Robert Coover Coover, Robert (Vol. 87) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Larry McCaffery (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Montrose (review date 5 May 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."]

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Janusz Semrau (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jackson I. Cope (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Ames (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Constance Markey (review date 27 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 27 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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;...

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Lorna Sage (review date 31 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brooke Horvath (review date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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