Sunday, December 10, 2006

What's the Story With Robert Coover?

Up until university I read a steady diet of pulp horror anthologies. There was probably more variety to my reading than that, but if there was I don't remember it.

Then I took English 101 -- "The Short Story" -- and read Robert Coover's "The Magic Poker." To say "it changed my life!" would be an overstatement but it certainly changed the way I looked at writing, fiction, plotting, and perception. It's still one of my favourite stories, and Coover is still one of my favourite authors.

He has a few different gimmicks that show up in most of his books. Some of them ("Pinnochio in Venice," "The Adventures of Lucky Pierre") are about selfish, unpleasant men who start off in a bad situation which just continues to get worse; the protagonist never repents, is never redeemed, and never reaches that moment of self-understanding that plots like that demand. Other books ("John's Wife," "Gerald's Party") revolve around a kaleidoscope of diverse characters, all stuck in a never-ending situation that is horrifying and nightmarish but which they never seem to really acknowledge. They're like people in fever dreams, wanting to accomplish some task but being constantly thwarted in ridiculous ways.

From the Coover books commonly available you'd get the impression that he started off straight-forward ("The Origin of the Brunists"), then began experimenting ("The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop"), then jumped completely into postmodern la-la land ("The Public Burning," wherein Uncle Sam fights the forces of The Phantom, with klutzy Richard Nixon and the unfortunate Rosenbergs caught in the middle. And Nixon turns into a dog).

But a few of his books are notably missing from today's "Coover canon" and they're damn hard to find. Right now I'm reading one of those hard-won missing novels -- "Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?" -- which he wrote in between two of his wildest works. I expected scatological craziness, fever dreams, spiral plots, and unpleasant men having graphic sex with pudgy women.

Instead I've got a sad, pensive, totally normal book about the union movements of the late ' know, when both sides were hiring thugs in order to maim each other in shipyards and in factory parking lots.

The book is beautiful and uncluttered, and so are the characters. Meyer, a sculptor, dreams of a socialist revolution while -- to his shame -- he finds reasons not to join the revolution in Spain. He really just wants to keep his ideologically conflicting friends together in the face of guilt, impotence, and economic recession.

But then there's Gloomy Gus, a retired football player who is pretty much just a primitive walking computer: he's a brilliant actor because he can remember all his lines and portray all the right emotions, but he does everything in the same order, all the time, and only in response to cues. Meyer realizes this when he first meets Gloomy Gus. Gus mindlessly -- and eerily -- responds to Meyer's accidental cues with lines from plays he's been in:
I propped an empty glass in his hands and made sure he had a grip on it before pouring -- we'd had to scrape to get together what food and drink we had, and it hurt to waste any of it. "Tell me when," I said.

He stared at me searchingly, and after a moment replied with boyish earnestness: "Honey, don't be impatient. The delay's been useful, hasn't it?"

"What--?!" I cried.

He became very jittery then, his eyes flicking from side to side as though deeply perplexed, hunting for something -- then suddenly he seemed to find it (I could almost hear the whirr-click!): he smiled benignly, lovingly, and said in a deep resonant voice: "Fannie, I ask you to marry me."
The question in the book seems to be: is Gus the perfect revolutionary because he's strong, stupid, and absolutely trainable? Is he the perfect actor, the perfect football player, the perfect idea-less idealogue? You have to be careful which cues you give him -- when his girlfriend accidentally says "29" to him backstage at a play, he tackles her, knocks her through a wall, steals her purse, and dashes through the orchestra pit for a touchdown -- but as long as you do the same thing to HIM all the time, he will do the same things for YOU. Totally predictable.

I'm halfway through the book and learning an awful lot about the union movement, something I've never really thought about: highbrow intellectuals trying to motivate (and manipulate) uneducated factory workers to better their lives, no matter how counter-productive the methods seem to be. These union organizers work out strategies and feints and diplomatic long-shots, rooting out the company spies from their midst, while the working men -- who only want to feed their families in the middle of a crushing economic depression -- wonder why they can't just beat up the cops and the supervisors and get back to work.

But most interesting -- to me, anyway -- is trying to figure out Robert Coover in light of this surprisingly sedate book. He DIDN'T just go off the deep end after 1966. The much-vaunted "king of hyperfiction" wrote this modernist book right in the middle of his career, and then -- for whatever reason -- never reprinted it. What's up, Mr. Coover? Ashamed?

At least one thing is true to form, unpleasant man DOES have sex with a pudgy woman.

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