The Origin of the Brunists, 1966
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., 1968
Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, 1975, expanded 1987
The Public Burning, 1977
Hair o’ the Chine, 1979 (screenplay/novella)
A Political Fable, 1980 (novella)
Spanking the Maid, 1981 (novella)
Gerald’s Party, 1985
Pinocchio in Venice, 1991
Briar Rose, 1996 (novella)
John’s Wife, 1996
Ghost Town, 1998
The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors’ Cut, 2002
Pricksongs and Descants, 1969
The Water Pourer, 1972 (a deleted chapter from The Origin of the Brunists)
Charlie in theHouse of Rue, 1980
The Convention, 1981
In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters, 1983
Aesop’s Forest, 1986
A Night at the Movies: Or, You Must Remember This, 1987
The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell), 2002 (vignettes)
The Kid, pr., pb. 1972
Love Scene, pb. 1972
Rip Awake, pr. 1972
A Theological Position, pb. 1972
Bridge Howard, pr. 1981
On a Confrontation in Iowa City, 1969
After Lazarus, 1980
Robert Lowell Coover has written in a variety of literary forms, including that of short fiction, drama, film script, novella, and review-essay, of which he wrote a handful on such writers as Samuel Beckett and Gabriel García Márquez, for whom he has a special affinity. It is through the novel, however, that he achieved his greatest renown. A major figure in twentieth century American literature, he demonstrated no interest whatsoever in the celebrity and mass appeal that in the West are often equated with literary success. On the other hand, it is from the same mass culture that Coover draws the subjects of his fiction, among them baseball, Cold War paranoia, apocalyptic religion, Charles Chaplin, Richard Nixon, and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (1957).
Coover was born in the small mining town of Charles City, Iowa, where his father managed the local newspaper. After college, a tour of duty in the Navy, and marriage, Coover began teaching (at Bard College and other colleges) while devoting as much time as possible to his writing. Unlike the majority of so-called academic writers, Coover spent most of his career away from the universities until the early 1980’s, when he joined the faculty of Brown University. Encouraged to expand and elaborate on the mining materials in his early story “Blackdamp” (1961), Coover produced the work that established his importance as a young as well as daring–and, to some reviewers, iconoclastic–writer, The Origin of the Brunists, which won the 1966 William Faulkner Award for best first novel.
The thematic and technical preoccupations of Coover’s entire career can be found in this novel. Coover is in many ways a moralist determined to show the error of human ways. He positions human beings not at the center of the world but rather at the center of the fictions they themselves construct to explain that world and make it amenable to human habitation and their inflated sense of their own self-importance. Longing for stasis and immortality, Coover’s characters persist in believing in such used-up forms and ideas as realism, reason, progress, and religion, all the metaphors they have come to accept as reality. Such acceptance prevents them from taking responsibility for their own existence as the begetters of the fictive beliefs by which they live. Coover’s narrative method stands as the antithesis of his characters’ static obsessiveness. Rather than allowing himself to be imprisoned by fiction, Coover exploits fiction’s metaphoric possibilities, making it increasingly difficult for the readers to do with their fictions what Coover’s characters do with theirs: confuse them with reality.
This dual tendency–to exploit the metaphoric possibilities and to widen the gap between meaningless reality and exhaustively meaningful fiction–is one that became increasingly noticeable in the course of Coover’s career. Coover moves from a quasi realism in The Origin of the Brunists and a thin separation between myth and reality in The Universal Baseball Association to a doubling of narrative voices and overrich historical texture in The Public Burning and a full exploitation of narrative’s permutational possibilities in Spanking the Maid and Gerald’s Party. By exploiting his characters’ confusion over the ways in which fiction and fictive beliefs come to overwhelm and supplant protean, meaningless reality, Coover undermines fiction’s authority and the suspension of disbelief it demands. In this way, he liberates the reader not from fiction, or from fiction-making, which he sees as a basic human need, but rather from the stranglehold of any one fiction or fictive system. In effect, what Coover does is to give greater importance to the making of fiction, the imaginative process itself, than to the fictions that it produces: process over product, the maker over the consumer.
Not surprisingly, Coover has been linked to such writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, who have been termed “metafictionists.” Metafiction is experimental, self-reflexive, and highly self-conscious. Instead of mimetically representing a reality whose existence is taken for granted, metafiction examines its own existence, its own status as fiction and, by extension, as metaphor for all those fictions which the metafictionists believe people have unwisely allowed to rule their lives. Yet unlike some metafictionists, Coover seems as concerned with preserving narrative interest as he is with disrupting it, and more concerned than most metafictionists with the moral consequences of people’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their own mythmaking. The means Coover employs to express this concern is comedy, particularly that of cartoons and silent films: the sudden transformations of the one and the slapstick, pratfalls, and Chaplinesque befuddlement of the other.
The metafictional dimension of Coover’s writing is most overtly present in the collection entitled Pricksongs and Descants and perhaps most brilliantly, if more obliquely, employed in The Universal Baseball Association. The various strains of Coover’s narrative style is fully realized in his ambitious and densely woven novel The Public Burning, subtitled A Historical Romance. The difficulties Coover faced in getting the manuscript of this novel published, the hostility of several influential as well as literal-minded reviewers, and subsequent legal challenges left Coover less than happy with the literary marketplace in the United States. A number of his later works evidence an increasing distance from the general reader. Some–as, for example, In Bed One Night and Other Brief Encounters and Charlie in the House of Rue–have been published in small editions by even smaller alternative publishing houses. Other works include technical aspects that are almost intimidatingly challenging to many readers: the permutational structure of Spanking the Maid, for example, the range of cinematic reference in A Night at the Movies, the “clogged” narrative of Gerald’s Party, and the overtly carnivalesque retelling of Pinocchio in Venice and Briar Rose. By the late 1980’s, Coover began to explore the “fabulous networks,” “multiplying forking paths,” and interactive possibilities of computerized hypertext in writing workshops that he led at Brown University. In the 1990’s, he presented readers with parodies: John’s Wife is Coover’s postmodern version of small-town life and the American Dream, Ghost Town offers his take on the American Western, and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre is a futuristic tour de force featuring a porn star in a frozen meta-city. In 2000, Coover was given the Lannan Literary Award in Fiction.