For the past six weeks or so I have been engaged in a Cooverthon...that is, I've been re-reading all of Robert Coover's books* in chronological order in an attempt to get a sense of his development and his themes.
Doing this same thing with John Barth a few years ago pretty much destroyed my enjoyment of his work, so I'm aware that this is a dangerous and stupid thing to repeat with another of my favourite authors. One reason I'm doing this is to prove to myself that I didn't sell John Barth short; that other authors CAN stand up to such a rigorous and exhausting re-reading without becoming repetitive.
In some ways, Coover has an edge on Barth because his fiction is so unabashedly repetitive to begin with. My impression after years of fandom has been that -- following "The Public Burning" -- Coover used the same structure over and over again in all subsequent books: a protagonist is stuck inside a nightmarish (and usually genre-specific) environment from which he cannot escape, and as the book progresses the environment becomes increasingly horrifying.
That assumption was incorrect. Coover has been dabbling with that "nightmare" structure since his 1969 collection "Pricksongs & Descants," and while the structure DOES become a regular background feature of most of his subsequent novels, those novels ALSO contain many other novel elements: distinctive characters, bizarre authorial quirks, new types of focus.
We'll see if that impression continues to hold as I make my way through "Pinocchio in Venice" (1991) for the third time. Halfway through "Gerald's Party" (1986) my enthusiasm flagged a bit -- particularly discouraging because it has always been and still remains my favourite Coover novel by far -- but that's to be expected: most of Coovers books are INTENDED to exhaust you ("Gerald's Party" more than most).
I wish I'd rigorously blogged the earlier novels while I was reading them (and I wish I could guarantee that I'll continue to blog them as they come), but here are some scattered impressions:
- Coover has dabbled occasionally with theatre, but his plays are underwhelming. Having just read "A Theological Position" (1972) for the first time, my belief that Coover is not a great playwright is further reinforced.
- The real joy of "The Public Burning" (1977) is Coover's characterization of Richard Nixon: insecure, self-centered, nervous, awkwardly outgoing. Much of the book is just Richard Nixon endlessly pontificating in his head, and this is some of Coover's best writing. He's masterful at distinctive and consistent characterization (see "Gerald's Party" for the extremes of this), and it's easy to lose sight of that with all the experimental flim-flammery going on.
- On the other side of this, however, is "Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears" (1987), whose Jewish socialist sculptor is Coover's biggest failure: he never comes to life.
- "You Must Remember This" (the concluding short story in his "A Night at the Movies" collection) is, I think, his crown jewel. Although "The Babysitter" and "The Magic Poker" tend to be his most anthologized stories (probably because they're early works and -- more importantly -- do not have extended scenes of outrageously graphic sex), "You Must Remember This" sums up everything Coover does well. A close second is "Charlie in the House of Rue," also in the same collection. If you only read one Coover short story, pick one of those.
- Women with big hips and butts. This obsession tends to taper off eventually, but it begins right there in 1966 with the introduction of the wonderful nurse "Happy Bottom."
- Cartoon/vaudeville mime routines. This again is more a feature of his early work, and again begins with "Happy Bottom."
- Bawdy songs.
- Vicious, fickle audiences.
- The protagonist is trapped inside an environment which he cannot escape, and the environment degrades over time. The landscape is usually disconnected -- doors never lead to predictable places -- and often chronology is confused as well.
- As a continuation of the nightmare environment, the protagonist usually suffers most when he is feeling proud or confident.
- In addition, the protagonist is constantly being punished for failing to follow rules, through no conscious fault of his own.
- Sometimes the environment and protagonist are part of an obvious genre.
- A large cast of couples who screw around with each other.
- Scatology. People tend to poop their pants.
- Extremely dense, impenetrable, high-brow concepts introduced in tiny snippets within the most banal of events, with the result that the concepts themselves seem banal. This starts happening during Coover's middle period.
- Sex with strangers.