Robert (Lowell) Coover Biography
Robert Coover comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Charles City, Iowa, 1932. Education: Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1949-51; Indiana University, Bloomington, B.A. 1953; University of Chicago, 1958-61, M.A. 1965. Military Service: Served in the United States Naval Reserve, 1953-57: Lieutenant. Career: Taught at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1966-67, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1967-69, Columbia University, New York, 1972, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1972-73, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, 1976, and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1981. Since 1981 writer-in-residence, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Fiction editor, Iowa Review, Iowa City, 1974-77. Awards: Faulkner award, 1966; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1969; Rockefeller fellowship, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1971, 1974; American Academy award, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985; Rea award, for short story, 1987. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
The Origin of the Brunists. New York, Putnam, 1966; London, Barker, 1967; New York, Grove, 2000.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York, Random House, 1968; London, Hart Davis, 1970.
The Public Burning. New York, Viking Press, 1977; London, AllenLane, 1978.
Spanking the Maid. New York, Grove Press, 1982; London, Heinemann, 1987.
Gerald's Party. New York, Linden Press, and London, Heinemann, 1986.
John's Wife. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Briar Rose. New York, Grove Press, 1996.
Ghost Town. New York, Henry Holt, 1998.
Pricksongs and Descants. New York, Dutton, 1969; London, Cape, 1971; New York, Grove Press, 2000.
The Water Pourer (unpublished chapter from The Origin of the Brunists). Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Bruccoli Clark, 1972.
Hair o' the Chine. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Bruccoli Clark, 1979.
After Lazarus: A Filmscript. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, BruccoliClark, 1980.
Charlie in the House of Rue. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Penmaen Press, 1980.
A Political Fable. New York, Viking Press, 1980.
The Convention. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1982.
In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters. Providence, RhodeIsland, Burning Deck, 1983.
Aesop's Forest, with The Plot of the Mice and Other Stories, by BrianSwann. Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1986.
A Night at the Movies; or, You Must Remember This. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Heinemann, 1987.
Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987; London, Heinemann, 1988.
Pinocchio in Venice. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Heinemann, 1991.
The Kid (produced New York, 1972; London, 1974). Included in A Theological Position, 1972.
A Theological Position (includes A Theological Position, The Kid, Love Scene, Rip Awake). New York, Dutton, 1972.
Love Scene (as Scène d'amour, produced Paris, 1973; as Love Scene, produced New York, 1974). Included in A Theological Position, 1972.
Rip Awake (produced Los Angeles, 1975). Included in A Theological Position, 1972.
A Theological Position (produced Los Angeles, 1977; New York, 1979). Included in A Theological Position, 1972.
Bridge Hand (produced Providence, Rhode Island, 1981).
Editor, with Kent Dixon, The Stone Wall Book of Short Fiction. IowaCity, Stone Wall Press, 1973.
Editor, with Elliott Anderson, Minute Stories. New York, Braziller, 1976.
Fiction and the Figures of Life by William H. Gass, New York, Knopf, 1970; Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties by Max Schulz, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1973; "Robert Coover and the Hazards of Metafiction" by Neil Schmitz, in Novel 7 (Providence, Rhode Island), 1974; "Humor and Balance in Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. " by Frank W. Shelton, in Critique 17 (Atlanta), 1975; "Robert Coover, Metafictions, and Freedom" by Margaret Heckard, in Twentieth Century Literature 22 (Los Angeles), 1976; "The Dice of God: Einstein, Heisenberg, and Robert Coover" by Arlen J. Hansen, in Novel 10 (Providence, Rhode Island), 1976; "Structure as Revelation: Coover's Pricksongs and Descants " by Jessie Gunn, in Linguistics in Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 1977; The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass by Larry McCaffery, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982; Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process by Lois Gordon, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983; Robert Coover's Fictions by Jackson I. Cope, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986; Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon by Paul Maltby, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991; Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction by Thomas E. Kennedy, New York, Twayne, 1992; Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth by Thomas Pughe, Basel, Switzerland, Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994.
In reply to the question: "Why Do You Write?": Because art blows life into the lifeless, death into the deathless.
Because art's lie is preferable, in truth, to life's beautiful terror.
Because, as time does not pass (nothing, as Beckett tells us, passes), it passes the time.
Because death, our mirthless master, is somehow amused by epitaphs.
Because epitaphs, well-struck, give death, our voracious master, heartburn.
Because fiction imitates life's beauty, thereby inventing the beauty life lacks.
Because fiction is the best position, at once exotic and familiar, for fucking the world.
Because fiction, mediating paradox, celebrates it.
Because fiction, mothered by love, loves love as a mother might her unloving child.
Because fiction speaks, hopelessly, beautifully, as the world speaks.
Because God, created in the storyteller's image, can be destroyed only by His maker.
Because, in its perversity, art harmonizes the disharmonious.
Because, in its profanity, fiction sanctifies life.
Because, in its terrible isolation, writing is a path to brotherhood.
Because in the beginning was the gesture, and in the end to come as well: in between what we have are words.
Because, of all the arts, only fiction can unmake the myths that unman men.
Because of its endearing futility, its outrageous pretensions.
Because the pen, though short, casts a long shadow (upon, it must be said, no surface).
Because the world is re-invented every day and this is how it is done.
Because there is nothing new under the sun except its expression.
Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there.
Because writing, in all space's unimaginable vastness, is still the greatest adventure of all.
And because, alas, what else?
* * *
Robert Coover's fiction is built around his firm belief that realist modes of fiction are outworn and need to be revivified. He writes fictions that are highly self-conscious and that draw attention to their own artifice and invention. He rejects, too, the notion that there is a fixed, objective truth, pointing constantly to the highly subjective nature of different people's interpretations of reality. Although the reception of his books has varied considerably, Coover has remained ruthlessly loyal to his own artistic premises throughout his long career.
Pricksongs and Descants was the third book Coover published, but he actually wrote most of the stories before his first two novels and it contains many of his fundamental beliefs and practices. In "The Magic Poker," for instance, he spells out the authority of the author over his creations: "I have brought two sisters to this invented island, and shall, in time, send them home again. I have dressed them and may well choose to undress them." Rejecting any notion that fiction is an act of mimesis of the real world, Coover celebrates the delights of linguistic invention. Many of the stories are rewritings of well-known myths and fairy tales. "J's Marriage," for instance, one of seven of what Coover calls "Exemplary Fictions" in homage to Cervantes, is a retelling of the story of Joseph and Mary. Other stories—most famously, "The Babysitter"—offer a bewildering and ever-changing choice of narrative possibilities.
The Origin of the Brunists established an immediate reputation for Coover as one of America's most original writers. It concerns a cult of the millennium which is cynically promoted by the editor of a small town newspaper for his own complex ends. The Brunists are led by Giovanni Bruno, a miner who, because he alone has been spared in a disastrous explosion that killed 97 workers, believes he is a prophet who can announce the coming end of the world. Although written in a predominantly realist style (though it experiments with a whole smorgasbord of different approaches), the novel foreshadows Coover's preoccupation with fiction at the expense of reality in its ironic and sometimes even parodic treatment of the necessity—yet danger—of myth-making. The novel is satirical at the expense of the cult but reserves its most severe criticism for Justin Miller, the editor of the local newspaper, who manipulates the sect, with tragic consequences. The Origin of the Brunists is a novel crowded with characters, filled with many voices and different texts, from letters to songs to sermons. It is the work of a writer rich in ideas and talent.
The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. once again shows Coover's interest in fantasy and invention. An accountant, bored and able to relate to few other human beings, Waugh invents his own baseball league and game, played with cards and dice and so comprehensive that it eventually comes to take up his whole life and sense of reality. He is particularly affected by the death of a young pitcher who is having a dream run until fatally struck by a wild pitch. Coover immerses the reader completely in the world of baseball, blurring the divisions between the real and the imaginary, just as they are blurred for Henry, who progressively cuts himself off from the few connections he has, his job and two friends.
The Public Burning is probably Coover's best know and certainly most ambitious novel, though as always it divided the critics. It is a lengthy account of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for allegedly selling atomic secrets to Russia but it is far from a conventionally historical narrative. The case becomes the basis for a satirical account of American Cold War paranoia in which Uncle Sam, a fast-talking, double-dealing parody of American ideals, is pitted against the Phantom, the embodiment of the forces of atheistic, Communistic darkness. Coover employs a series of Brechtian devices to distance the reader from the action. The execution is set for the night of the Rosenbergs' fourteenth wedding anniversary and is to be a public celebration in New York's Times Square, the entertainment to be organized by Cecil B. de Mille. Though he satirizes many American public figures, Coover is hardest of all on Richard Nixon, who narrates considerable chunks of the novel. Nixon is portrayed as a sexually repressed, paranoid, ambition-obsessed egomaniac, whose drive for power is the product of his deep sense of inferiority. His narrative swings between self-extenuation and assertiveness, it is filled with contradictions, but topples finally into absurdity, as much of the novel does, when Nixon fantasize about visiting Ethel Rosenberg in jail just before her execution and having her fall in love with him. The novel seems informed by Coover's conviction that art cannot do justice to the absurdities of reality. It is as if he can contain and express his anger only in the form of demented parody, satire, and ridicule.
A Political Fable and Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears first appeared in the New American Review but were later published separately. Fable is a satirical account of the political process and especially the presidential election. The political heavies are out-maneuvered by the Cat in the Hat, a strange creature who proceeds to subvert the whole political contest, rendering it absurd by his antics. The story is scathingly contemptuous of the political system, or at least it would be if it were not clear that Coover derives a great deal of fun from its idiotic behavior. "Gloomy Gus" is set in the 1930s, in Chicago; Gus becomes the eleventh fatality in a confrontation between workers and Republic Steel. The political background involves Spain, Guernica, battles between unions and large companies. But is a kind of parody of the American dream: "Winning was everything for him. Or at least scoring." One character says of him, "If he's a bit demented… well, he's only a mirror image of the insane nation that created him," and it is clear that Coover agrees. But the book is much more interesting when it is simply being funny than when it is preaching lessons.
In his later work, Coover sticks resolutely to the set of aesthetic beliefs he had announced but the writing becomes less political, less engaged in criticism of American society, even while remaining as self-conscious, and the writing suffers a little as a result. A Night at the Movies; or, You Must Remember This, for instance, is arranged like a film program, with each story being given a subtitle: "Previews of Coming Attractions," "The Weekly Serial," and an intermission. It is simultaneously both a satire of American popular culture, which plays a large role in Coover's consciousness, and an act of homage to it. Pinocchio in Venice is one of Coover's strangest fictions. It opens with a distinguished professor stranded in Venice on a snowy night. He is attempting to complete his final, valedictory work, Mamma, and needs to come to Venice for purposes of research. The title refers to the Walt Disney figure who possessed an exceptionally long nose which in this novel assumes phallic properties. There are, as always, lots of jokes, puns ("the Immaculate Kunt"), aphorisms, and sayings—in short, an inventiveness with language that is one of Coover's trademarks.
Briar Rose reads like a fairy story, rather in the manner of Donald Barthelme's Snow White. As in Spanking the Maid, the same story is told over and over again. A knight sets out on an expedition: "He has undertaken this great adventure, not for the supposed reward—what is another lonely bedridden princess?—but in order to provoke a confrontation with the awful powers of enchantment itself." Most of Coover's later fictions are to do with disenchantment, parody, the debunking of myths, especially of American dreams. We are told of the princess that "Her longing for integrity is, in her spellbound innocence, all she knows of rage and lust." She is Briar Rose and she must rest easy: "Your prince will come." But he must press valiantly through the thickening briar hedge. The parodic note is constant: "Her true prince has come at last, just as promised." The constant retellings, as always, indicate the problematic nature of truth—and myth. Even the dragon is bound by convention: "Well, nothing to do but eat the bony little thing, he supposed, compelled less by appetite than by the mythical proprieties." If there is one work which sums up Coover's fictional beliefs and practices it is probably the story "The Babysitter." No single interpretation of reality is possible, fiction is the exploration of a myriad of possibilities, and the author is both lord over and responsible for the construction of the worlds he makes.
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