Monday, August 25, 2014

Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants (1969)

It seems I've never written about Robert Coover here.  He hasn't spent all that much time in my literary consciousness, but I've read a few of his novels, and most significantly (for a very limited definition of "significantly") I wrote a dissertation chapter on his novel The Public Burning (1977), which is about the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953, and is a hell of a fucking book.  If anyone tries to argue that postmodernism is a milieu that just emptily reflects and pastiches, incapable of any real moral force, you should present them with a copy of The Public Burning.  Is what I'm saying.

You should…probably not present them with a copy of Pricksongs and Descants.  It's really not going to bolster your case.  What we have here is a collection of short stories, in which Coover is doing the usual sixties thing of deconstructing the structures and conventions of fiction &c.  Think a great many Barthelme stories or--most obviously--Barth's Lost in the Funhouse.  The title itself: a "pricksong" is an actual thing with no connotations, but as Coover uses it…really, now.  And "Descant?"  Please, ladies and gentlemen, USE YOUR IMAGINATION.  

Yes, it can now be revealed: the title is about PRICKS and CUNTS, which is appropriate: these are stories about how fiction is created, or, if you will (and why wouldn't you?), procreated.  The most famous story here--the most famous thing Coover's ever written, I suppose, due to its oft-anthologization--is "The Babysitter," which I actually read in a creative writing class lo these many years ago, though I certainly wouldn't have been able to tell you who wrote it.  In it, which various iterations of the night play out based on the fantasies of the father, the kids, the boyfriend, the boyfriend's friend.  In a "normal" story, things would happen one way.  But here, we're in sort of a quantum state where that hasn't been determined; where things simultaneously happen EVERY way.  It's very slickly written, no question.  Coover, it seems, really liked this concept, as we see it repeated in a few other stories: "The Magic Poker," in which two women visit an island that Coover has created (process of literary creation strongly emphasized) and either do or do not find a strange poker that when kissed does or does not change into a prince; then there's "The Elevator," in which various things happen and don't happen to a guy taking an elevator to work.

As a whole, look, let's face it, on the one hand, this is all interesting and an essential challenge to hidebound literary standards; on the other, it really is basically so much postmodern noodling around, and how much you like the book will depend on how much you're willing to indulge that kind of thing.  For a while, I was thinking, eh, this is all sort of middling, but then I got to the end and realized, you know, I actually really did like most of that.  Yes, there are a few stories that'll try try the patience of even the most indulgent among us--and the sheer tedium of "The Sentient Lens" can't be emphasized enough--but, you know, "The Babysitter" and the others in that vein are fun.  "A Pedestrian Accident"--in which people act theatrical and insane in the face of a guy who's been hit by a truck--is funny.  The meta-romance "Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady" is clever.  Ultimately, I think, the climactic magic show "The Hat Act" justifies itself--as stage magicians go, Coover is pretty good.


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