a wolf in wolf's clothing, eating himself.
Robert Coover writes from life, but not the one he has lived out in the world. He writes from his life as a reader of narratives. His personal experience, which he draws on for his work, is the experience he has had inside of texts. He did not grow up in Iowa, but in Ovid's Metamorphoses. He did not suffer first love in the mid-west of America, but inside the Greek myths, or Aesop's fables, or the Decameron. He did not go to school in Chicago. He went to school in Cervantes and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He was formed by language so when he sits down to write about his, gasp, personal experiences, the stuff most of us lesser artists make our treacly material from, he has the world's narratives to draw from. This shit, the Coover shit, the mind blowing weird and perverse stuff he releases in language form, because he's not yet a professional pharmacist, is not a remix or mash up of narrative possibility, but a confession from narrative itself, as if all the world's artistic language, bundled and stuffed inside a fleshy covering, constituted a species, which of course it does, and that species has been called upon to tell of its time, how painful it is to be read, to be misunderstood, to be understood, to be known. To me this is the secret to reading Coover. Narrative itself, a creature the exact size and shape of our world, has begotten the fictions of Robert Coover, and the man sitting here is just the sweet shepherd staying out of the way while it flows through him.
Perhaps this helps explain the inexhaustible invention in his work, the sense one has reading him that the well can't run dry because it's not a well, it's an ocean. Listening to him read two stunning short stories a few nights ago I was in awe of the formal play, the folding and revolving of his narrative worlds, his gleeful indifference to any distinctions between his fictional characters and the fictions they are reading, showing again that any imaginative language released into worlds real or imagined, is sucked into that larger body of narrative that is also the body of Robert Coover, liberating him to make the kind of fiction the world has yet to see. I find these new short stories as innovative as anything from Pricksongs, his early masterpiece that served as a clinic for what was possible in the short story. There is no other writer I can think of, dead or alive, who sustained such a long, rich, ever evolving project making such supple and inventive fictions. The fact that he can still produce not just terrific work but groundbreaking work, is astounding. On a good day he is a model to me, but on the other 355 days of the year this endless energy for making vibrant fiction is a rebuke and a scold and a shadow that seems to have spread so far that I can no longer see its borders.
When I first read Coover, 25 years ago or so, I found him, among other things, playful. I no longer do. Now his virtuosity with the master body of narrative, his ability to tap it, to withdraw fluid from it, to bagpipe it so it sings in voices I've never before heard, is terrifying to me. While there is satire and comedy here, it's a mask for a more demonic project, a kind of surgery he seems cheerfully to be performing on my language center itself, erasing the boundaries I must have held dear. It's more comforting to think that our language is not also our world, but rather a set of noises we make when we're scared. I don't feel all the way comfortable knowing that Robert Coover has access to my interior like this, not just because he's unlicensed. It's because I'm afraid he will keep dissolving what I thought I knew and felt, keep showing me that fiction is real and the real is fiction, and that the boundaries between the two are themselves fictional or was it real? Or what was the difference again?
I've said nothing about Coover the teacher, the supporter of other writers, the friend, but that's because my message on these topics is simple. There is just no one better.
Ben Marcus has recently published The Flame Alphabet, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. He teaches at Columbia University.