I am not now who or what I was when I wrote this. I change as you read. I am changing now. I have had a strange and difficult life. Am having.
Like you, I was only an actor with, in my case, a bit part in a family comedy. That is to say, the others in the family were mostly comical, but I wasn’t. Take my mother-in-law, I’d say, and I’d be answered by a sullen silence. No, please, take her. Nothing. I did all I could. I sat on chairs that weren’t there, dropped my pants, slipped on banana peels, feigned astonishment at my own punchlines, clowned in front of mirrors, gave myself neck cramps from double takes, took humiliating pratfall after pratfall, got hit by ice water, custard pies, avalanches, trains and the flung contents of chamber pots. Only a restless stirring in response. The dumb little freckle-faced kid in the family got more laughs just by saying Yikes! and rolling his eyes. Finally, the producers decided to implant a morpher to see if something funny would happen. Something did. They turned it on, and couldn’t or wouldn’t turn it off.
At the first change, an off-the-shelf test transformation into a fat dwarf, I accepted it calmly as an everyday part of life for an actor. While I was terrified by the prospect of losing my familiar self, I also longed for success. But it was shockingly excruciating. They didn’t tell me! Everything inside seemed to be splintering and breaking. I screamed. You’ll get used to it, the producers said, and continued the morph until I was two feet shorter and three hundred pounds heavier. A little ball on flat feet. They were still making me new costumes then, and I was outfitted in a black suit and top hat like a banker. If I was tipped over, I rolled, but the hat stayed on. If I rolled onto my head, the hat folded up, then sprang open again. Not much reaction to the banker, but some laughter when I screamed.
More screams, more laughter followed as I was warped into a circus clown, then a cross-eyed pipsqueak, the world’s tallest man, a child tap dancer, a mustachioed muscle man. Every change hurt more than the one before. I morphed, but my clothes didn’t, so I kept the wardrobe people working overtime. Eventually, as everything speeded up, it was too much for them, and I had to go through the changes without costumes. That got a few laughs and sarcastic whistles, especially when the morpher accidentally switched the dancing boy’s peewee with the muscle man’s tallywhacker. Yikes! I said. Yikes! And brought the house down both times. Body bloopers became part of the act, and life got harder.
“The Fall Guy’s Faith”
Falling from favor, or grace, some high artifice, down he dropped like a discredited predicate through what he called space (sometimes he called it time) and with an earsplitting crack splattered the base earth with his vital attributes. Oh, I’ve had a great fall, he thought as he lay there, numb with terror, trying desperately to pull himself together again. This time (or space) I’ve really done it! He had fallen before of course: short of expectations, into bad habits, out with his friends, upon evil days, foul of the law, in and out of love, down in the dumps—indeed, as though egged on by some malevolent metaphor generated by his own condition, he had always been falling, had he not?—but this was the most terrible fall of all. It was like the very fall of pride, of stars, of Babylon, of cradles and curtains and angels and rain, like the dread fall of silence, of sparrows, like the fall of doom. It was, in a word, as he knew now, surrendering to the verb of all flesh, the last fall (his last anyway: as for the chips, he sighed, releasing them, let them fall where they may)—yet why was it, he wanted to know, why was it that everything that had happened to him had seemed to have happened in language? Even this! Almost as though, without words for it, it might not have happened at all! Had he been nothing more, after all was said and done, than a paraphrastic curiosity, an idle trope, within some vast syntactical flaw of existence? Had he fallen, he worried as he closed his eyes for the last time and consigned his name to history (may it take it or leave it), his juices to the soil (was it soil?), merely to have it said he had fallen? Ah! tears tumbled down his cheeks, damply echoing thereby the greater fall, now so ancient that he himself was beginning to forget it (a farther fall perhaps than all the rest, this forgetting: a fall as it were within a fall), and it came to him in these fading moments that it could even be said that, born to fall, he had perhaps fallen simply to be born (birth being less than it was cracked up to be, to coin a phrase)! Yes, yes, it could be said, what can not be said, but he didn’t quite believe it, didn’t quite believe either that accidence held the world together. No, if he had faith in one thing, this fallguy (he came back to this now), it was this: in the beginning was the gesture, and that gesture was: he opened his mouth to say it aloud (to prove some point or other?), but too late—his face cracked into a crooked smile and the words died on his lips . . .
Hulk, in a fit of pique (can’t help it), beats up an old lady who gets in his way, and suddenly his role in the world zigs from hero to villain. Fake distinction. He can always zag back. If they want him to be a bad guy, he’ll do it, but he could do either, or both at the same time. He’s good at them.
To tell the truth (which he always does), he probably likes being a bad guy best. As a hero, he was supposed to save lives, but was anyone except himself really worth it? As a bad guy, he’s free to take lives without remorse, and more or less at random. Which is easier. No pretending. More fun. He’s grown old and fat and is not so great for the hero part anyway. The amazing thing is, everyone still loves him. He understands that. He loves himself.
The only one who won’t admit he loves him and can get away with it is Sam. Sam’s an old buddy. Well, not a buddy exactly. His uncle doesn’t have buddies. More like a family business partner. He runs the corporation, which Sam says is in a gutter fight over what’s left of the Earth’s goods before it all ends catastrophically. His uncle sometimes takes Hulk on as a kind of enforcer. Mr Fixit. Nasty work, but it unleashes him. And it’s for a good cause. Sam calls Hulk a bloated, blank-brained, shit-green abomination, and says he is embarrassed to be anywhere near him, but Hulk knows he’s only kidding. Stupidity is a handicap, Sam always says with a big toothy smile, little tuft of white beard wagging, his finger pointing straight at Hulk like a command: Absolute stupidity rules!
His pal Cap says the Sam may be a ruthless sonofabitch, but he’s also a true-blue patriot who always gave him room to swing, when he could still do that and not fall down. The old fellow’s Captain America costume doesn’t fit him anymore; it bags in the seat, bulges in the middle, hangs like limp rags over his bony shoulders. Thanks to cataract operations, his sight’s back, some of it, but his wits are still missing. Remembers old World War II comic book fantasies better than he remembers five minutes ago. Something off about his smell, too. Good guy, though. Sentinel of Liberty. They both had tyrannical alcoholic fathers and are, consequently, both teetotalers. They understand each other, to the extent that Cap can understand anything. When rage invades Hulk and makes him lose it, Cap’s still there for him. Hero, villain, Cap doesn’t give a shit.
It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.
I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.
I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.
I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.
I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.
I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.
I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.
I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.
Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.
I am reading too many books right now.
The big book I am reading is Marlon James’s surreal fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I am a little over half way through this long, long book, which is by turns rich, dazzling, baffling, and befuddling. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy-quest novel set in a mythical medieval Africa. The story is told by Tracker, a detective under magical protection who uses his magnificent nose to search for a missing boy, Tracker is aided (and sometimes stymied) on this quest by a strange and ever-shifting fellowship of superpowered heroes and antiheroes, including a sad, talkative giant, a mysterious witch, and the titular Leopard. Leopard is a shapeshifter, and Tracker’s erstwhile partner, both in adventures and in love. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic appetites,” he remarks at one point, summarizing the novel’s horny program. “The more you tell me, the less I know,” another character remarks, summarizing the novel’s shaggy structure. Black Leopard, Red Wolf unspools its plot in the most confounding way. Tracker is hardly a reliable narrator, but we are not even sure if he is the primary narrator. He’s telling his tale to an Inquisitor, but the tale-telling spins ever on, each story a deferral. And those deferrals often open into other storytellers, who tell stories with their own embedded stories. James’s book is like a matryoshka doll full of blood and guts and fucking and surreal ceiling-walking demons. It’s as much a detective story as a fantasy, but for all its genre troping, it makes few concessions to its various genres’ conventional forms. Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf often feels more like playing a really long game of very weird Dungeons & Dragons campaign with an inventive Dungeon Master making wild shit up as he goes along than it does a cohesive and coherent story. I’m digging the play so far.
The other long book I’m reading—crawling through, really—is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists. I loved the first 100 pages or so, but it’s turning into a slog. The novel’s climactic crisis, a mining disaster, occurs very early in the novel, an interesting gambit given that the novel is about an apocalyptic cult awaiting the end of the world. This apparent second crisis, a consequence of the first crisis, is then deferred. Coover explores this deferral and its consequences over a series of non-climaxes that we see through the eyes of the (many many too many) characters. There are little pockets of Origin that are fantastic, but too little humor to buoy the novel—it gets weighed down under its unwieldy cast and the authorial sense that This Is A Big Important Novel About Life. I will finish it though.
I loved loved loved Ann Quni’s novel Berg. I will do a full review of this marvelous weird claustrophobic novel when it comes out from And Other Stories in the U.S. this summer, but for now: Just amazing. The novel, originally published in 1964, begins like this: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” That, my friends, is basically the plot. Berg is a grisly Oedipal comedy that will make some readers’ skin crawl. Great stuff.
Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) is another strange one. It’s part memoir, part collage, part family history, often told in a dreamlike prose, but also sometimes conveyed with reportorial simplicity. Check it out.
I’ve also been reading Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a discursive collection of essays, lists, little anti-poems, etc. More thoughts to come, but I really dig the feeling of reading it.
Finally, I picked up Leslie Fiedler’s 1964 book of criticism Waiting for the End this Friday. Fiedler begins with the (then-recent) deaths of Hemingway and Faulkner. Fiedler uses the deaths of these “old men” to riff on the end of Modernism, although he never evokes the term. Neither does he use the term “postmodernism” in his book, although he edges towards it in his critiques of kitsch and middlebrow culture, and especially in his essay “The End of the Novel.” In parts of the book, he gets close to describing, or nearing a description of, an emergent postmodernist literature (John Barth and John Hawkes are favorite examples for Fiedler), but ultimately seems more resigned to writing an elegy for the avant garde. Other aspects of Waiting for the End, while well-intentioned, might strike contemporary ears as problematic, as the kids say, but Fiedler’s sharp and loose style are welcome over stodgy scholarship. Ultimately, I find the book compelling because of its middle position in its take on American literature. It’s the work of a critic seeing the beginnings of something that hasn’t quite emerged yet—but his eye is trained more closely on what’s disappearing into the past.
He sets off one day on an arduous journey to a remote kingdom, wondering, as the weeks pass, about the wisdom of it. Even the purpose. When he launched forth, he was sure he had a purpose, but by the time he reaches the primitive mountain village at the edge of the wilderness, he can no longer remember it. In fact, he is not certain this was his original destination. Wasn’t he going to the barber shop? It was summertime when he left, but now it is winter and the dead of night and he is alone and dressed only in his golf shirt and orange-and-green checked Bermuda shorts. He is met by villagers, huddled in heavy furs, who stare at him with expressions of dread and horror. He’s a friendly guy, even among strangers, always ready to buy the first round, and he puts his hand out and flashes them his best smile, but they shriek and shrink back, crossing themselves theatrically. A horse-drawn sleigh stands waiting in the middle of the snowy road, apparently meant for him, the driver’s face hidden in his upturned collar and large fur hat, the horses impatiently snorting plumes of white fog. There are thick fur wraps laid out for him on the seat, so he crawls into the sleigh and pulls them around him and they’re off, whipping over the snowswept mountains with alarming speed, the sleigh’s bells tolling funereally. The icy wind pushes his eyelashes back, but he can see nothing except the snow thudding against his naked eyeballs. The sleigh stops abruptly in a neighbourhood of ancient stone castles. He is dropped off unceremoniously in front of one of them, and the sleigh flies off into the distance, rear lanterns wagging frantically in the black night. Overhead, the bitter wind whistles around the louring towers, and wolves howl menacingly in the surrounding hills. As he approaches the heavy doors, they open of their own accord, the hinges grinding, and he enters the castle’s great hall. It is starkly inhospitable, unkempt and cold and smelling vaguely of unwashed laundry, yet, for all that, it looks suspiciously like his own living room. The television is on so he goes in and, exhausted by his travels, collapses in front of it, ready to accept whatever might appear there. Seems to be a sitcom with comic monsters playing a ball game of some sort with human heads. He laughs along with the canned laughter on the TV and about as sincerely. His wife comes in, baring, with a wink, her incisors, and offers him a Bloody Mary.
This morning my dean told me that I needed to pack up my office over the summer as the building I’m in will be undergoing a renovation. Even though I knew this was coming, the prospect hit me as a series of big anxiety waves. My walls are covered with masks, art, pictures. I have file drawers of student work going back over a decade. And books. Lots and lots of books. Books and art and stuff that I don’t really have room for anywhere else, even for a season.
Three shelves in my office are doublestacked with old mass market paperbacks from my youth—-Vonnegut, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hemingway, Jack London, Philip K. Dick, Richard Adams, Stephen Crane, etc. Shabby books, well worn, glue splitting. Over the years I’ve acquired nicer versions of the ones I want to reread, but my sentimental attachment to this small library of paperbacks doesn’t quite fade. When I taught high school, they were the bulk of my classroom library. I insisted on their return, and was always disappointed in students who seemed interested in certain novels but never quite managed to steal them. I was always thrilled when a student would ask to borrow one “over the summer” and then forget to return it.
This sorry shabby mass-market library has been depleted over my past decade teaching community college. Every semester, a few students ask if they can borrow something they see on the shelves when they stop by to chat. It is the most wonderful feeling to give a young person a copy of Brave New World (“I’ve heard it’s good”) or Cat’s Cradle (“Is it as good as Slaughterhouse Five?”) of Studies in Classic American Literature and then insist that they keep it and not worry about returning it.
This morning, a young man approached me after class and told me he’d noticed I had a copy of Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? in my office—could he maybe borrow it? He made a point of calling it Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and not Blade Runner, despite the fact that it’s a movie tie-in. He seemed so happy when I repeated that the book was his now.
Earlier that morning I gave another student my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He’s taken a couple of classes with me, and based on our conversations and his writing, I thought he could us the book more than I could. Again—young kid so happy to get a book, to think that someone thought he should read a particular book—I recall the feeling so vividly, from the other side. I love watching the old library dwindle away. Maybe I can give away more before I have to pack it up again.
After classes and office hours I swung by my beloved bookstore. I do this a lot on Fridays, in the spare hour that I have between work and picking up kids. I had a little mission this time—buying some books for a great old friend who turns forty this weekend. He loves hiking and camping and poetry—more than I love those things, I think—so I asked twitter to throw out some recommendations, which they did. I had fun browsing the “Nature” section. I ended up getting three: Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma (a favorite of mine), Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (I had never heard of it until today), and Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Walk (I dug a few of the short essays I read in the store). I enjoyed buying books for my friend. I am almost 100% he never reads this blog so I’m sure my posting this will not spoil his present, and, if not, Happy Birthday.
While browsing the “Nature” section, I resisted Shelters Shacks and Shanties—for now. Apologies to D.C. Beard, whose hut diagrams are exquisite:
I of course selfishly picked up books for myself, although I didn’t browse for myself. I keep a silly geeky list of names to check in on, including Robert Coover. Even though I’m slogging my way through his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, I still have a desire to read its sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath. No wrath, but I picked up Plume editions of Pricksongs & Descants (which I’ve read but didn’t own) and Gerald’s Party (which I haven’t read and now own). The editions match the copy of The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. I picked last summer (and no I have not read goddamn it).
I was also thrilled to pick up a 1974 Daw Paper edition of Wendayne Ackerman’s translation of Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to Be a God. I read Olena Bormashenko’s translation as an e-book a few years ago, after seeing Aleksei German’s film adaptation. (I loved Bormashenko’s translation of Snail on the Slope, by the way).
This copy of Hard to Be a God, blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin, will end up in a stack on my shelf of massmarket paperbacks, cheap pulp editions with colorful, zany, vibrant covers. Lovely unroughed, somehow pristine copies of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem and Ishmael Reed and Ursual K. Le Guin and J.G. Ballard and etcetera that’s been building up over the years, a private collection—but another library I’m sure I’ll eventually end up giving away.
Origin of the Brunists is Robert Coover’s first novel. First published in 1966, this long novel tells the story of an apocalyptic religious cult that forms around the sole survivor of a mining accident. The novel begins with the Brunists prepping for the upcoming end of the world (doomsday is scheduled for the weekend). After this somewhat bewildering prologue, the novel shifts back a few months in time, to lay out the cult’s genesis, a fatal mining accident.
Origin of the Brunist’s early chapters are an engrossing and unexpectedly smooth launch into a 500+ page novel. I read the first 70 pages in one night, rapt in the weird world of West Condon, the fictional midwesternish mining town where the Brunist cult originates. I woke up the next morning and continued to read in bed. I was, and am, enthusiastic.
The second chapter of Origin of the Brunists is especially enthralling. Propulsive and engaging, the chapter zooms through the various consciousnesses of West Condon on the night of the novel’s originating disaster, the horrific mining collapse that imperils hundreds of miners. Coover inhabits the voices and minds of his characters with an easy if often grimy grace here. Evocation of consciousness has marked much of Coover’s work, from the early short story “The Brother” (1962) to his recent novel Huck Out West (2017). The man can throw his voice around. Origin of the Brunists overflows with voices. In small snatches of dialog and free-indirect speech, we get an aural and vivid picture of the miners, their children and spouses, as well as the other residents of West Condon.
The mining disaster chapter shuttles along with a filmic quality. Coover intercuts scenes of the miners escaping (or failing to escape) with a highschool basketball game, teenage lust in a parked car, and other odds and ends of West Condon life. The chapter builds in tension, reminding one of the climax of an epic movie, but one wedged unexpectedly at the narrative’s outset.
Indeed, Coover’s contest with film is something of a trademark. A signal example of this style can be found in the stories in his 1987 collection A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This. Stories like “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Lap Dissolves” wrestle with film as a medium, deconstructing author and text, filmmakers and audiences, film reels and book pages. In the Night stories (and elsewhere, always elsewhere), Coover employs a host of metatextual techniques, dissolving one narrative into another, overlapping archetypes and synthesizing tropes, blending fables and history and commercial culture into a critique of American Pop mythology.
Coover’s metafiction always points back at its own origin, its own creation, a move that can at times take on a winking tone, a nudging elbow to the reader’s metaphorical ribs—Hey bub, see what I’m doing here? Coover’s metafictional techniques often lead him and his reader into cartoon landscapes, where postmodernly-plastic characters bounce manically off realistic contours. The best of Coover’s metafictions (like “The Babysitter,” 1969) tease their postmodern plastic into a synthesis of character, plot, and theme. However, in large doses Coover’s metafictions can tax the reader’s patience and will—the simplest example that comes to mind is “The Hat Act” (from Pricksongs & Descants, 1969), a seemingly-interminable Möbius loop that riffs on performance, trickery, and imagination. (And horniness).
I’m dwelling on Coover’s metafictional myth-making because I think of it as his calling card. And yet Origin of the Brunists bears only the faintest traces of Coover’s trademark metafictionalist moves (mostly, so far anyway, by way of its erstwhile hero, the journalist Tiger Miller). Coover’s debut reads rather as a work of highly-detailed, highly-descriptive realism, a realism that pushes its satirical edges up against the absurdity of modern American life. It reminds me very much of William Gass’s first novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and John Barth’s first two novels, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958). (Barth heavily revised both of the novels in 1967). There’s a post-Faulknerian style here, something that can’t rightly be described as modern or postmodern. These novels distort reality without rupturing it in the way that the authors’ later works do. Later works like Barth’s Chimera (1973), Gass’s The Tunnel (1995), and Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) dismantle genre structures and tropes and rebuild them in new forms. (I might contrast here with the first novels of William Gaddis (The Recognitions, 1955), Thomas Pynchon (V., 1963), and Ishmael Reed (The Freelance Pallbearers, 1967), all of which employ postmodern and metafictional techniques right out of the gate—but that’s perhaps appropriate material for another riff).
While Origin of the Brunists doesn’t tip into Coover’s metatextual mode, it points towards his mythic style, but in a subtle, restrained way, as in this description of the moments preceding a high-school basketball game:
A ritual buzzer alerts the young athletes on the West Condon court and strikes a blurred roar from the two confronting masses of spectators. In a body, all stand. The mute patterns of run-pass-leap-thrust dissolve, congealing into two tight knots on either extremity of the court, each governed by a taut-faced dark-suited hierarch. Six young novices in black, breasts ablaze with the mark of their confession, discipline the brute roars into pulsing chants with soft loops of arm and skirt, while, at their backs, five acolytes of the invading persuasion pressed immodestly into sleek diabolic red, rattle talismans with red and white paper tails, seeking to neutralize the efficacy of the West Condon locomotive. Young peddlers circulate, selling condiments indiscriminately to all. A light oil of warm-up perspiration anoints the shoulders of the ten athletes chosen as they explode out of their respective rings to confront each other. Some of them cross themselves, some clap and cry oaths, others tweak their genitals.
These mythical touches are rare in the first section of Origin of the Brunists though. Instead, Coover seems to tease out the West Condoners’ building of their own mythology, one cobbled from the apocalyptic strands of rural American Christianity, a religion divined through signs and wonders.
Such signs have much of their origin in Ely Collins, a miner-cum-preacher who meets his fate in the disaster. In a shocking scene that plays out with frank realism, Collins loses his leg:
“It’s okay, boys,” Collins whispered up at them. “I kin take it.” And he took to praying again.
Strelchuk lifted the ax in the air and thought: Jesus! what if I miss, I’ve never swung a goddamn ax much, what if I hit the wrong leg, or—?
“Goddamn you, Mike!” Jinx screamed, losing control. “Quit messing around! This gas is knocking me out, man! We got to get us out of here!”
And while he was screaming away like that, Strelchuk came down with the ax, caught the leg right where he aimed, true and clean, just below the knee, and the blood flew everywhere, and Juliano was crying like a goddamn baby, and Bruno, his face blood-sprayed, went dumb, mouth agape, and broke away in a silent fit, but the leg was still hooked on, they couldn’t get him free. Preach was still praying to beat hell and never even whimpered. Mike raised the ax again and drove down with all the goddamn strength he had, felt the bone this time, heard the crack, felt the sickening braking of the ax in tough tissue, and he turned and vomited. He was gagging and hacking and crying and the blood was everywhere, and still that goddamn leg was hooked on. Mario ripped away Collins’ pant leg, took the wedge he had in his pocket, pressed it up against Collins’ thigh. Strelchuk whipped off his leather belt and, using it as a tourniquet against the wedge, they stopped the heavy bleeding. Pontormo whined Italian. Strelchuk grabbed up the ax once more. His hands were greasy with blood and it was wet on his chest and face. He was afraid of missing or losing hold, and the shakes were rattling him, so he took short hacking strokes, and at last it broke off. They dragged him free. And Preacher Collins, that game old sonuvabitch, he was still praying.
I’ve quoted at such length to give a sense of Coover’s meticulousness in Origin of the Brunists. The novel is thick with life, thick with voices, mimetic detail, shapes, smells, colors, sounds. West Condon feels utterly real, making the novel’s dramatic absurdities all the more pronounced. The characters tell stories, weep and pray, bury their desires. Coover’s command of character isn’t absolute, but if his West Condoners sometimes teeter on the edge of grotesquerie they are nevertheless real, or as real as words on a page can be. More to come.
On Friday night we watched the first Hunger Games film with our daughter, who had finished the book this week. The movie isn’t that great, as I argued when I saw it seven years ago in the theater, but she seemed to like it, although she said she would have “done a lot of things differently.” She asked me to pick up the second book for her when I got a chance, and Not at the library, I want to own it, etc. So I figured that I’d use that as an excuse to browse my favorite used bookstore, so conveniently located 1.1 miles away (I swear I didn’t move into this neighborhood because of its proximity).
I went for a walk, got bitten rather viciously by a medium-sized dog, cleaned and dressed the wound, and went to browse books.
There are over two million books in this bookstore, a lot of them not really organized. While I usual mull around general fiction, literary criticism, art and art history, sci-fi, fantasy, and a section called “literary fiction,” I like to mix it up by going into areas I don’t know as well. Strolling through stack after stack in the drama section, an outward-turned collection of plays by Robert Coover caught my eye. I’d never heard of A Theological Position, but the cover and a few minutes browsing the four plays collected here—including one called Rip Awake, about Rip Van Winkle, which especially interested me—sealed the deal. That was before I turned the book over and saw this magnificent author photo, where a young Coover looks a bit like Jacques Derrida, in lieu of a tired blurb—
A column over I spied a copy of Don DeLillo’s play The Day Room, 1986 joint I’d never heard of. The Penguin Plays edition with a black and white cover of a production recalled to me the four years of theater and drama I took in high school—we had plenty of these in the drama room, plays by Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, etc. I was like the only one interested in these; it took me until the end of my sophomore year to realize that most of the drama kids were interested in fucking musicals and not literary drama. I probably belonged with the art kids but whatever.
I went and picked up the second Hunger Games book, and then browsed sci-fi a bit, hoping to find some more by the Strugatsky brothers or David Ohle’s Motorman, but not that day, friends! I also wanted to get a copy of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—and there were several—but they were all in these ridiculously well-kempt respectable and utterly literary cover editions that I can’t get down with. I’m sure I’ll find something I can live with sometime this year, but in the meantime, turning a corner, I found a massmarket paperback copy of Robert Coover’s novel The Origin of the Brunists, a novel I’ve been meaning to read for almost twenty years now. So.
Robert Coover’s not-quite-novella The Enchanted Prince (or is it “The Enchanted Prince”?) was first published last year in The Evergreen Review’s Winter 2017 issue. Foxrock Books and OR Books have collaborated to release a cute little volume of the story/stories/metastory/etc. I read the book the other day during an occasion where my attention was supposed to be elsewhere; I slipped it easily into some other papers. It’s a good read to slyly read on the sly. The Enchanted Prince is a postmodern fantasy riff on film and filmmaking techniques, as well as desire and drive. The basic moves here could fit into Coover’s 1987 collection A Night at the Movie’s horny postmodernism, only with some new technological updates—as well as a more pronounced theme of aging. As always, Coover offers meta-line after meta-line of self-description, including this parenthetical nugget, which maybe kinda yeah surely describes Coover in action: “(stimulation and frustration, fort and da: it’s only the dailies, but the old metacineast is at it again).” Here’s the publisher’s more thorough blurb, which also contains a Cooverian self-description from the novel (the B-movie bit):
Literary grandmaster Robert Coover has long been obsessed with myth, decay, sex and narrative, time and technology: and these themes come together in this short, dark fable that centers around the once-grand, now-aged Princess. Years ago a star of the classic film “The Enchanted Prince,” she has become a cult figure—with mind intact but body failing, she remains a figure of cinematic royalty, but one who cannot turn away from the persistent demands of the camera and the ever-present director, himself a flabby iteration of the wunderkind-that-was, who is filming the last remake (in a long series of remakes) of the classic that made the Princess a star.
“The world is a bad B-movie,” he says. “We try to make better ones, but it probably can’t be done. Still, we go on cranking them out. Nothing else to do.”
Coover’s sardonic, biting humor—and his deep sympathy for the players in his game, all both manipulators and manipulated—has never been more clearly on display than in this brief, intense dose of verbal subterfuge about film within film within the book, itself a two-dimensional “film.” “The book is an essentially realistic tale about two ancient survivors of the New Wave (I had in mind people like Jean Seberg, Jean-Luc Godard) in the digital age,” writes the author about this novella. “The more fanciful elements are torturous parodies of fairytale movies.”
And a sample paragraph:
The movie’s plot was a folktale cliché. Until the box office tallies came in, critics treated it as a joke. A Prince on a knightly quest to liberate an oppressed and bewitched people comes on a runaway Princess of the corrupt kingdom and they fall in love on the spot. The Queen has died and her father the King, under a spell, has been trapped in marriage by an old harpy with brutish unshaven sons who grunt like hogs. The Prince whisks the Princess back to his place, but on her wedding day she’s abducted by her badboy stepbrothers, with black-magic assistance from their mother, and forced to work in the scullery. She’s eventually rescued by the Prince, and they fall into a forever-after kiss at their wedding.
That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.
At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.
Read the rest of Italo Calvino’s short story “The Daughters of the Moon” — or listen to Robert Coover read and discuss it.
She arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late, but the children, Jimmy and Bitsy, are still eating supper, and their parents are not ready to go yet. From other rooms come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number — patterns of gliding figures come to mind). Mrs Tucker sweeps into the kitchen, fussing with her hair, and snatches a baby bottle full of milk out of a pan of warm water, rushes out again. ‘Harry!’ she calls. ‘The babysitter’s here already!’
That’s My Desire? I’ll Be Around? He smiles toothily, beckons faintly with his head, rubs his fast balding pate. Bewitched, maybe? Or, What’s the Reason? He pulls on his shorts, gives his hips a slap. The baby goes silent in mid-scream. Isn’t this the one who used their tub last time? Who’s Sorry Now, that’s it.
Jack is wandering around town, not knowing what to do. His girlfriend is babysitting at the Tuckers’, and later, when she’s got the kids in bed, maybe he’ll drop over there. Sometimes he watches TV with her when she’s babysitting, it’s about the only chance he gets to make out a little since he doesn’t own wheels, but they have to be careful because most people don’t like their sitters to have boyfriends over. Just kissing her makes her nervous. She won’t close her eyes because she has to be watching the door all the time. Married people really have it good, he thinks. Continue reading “Read “The Babysitter,” a short story by Robert Coover”
I had ordered Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels through my favorite bookstore, and it came in yesterday. It’s slim but expensive (ah! university presses!) and ate up all of my store credit, but still I picked up used copies of Robert Coover’s second novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and Barry Hannah’s Boomerang b/w Never Die (some of the only Hannah I’ve yet to read). I was tempted also by the title and cover of Daniel Hoffman’s 1971 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe—but I was not tempted enough to acquire it.
He recognizes in all these dislocations, of course, his lonely quest for the impossible mating, the crazy embrace of polarities, as though the distance between the terror and the comedy of the void were somehow erotic—it’s a kind of pornography. No wonder the sailor asked that his eyes be plucked out! He overlays frenzy with freeze frames, the flight of rockets with the staking of the vampire’s heart, Death’s face with thrusting buttocks, cheesecake with chaingangs, and all just to prove to himself over and over again that nothing and everything is true. Slapstick is romance, heroism a dance number. Kisses kill. Back projections are the last adequate measure of freedom and great stars are clocks: no time like the presence. Nothing, like a nun with a switchblade, is happening faster and faster, and cause (that indefinable something) is a happy ending. Or maybe not.
From Robert Coover’s 1987 short story “The Phantom of the Movie Palace.”
Here is the first part of the first piece, “Dark Spirit,” a riff on Beauty and the Beast (with touches of Dante’s Inferno):
They are on a film lot, walking through a pre-shoot reading of a script that calls for a brave traveller—“That’s you, kid,” the director says, leading her forward with an arm around her shoulders—to be lured to the edge of a deep, mysterious forest, known portentously as the Forest of Time. The forest is fake, deep as a painted scrim, but the director has told them that a real forest from Transylvania will be pasted in later, and they have all been asked to bat at the air around their faces, as if to brush away foliage, bugs, bats, clinging cobwebs. “Out, out, damned spot, I say!” an actor screams in falsetto, batting wildly, and everyone laughs. The actor, who has a bit part in the film, as the enchanted prince, smirks shyly, blinking his long lashes. He’s a cute boy, but too full of himself. And just a runt. He’ll have to stand on a chair for their happily-ever-after smooch once she’s freed the Beast from his spell and let the prince out. The industry is obsessed with this hackneyed tale, once inflicted upon young virgins to prepare them for marriage to feeble old buzzards with money. She used to raise hell about such things. Now she doesn’t really care. “The gutsy heroine knows that many have perished here,” the continuity girl says, reading from the script, “victims of the absolute evil that is believed to pervade the treacherous Forest of Time.” “Oh, the horror, the horror!” growls the actor playing the Beast, wearing his shaggy gorilla suit, but holding the head on his knee like a trophy. “Who wrote this shit?” an actress wants to know. One of Beauty’s ugly sisters. Already into her sneering role. “I put the words in,” the writer confesses, “but the producers told me which ones to use.” They are all laughing, she is laughing, if you can’t laugh you’re fucked, she knows that, but she doesn’t feel like laughing. It’s the damned Beast, messing with her mood. Not the costumed actor, a beardy creep given to chummy slaps on the fanny (she’s learned to keep her back turned away), but the maddeningly empty eyes in the hairy head on his lap. “I think this is going to have a bad ending,” she says to no one in particular, and with effort looks away. She is Beauty, though she’s no longer beautiful, if she ever was (makeup and wardrobe will do what they can), and it is she, just by being who and what she is supposed to be, who moves the tale along, making the inevitable happen. It’s her destiny. The trap she’s in.
This weekend I picked up a new audiobook collection of Robert Coover short stories which has been titled Going for a Beer (presumably because “Going for a Beer” is a perfect short story). The audiobook contains 30 stories and is read by Charlie Thurston, a more than capable as an orator.
The opening story is one of Coover’s earliest published stories. “The Brother” (1962) retells the Noah narrative from the book of Genesis. I just wrote “retells,” but that’s not really the right term. Instead of retelling the story of Noah and the ark and YHWH’s flood, Coover imagines the apocalyptic affair from the perspective of Noah’s younger brother, who narrates this tale.
Noah’s unnamed brother is an earthy, sensual fellow who loves his wife and loves his wine. His wife—a sympathetic and endearing figure—is pregnant with their first child. They’re already picking out names (“Nathaniel or Anna”). Brother Noah keeps taking the narrator from his own familial duties to help build a boat though:
right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says “how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?” but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he gets het on some new lunatic notion and he says not to worry none about that just would I help him for God’s sake and because he don’t know how he can get it done in time otherwise and though you’d have to be loonier than him to say yes I says I will of course I always would crazy as my brother is I’ve done little else since I was born and my wife she says “I can’t figure it out I can’t sec why you always have to be babyin that old fool he ain’t never done nothin for you God knows and you got enough to do here fields need plowin it’s a bad enough year already my God and now that red-eyed brother of yours wingin around like a damn cloud and not knowin what in the world he’s doin buildin a damn boat in the country my God what next? you’re a damn fool I tell you” but packs me some sandwiches just the same and some sandwiches for my brother
That’s kinda-sorta the opening paragraph—although no it’s not, because the whole story is just one big paragraph, a big oral fragment really, which begins with a lower-case r and keeps going in a verbal rush whose only concessions to punctuation are question marks and quotation marks. No periods or commas here folks. On the page, “The Brother” perhaps approximates the blockish brickish look of a Gutenberg Bible or even the Torah, neither of which give the reader a nice period to rest on, let alone a friendly pause between paragraphs.
“The Brother” might be typographically daunting, but the apparent thickness of verbal force on the page belies its oral charms. The story is meant to be read out loud. Hell, it’s biblical, after all—a witnessing. Read aloud, “The Brother” shows us a deeply sympathetic pair of characters, a husband and wife whose small pleasures, telegraphed in naturalistic speech, might remind the auditor of real persons living today. And yet there’s an apocalyptic backdrop here. Noah’s brother and Noah’s brother’s wife—and their unborn child, and all the unborn children—will not survive YHWH’s flood.
Coover does not paint Noah as anything but a shrugging reluctant weirdo. He’s no prophet who warns and helps his brother, but rather a defeated man:
and it ain’t no goddamn fishin boat he wants to put up neither in fact it’s the biggest damn thing I ever heard of and for weeks wee\s I’m tellin you we ain’t doin nothin but cuttin down pine trees and haulin them out to his field which is really pretty high up a hill and my God that’s work lemme tell you and my wife she sighs and says I am really crazy r-e-a-l-l-y crazy and her four months with a child and tryin to do my work and hers too and still when I come home from haulin timbers around all day she’s got enough left to rub my shoulders and the small of my back and fix a hot meal her long black hair pulled to a knot behind her head and hangin marvelously down her back her eyes gentle but very tired my God and I says to my brother I says “look I got a lotta work to do buddy you’ll have to finish this idiot thing yourself I wanna help you all I can you know that but” and he looks off and he says “it don’t matter none your work” and I says “the hell it don’t how you think me and my wife we’re gonna eat I mean where do you think this food comes from you been puttin away man? you can’t eat this goddamn boat out here ready to rot in that bastard sun” and he just sighs long and says “no it just don’t matter” and he sits him down on a rock kinda tired like and stares off and looks like he might even for God’s sake cry
Noah’s dismissing his brother’s work strikes me as utterly cruel—he makes no attempt to explain why his brother’s efforts at creating a better world are in vain. I shared the passage at length again in part because I hope you’ll read it aloud gentle reader, but also that you’ll note that maybe you didn’t note all its blasphemies—Coover’s story is larded with “my Gods” and “damns” and “goddamns,” no different than the speech of 1962, no different than the speech of 2018.
Coover gives us a narrator like us, human, earthly, driven by simple pleasures and a basic sense of love. Noah comes off like a prick. The Bible loves its heroes, but the ordinary folks don’t even get to live in the margins. There’s more morality in orality though—in conversation and communication and talk.
You don’t have to buy the audiobook though to hear “The Brother.” Here is Coover reading it himself:
“The New Thing”
He attempted, he urging her on, the new thing. The old thing had served them well, but they were tired of it, more than tired. Had the old thing ever been new? Perhaps, but not in their experience of it. For them, it was always the old thing, sometimes the good old thing, other times just the old thing, there like air or stones, part (so to speak) of the furniture of the world into which they had moved and from which, sooner or later, they would move out. It was not at first obvious to them that this world had room for a new thing, it being the nature of old things to display themselves or to be displayed in timeless immutable patterns. Later, they would ask themselves why this was so, the question not occurring to them until she had attempted the new thing, but for now the only question that they asked (he asked it, actually), when she suggested it, was: why not? A fateful choice, though not so lightly taken as his reply may make it seem, for both had come to view the old thing as not merely old or even dead but as a kind of, alive or dead, ancestral curse, inhibitory and perverse and ripe for challenge, impossible or even unimaginable though the new thing seemed until she tried it. And then, when with such success she did, her novelty responding to his appetite for it, the new thing displaced the old thing overnight. Not literally, of course, the old thing remained, but cast now into shadow, as the furniture of the world, shifting without shifting, lost its familiar arrangements. The old thing was still the old thing, the world was still the world, its furniture its furniture, yet nothing was the same, nor would it ever be, they knew, again. It felt?though as in a dream so transformed was everything?like waking up. This was exhilarating (his word), liberating (hers), and greatly enhanced their delight? she whooped, he giggled, this was fun!? in the new thing, which they both enjoyed as much and as often as they could.