Robert Coover's prodigious gifts have enriched American literature for forty-five years and counting now, and we as readers and writers remain beholden to his innovations. To go beyond them is a daunting challenge, likely impossible. Imitation, obviously, is irresistible. Who among us could declare ourselves other than under the influence? Now that metafiction, in an accessibly watered down strain, has been adopted by the mainstream, it behooves us to pay tribute to the founding father. In revisiting his vast array of works, I find myself bowled over by the ingenuity, audacity, and versatility. Small canvas or large; massive ambitious novels; tiny, ensorcelling tales, delicate miniatures. This author is a shape-shifter just as his protean characters are. I recall Bob telling a group of graduate students at Brown (can it be thirty years ago?) of a regimen he set for himself during a year off from teaching: to compose a story a day. It is a practice that has intrigued me ever since—and which I have numerous times tried to emulate, given that I stand on the other end of the spectrum—more likely a story a year! It is also a practice that seems keyed to Robert Coover's art: that something can end only to begin again, that life is story-making, that a story a day keeps the coroner away. This home-team clearly has the phoenix as its mascot.
And what a nifty antidote to Aristotelean packaging: that an end is not official terminus, but a trigger for continued beginning. I'll return to this concept later in more depth. But any fictive gesture of Bob Coover's is a resistance to containment, a civil disobedience against the mimetic stranglehold on the narrative experience. He conflates the Borgesian with the Rabelaisian; for his metaphysical adventures tend to take a more demotic form than the Mandarin master. But form is indeed key, for Coover texts do not appear in standard shapes and sizes, one replicating the other. Nor are their shapes redundant. This is not mere demonstration of range. This is the willful, playful dedication to refashioning, reconstituting, playing in the malleable muck of narrative materiality and reveling in it for our vicarious pleasure. From The Origin of the Brunists onward, he has been mixing it up, stretching it out and whacking it down, expanding fiction till it's bigger than its britches, and spanking the form until it's yet again spanking new. All to keep away complacency. There's no such thing as moderation in a Coover universe. Imagination needs capaciousness and will demand it, whether it's proliferation of mentation, or an unstoppable array of non-objective objects: nipples that turn spigots, traffic lights, cartoon candelabra, silverware, plates, pinball bumpers. He can interiorize or exteriorize as he sees fit, as he is the grand master of metafiction. He gives us by turns heart-stopping beauty, as in for example the lyricism of Stepmother, or the childlike Cornellian wonder of "The Grand Hotel," or side¬splitting hilarity usually accompanied by unapologetic vulgarity.
From the profoundly explored consciousness of John and all the other townspeople, those who lust for and envy John's wife, to the at times unsettlingly empathetic, mesmerizing consciousness of the fictive Richard Nixon in The Public Burning, to name just two examples, Coover can excavate the psyche yet more intimately than Joyce or Woolf. But that's just part of what he's up to formally. When he chooses instead to foreground the externality of experience and perception, he'll stand outside those places of enjambed consciousness and illuminate the edges. With his exacto knife he'll segment and fracture, deconstructing our egos until it's evident that we, of ardent flesh and blood, are reducible to mere figure and ground: essentially stickmen. He jars us with colliding points of view, colliding visions of reality, such that we surrender to a narrative schizophrenia and ultimately entropy, as in "The Babysitter" or "Cartoon" respectively, for instance.
But what this really boils down to is fecundity: a terrifying and alluring abundance thereof. Bob is the most fertile fictioneer I know. Procreation takes place on every level, be it imagistic, semantic, syntactic. And perhaps the most beautifully emblematic narrative to demonstrate this signature burgeoning is the story "Beginnings" from In Bed One Night & Other Brief Encounters, published by Burning Deck Press, a text I encountered as a graduate student in 1983 in Providence. So I'll choose it as synecdoche for the massive Coover-oeuvre (which I'll affectionately anglicize as the Coove-oove!). You'll remember that salient opening: "In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself. His blood, unable to resist a final joke, splattered the cabin wall in a pattern that read: it is important to begin when everything is already over." From that beginning onward, metafictional mythmaking has commenced in earnest. Everything in the natural or man-made world is transformed semiotically into narrative. Linearity unravels. Birds and bugs are automatic metaphors. A leech is a cautionary tale. A frog a plot thickener. Puns to stave off endings are prophylactics. Wrinkled sheets are first lines. The narrator is the story and vice versa. In lieu of jelly, he eats a peanut butter and manuscript sandwich. Etcetera.
And then there is, of course, the woman. His solitude elicits the muse. The helpmeet. She "taxes his vocabulary." She insinuates herself between his suicide gesture—-a hiccup in causality's rote mechanics-—and its consequences. She dies for just a moment in childbirth; but it's merely a caesura to accommodate a new beginning. He must name her to blame her because she is essentially Eve-—as well as recognize her, not quite consciously, as his savior, since she choreographs his pragmatic needs: she bails the boat, indulges his neuroses, births their babies independently and procures food (lest he eat the babies).
Or was it she who preceded him? She lifts her skirt and reveals the primal rib: mythic umbilicus—seed of all beginning. We know this gesture well in Coover fictions: the woman lifting her skirt (or having it lifted), whether to be punished or ravished or cherished. It has, I think, much more complexity than one might first assume. A man imagines it repeatedly. A woman performs it somewhat less frequently. And while it may seem automatic, as if essentially a sexist tic, OCD Peekaboo is just the surface layer. More significant than the lifting per se is the seeding of entropy: letting all hell break loose in the heaven that resides under her skirt—because Coover's is a deviously layered assault, against reality as much as propriety. He's got a bigger ax to grind than mere taboo-breaking. It's metaphysical mischief that he's really after.
In "Cartoon," the woman's lifted skirt reveals the cartoon man who's been there all day, cuckolding the real man. Thus what should be, for the latter, ecstasy, the ultimate fulfillment of his fantasy, is transformed into humiliation. Under the skirt desire both begins and ends. And for the narrative itself, this revelation of two-timing is the ultimate enforcement of irreality's supremacy—-because the miscegenation of cartoon and real, now that it's entered the domestic sphere, is ineluctable. (This horrifying sight the real man sees will soon infect the way he hears, since at the story's closure he acquires, involuntarily, a pair of cartoon ears.) In the earlier iconic narrative "The Babysitter," you'll recall that every time Eros rears its head, Thanatos intrudes. The superego writ large smacks the hand that grabs the fantasized forbidden flesh—-and that smack is more resounding than any that might hypothetically land on a maid's—-or a babysitter's—buttock. Desire is ever-burgeoning in a Coover universe; desire staves off death, and even as death threatens it at every turn, it is perpetually rekindled; that's the true Ouroboros. Wanting doesn't ever end, and yet desire has apocalyptic consequences. (Be careful what you wish for can't begin to sum up Coover's darkly comic vision.)
Meanwhile, viewed in a certain light, the skirt is a magician's handkerchief: the universal vehicle of transformation. We'd want our money back if there were not unfathomable mystery beneath that piece of fabric every time a maestro plucked it. But it additionally conjures the pierced veil of the Sufi mystic tradition, the final unattainable interior, the center of all wonder. (A skirt as a conceptual whirling dervish might be worth considering.) As we lift veil after veil, we should remind ourselves that take away the covering is the etymological breakdown of apocalypse. And indeed, Coover's "Beginnings" narrates "All beginnings imply an apocalypse," as it puzzles out the man's existence, purpose, essence. Coover fictions dearly love to blow our cover and ditch the middleman of mimetic posturing, assigning to mimesis the status of the emperor's new clothes. Or better yet, the status of original sin. (In "Cartoon," is the real woman's sin adultery? Has she agency? Is she victim? None of these apply, as the metaphysics of a Coover (meta)fiction bypasses the conventions of mimetic fiction's moral universe.)
The skirt, contrastively, would seem to have abundant agency; its protean qualities proliferate; each time it twirls we see another facet—-perhaps because that under is the mirror upon which all society's projections are reflected. The skirt in this sense is the dust cover that protects one from one's own projections, fears, desires. Coover shows us nakedly our most absurd, compulsive human aspects. His giddy, grabby, ever-peeping Toms might be one's own avid, unshielded eyes peering through Duchamp's Etant Donnés, surveying, awestruck, the forbidden: a torch, a landscape, a waterfall, a pudendum, a window of wonder. How does this compare to the shadows of Plato's cave? Or for that matter, a Coover cave, a hypertext hotel—those tantalizing chthonic, fertile spaces of alluring dark. Remember that the protagonist of "Beginnings," paradoxically, was grateful for the generosity of the wall upon which the shadows danced.
I didn't mean to stray so far from the notion of beginning—or perhaps I never left it—-because in fact that vast under-skirt ecosystem, that taboo area being peeped at or paddled or poked into (and otherwise prepped for viewing) is the site of fertility, the symbolic site of procreation, i.e. the mother of all beginnings. Even defecation, in this miniature Coover narrative, yields a kind of procreation—didn't Yeats instruct us that the outhouse and love's mansion shared a driveway?—because the Ur-man of "Beginnings," when he disposes of his toilet paper, reads inscribed upon it, "once upon a time they lived happily ever after." Thus even in the act of physiological elimination is writ large the conflation of end and beginning.
Everything is steeped in revelation in a Coover universe, but the most fundamental revelation is that narrative, the vital life-force, cannot, must not, under any circumstances, be contained or constrained. Not in its relation to the real, not in its temporal expansiveness, not in its destiny, not in any of its contours. It is the cyclical phoenix's flight, because even while the author is ferociously suspicious of the institutionalized tenets of resurrection, he is wholeheartedly committed to the religion of narration, this form of ceaseless propagation, this grace. A lucky thing, for how else would we benighted readers be purged of that original sin, mimesis?
To be in bed one night is only one of a thousand and one stitched-together nights, that delightfully defer our visit from the coroner, by never ceasing to begin. Narrative, Coover proved beyond the shadow of a cave, need not depend on some conventional, subservient relation to authentic human beings. Narrative's life blood—its cells as richly red as any in our bodies-—is created of the master's mind, in the masters ever-cunning hands.
"Spanking the Form" appears in the Robert Coover Festschrift of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2012, Vol. XXXII, and is reprinted with permission.
Mary Caponegro is the author of Tales from the Next Village, The Star Café, Five Doubts, The Complexities of Intimacy and All Fall Down. She is the Richard B. Fisher Family Professor of Literature and Writing at Bard College.