Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cooverthon: "Ghost Town"

Robert Coover had dabbled with "trapped in a genre" stories before, but "Ghost Town" (1998) was the first time he extended the concept to a novel.

The genre in question is the Western, and "Ghost Town" has it all: shootouts, train robberies, gambling, cattle rustlers, Indians, loyal horses, and a climactic hanging. The protagonist is a nameless gunman who has been wandering through the desert for an unknown length of time. He stumbles upon the Ghost Town, which embodies all the classic Western cliches...and it's a bad place for a lone gunman to hang around in.

The townsfolk are a constantly shifting mish-mash of characteristics; they swap injuries, hairstyles, and body types as the book goes on, particularly the town's deputy, who undergoes a steady transformation from one page to the next. The buildings in the town shift in a similar way, with buildings moving from place to place as the plot requires.

There are only two females in town: the dancehall girl and the schoolmarm. The protagonist, of course, is constantly defending himself against the former and trying to win the esteem of the latter...and because this is a Coover novel, he suffers constant humiliation and can never live up to the standards that others require of him: he is never brave enough, never smart enough, never suave enough, or -- conversely -- never enough of a rogue. The lone gunman fails again and again and again.

And hence my first real fatigue in this Cooverthon: I'm sick of the repeated humiliation of his protagonists. He always brings them to the brink of success -- often extending the scene to ridiculous lengths -- only to have them fall flat on their faces, worse off than ever before. There's a moment in "Ghost Town" when the gunman seems to have finally won the heart of the schoolmarm, and even though his success seemed guaranteed I KNEW Coover would pull the rug out from under him.

The fact that the "rug pulling" is always done in a surprising and inventive way does not alter the fact that it all gets a bit tedious. Coover simply cannot allow his heroes to win...they can't even get a GLIMPSE of happiness without being slapped in the face. Granted, his more straightforward novels give us more satisfyingly mixed character arcs, but these "I'm stuck in a nightmarish world" books always follow the same trajectory. And that's annoying.

But still, "Ghost Town" is a fun read, with everything getting jumbled up as though it were a movie set, and some of the more unsettling moments in any Coover book (the gore is notably exaggerated here). There's also an enhanced surrealism to events that contrasts nicely with the grittiness of the situations themselves.

NOTE: In some ways, "Ghost Town" revisits Coover's play "The Kid," which appeared in "A Theological Position" (1972). It has the same collection of anonymous characters and the same tendency to "flash back" to notable past events, something unique to this book and to the play. I suspect that the long list of dedications at the beginning of "Ghost Town" are to actors who appeared in some performance of "The Kid," assuming it was ever performed at all.

Typical Cooverisms: Humiliated protagonist, confusion of time and geography, bawdy puns, a penis exposed for an extended period of time, a woman who "digs at" her crotch. But even this far into his career, he's still inventing new elements which continue to surprise the reader, even if some of the conceits are getting a little old.

Adventures in Collingwood (Saturday August 20, 2011)

This journey would have taken days in a wagon or on a horse, but we spend two hours in our car, heading north along the escarpment. We drive between the ranks of lazy high-spired wind turbines and the bodies of dead porcupines, down the mountainside and into a land of big farms and small villages,  thunderclouds overhead.

Collingwood is hosting jazz but the storm moves in and the musicians run for cover. We eat food on the only patio table immune to rain. Soon we are sitting in a river and the waiter periodically tips the awning to preempt a downpour. Soaked shoppers huddle from the threat of lakefront lightning.

The storm retreats momentarily. We drive out to the famous grain elevator and explore the wet loading bays, our hair standing on end in a way that is both comical and scary. A loon darts underwater and reappears an impossible distance away, and he does this over and over, a game he plays for tourists.

Up Blue Mountain in the pounding rain which threatens to wash us back down the muddy bike trails. Our scenic view is of gray slopes and distant mist. Back down the mountain, we visit the artificial Village, a mirage, a magical entertainment tower which intimidates humans and engineers. Near the bathrooms, the wobbling mercury bubble inside a broken fire alarm is a mystery revealed to me.

Beach. The rain has stopped but people find no joy on a suddenly-chilly overcast day. We roll up our clothes and walk through the waves, shuffling over mud and rocks to a picnic table surrounded by tidewater. A joyful dog stumbles over our buried feet which swarm with minnows. Far off: a flat island covered with weeds, a Canadian flag its only vertical feature. When the tide goes out we leave.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cooverthon: "Briar Rose"

If "Briar Rose" (1996) appeared in a collection of short stories, I would probably appreciate it more. There is something about a "book" which implies depth and weight. "Briar Rose," sadly, holds neither of these things, and it's the only Coover book that I previously owned but which I never bothered to finish. Much like "Spanking the Maid" (1982) it's what everybody assumes Coover always does, but seems -- when compared against the rest of his work -- lightweight and sort of frivolous.

It shares the same structure as "Spanking the Maid," a narrative which shifts focus between two protagonists (the Prince and Sleeping Beauty) as they repeat the same actions endlessly without ever achieving their goals. The Prince wants to rescue Sleeping Beauty, but he's trapped as much by the briar hedges as he is by his doubts: is he the one? Is she the one? Is he accomplishing his tasks properly?

Sleeping Beauty, likewise, is enduring a hundred-year sleep in the company of a good/evil fairy. The fairy tells her stories about all the possible Princes and the possible resolutions to the fairy tale, invariably terrible. Usually these hypothetical princes are already married, and their wives kill Sleeping Beauty and eat her. Sometimes the princes wake her up only after having fathered several children by her while she was sleeping. Some princes only want her property, or they turn into monsters when they kiss her.

Every second (large-print, small-margin) page is basically a resumption of the tale with a new twist. This is Coover's "phantasmagoria" approach, which reads like a fever dream but -- sadly -- has little else to recommend it, especially when you've already read his similar short stories in "Pricksongs and Descants" (1969) and "A Night at the Movies" (1987).

If you have a burning love for fairy tale deconstruction, this could be a good book (in the same way that "Spanking the Maid" has been cited as the ultimate text for S&M devotees), but otherwise it's Coover at his laziest. It lacks the invention and passion that he injects into better examples of this style (eg. "The Magic Poker" and "The Babysitter"), and also lacks the satire and political consciousness of Angela Carter's fairy tale treatments.

"Pinocchio in Venice" was dedicated to Carter just a few years before, so maybe this was an homage of some kind, though Coover had tackled fairy tales before ("The Door," "The Gingerbread House") and would come back to them again in "Stepmother."

Typical Coover themes in "Briar Rose": Repetitious scenario with disconnected geography & time, characters can never succeed because the rules of the scenario are unspoken or more complicated than first considered, scatology, idealized situations become disgusting/horrific when subject to real life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cooverthon: "John's Wife"

Robert Coover's novels tend to come in one of two formats: either they're teeny-tiny books with huge text and wide margins (glorified short stories), or they're larger books with minuscule text, non-existent margins, and the smallest possible space between the lines (deceptively epic tomes). The fact that Coover tends to have a high "bulky paragraph" to "terse dialog" ratio makes the latter type of book particularly long.

"John's Wife" (1996) is ENTIRELY composed of bulky paragraphs. It never settles down and it never lets you rest. Its 420 pages feel like twice that many, and in a more sensibly formatted book they probably would be. But there's so much invention in it that you'll never feel the drag...unless you become hopelessly lost, which is possible, especially the first time through.

First, the structure: "John's Wife" is a book-length string of big paragraphs. Each paragraph focuses on a particular character, and the story flows between paragraphs as the characters encounter each other, think about each other, or when the plot naturally moves in that direction. These paragraphs come in unbroken sections about sixty pages long, but the separations between these sections -- a simple double space -- doesn't seem to serve any purpose. The story is one shifting character focus from page 1 to page 423.

These characters all live in a quaint midwestern American town, and -- as you'd expect in a small town -- they all have some connection with each other: parents, children, spouses, workmates, golfing buddies, drinking partners, and the professionals they deal with (a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, the newspaper editor, the town photographer, etc.)

The town's biggest booster is John, a hedonistic businessman, son of one of the founding fathers, frat boy, continually shaping the town by buying up and then over-developing property for maximum profit. John is the strongest motivating force in the town...

...with the exception of his wife. She's nameless, simply "John's Wife." The center of everything. Beloved by everyone. Half the men in town are hopelessly in love with her, and most of the women admire and respect her. Considering the book has about fifty major characters -- explored serially and organically as the book goes on -- there's a lot of "John's Wife worship" in those pages.

The curious thing is that John's Wife is the only notable character who is -- quite pointedly -- never explored. Everybody talks about her but she never earns a paragraph for herself. We learn about every other character's hopes, dreams, activities, and darkest secrets...but not her. She appears and (literally) disappears, setting things in action and then wandering into another paragraph to motivate somebody else. But she's the only person in town whose head we never get a look inside.*

What's "John's Wife" about? It's about everything that the characters care for: love, sex, power, life, hatred, art, philosophy, and survival. It's about the things that motivate these townie characters: infatuation for John's Wife, lust for revenge, craving for affection, dark regrets which cannot be forgotten. The novel is, in short, about the deep-down things that obsess us.

The first section of the book is an amazing study of how people motivate themselves to get through the day -- the sort of thing Coover wrote so truthfully about in "The Origin of the Brunists" (1966). We learn how all these characters know each other, the common touchstones they share (John's stag party in particular), and their own personal foibles which roar around in their brains: housewife Veronica, for example, is unable to forget the fetus she aborted when she was a teenager, and unable to forgive the man who fathered the child. Marge is driven by her need to finally win a contest -- any contest -- against John. Ellsworth (the newspaper man) is using his unwritten novel to try to understand the relationship between artists, models, and audiences. Poor teenage Jennifer has a hopeless crush on John's business partner and fantasizes about running away with him.

This is fascinating enough, but after 160 pages the town begins to unravel. It begins with the strange behaviour of John's Wife herself: sometimes she disappears when people aren't looking at her, leaving nothing but her car (or her clothes) behind. Latent murderers begin to make all-too-serious designs on the lives of others. Ellsworth is terrified to discover a new character lurking in his book's pages, and Stu's dead wife -- who he killed years ago -- reappears as a ghastly and blazing-eyed ghost. Meanwhile Pauline -- the novel's most tragic character -- is growing to a surprising size in the photographer's studio...

I don't want to tell you any more because part of the book's joy is the shock at every new twist: the way the yearnings and regrets of these otherwise normal characters become hideous reality as the book goes on. Eventually time and geography begin to collapse, and as an all-too-familiar monster finds herself under siege in the middle of Settler's woods, the town goes absolutely bonkers. Events move to their natural end in a way that only Coover could manage. Fire, disaster, storm, accident, death, destruction. And a huge part of the forest soaked with urine.

The book ends with all of the characters newly matured...the town has healed and so have the people who live there. They're not better than they were -- some of them are in a new kind of private hell -- but everybody seems to know a bit more about themselves. John continues to buy and renovate property, John's Wife returns and brings everything back to a state of normality, and the impossible events of the previous (day? week? month?) recede into the legends and tall tales that make a town unique.

"John's Wife" is a non-stop burst of creativity: characters, events, collisions, distortions, it never ends, and -- now that I've read it a second time and I have the characters straight in my head -- I think it's Robert Coover's masterpiece. It has the best of his realistic writing, and also the best of his impossible stuff, with both extremes perfectly meshed in an utterly flawless structure.

That said, it's a damn frustrating book, especially the first time through. It's easy to mix characters up and forget where they've been, dulling the ironic beauty of events seen through dozens of different eyes. It's also easy to lose sight of the subtle and beautiful surprises that are lost in the surrounding bombast: the really complex and unusual stories of Corny and Beans, for example; the former one of the most rich characters in the book, and the latter a strange and significant footnote that the casual reader will miss altogether.

Common Coover touches in the book: the warping of time and geography, lots of different spouses screwing around on each other, toilets referred to as "stools," dense meditations on art and philosophy (though nicely spaced out this time), a comical cowboy character, women with big butts, metaphoric darkness/blindness, lewd puns, and outrageous pantomime.

* With the exclusion of the mysterious "Sassy Buns" who wreaks male havoc during the extended climax of the book, and who may be a sort of "Anti-John's Wife." Or something.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Come Out of That Kelly Pool!

Okay, these Womrath's advertisements are lots of fun. From November 29, 1930, this one tells us that reading books is WAY more enjoyable than any of the (then-) current fads, including Kelly pool.

Stop falling through that auction bridge...quit trying to walk into that full-house on your inside straight...don't leave your footprints in that sand-trap. Roll your bones in another alley! Save your quarter...only a fourth of a dollar...for a gamble where you're sure to detectives get their the great got that way...Use your two-bits to rent a book from Womrath's...for a week...

Three Arrivals, Always in the Morning (Part Three)

"...the police officer said to him, 'I'm not gonna charge you if you take my advice: respect your parents. They brought you into this world. They feed you, they clothe you, they send you to school. When you're a fine young man then you'll do your father proud.'

"Then he went to Fort Murray. He said, 'Dad, I'm leaving home.' I said, 'You're always welcome back here, but make sure you've got the costs money to go to Fort Murray.'

"Well, he was good for a while, but then he fell in with these kids, drinkin' and causin' trouble. So I booked a flight and went over there, he didn't even know I was coming. I went into his place and he wasn't there, but another kid was there. This kid said 'I'm just staying here until James gets back,' and I said, 'No you aren't!' And I straightened that kid out.

"One day James called me and said 'Dad, I want to buy this house but I don't have the money.' So I sent him some money and told him that he'd better make sure he saved for the rest and make sure he got that house.

"Well, now he's in Alberta and he has a four-car garage. Married a nice lady, gave me a grandson."

Meanwhile, among the homeless, the conversation is about the weather and religion, and about holiday meals and the churches that have offered them charity in the bitter cold. The elderly -- who have always had homes, and now flee them out of loneliness -- talk with disgust about the celebrity who was spotted at the mall: his terrible music, his unearned celebrity, their own unconcern that they wish today's youth would share.

Apples for the Unemployed

Having -- like most of the rest of the country -- concluded that the newly-born depression was no big deal, The New Yorker, managed to virtually ignore it until November 1930. Then, suddenly, the paper was FULL of depression apple sellers.

Cartoons. Comments. Little snipes in otherwise unrelated articles. I don't know if the apple seller scheme -- the International Apple Shippers Association sold apples to the unemployed at a loss, putting an "apples for the unemployed" vendor on virtually every New York street corner -- actually worked, but it certainly seemed to put a visible face on the worsening depression, and it also annoyed a lot of pedestrians in the city. Those with jobs, anyway.

Another source of depression news in the paper were the ever-present full-page advertisements for the Evening Standard, which basically said "These troubles will be over soon, and the only firms which will survive are the ones which continue to advertise!" The Evening Standard was truly making lemonade in response to the lemons...or at least grinning while eating the lemons raw.

I leave you with a poem called "Confession" by Richard Peckham, from the November 29, 1930 issue:
It may be shameful to avoid
The apples of the unemployed
But, since they've been on every corner,
I have become an apple-scorner.
Snow, McIntosh, and Northern Spy
Are now as painful to my eye
As pencils and shoelaces were
When apples were uncommoner.
An antisocial state of things,
I know. It will not earn me wings.
But why, when wits were being deployed
To get the unemployed employed,
Did no one, to whom things were clear,
Distribute, say, light wines and beer?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Robert Benchley Wants No More Sex

In the November 29, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, Robert Benchley concluded his weekly theatre column with this:
I am now definitely ready to announce that Sex, as a theatrical property, is as tiresome as the Old Mortgage, and that I don't want to hear it mentioned ever again. I am sick of little Southern girls who want "to live." I am sick of hearting fathers and mothers talk to little girls, Southern or otherwise, about "what lies before them." I am sick of rebellious Youth and I am sick of Victorian parents, and I don't care if all the little girls in all sections of the United States get ruined or want to get ruined or keep from getting ruined. All I ask is: don't write plays about it and ask me to sit through them.

I assume that Benchley was soon to get his wish.

Blues Festival 2011, Part Two

We travel in and out of the big tent to stand near groupies and their babies. Scriptwriters explain their deepest desires. Our brief trip across the road confirms that Tom and Tammy Waites are big enough entities to fill a Boathouse without completely sinking it. No police officers patrol the bathrooms under the Blues-ignorant eyes of Queen Elizabeth who has ears made of stone.

Run to the Rumrunner for improved beer and food. Our hosts secure tables in a way that I shamefully sell short, for the first of many times that night. Ladies arrive and depart when the adulation of the fans is not enough for them.

The Mississippi Queen fries catfish and beans in a distinctive rooster-posture. Edgar Winter (back in the big tent) channels blues via classic rock, playing every instrument in turn, followed by extended scat. Jenny bangs the belly-drum slowly and, after fording the mass migration of Kitchener diasporacs, invests in a giant turkey leg.

More tables are pounced-upon and conglomerated. A radio receptionist is receptive to radio reception. The Mississippi Queen dances ballet to the blues. I leave the young lovers and grab a taxi just before the rain begins.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Cooverthon: "Pinocchio in Venice"

"Pinocchio in Venice" (1991) was the first Robert Coover novel I read. Having just finished it now for the third time -- and in the midst of a chronological re-reading of all his books -- I can best sum it up as...weird.

It's "weird" because it's an uneasy mixture of his already well-established styles, and because it comes perilously close to actually "saying something," which few of his books ever do. I'm not entirely sure WHAT (if anything) it is trying to say, but if you pressed a gun to my head and demanded a moral, I might just say: "Selfish prigs are bound to suffer, both outside (because people resent their priggishness) and inside (because prigs cannot achieve the high standards they set for themselves)."

Part of the book is -- simply -- a playful reinterpretation of the Pinocchio story. By claiming that all of Pinocchio's adventures (somehow) happened in Venice, Coover can push the well-known character (now an ancient and venerable scholar) through all of his old haunts, where his friends and enemies are far more complex than we'd ever thought. Coover takes the black-and-white morality of the original book and applies it gruesomely to the more "human" characters in Venice, and suddenly the Blue Fairy's moral lessons and Pinocchio's upstanding actions seem as sinister as...well, moral ideologues really ARE in real life, when their beliefs collide with flesh-and-blood.

The book's first third is in Coover's "languid phantasmagorical" style, wherein Pinocchio -- returned to wintry Venice to write a manifesto which summarizes all his moral precepts -- suffers a series of terrible indignities, either thanks to long-ago villains or his own personal failings (which might best be summarized as lust, ease of distraction, and an unyielding priggishness). This style also returns in the final third, which is more "frantic phantasmagorical," wherein Pinocchio's sins REALLY come out to get him. And...err...he gets baked into a donkey-shaped pizza.

It's the section between these two thirds that I've never really liked, mainly consisting of meditations on art and theatre, subjects which Coover has been dabbling in since "The Public Burning." It reads like an essay and a "guidebook to Venice," made even more tedious by the fact that the protagonist has been rendered totally immobile through most of it. Many of Robert Coovers novels seem to be about 15% too long, but while in other cases this tends to manifest as a protracted ending which tries to cover its tracks by being as ambiguous as possible, in "Pinocchio and Venice" the extraneous pages are all in the middle, and caused -- perhaps -- by Coover trying to say too much.

Then there's the ending, the final chapter which -- after 300 pages of playful allegory and abstract theorizing -- is an ACTUAL HONEST-TO-GOODNESS STORY. It contains exposition and straight-forward revelation. It's beautiful and moody and strange, yes, but it also adds to the book's confusion as a whole: if there was never supposed to be a point, why did it end like that? If there WAS supposed to be a point...what was it?

At its best, "Pinocchio in Venice" is an adventure story, overlaying a deconstruction of the original children's book, and also combining the unrealistic morality of the children's book with the facts of the real world. At its worst it's...well, an awkward partnering of those "best" elements with dense art criticism interspersed with repetitive action sequences. I wouldn't consider it to be an essential Robert Coover book, necessarily, but it's an interesting experiment nonetheless (and darn fun when it works!)

Greg Allman in Kitchener

I escorted my parents to see Greg Allman at the Kitchener Blues Festival on Thursday. I have almost no recollection of Allman from my youth (other than wondering why there was an enormous spherical blob of jello on the back of his fruit truck) but I'm always intrigued by ace musicianship. Also I figured I could keep my folks from whooping it up too much, which in fact wouldn't happen, so I was making a joke there.

My immediate perception: blues is a little boring in a large venue, especially when performed in a manner that our town paper called "workmanlike." It seemed like every single song followed the same exact formula: a vocal introduction, followed by a piano solo, then either a sax or a guitar solo, and then a refrain of the vocal for the big finish. The musicians were amazing, as expected, but if there is such a thing as "too many piano solos" then I witnessed it several times over.

There was little variation. There was precious little soul. Even Allman's Hammond B3 sounded "workmanlike," having been played with much more verve and style by opening band "Aphrodite's Bodice."

I'm not sure if anybody else felt this way. There was certainly a lot of whooping and cheering going on, though mostly by Kitchener's life-long all-day porch-party brigade. We sat behind the cutest middle-aged German couple you've ever seen: both of them portly and homely, and when Allman sang "Melissa," the woman put her head on her husband's hamhock shoulder and gently held his hand. So that was sweet.

Maybe it's just a "blues thing." I felt that the spectacle would have been much better in a more intimate venue. It was a rush to see such talented guys put on a show, even if I still don't understand why there was a blob of jello on that album cover way-back-when.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Sow Geraniums and Reap Orchids

My impromptu "Weirdest Metaphor" award goes to Madame Nina's geranium cream (New Yorker, November 22, 1930), which confuses a debutante's face with...a map of Manhattan. Really.
When going to bed, she dips a slim finger in the fat glass jar and rubs contents across the map of Manhattan in the mirror, paying particular attention to the bright lights that so easily run to dark circles on the morning after. Incipient crosstown lines are refused police protection. General traffic conditions are improved. And the Great White Way gets a gentle bleach all over.

In the morning, she uses the same specific as a foundation for make-up that looks more natural than little sister's first blush. Rouge--if she follows the revived vogue for it--can never be mistaken for a stop-signal. Powder doesn't skid. And the first aid work begun for the entire facial countryside goes on all day.
 Now you know how to flatter a dame: "Darling, your's like the street map of a huge metropolitan area. Your nostrils: the north and south subway lines. That freckle: city hall..."

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Just Revealed! Our New Model

Okay, sure, in the brains of horny consumers you MIGHT find a link between CARS and sex. But MODEMS?

I have previously mentioned the trashy nature of early British computer magazines. This advertisement is from a publication which positioned itself as more respectable than the rest ("Your Spectrum," January 1984), but I guess you can't pick your advertisers. And maybe there IS something sexy about modems that I've never noticed's an acoustic coupler, after all.

Take the Rank Out of Drank

Advertising came into its own during the '20s, having learned that nothing sells a product like fear. I imagine executives sitting around in a plush highrise meeting room somewhere, staring at each other with bug-eyes, saying "How can we scare people into buying all this CRAP?"

Social anxiety always helps. From the November 22, 1930 New Yorker I bring you "The Savoy Cocktail Book," which you'd better buy if you don't want your parties to suck.
Of course, you have a bar in your pent-house, but even that does not insure social success!

Do you find that guests are glad to put their foot on the rail the first time, but seldom return? Do you feel like the girl who was often a bridesmaid but never a bride?

Of course, you have all your liquor analyzed, so you can't blame your bootlegger.

Perhaps the trouble is with you. Perhaps it's the way you mix the cocktails that bars you from the popularity you feel that you deserve.
"Whew!" Said a bunch of advertising executives. "That's done! Now how can we make them frightened of RADIOS..."

Incidentally, "The Savoy Cocktail Book" was "compiled and amplified" by Harry Craddock of London's Savoy bar. As his biography at the bottom of the advertisement says, he was "the man who took the rank out of drank."

Three Arrivals, Always in the Morning (Part Two)

The shopping mall is only open because winter shelters require arbitrary schedules. Now, before 9am, it entertains the elderly and the workers themselves. Bored security guards fold their arms over their windbreakers and lean on empty kiosks, talking about hockey. There are beautiful young women everywhere, dressed immaculately, with elaborate hairdos and high-heeled footwear. Their faces are closed and inwardly-turned, they carry bagged breakfasts in as-yet functional hands.

Only the lunch ladies are eternal, always halfway between exhaustion and crisis, constantly patrolling the tables in this cavern which is spotless, sad, echoing, and almost empty.

I barely exist here. The lights serve no purpose but to guide the labour and to keep the elderly from falling down. The lights are not meant for me, they're brilliant point-of-purchase spotlights and soft pink gels that stupidly reach out to the very people who work there. The music sounds strange in a maze of caverns without enough moving bodies, like it's pushing hard to enter the world. No patrons, just the employees, who don't know each other well enough. They walk around, killing time, still wearing their winter jackets, from store to coffee shop and back again.

But for the elderly, this is their adult education center. They are friendly and familiar with each other. At tables they sit side-by-side, their eyelines parallel in the manner of old married couples who know each other so well. They've brought newspapers and they feel safe leaving their belongings behind during their frequent trips to the bathroom. They support each other and they have nothing to steal except porkpie hats and keyrings and pictures of the grandchildren that are too small for blunt fingers to handle.

A painted woman on the window has vibrant betty-bangs and she's promising to reveal a secret. Even at the best of times that secret would be elusive, but now her presence is taunting and irritating, signaling "Come in!" beside a door that's been locked all night.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

What Does It Mean?

I think this picture is very funny. At the very least it makes a stoic ritual look as ridiculous as it probably is.

Caption contest! No prize! What's up with these guys?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bells Bring Birds and Memories

Far off to my right, churchbells ring an epiphany of dubious quality. God says, "This is it, Creation! You are on to something!" It is no louder than the children squealing in the splashpark or the overworked cicadas, but the bells grab my attention because they are musical and they are novel.

Called by the bells and looking for the origin, a chorus line of geese begin their long slow march across the grass. They are not deterred by anything except for the Korean woman who wants her husband to stand with them for a photograph. It is impossible to coordinate: he approaches, they veer away, each goose turning diagonal for a moment to yield their passage. Thwarted, the Korean man attempts to corral ducks instead, and then he gives up and walks away.

The heat and the bells blur yesterday into today: there's nobody here to tell us about slaughter. No man offers cures for laryngitis as suffered by sloe-eyed and apparently vacant waitresses. Tourists do not gasp for the last drop of lemon water from an antique glass. Yesterday continues to intrude: the arts are overpriced, the elderly move slowly, papa-goose grunts his dissatisfaction and the children are making animal noises. The Goose Girl isn't here...I'm 42 days late.

The churchbells stop and are replaced by the sound of a dump-truck in reverse.

Throb of Tom-Tom Cats!

Here's a wonderful advertisement from Womrath's bookstore, intended to convince us that READING about stuff is more exciting that actually EXPERIENCING it. They make a strong case for the joy of delightful puns and alliteration, at least...
Ankles aweigh! All abored the SS. VAN DINE...sailing to darkest of mystery and philovances. Star-drenched daze. Sunkist knights. Drone of dramaturgic dromedaries...drowse of drastic dhuhinkies. Lots of good fellahs. Oil-burning cannibals...ready to take pot-luck with missionaries. Pooh yourself! More fun to stay home...
The advertisement mentions fiction, travel, biography, and history, so I suppose the dense wordplay is meant to evoke all those things: the mystery books of Philo Vance, the "darkest Africa" travel literature, Hollywood biographies, and...whatever "dhuhinkies" are.

(The New Yorker, November 15, 1930)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Quick Acknowledgement of a Cooverthon

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.
And now, a list of common Robert Coover themes.
  • 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.
  • Puns.
  • 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.
* ...with the exception of independently-published pieces, which are difficult and expensive to find.

    Fat Americans and Skinny Italians

    Italians conspire and shush politics with their wife-birds, bedraggled, bluntly confused. They are Europe's ambassadors to this crass continent of progress and cannibalism; we are the ones who fall the fastest, but our huge gravity will pull them down with us, all those staring dark-eyed peasants and pilgrims and artists. They would declare us guilty if we believed in their gods but their quaint piety is antichrist to our admittedly divided forces.

    "You have broken the rules and wandered too far from us!" they scream at the back-ends of our boats, and we respond: "Denial of your beloved elder statesmen! They are too fat on food that took them too long to cook and eat! We, here, eat only the quick things, which we have invented ourselves, the burgers, the beans! Our fat is made of proteins alien to your history, and therefore we are brand new men and women!"

    Watch Your Husband!

    It's really an advertisement for a cruise (eg. if you notice your husband getting stressed, take him on a cruise), but you'd be excused for seeing something more sinister.

    (The New Yorker, November 15, 1930, when everybody was running off to warmer climes, the French and Germans were rumbling about war, and backgammon was the game of choice)