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.
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.
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.
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."