Authors: Robert Coover

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

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

Short Fiction:

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)

Drama:

The Kid, pr., pb. 1972

Love Scene, pb. 1972

Rip Awake, pr. 1972

A Theological Position, pb. 1972

Bridge Howard, pr. 1981

Screenplays:

On a Confrontation in Iowa City, 1969

After Lazarus, 1980

Biography

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).{$I[AN]9810001291}{$I[A]Coover, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Coover, Robert}{$I[tim]1932;Coover, Robert}

Robert Coover

(National Archives)

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.

BibliographyAndersen, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A useful and very accessible introduction to Coover’s production up to 1981. Andersen combines plot summary with commentary, helping the reader to make an initial acquaintance with Coover’s work. Notes, select bibliography, and index.Coover, Robert. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 1 (Fall, 1993): 89-94. Coover comments on the difference between the short story and the novel, the writing of Pricksongs and Descants, his use of sexuality in his fiction, his iconoclastic streak, postmodernism, and his use of the short story to test narrative forms.Coover, Robert. Interview by Amanda Smith. Publishers Weekly 230 (December 26, 1986): 44-45. Coover discusses the motivations that lie behind his experimental fiction; states he believes that the artist finds his metaphors for the world in the most vulnerable areas of human outreach; he insists that he is in pursuit of the mainstream. What many people consider experimental, Coover argues, is actually traditional in the sense that it has gone back to old forms to find its new form.Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover’s Fictions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Cope’s readings of selected texts are as provocative as they are unfocused; Cope considers the various ways in which Coover extends the literary forms within and against which he writes. The densely written chapter on Gerald’s Party and the Bakhtinian reading of The Public Burning are especially noteworthy.Couturier, Maurice, ed. Delta 28 (June, 1989). Special issue on Coover. Includes an introduction, a chronology, a bibliography, a previously unpublished Coover story and brief essay on why he writes, and critical essays on a wide variety of topics and fictions, including Gerald’s Party.Critique, 23, no. 1 (1982). Special issue devoted to essays on The Public Burning: Tom LeClair’s (reprinted in expanded form in The Art of Excess; see below); Raymond Mazurek’s on history, the novel, and metafiction; Louis Gallo’s on a key scene in which a viewer exits from a three-dimensional film; and John Ramage’s on myth and monomyth.Evenson, Brian K. Understanding Robert Coover. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Evenson explains the particularly dense style of Coover's metafiction (his writing about writing) in a comprehensive survey that is part of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series. Evenson guides readers through Coover's postmodern fiction, which deals with myth-and storymaking and their power to shape collective, community action, which oftentimes turns violent.Gordon, Lois. Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Like Richard Andersen’s book, this volume provides a friendly introduction and overview of Coover’s work, placing him in the context of metafictional or postmodernist literature. Notes, select bibliography, and index.Kennedy, Thomas E. Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. Kennedy’s study shows Coover’s use of myth, fantasy, love, soap opera, slapstick comedy, parable, and daydream on the microlevel of the short story, which he displays with extraordinary effect on the macrolevel in his novels as well. Contains interviews with Coover and glosses on many of his critics.LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. LeClair discusses The Public Burning in terms of systems theory and the author’s mastery of world, of reader, and of narrative technique. Like the rest of his book, the Coover chapter is intelligent and provocative despite, at times, the arbitrariness and obfuscations of the book’s thesis.McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982. After describing what he considers a major current in contemporary American fiction, McCaffery discusses the metafictional traits of Coover’s work and relates him to other important contemporary American writers.McCaffery, Larry. “Robert Coover on His Own and Other Fictions.” Genre 14 (Spring, 1981): 45-84. A lively discussion in which Coover examines, among other things, the importance of stories about storytelling, the function of the writer in a world threatened by nuclear apocalypse, the fiction that has influenced his work, and popular culture.Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A comparative look at these three writers and their fictions. Includes a bibliography and an index.“The Pleasures of the (Hyper)text.” The New Yorker 70 (June/July, 1994): 43-44. Discusses Coover’s Hypertext Hotel, the country’s first online writing space dedicated to the computer-generated mode of literature known as hypertext; describes Coover’s writing class at Brown University and its use of hypertext.Pughe, Thomas. Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994. Analyzes the humor in the writers’ books. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Scholes, Robert. “Metafiction.” The Iowa Review 1, no. 3 (Fall, 1970): 100-115. Initially theoretical, then descriptive, this article discusses four major metafictional writers: Coover, William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, and John Barth. Scholes categorizes the different types of metafictional writing and classifies Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants as “structural” metafiction, since it is concerned with the order of fiction rather than with the conditions of being.
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