An Interview with Robert Coover (2011)

I am floating in a world made entirely of text. Lines of white courier type stretch away to the horizon, spelling out passages from Borges’s Library of Babel: The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… I look down and experience a sudden twinge of vertigo. Below my feet, strings of letters plunge down into an inky black void.

If you find yourself trapped in a prison-house of language, you shouldn’t be surprised that your jailer is a postmodern novelist. Robert Coover is standing next to me, hands thrust casually into his trouser pockets. His face is obscured by a pair of stereoscopic 3d goggles, just like the ones I’m wearing. They give him a sort of retro-futurist look, one part Blade Runner to one part campus comedy. Coover, along with such writers as Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Donald Barthelme and John Barth, broke open the carapace of postwar American realism to reveal a fantastical funhouse of narrative possibilities. His relentless experimentalism, combined with a sly and often bawdy humor, have made him a writer’s writer, a hero to those who feel smothered by the marshmallowy welter of pseudo-literary romance that dominates contemporary fiction. Refreshingly unconcerned with psychology, sympathy, redemption, epiphanies, second act reversals and conventional narrative construction (or rather, concerned with all these things, with undoing them and excavating their conditions of possibility), he is relatively unknown in Britain, where three of his books (Pricksongs and Descants, Gerald’s Party and Briar Rose/Spanking the Maid) have recently been released as Penguin Modern Classics.

There is, as Derrida famously wrote, nothing outside the text. Except that in this case there is. We are in a lab at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, playing with a CAVE, an immersive 3d environment which for many years Coover has promoted as a tool for writing. He is interested, he says, in ‘how you do narrative, which is typically linear, in a space that is nonlinear.’ In a CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment) that space is a room-sized cube, onto whose interior walls high resolution projectors display images. Our LCD shutter glasses are darkening first one eye, then the other at very high speed, in synchronization with the projectors, which are displaying different images for each eye. My glasses have short stalks protruding from them, topped by little balls, which allow infrared sensors to pick up positional information and alter the image depending on where I’m looking. I have a controller that allows me to move around. It is, to use a technical term, cool.

Immersive 3d is, in some ways, not an obvious form for a writer. These tools are usually used in industry for architectural visualisations – my one previous experience of a CAVE was flying through a proposed Swedish container port. The unwieldiness of the system (you aren’t going to experience ‘cave writing’ on your Kindle any time soon) and the fundamental oddity of the project (what does it add to my experience of The Library of Babel to navigate through it in the form of waist-high type?) make this the sort of ‘blue sky’ experimentation that is unlikely to lead to widely-circulated results. It could be argued that the games industry now owns the territory of ‘non linear narrative’, with recent releases such as LA Noire edging ever further into the territory of the novel. But this fascination with play, with formal experimentation and innovative platforms for fiction is typical of Coover, who has always been eager to push the limits of narrative, sometimes to breaking point.

Born in Iowa in 1932, he studied at Indiana university, where he received a BA with a focus on Slavic studies. After a spell in the navy during the Korean War he began his literary career in the early nineteen-sixties, publishing stories in The Evergreen Review, edited by Barney Rosset of Grove Press, a champion of experimental writing who also worked with William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Hubert Selby Jr. and Donald Barthelme. In 1966 Coover published his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, which deals with the rise of a religious cult centred on the survivor of a mining disaster. The New York Times noted sniffily that ‘Coover writes his first novel as if he doesn’t expect to make it to a second. Everything goes in it including plots for several grim short stories and more social novels, and notes for a juicy essay …“. His second book, The Universal Baseball Association Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), headed further away from conventional realism (and the comfort zone of the Times book page), with its madcap plot about the creator of a baseball dice game who gradually becomes consumed by his make-believe league, to the point where he is unable distinguish game-play from reality. But it was Coover’s 1969 short story collection Pricksongs and Descants which cemented his reputation, standing today as one of the landmarks of postwar American fiction.

The title is a metaphor for a method that Coover has elaborated throughout his career. In manuscipts of medieval European music, the notes were physically ‘pricked’ or marked with holes or dots. The melody (the cantus firmus) could be ornamented or counterpointed with an extemporized part, known as the descant. It’s common enough for musical metaphors to be used to describe narrative (theme, leitmotif and so on) but Coover’s usage is more precise. The collection contains his most anthologised story, The Babysitter, which is told in a hundred or so paragraphs, each of which is separated from its neighbors by white space. The cantus firmus is conventional. The babysitter arrives to look after two children. The parents go out. She spends the evening in their house. The parents come home. Coover’s innovation is to produce descant-like variations on the possibilities of this scenario, possibilities which open up a grand guignol underworld of sex and violence beneath this suburban surface. The father fantasises about the girl. The girl’s boyfriend and his buddy plan to come over and rape her. She plays with the little boy’s penis as she gives him a bath. These events are not definitive. Contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously. The girl is raped and unraped. The father acts and does not act on his lascivious fantasies. The reader is expected to hold the story open, an activity which opens up the mechanics of narrative for inspection. The effect is like the quantum-theoretical notion of ‘superposition’, in which an unobserved particle exists in both of two possible states, before ‘collapsing’ onto one or other possibility. The story ends with the mother exclaiming from the kitchen “Why, how nice! …The dishes are all done!” but also being told ‘your children are murdered, your husband gone [there’s] a corpse in your bathtub, and your house is wrecked.’

In an essay on Pricksongs, the novelist William Gass zeroes in on the way these ‘narrative slices’ work like cards, giving ‘the impression that we might scoop them all up and reshuffle, alterning not the elements but the order or the rules of play.” Coover has had a lifelong interest in games. As a child he made up ‘simple narrative-like games,played with dice or cards’. This developed into an interest, not so much in chance process (like John Cage) but in the possibility of non-linear narrative architecture (closer to Julio Cortazar or BS Johnson), a concern which led directly to his more recent technological experiments. “By the time hypertext came along,” he notes, “I was already well into it.”

In the sixties, Coover experimented with marginal punch cards, a now-obsolete filing system which used a system of peripheral holes, some cut clear to the edge of the card, so that when rods were slipped through the holes in a stack of cards, those cards which did not have that position punched out remained on the rod, while the target cards fell out of the stack. This meant the cards could be indexed in several ways, making it a sort of physical precursor to the idea of ‘tagging’ a digital file. Coover used this system to develop a thesaurus, and tried to use it for fiction-writing, creating cards for characters and narrative elements in ways that sound similar to some of the techniques later used in role-playing and computer adventure games. The problem was, as he admits, that his fictional web of interrelations rapidly became too dense. “It took a lot of effort. You think of a character, you develop information about that character, you start to punch it for something, it leads to another thought about the character, about another type of character, and suddenly you have fifteen notes that you hadn’t thought of before and none of them punched.”

The fictions he developed with this system often used pre-existing material like The Arabian Nights to provide a lexicon of elements from which to work. In 2005, McSweeneys published A Child Again, a collection which included a story in the form of playing cards, which had its origin in these early punchcard experiments. I ask whether he feels his work relates to that of the French proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel, who in the years before world war one generated works such as Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa using a highly-artificial set of formal constraints based on homophonic puns. He allows that he is interested in Roussel, but was never attracted to the idea of constraints as a way of generating stories. He talks about ‘having fun with the writing’, and the formal manipulation of his source material appears to be more interesting to him than what he dismissively calls ‘angst writing’, a term which seems to encompass most psychologically-driven fiction from Henry James to Jonathan Franzen. The use of fairytales and genre elements (recent novels spin out of noir, the western and pornogaphy) are a way of freeing himself from the task of having to generate cards to shuffle.

He tells me a story which can serve as a sort of myth of origin. In the summer of 1960 he found himself on his own in Chicago, temporarily separated from his family. A nocturnal creature (he frequently works through the night) he had a pile of books on his desk, and was simultaneously reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and William Gaddis’s monumental The Recognitions. “I really loved Augie March. The opening section, at least. But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie March and threw it across the room and that was the last I saw of it.”

Why did realist fiction make him so angry? “I didn’t think of it as realistic. It used modes of response to the world that had become stultified and so were easily communicated. I learned my realism from guys like Kafka.” The idea that Realism is a presumptuous name for a certain highly-artificial literary mode has been floating around for at least half a century, yet its implications are still widely ignored. Postmodernism, as practised by Coover, is not simply a question of pointing out (tediously) to the reader that she is reading a novel. It’s about a return to the novel’s original, scandalous ability to create realities, rather than pretending to be a mirror or a movie camera. One section of Pricksongs and Descants is titled ‘exemplary fictions’, after the Novelas Ejemplares of Cervantes. In an introduction, Coover addresses the old master : “For your stories also exemplified the dual nature of all good narrative art: they struggled to synthesize the unsynthesizable, sallied forth against adolescent thought-modes and exhausted art forms, and returned home with new complexities.”

Coover’s greatest battle with complexity is A Public Burning, a massive novel about the McCarthy era and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which appeared, after much struggle, in 1977. Coover, whose work belies the idea that postmodernism is necessarily disengaged and apolitical, had been active in campaigning against the Vietnam war, even making a short film about a 1967 campus protest against Dow Chemical, On A Confrontation at Iowa City. The authoritarian drift of American politics led him first to write a satirical novella imagining a presidential campaign by Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (A Political Fable, 1968) and then to imagine a panoptical look at the anti-communist panic of the fifties. Originally conceived before Watergate, and then completely rewritten in the wake of the scandal, A Public Burning is narrated by Richard Nixon, who struts and frets his way across a political stage dominated by a foul-mouthed xenophobic Uncle Sam, who is locked in mortal combat with The Phantom, a shadowy and seemingly omnipresent enemy. We’re now accustomed to fictionalisations of real events and people, but in the seventies, the use of real names was a dangerous novelty. Coover’s publishers were wary, as Rosenberg prosecutor Roy Cohn had recently filed suit against CBS for the way he was portrayed in a film. “There was a lot of terror about,” remembers Coover. “There were no clear precedents. I had to hire a lawyer to help me negotiate those waters. At one point he said they’re never going to publish this and the thing to do is set up a company and publish it yourself.” A Public Burning was finally published, and indeed made the lower reaches of the New York Times bestseller list, but then was mysteriously pulled from the shelves. Coover suspects skullduggery, and the book never had the impact on the American political scene its author hoped.

Through the seventies, Coover was living in Britain, where his interest in the fairytale brought him into contact with Angela Carter, who became a close friend. “The folk tale is very subversive,” he explains. “It’s different from the mythic content of a society, which is from the top down.” Coover has little interest in archetypal explanations of myth and folktale. He is more interested in breaking them open. As he wrote in the introduction to Seven Exemplary Fictions, ‘The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader … to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation.’

Briar Rose, written in 1996, is probably the apogee of his engagement with the form, a hilarious series of descants on the Sleeping Beauty story. It is being republished by Penguin in a volume with Spanking the Maid (1982), which performs a similar operation on that most English of forms, nineteenth century sadomasochistic pornography. Beauty and her prince, like the master and the maid struggling to satisfy his exacting standards, are caught in shortcircuited narrative loops, which never resolve, but seem to wind down, decaying entropically until the stories come to a halt, not so much because they’ve ended in any ‘satisfactory’ way, but because the wheels have fallen off. Fictional consummation (the sense of an ending) is frustrated. Coover’s characters (who are mere functions of the story) are caught up in form, battling through thickets of narrative in the hope of fulfilling their desires. “That entrapment leads to all other forms of entrapment” he explains, gnomically. “Fiction is about a condition, not a process.” Coover’s stories are serious entertainments, devoted to play. As Cervantes put it, in his introduction to his own Exemplary Fictions, “My intention has been to set up, in the midst of our community, a billiard-table, at which every one may amuse himself without hurt to body and soul.”

This piece first appeared in The Guardian