, the shape of dreams appears to be directed by repressed wishes and fears; dreams are weighted with a significance that we sense but do not understand. Dreams are always in the past, recalled through memory's double remove, and the vagueness of retold dreams is always at least partially attributable to the limitations of memory. Narratives remind us of dreams, then, when they suspend normal notions of time and causality, move from one vivid image to another, and are vaguely suggestive of deeper significance. When the images are colored with horror or grotesqueness, narratives remind us of nightmares.

Works of literature are not dreams, however. Even "Kubla Khan" reflects the deliberateness of authorship. Dreams do become narratives when we tell them, however, and thus they have a particular resonance with fiction. Jackson Cope sees the dreamlike quality of Gerald's Party (he calls it a "detective novel woven with dreams") in its obsessive searching for obscured origins. Dreamwork and fiction both struggle with memory, "the primal crime." Thus Gerald's frequent reveries of vaguely remembered sexual encounters and Pardew's struggle to triumph over the force of time, which pushes the murder act into an unrecoverable past, are akin to dreamwork in their probing through confused memories to originating acts.

The breaking of boundaries and the voicing of the repressed articulate the transgressive power, which dreams and festivities share. Both realms present alternatives to the everyday world of waking, work, decorum, and rationality. Dreams, however, are individual, while festivals are communal. The difference is crucial, and it reminds us that Gerald's party is not a dream but is dreamlike. Dreams do become communal when they are told, and several are retold at Gerald's party. Perhaps these narratives are authorial attempts at connecting nightly individual transgressions with the sporadic communal transgressions. The novel contains five dream narratives and at least two dreamlike stories or visions. The most elaborate are those of the Inspector and Michelle; theirs present opposite views of revelation and comment upon one another and upon the novel itself.

One scene playfully frames the entire party as a dream. At the end of the party, Knud emerges from the TV room, having "slept through the whole goldarn party." He has had a remarkably vivid dream, which he begins to recount.

I was like in some kind of war zone, see, only everyone was all mixed up and you didn't know who was on your side…. Since you couldn't be sure who anybody was, see, just to be safe you naturally had to kill everyone—right? Ha ha! You wouldn't believe the blood and gore! And all in 3-D and full color, too, I kid you not! I kept running into people and asking them, Where am I? They'd say: "What a loony," or something like that—and then I'd chop their heads off, right?

Metaphorically, Knud's dream is an equivalent to the party—certainly the blood and gore suggest such a parallel. The images of a confused war zone in an unknown location are darker, but they do evoke the neutral zone of festivity—here a festivity in which the only response to the breakdown of categories (no clear "us" and "them") is murderous violence. Perhaps the dream's most profound resemblance to the party is its hazy vagueness, which is especially acute in the novel's concluding pages: "You know … sometimes, Gerald," his wife comments, "it's almost as if … you were at a different party." Certainly Knud was—but while he missed the communal festivity, he carries some trace of it in his foggy dream memories. The nightmare resonances of Gerald's Party blend with the magic of metamorphosis that characterizes the codes of slapstick and masquerade; at the same time, the dream haziness blunts the play with verisimilitude, upon which the detective code usually depends. The hints of communal dream experience suggest, finally, the importance of primitive ritual—the shared experience of magical transformation.

Throughout the novel, the phantasmagoria returns us to the initial image—Ros's corpse. Ros's character is presented almost entirely as a projection of male libido: the apotheosis of male sexual fantasy lies dead at the heart of the novel, signifying a dead end to desire. Ros's mysterious murder transforms her into a sacrificial victim, albeit a perverted sacrifice. Many elements of the ritual pattern and its traditional literary representations are clearly present: the death at the celebration, the near-sacred or legendary status of the victim, the lack of an individual clearly responsible for the murder, the use of the body in ritual performances, and the sale of articles of clothing as relics. Like the traditional pharmakos, Ros has a status that is both sacred and vilified, and she is elevated and killed, in a sense, by the whole community. The insistence that one's feelings for Ros are never unique but always shared ("You loved her very much." "Yes. Along with a thousand other guys") suggests the shared emotions the community invests in the sacrificial victim. Traditionally, the victim was killed by being stoned to death or driven off a cliff so that no one individual bore the guilt (or honor) of the deed. Here Ros is murdered, but, with the perpetrator unidentified, the party seems to share a vague and guilty sense of responsibility. Ros also has no relatives, which further improves her candidacy for sacred status.

Ros's death is not a primitive ritual but a murder at a contemporary party, and there is much to suggest that if she is a sacrificial victim, it is of a confused and perverted sacrifice that is life-destroying rather than preserving. Little in the events following her death suggests communal revitalization, except—significantly—that the party continues.

Ros apotheosizes the body as independent sensual entity. At the party she becomes, literally, all body, all corpse. The police desecrate the corpse in their investigation—taking film exposures, revealing the gaping stab wound along with her breasts, making an incision to take the liver temperature, cutting up and selling pieces of her panties, and encasing her in plastic bags. The true horror of the ultimate reduction to the physical—the separation of body and spirit—is revealed. The body remains on the floor throughout the party and is even used in an impromptu play staged by Zack Quagg's troupe:

We got Ros playing herself—we use the corpse, I mean—but the rest of the cast interacts with it like she's alive, you dig? The trick being to make the audience get the sense she really is alive!

That trick fails. Ros reminds us of death's finality and omnipotence. Once, perhaps, she was "the flame at which all chilled men might well warm themselves." Now she reifies a boundary between art and life and reminds Gerald that "[n]o, we were not going around in circles, Ros wasn't anyway."

The death of the projection of male fantasy suggests the morbid and destructive consequences of the sexual imagination. The nature of Ros's wound implies that murder is a kind of sexual violation as well. Ros is stabbed to death, cut in her famous chest by some vicious weapon. Pointing to the corpse, the policeman Bob asserts, "Only one instrument could make a perforation like that! If we find the weapon that did it we'll have … our perpetrator…." In Gerald's Party, an insistent parallel links the penis with a weapon—knife or ice pick. The mysterious ice pick, which seems at first to be a reification of a verbal misunderstanding, pops up repeatedly throughout the book, always in a phallic and guilt-related context. The cold undercurrent of the comedy of the mysteriously returning ice pick is the horrible realization that sexual desire exceeds individual control. Eventually we learn that the ice pick was planted by the Inspector: "One of the Old Man's favorite tricks…. His probe, he calls it. Stick it in, see what surfaces." One thing that surfaces is the shared guilt of the party in the murder of Ros. As the Inspector hyperbolically asserts, "The motive here was not merely irrational, it was preparational, atavistic, shared by all, you might say, and thus criminal in the deepest sense of the word." The party highlights the corruption of desire in a decadent world; the myriad of desperate or ridiculous sexual liaisons (Dickie's girls, Sally Ann's crushes, Janny Trainer's flirtations, Gerald's pursuit of Alison, Vic's brutal relationship with Eileen, Malcolm's unassisted orgasms) finds ultimate expression in Ros's corpse, in which the dream of vitalizing sexuality lies slaughtered.

The penis is the murder weapon, at least metaphorically. This conclusion is suggested by the comic links between ice pick and phallus, and by aspects of the homicide investigation. The police discover a series of photographs of Ros engaged in sexual intercourse with a costumed man. We later learn that the man is Gerald and that the costume is a disguise used once in a theatrical sexual romp for a photographer's benefit. Inspector Pardew irrationally concludes that the costumed man must be both a rapist and Ros's murderer. The penis is the only exposed part of his anatomy, and the police begin systematic penis examinations. The scenes, which include taking ink "penis prints" and an exchange in which a policeman revenges a suspect's erection by clubbing it with his nightstick, broadly parody police methodology. The comedy concludes with the interrogation of Gerald, in which the police browbeat him and shout, "Awright … out with it!" As Gerald reluctantly undoes his pants, the police confess that the interrogation is a joke: "We know it's not you. We showed your wife the photos and she said definitely not." The scene underscores the link between the murder and male sexuality; it pictures detection as a sort of undressing or humiliation. The phallic motif of the novel, epitomized in the pseudo murder weapon of the ice pick, mocks the traditional festival celebration of sexuality. Here, sexuality has become morbid and distorted.

Coover's development of the theme of sexual guilt around the murder of Ros illustrates his technique whereby the phantasmagoric themes of the novel gain intelligibility through the festive setting. We understand Ros's centrality better when we connect the party to ancient rituals and festivals. At that point, the image of the guests dancing around the corpse loses some of its initial strangeness. Death at the party is no longer an aberration but is part of the festive pattern. This is not to diminish the horror or to argue that Gerald's party follows a ritual pattern because it represents a revitalizing communal encounter with mortality. Rather, the very superimposition of the modern celebration on the ritual pattern reveals the alienation and despair in the world of Gerald and his friends. Ros's death does not discharge communal violence; it incites more violence in its wake (the murders of Roger and Vic and the various police beatings). Ros's communal being exists at the expense of her individual integrity, and her death reveals the lifenegating aspects of the party's supposed sexual freedom. Ultimately, we do not see in the party-goers' reactions to Ros a triumphant encounter with mortality; rather, we witness frantic avoidance as the guests satiate their desires around the blood-soaked body. The traditional wake, in which the encounter with death intensifies the celebration of life, is transformed into a festivity rendered ghastly by its desperate need to ignore the accumulating corpses.

The narrative structure of Gerald's Party is composed from the patterns associated with the detective story, slapstick comedy, carnivalistic celebration of the body, masquerade, dream tale, and ritual sacrifice. None of these codes is allowed to dominate, to "throw its weight around," in Coover's terms. Instead the novel's vitality emerges from the very incongruity of competing codes, which lends it a multivoiced richness that is greater than the sum of its narrative parts.

Constance Markey (review date 27 January 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1063

SOURCE: "Professor Pinocchio," in Chicago Tribune—Books, January 27, 1991, pp. 1, 5.

[Markey is an educator. In the review below, she offers a favorable assessment of Pinocchio in Venice.]

Hide your eyes Walt Disney fans. Here comes a scary sequel to Pinocchio designed to squash the life out of Jiminy Cricket and trample in the dust his goody-good philosophy. But then maybe it is about time. Carlo Collodi's original 19th Century fairy tale was never meant to be a simpering Technicolor homily but an alarm, a sinister allegory on life's meager blessings and plentiful pitfalls.

And in this sense Robert Coover's adult fable Pinocchio in Venice comes closer to the stern morality of the early Italian story than Disney's saccharine film ever did. In fact, going beyond the earlier tale, Coover adds some frightening thoughts on human nature, questions that Collodi probably never even considered in the last century.

Can anyone—hapless wooden puppet or fragile human woodhead—ever honestly mend his ways? In the random confusion of contemporary life are real choices for the better possible? Have blue fairies, hope, happiness or heaven ever existed outside of movies or stories?

But before going on in his darkly amusing way to look closely at his own contemporary doubts. Coover happily fills the reader in on what became of the legendary puppet after the earlier fairy tale ended. Where did Pinocchio go after he escaped from the land of donkeys, after he saved his father Geppetto from the whale, after he became a "real boy"? To our delight we learn that, like many other Italians early in this century, he immigrated to America.

There he not only mastered his ABC's (something Collodi's lazy puppet was loath to do), but he also ironically won fame and fortune as a renowned university professor and author. Blue Fairy magic and modest living have obviously reformed our erstwhile hero. The new Pinocchio emerges as an American success story. Like a character out of Horatio Alger, a stubborn mule is transformed into a brilliant savant. Or is he?

Now, nearly a century after his youthful misadventures, we meet Pinocchio again, this time returning to Italy, changed maybe—but how? The novel tells us that he is much older, "an aging emeritus professor … burdened with illness, jet lag … and an excess of luggage." We learn that he has long since traded in his ancient Abbecedario, or speller, for a smart new portable computer. But these and other changes are on the surface.

We soon see that, inside, Professor Pinenut (as Pinocchio is slyly called in the novel) is still the same petulant piece of wood once whittled on father Geppetto's knee. Despite his publications, his "ennobling labor," he is still his naive younger self, "drawn back" impulsively to bawdy Venice "by the sudden vivid conviction that only by returning here—to his roots—would he find … that synthesizing metaphor that might adequately encapsulate the unified whole his life has been, and so provide him his closing chapter."

These are prophetic and self-fulfilling sentiments. Clearly our hero has done no more than come full circle. Already he senses that his legs "are turning to wood again," and this can only spell trouble (or arthritis). Whatever the case may be, bound by his stubborn wooden (or is it human?) nature, he is soon propelled on a nonstop, nightmare reenactment of all his youthful follies.

Even disembarking he already has unwittingly collided with his two arch foes, the fox and the cat, now dressed as a porter and a hotel desk clerk. In no time he finds himself, as in the original story, back at the inn called the Gambero Rosso, where, as in the good old days, he is bilked of his "five pieces of gold," today in the shape of traveler's checks and credit cards.

Robbed and then abandoned to the beautiful but treacherous snow-swept panorama of Venice at carnival time, Pinenut-Pinocchio is aided by many of his former friends from earlier days, including his old puppet comrades from the Gran Teatro Dei Buratini. But in this version the puppets are a hilariously lecherous lot whose ideas of a good "festa" include "swapped parts" and showing off their brightly varnished bottoms.

Equally lascivious is the novel's Blue Fairy, easily Coover's funniest invention. A well-endowed bimbo in a tight blue angora sweater, she meets Pinenut-Pinocchio, her former teacher, in a Venetian church. There she takes him on a gum-chewing tour of the art treasures, complete with ribald commentaries on saints and madonnas and a Rabelaisian glance at a nearby painting of "the cute little butt on John-boy the Baptist."

At the book's beginning, our senile Pinocchio is hard-pressed to make sense of all these new mishaps. But as events grow more familiar to him, he is overcome by deja vu. "Something is bothering him about all this," Coover writes, "but he cannot think what it might be."

The author is a postmodernist with a vengeance. In drawing his new fairy tale from the traditional one, he has already done his homework very well, and now he expects the reader to do his.

One balances a copy of Coover in one hand and a copy of Collodi in the other in order not to miss the double-entendres, the subtle innuendo sandwiched between the two stories. Indeed, Coover is a master of the Italian cuss word, reveling in low-life erudition, lacing the book with prurient Italian not to be found in prudish vocabularies.

Also at hand one has a map of Venice, a guide to its museums and a history of the city and its art, indispensable tools to a reader bent on following Pinenut (alias "pignola" or fuss-budget in Italian) in his pursuit of his madcap destiny through the canals of Venice.

Pinocchio in Venice does not have a sweet ending because it asks too many questions. Exposing the safe, narrow world of the original fairy tale to the broad, haphazard realm of postmodernism is dangerous and challenging. It requires that the reader take a new hard look at his own wooden-headed ways, mulish choices and false blue fantasies.

What is human existence? Coover asks. Is it growing up or growing old? Is it a holy crusade or apocalypse now? Or is it the raucous round-trip this novel describes—a funny, frightening carnival ride hastily squeezed between howling birth and the reluctant return to mother oblivion?

Richard Eder (review date 27 January 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1209

SOURCE: "Wooden Nickels for Pinocchio," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, pp. 3, 11.

[An American critic, Eder received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and a 1987 citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. In the following, he provides a mixed review of Pinocchio in Venice.]

In Pinocchio in Venice, Collodi's boy/puppet has become an elderly art-critic/puppet, winner of two Nobel Prizes in literature. Arriving in Venice at Carnival, he undergoes a series of misadventures roughly equivalent to those of his early days, though far raunchier. They are told in a learnedly witty logorrhea that knocks them askew; like reciting "Ode to a Nightingale" in stage-German.

It is Pinocchio and it is utterly different: a post-structuralist, litcrit demonstration that the language of a narrative does not convey the narrative but the narrator. Robert Coover, in this case.

Coover is not a bad subject; he is fierce and funny, campy at times, and Rabelaisian at others. When you get through the bramble hedges of his wordplay and reality-play, you find a winning sympathy for his stick-figure pedant, along with a meditation on humanity vs. art. As old Pinocchio thrashes once again in his lifelong (puppet-long?) agony over whether to be human flesh or wooden artifice. Coover's book teeters uneasily between the same choices.

In the children's classic, Pinocchio finally overcame his flaming temper, his incurable greed and his helpless acquiescence to every temptation. After many slips, he shed his puppet condition and dedicated himself to study and hard work, under the aegis of the Blue Fairy or Fairy Godmother.

A happy ending? Yes, if you are a 19th-Century Italian fabulist. No, if you are a late-20th-Century avant-garde ironist. Coover's aged Pinocchio obeyed his godmother so thoroughly that he became a world-renowned scholar. And yet, stumbling through the Venice railroad station with luggage, a word processor and no hotel reservations, he is as irascible, unappeased, greedy and naive as ever.

A decrepit porter takes him in tow. He leads him on a tortuous route through the empty midnight city, crossing and recrossing the same bridge—this is normal in Venice, the porter explains—and ends up at a deserted palazzo that he swears is a hotel run by a friend.

Porter and a friend—blind and one-armed—take the old visitor to a tavern where, they assure him, everything is on the house. They eat and drink tremendously, stick him with the bill, and abandon him. When he eventually struggles back to the "hotel" through a heavy fog, he finds it is empty and his luggage is gone. The two swindlers, of course, are the Fox and the Cat, grown old and mangy.

Pinocchio collapses in despair and humiliation, increased by a loss of control of his sphincter. Picked up by the police, who abuse him, he is rescued and cleaned up by Alidoro and Melampetta, the two giant mastiffs he once befriended, now as old and decrepit as he is.

He falls into a canal, is rescued and bilked once more by the Fox, this time masquerading as a gondolier. He is thrown into a trash can and mocked by a troupe of performing puppets until they recognize him as their own comrade, and invite him to join their performance of "When You Wish Upon a Star." Coover shuffles his texts with deliberate glee.

Pinocchio is taken in hand by Eugenio, the schoolmate whose braining by a heavy mathematics book first launched Pinocchio on his sea of troubles. Eugenio had been another victim of the wicked coachman and master of Pleasure Island; but instead of being turned into a donkey, he became the coachman's sex partner and, eventually, his successor. He has turned Pleasure Island into a vast and noxious industrial park, and swindled his way into owning much of Venice. Now, after putting Pinocchio up in luxury, he swindles him as well.

The picaresque misadventures proliferate through all kinds of bawdy and phantasmagoric variations, and page after page of historical, philosophical and autobiographical self-searching. Pinocchio is in anguish. For one thing, he is turning back into wood, and unsound, splintery wood, at that. For another, he is trying to figure out the meaning of his life and troubles as man and as puppet.

He is obsessed above all with the mysterious, polymorphous figure who has ruled his life. In the original Pinocchio, she was, whether as the dead child who became a spectral playmate or as the loving but reproachful Fairy Godmother, an unqualified angel. But to Coover's Pinocchio, she is passion, salvation and corruption all in one.

He recalls her, as dead child and as godmother, mingling pure love with the most squalid eroticism; and making use of his wooden parts—his nose, particularly—for sexual gratification. She reappears in Venice, this time as a voluptuous, blue-haired college student, cuddly and aloof at the same time.

He had owed his Nobel-laureated success to her insistence that he become human, with a human's dedication to work and achievement. Why, then, is he turning back into a puppet? Why do his fellow-puppets entreat him to join them?

As a wooden puppet he was free, he realizes. Choosing to become a boy, he became the puppet of "she who, whipping him with guilt and the pain of loss, has broken his spirit and bound him lifelong to a crazy dream, this cruel enchantment of human flesh. In effect, liberated from wood, he was imprisoned in metaphor."

I admire Pinocchio in Venice and I like some of it a great deal. But it has two difficulties. It is overpriced, and I don't mean the $19.95 that Linden Press is charging.

There is the baroque subversion of its own story, jumping ahead and slowly catching up, like a mountaineer throwing up his rope and hoisting himself behind it. There are the punning, the wonderfully obscene Venetian argot, the emotional whirligig of feelings not felt but provisionally tried on, the encrustation of jokes and philosophical asides, the simultaneous specificity and vagueness of events; as a dream is both specific and vague. All this sets up a dense screen we get through at considerable cost.

At too much cost, I think, for what is there. A lot "happens" and yet it often seems—not always—that all that is happening is Coover. And whereas a story will move and change from page to page, here, despite the frenetic activity, each page seems curiously the same.

The second difficulty is only partly related to the book. It is related also to my reading the book. This is self-referential, if you like. Considering the nature of Coover's writing, perhaps that is appropriate.

In any case, the reading was done some two weeks before this review is being published. Inevitably, through the complex fabric of words that aim at being essentially about themselves, other words came, via radio. It was the Congressional debate, it was the countdown.

"Body-bags," "massive airstrikes," "Saddam Hussein," "The Constitution," "gas-masks," "the draft." Each of these words contained not only reality, but the likelihood of drastic shifts of reality. That made it hard to pay attention to words that struggled and dazzled so hard to be about themselves, and to tell us that essentially they could be about nothing else.

Lorna Sage (review date 31 May 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

SOURCE: "A Puppet-Show in the Great Bitch," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4596, May 31, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following favorable review of Pinocchio in Venice, Sage praises the novel's humor, brilliance, and intensity.]

In 1985 Cardinal Biffi, the Archbishop of Bologna, wrote a theological commentary on Pinocchio, showing how the story of the puppet whose nose grows every time he tells a lie is a most satisfactory allegory of original sin. Pinocchio, created by a carpenter-father, painfully weaned away from Toyland at the last, via the mediation of the mysterious blue-haired fairy, and turned into a flesh-and-blood human, is a brand plucked from a burning, a toy-boy who proves to have a soul after all. Robert Coover, celebrating the centenary of the death of Pinocchio's author Carlo Lorenzini (who was, even the good Cardinal admitted, a bit of an agnostic), has produced [Pinocchio in Venice] a hilariously phallic riposte, a carnivalesque reprise all about the agonies and delights of turning back to wood. His Pinocchio, after a century of humanity, opts for the dry rot and the unstrung joints, follows his nose and looks to his roots.

But why to Venice? This is a piece of poetical licence. Pinocchio's native Tuscany, despite the tourism and the cosmopolitan trendiness, wouldn't have provided anything like such an appropriate setting for this fin-de-siècle fantasy. Venice, thanks not only to Thomas Mann, but also to Calvino, Spark and McEwan, has become fiction's Toyland. Coover explains why, with panache—"this fake city built on fake pilings with its fake fronts and fake trompes l'oeil"; "the revel of the earth, the Masque of Italy", set on "a kind of itchy boundary between everywhere and somewhere, between simultaneity and history, process and stasis, geometry and optics." In other words, Venice is always sinking, never sunk, an icon of decadence and meretricious beauty, hallucinatory and penetrated by suggestive stinks, "Una vera cuccagna", which I think translates as the Great Bitch. So it is the right place for a terminal Festa, and a celebration of people as puppets.

This Pinocchio ("Professor Pinenut") has had a long and distinguished career in the United States as an art historian and philosopher, "living proof of the power of redemption through education". But now all that "scholarship, writing and tenured self-denial" is stripped away. First, on arriving at the station, he is robbed of his luggage, computer discs and credit cards—an episode done with naturalism enough, though if you know the original Pinocchio you'll recognize the old villains, the Cat and the Fox, in the pair of crooks who part him from his possessions. And soon, he finds himself caught up on a tide of alternating euphoria and despair, lost in dirty, empty night-time piazzas, taking refuge in a church, only to find the paintings coming to life, and his erstwhile preceptress, the blue-haired fairy, ludicrously reincarnated in a gum-chewing tourist co-ed ("Call me Bluebell") who once did her nails in his first-year lectures, and now leads him a merry dance through the city's scary labyrinth. Led by the famous nose, he forgets the lessons of soulfulness and self-discipline he used to teach, and rediscovers the fatal power of fun. Meanwhile, hideously, he's falling apart, bits dropping off, his flesh peeling into tatters, the wood within asserting its rights.

Coover's readers will possibly be prepared for the manic pace with which one ecstatic disaster follows on another. It is like being at a non-stop party, where the energies are endlessly recharged with newcomers just when you long for it all to be over. Fun, Coover-style, is perfectly nightmarish—murderous in its intensity, chilling in the thoroughness with which it scatters and splinters the remnants of "character". And here, the whole process is rendered yet more exhausting by a continuous barrage of cunning cross-references to the original Pinocchio tale. For instance, his old friend Eugenio (a goody-goody in the original) is here reintroduced as a prancing carnival Queen, with a finger in every one of the rackets and scams that keep Venice afloat. And the other puppets, Harlequin and Columbine and the cast of commedia dell'arte characters, come screaming back in the form of The Great Puppet Show Vegetal Punk Rock band. The trick (a good old picaresque trick) is to rescue your hero from the fire or the gallows, as it were, in every chapter, cranking up the impossible odds each time. It is what blurb writers call a tour de force: brilliant and all-but-unbearable.

Nor would you need to be a Cardinal to find it shocking. "The Wood was made Flesh and Dwelt among us"; but now the flesh is made wood, our "seasoned sage, laureled, laquered and lionised" finds his way back to his own version of home and womb, and is apotheosized as—a dildo, all nose at last, climaxing in a euphoric narrative sneeze. Professor Pinenut catches an everlasting cold, and all the innocently obscene connotations of the children's book ("The boy who had to wear on his face what other people hid in their pants") are detonated at once, like fireworks. The ribaldry and the "fun" are a lot more strenuous and obsessive than self-denial ever was. But then, that is Coover's specialism—the joke on the joker, that the world without soul, far from being easy, is absurdly hard. There's "no end to it", laments poor creaky old Pinocchio, it's "like jumping, over and over, through a ring at the circus". Desire pulls the strings, we fall about, and watch ourselves in the act. Among the comedians of this extremity, Coover is the most indefatigable and wily, Toyland's master of ceremonies.

Brooke Horvath (review date Fall 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

SOURCE: A review of Pinocchio in Venice, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 267-68.

[In the following, Horvath offers a favorable review of Pinocchio in Venice.]

I'm afraid I know how we may soon hear Pinocchio in Venice described: as tour-de-force postmodern intertextuality and "superposition" amenable to Bakhtinian analysis, as an allegorical account of all of us puppets ravaged by childhood traumas in our yearning for selfhood, as … But let's leave all that for somebody else to say. What Pinocchio in Venice more simply is, amico mio, is a very adult (mature, that is, not pornographic, though often ribald and decidedly irreverent) appropriation of and sequel to The Adventures of Pinocchio, a book already rich in psychological and fabulistic (whoops!) implication (if you don't believe me, check out the Carlo Collodi entry in Children's Literature Review). As such, Pinocchio is perfect source material for Coover, and the thematizing reader, tooled for profundity, will find an ample supply of lumber here with which to construct any number of elaborately useful readings.

In Pinocchio in Venice Coover's signature themes are all present and particularly getatable, for his Pinocchio (a.k.a. Dr. Pinenut) is a highly articulate two-time Nobel laureate and "world-renowned art historian and critic, social anthropologist, moral philosopher, and theological gadfly," the "lionized author" of such modern classics as The Wretch and The Transformation of the Beast. As the novel opens, Pinocchio—reverting to wood in his old age and suffering myriad physical ailments from weevil infestation to warping—has just arrived in Venice, hoping to find the inspiration needed to complete his magnum opus Mamma (a tribute to the Blue-Haired Fairy) but encountering instead, mostly in wonderfully transmogrified form, all his former friends and enemies: Eugenio, the Cat and the Fox, the Little Man, and the rest. As the novel unfolds, he endures one pathetic-comic misadventure after another, each provoking reflections upon art and nature, life and death, essence and existence, wisdom and wooden-headedness, and so on and so forth—those standard Coover themes.

I don't mean to shortchange the novel's serious intentions; indeed, some of Coover's finest passages are to be found during the novel's more meditative moments, as when San Giorgio Maggiori is described as sitting "gravely at anchor like an ordered thought within a confused sensuous dream, this damp dream called Venice"—though such austere moments don't overstay their welcome: this description of Venice ends with the city characterized as "the original wet dream," thus making the sentence a fine example of Coover's penchant for shifting tones quickly and bringing unlikely materials into boisterous collision. Indeed, it is at the level of verbal performance—of word-play, antic set piece, and the hammering together of diverse styles and moods—that I find myself arrested, almost every scene a small triumph of picaresque slapstick and Rabelaisian excess, every paragraph a "mad skein" of epithets ("you cuntless whore" is the one I'm saving for a special occasion), bad puns (for instance, Pinocchio's observation that only he and Jonah "fully understand what a gut feeling really is"), and provocative, often reflexive observations (e.g., the "little fagot's" belief that art today is "nothing more than, like scrimshaw, a decorated fossil"). In short, Pinocchio in Venice is one very funny, solid book; moving, too, with not a wooden line or ill-mortised joint to be found. One recommendation: to appreciate fully Coover's cleverness and his book's charm, reread The Adventures of Pinocchio first. Besides, like me, you may find a preliminary run through Collodi an unexpected treat in itself.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514


Andersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 156 p.

Combines an essay discussing the role of the fiction-maker in Coover's fiction with an annotated bibliography.


Caldwell, Roy C., Jr. "Of Hobby-Horses, Baseball, and Narrative: Coover's Universal Baseball Association." Modern Fiction Studies 33, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 161-71.

Discusses the intertwining elements of baseball and fiction-making in The Universal Baseball Association.

Durand, Régis. "The Exemplary Fictions of Robert Coover." In Les américanistes, edited by Ira D. Johnson and Christiane Johnson, pp. 130-37. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978.

Compares various critical perspectives on Coover's fiction and offers a sympathetic yet objective approach.

Gordon, Lois. Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, 182 p.

Focuses on innovative aspects of Coover's fiction.

Hite, Molly. "A Parody of Martyrdom: The Rosenbergs, Cold War Theology, and Robert Coover's The Public Burning." Novel 27, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 85-101.

Assesses Coover's treatment of the cultural context of the Rosenbergs' execution in The Public Burning.

Kennedy, Thomas E. Robert Coover: A Study of Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 153 p.

A study of Coover's short story collections that includes interviews and a compilation of criticism from additional sources.

Maltby, Paul. "Robert Coover." In his Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, pp. 82-130. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Comments on the subversion of literary-narrative conventions, the use of pattern, and the instrumentalization of meaning in Coover's fiction.

Mazurek, Raymond A. "Metafiction, the Historical Novel, and Coover's The Public Burning." Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction XXIII, No. 3 (Spring 1982): 29-42.

Argues that The Public Burning represents a "new kind of historical novel."

Orlov, Paul A. "A Fiction of Politically Fantastic 'Facts': Robert Coover's The Public Burning." In Politics and the Muse: Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature, edited by Adam J. Sorkin, pp. 111-23. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

Examines the relationship between politics and fiction in The Public Burning.

Pearce, Richard D. "Robert Coover's Kaleidoscopic Spectacle." In his The Novel in Motion: An Approach to Modern Fiction, pp. 102-17. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

Analyzes Coover's use of rapid motion and spectacle to simultaneously engage and upset his readers.

Siegle, Robert B. "Coover's 'The Magic Poker' and the Techniques of Fiction." Essays in Literature VIII, No. 2 (Fall 1981): 203-17.

Assesses Coover's narrative technique in "The Magic Poker."


Gado, Frank. "Robert Coover." In his First Person: Conversations on Writers & Writing, pp. 142-59. Schenectady, N.Y.: Union College Press, 1973.

Interview with Coover in which he discusses his literary influences, the writing process, and formal and thematic aspects of his fiction.

McCaffery, Larry. "Robert Coover on His Own and Other Fictions: An Interview." Genre XIV, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 45-63.

Interview in which Coover discusses the role of the contemporary writer in America as well as his short fiction, novels, poetry, and plays.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Robert Coover Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Coover, Robert (Vol. 7)