Yes, a world at an end, in spite of appearances, its end brought it forth, ending it began, etc. As a matter of fact, the time now seems irrevocably gone when one could, quixotically perhaps, claim to start something, to do something new, something novel. For, yes, inevitably, the novel itself is at an end—has been for innumerable years, so much so that you are now left wondering if it, too, has not always been beginning in its own last convulsions, exhausted before begun, ending as it began; same story told and here retold, exhaustion and replenishment may indeed, in their own cancellation, carry out the same inchoate, obsolete gesture. Without end. The writing feeds on the fetid remains of the "novel" to draw itself out indefinitely in its own impossibility and futility, something The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, among others, toys with in borrowed echoes: He fears going on. He fears not going on.[ . . . ] Has he been abandoned? In reply, the end letters of the sign above him drop off at his feet like falling roof tiles: the O, the N. ON? No: no. (197-8) An N and an O, "end letters" that reversibly put an end to the end they spell out. Jason—Jas-O-N—in "The Marker" from Pricksongs & Descants, copulating unknowingly with the corpse of his wife, could almost stand, if stand he still can, as an allegory of the postmodern, post-end-of-the-novel, post-end-of-everything writer who, in an age of felt ultimacies, has to be, more than ever perhaps, aware of what his predecessors have been up to . . . Something the policeman at the end of the story, literally throwing light on Jason's doings, will be eager to recall: it has to stop, once and for all, and he will then have no other option but to emasculate Jason in order to make sure that such practices from another age altogether can no longer be reproduced . . . After all, as suggested by the opening lines of the story "Beginnings" placed at the end (where else?) of In Bed One Night & Other Brief Encounters—It is important to begin when everything is already over. (40)
It might be that each text, each in its own singular way, has been repeating—rehashing and rehearsing—the initial, suicidal gesture opening "Beginnings": In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself. (40) Perhaps there is, you muse, and has always been, in each form of writing, a propensity to self-cancellation or sabotage, to a suicide of sorts, as famously exemplified in and by the very beginning of the novel as a genre in the knight of La Mancha's own suicidal assaults upon gigantic windmills, for instance, or in the parodic drive of Cervantes' writing against the romances within the (extended) bounds of which, however, it keeps moving about . . . As though each text, each novel, when genuinely, passionately, undertaken, first and one of a kind groping in the dark for its own rules, were animated by the fear and desire of, last and one of a kind, outliving, outwriting itself and the whole of literature in some sort of free-for-all and fuck-the-consequences . . . Justin Miller, in The Origin of the Brunists, might embody this tendency when becoming infatuated with Marcella, sister to the fake prophet Giovanni Bruno: He knew that weaning her away from the cult and her brother would not be easy, but he meant to try, and he knew the consequences of success, knew and accepted them. In fact, goddamn it, they even appealed to him. (247-8) The "novel," while some have never stopped predicting or diagnosing its demise, may as such never have seen the light of day; and so, yes, somehow, it is a genre at an end, in spite of appearances, in spite of its name, its end brought it forth, ending it began . . .
If to write for some is to enter a templum—that imposes on the writer a certain number of uses, an implicit religion, a rumor that changes beforehand all that he or she can say, etc.—then to write in any true, authentic sense is first of all to want to destroy the temple before building it. In that sense of course to write is to refuse "to write"—to question radically the constraints of such a place before (not) passing over its threshold. The Origin of the Brunists, Coover's first published novel, may enact this as, despite its deliberately more or less conventional design (often less than more, you for one feel), it embodies this readiness to destroy the literary temple as it stood in the early sixties, to undermine the writing and almost literally have the "novel" explode into new, unconstrained, unpredictable shapes. The Origin of the Brunists could thus be seen less as Coover's attempt to write a traditional novel than as his attempt to figure an escape route out of it. The coalmine, a possible metaphor of the novel as a genre, exploding, forces the small town of West Condon to acknowledge that the industry it rests upon belongs to the past—[Ted Cavanaugh] remembers how, after the war, there was so much hope here, so much promise. And now it's all going sour. "You're not in the nineteenth century, son," his Dad told him, dying. "Get your money out of here. Coal's on the way out." (241) The future of West Condon has literally to be invented on the wiped-out, blank page of a book shred to pieces, forever remaining still to come.
Hence the novel's parodic play throughout on a sense of prophecy embodied in Giovanni Bruno, the sole survivor of the mine disaster, the resonances of his name with Giordano Bruno's, as some have observed, probably no coincidence. Further, the Biblical intertext, made explicit as early as the novel's epigraph, is inscribed into the text ironically since the character's Italian first name connects him both to the Book of Revelation and the fourth Gospel in the New Testament offered up, by Eleanor Norton, as Bruno's legitimation: "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not." (172) This dual reference turns Bruno into an ambiguous figure, as much the Word himself in the beginning of all—Bruno is a parodic Christ, left for dead to be raised from the dead three days after the accident—as a mere witness of the Light revealed at the end of all, an ambiguity which also unhinges the plot, placing it halfway between the prophecy of an ending to come and the reminiscence or reenactment of a beginning. The irony of it all is underscored by the novel's title as the Brunists imperturbably awaiting the end of their world end up reinventing an "origin," founding a new cult that progressively supersedes and erases the Christian myth it aimed at reinvigorating: in lieu of the expected end, a self-perpetuating, self-erasing recommencement—the text, itself ironically structured in a sort of loop to make it clear that in its beginning is its end, is thus bound to loop its loop forever in a perpetual, protractive Return by way of "epilogue."
And so it is that, at the (chronological) origin of Coover's work is a text that would tend to demonstrate its impossibility or unwillingness ever to begin—to found anything, least of all, doubtless, an oeuvre in the usual—reverential—sense; a long-,if not ever-lasting temple of texts—authoritative and sanctified. Instead, what is already perceptible is the defining motion of a writing deliberately facing the possibility, the ineluctability too, of its own end, of its own death—this point, unknown and foreign, with no kind of reality before or outside this movement leading to it, from which the narrative draws its attraction in such a way that it cannot begin before having reached it. It might be in this very motion, in the writing as event, an event called on to unfold, an event still to come and—indefinitely—to come back, that the text, in its writerliness, might meet its end to begin at last; at last—but too soon, always, yet always too late, the writing never coinciding with itself, forever split and cracked within itself, always-already its own duplication, its own shadow, its own ghost, a remainder forever bound to rehash and rehearse itself. To write: to refuse "to write"—to write by way of this refusal, of this contestation. To survive in order to continue dying. To end in order to begin. Same story, told and here retold.
Bruno, in his prophetic silence—He spoke not at all, for of course, as both Sister Clara and Mrs. Norton had observed, his purpose was unique and precise: to announce the Coming of the Light. He had done so. Further speech was superfluous. (17)—might serve as a first metaphor of the writer; it might even be the grounds for his survival: his incapacity to die, forever protracting his own death in what remains of his life in the margins of West Condon. Giovanni Bruno is of course much of a pathetic, grotesque, parodic figure, not unlike Gloomy Gus, Richard Nixon's avatar in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? But the radical ambiguity of Coover's writing questions and undermines the certainties you can initially feel while reading as you become aware of the connections it establishes, the interferences it creates, the shadowy areas it projects, around which distinctions fade: between Nixon and the Rosenbergs, for instance, with whom he keeps identifying in The Public Burning, or between Gus and Meyer, the narrator of Gloomy Gus, who recognizes something of himself in his friend's life story, dangerously close to his own: Both of us were ranging far from home, fulfilling myths about ourselves, his the rags-to-riches drama of the industrious American boy, mine the curse of the Wandering Jew. And we were both—captives of alienating systems—divided within ourselves. (Gloomy Gus, 122-3) Or between Giovanni Bruno and Justin Miller who, by the end of The Origin of the Brunists, ironically appears as the double of the "prophet," cast in his turn into a parodic Christ-like figure, what Marcella, mistaken though she seems—which adds another layer of irony to the text—is all too prompt to note: Though silent, apart, calm, singular, [Justin] is yet at the heart of the Plan, moving with hidden fingers, fulfilling with unspoken words, gentle, responsive, aloof from the human frailties of the group. Justin is—in a sense—their priest. She feels it. Perhaps they all feel it. (255) And so, in Marcella's eyes at least, Miller replaces Bruno and will eventually be sacrificed ritualistically before being raised from the dead, too.
The texts often cast their characters into several roles at once, as though making them play on different stages or for different audiences simultaneously. Bruno is no exception and, you feel, could—if only momentarily and parodically—provide a (grotesque) image of the writer as a (fake) prophet of a (fake) writing to come, at least as long as he keeps silent. For speaking propagates, disseminates, by fostering belief in some truth, the errors that writing, in its own refusal, tries to wear out. As soon as Bruno starts speaking, a truth is being postulated that could not have been in his silence—writing as a refusal to write is thus abrogated; instead, intimations of a truth, the imminence of a revelation, are made manifest: writing forsakes its endless, intransitive motion, and through Bruno, refuses to refuse to write. And so, yes, undoubtedly, Bruno did die in the mine accident, as some of his disciples believe after Eleanor Norton's revelation: "Giovanni Bruno died and his body is now inhabited by a superior being. This is the meaning of the . . . the vision of the white bird." (200) And then, with him, the writer in him died too, buried in the jumble of a mine that exploded; the writer, he who refuses to write in any conventional sense, he who repels the truth, and meanings, and messages alike, the writer that Coover became: I wanted to go down into the mine myself and come out of it, hopefully with some revelations of my own, new insights, more skill, discipline, all that. The Origin of the Brunists is what he brought out of it, what he brought to the light, along with the conviction, as exposed in The Water Pourer, one of the blasted fragments or remains from the book, that [a]ll narratives, like the universe, are explosive.
"There is no explosion except a book," remember? A book; a book that, as such, is not the laborious assemblage of a totality finally obtained, but has for its being the noisy, silent bursting which, without the book, would not take place; then the book, in its own being violently exceeded and thrust out of itself, gives no sign of itself save its own explosive violence, the force with which it expels itself, the thunderous refusal of the plausible: the dying of a book in all books . . .
Weak but yet resonant, Giovanni Bruno's voice entered the still room for the first time: "The coming . . . of . . . light!" (174) For the first time, Giovanni Bruno's voice bursts out, shattering the silence, in a few fragmented words. What does Bruno announce if not, parodically, the explosion to come, the book to come—its own parodic reduplication in its assembled totality? The Coming of the Light (14), capitalized, with an extra article, a phrase made whole and integrated into a complex hermeneutic system which fosters belief in an ultimate truth, invents (and puts) an end to writing in its explosive, erratic force, by "perfecting" it: [Eleanor Norton and Ralph Himebaugh] shared [ . . . ] this hope for perfection, for final complete knowledge, and their different approaches actually complemented each other, or at least seemed to. (261) Such "perfection," such "final completion," is precisely what the writing, in its disruptive, explosive momentum, forbids. The end of the novel, the point, this final full stop that the writing needs to meet in order to begin, remains the point beyond which nothing happens anymore, the moment in time after which there is no after anymore, but an endless "return": the mine will not, cannot reopen after the tragedy—the explosion is an endless one, forever exploding beyond itself; and in this explosion, there is and can be no totality to be finally obtained. The prophecy, as the announcement of a meaning or truth to come, as an empty discourse in wait for its own completion, is thus bound to ring a hollow note forever echoing in the voice of no one: Giovanni Bruno. Who was he? Why was it he? John Brown! The very anonymity lent an unreal—or, rather, a superreal—odor to the occasion, a kind of terror, the terror inevitably associated with voids, infinities, absences, facelessness, zero. (189)
In his very anonymity, in his "facelessness," Giovanni Bruno is and has always been no one, a zero in the margins of West Condon that fails to be integrated within the community and, as such, what Ralph Himebaugh's interpretive system cannot but stumble over after the catastrophe. For if the number of casualties is at first significant—The number ninety-seven, the number of the dead, was itself unbelievably relevant. (188)—Bruno suddenly appears as an excedent, the supernumerary "plus one"—And then there was ninety-seven plus one (189)—that falsifies all reckonings and predictions. In order to be made significant at all, the faceless Bruno has to gain a face insofar as the face is what fuels interpretation, it is what gives the signifier substance: the signifier is always facialized. Hence Himebaugh's growing, irrepressible urge not only to hear, but to see Bruno face to face—For seven weeks now, he had been contemplating a private conversation with the man. (189)—on whose nodding visage, too, keeping her unwavering gaze locked on his, Eleanor Norton (mis)reads her first confirmations (134).
For eventually, neither Himebaugh nor Norton can accept the void, the absence, the zero significance, the irrelevance of their own conditions and of the world around them. Nothing happens by chance and the accident, any accident, has to attest to and emanate from a center of significance they will have to locate—and [i]f there is a center, of course, it is Giovanni Bruno, the One to Come. (230) A whole interpretive system, a ruthless signifying regime is then rigged and endowed with a prophetic dimension; absence becomes substance in the process and Bruno's words, initially hollow—Miller wondered at the message, so-called, with which Bruno had so dramatically torched the meeting. The tomb is its message. Meaningless, yet loaded. (209)—end up "loaded," impregnated with meaning, thus requiring the intervention of seers or interpretive priests who thereby see their own function and existence justified not so much by the words they have to interpret, as, viciously, by the meaning or interpretation they project upon them; their role now is to preserve the regime, or look after and uphold the "temple" (Bruno's room) out of which they lose their significance, they cease to exist; they, in other words, have to feed the symptoms of their interpretosis—their interpretation is carried to infinity and never encounters anything to interpret that is not already itself an interpretation. The signified constantly reimparts signifier, recharges it or produces more of it, and the ultimate signified is therefore the signifier itself, in its redundancy or "excess." The "plus one" now makes perfect sense in the regime it fostered, a regime that, devoid of final, logical, and temporal end, literally turns in the void, forever putting off its "ultimate signified": the initial word scribbled by dying Ely Collins in the mine, itself based on Biblical reminiscences, thus spawns Bruno's spare, almost inaudible words, Eleanor Norton's interpretations of them, their confirmation through Ralph Himebaugh's calculations and Mabel Hall's divinations, a special issue of the West Condon Chronicle prepared on the sly by Justin Miller which, inadvertently, sustains and feeds the Brunists' signifying apparatus at its very source, the whole thing eventually turning into the novel itself, itself feeding your own commentary of it all, before, feeding back on itself, the process starts all over again in The Brunist Day of Wrath, the forthcoming sequel to The Origin of the Brunists, already announced in stories like "White-Bread Jesus" and "Red-Hot Ruby," premises of a catastrophe still to come back . . . Endlessly; in the end.
Not only has the "signifier" become facialized in the process, it has gained a body of its own, has embodied itself into Giovanni Bruno—Giovanni Bruno's body had been invaded by a higher being! Contact had been established! (132)—who appears as the Signifier personified, or the flesh made Word again, thus underscoring the signifying regime's, the Brunists', and hence the world's, profound antics . . . You might wonder, like others before you, why the idea of the Messiah seems so appealing; why can we not bear, why do we not desire, that which is without end? Perhaps the messianic hope—which, true, is dread as well—is inevitable when history appears only as an arbitrary hubbub, a process deprived of meaning or direction; which undoubtedly strikes one all the stronger, appears all the clearer, with the threat of total annihilation—the explosion of a bomb, of a mine. Then the paradigm of the Apocalypse, of the revealed end of times, appears as a redemptive, comforting myth that sustains the prospect and the belief that nothing will have been for nothing, the possibility of viewing life and history as a unified whole, of postulating totality and completion, coherence, the better to find and understand one's place within such history, see it, after thus having rationalized time, in all its relevance and meaningfulness. For you cannot, of course, be denied an end—can you?
And what is all of this if not, above all, a literary paradigm? For is it not the great charm of books that they have to have an ending? Beyond its parodic play with religious and metaphysical concerns, it is a purely literary question that The Origin of the Brunists raises and anticipates: that of (its) reading. The end of the world awaited by the Brunists, their eagerness to have their expectations fulfilled, can thus be read as a parodic mise-en-abyme of the way you read the text, any text, in the hope of having your own expectations fulfilled, of seeing the text reach a satisfactory resolution, of being granted privy access to its meaning, without which your reading, forever frustrated, will have been in vain; reading for nothing—can you stand this? And so, as always throughout Coover's fiction, The Origin of the Brunists, perhaps not—in the end—as conventional a novel as it seems, provides you with a distorted image of your own reading self, portraying you in all your eagerness to understand and get it right. The Brunists—who, by the end of the novel, comprise Abner Baxter's fundamentalist followers, siding with Eleanor Norton's sibylline mysticism and Ralph Himebaugh's numerological calculations: interpretation arrests at nothing—embody your stance and it does not matter that the predicted end keeps being protracted, that their reckonings are irremediably flawed, their expectations constantly thwarted; on the contrary, their mistakes spur them on: if [Himebaugh] did not yet embrace the whole truth of the universe, it was only because he still lacked all the data, lacked some vital but surely existent connection—in short,had not yet perfected his system. (261) Interpretation feeds on mistakes which, paradoxically, confirm the hermeneutic system and forever revive the prophecy of the meaning to come.
Of course all prophetic discourses are eminently, ambiguously uncertain and, as such, they not only authorize but require mistakes by keeping a space indefinitely open—the space of an absent or suspended meaning—within which all sorts of adjustments are always possible. If the prophecy refers ahead of itself to a future that will fulfill it, its meaning, left suspended at the time of its delivery, can only be a retrospective one. For it is always too late, after the event it prophesied (or failed to), that the prophecy is revealed, that it can be re-cognized as such (and, as such, never cognized). The prophecy, all too literally, is thus always an acte manqué, an event inevitably missed out on, the expectation of which is thus always frustrated since, by definition, it is impossible to know exactly what it is that is being awaited. In that sense, the event as such is not, cannot be, deceptive, only the waiting for it is. The nature of any prophecy is of course perverse, since what it predicts at the very moment of its utterance—mere empty words waiting to be loaded with retrospective meaning—is nothing but the frustrated expectation of its fulfillment, an expectation it continuously defers and reawakens as it is being fulfilled; if their cult heavily relies on a sense of prophecy, it turns out that the Brunists eventually wait for nothing; and nothing happens. The prophet is thus never wrong (only the system of interpretation is not perfected enough yet), and, like Bruno, he is never any more right than when he ends up saying nothing . . . For of course, at this game, the best interpretation, the weightiest and most radical one, is an eminently significant silence, one that, saying nothing, says it all. What The Origin of the Brunists stages and gives shape to, diagnoses, might be no other than mankind's fundamental neurosis—signification and interpretosis: diseases, for some, of the earth, of the skin.
For is it not always on the skin of the characters that the first symptoms show? Nixon's five o'clock shadow or lipsticked bum, the maid's striped and wealed fundament (WHAT DOES IT MEAN? the master keeps asking, perusing it), the prince's briared flesh,or Pinocchio's desquamated veneer . . . The poet's right [ . . . ], the deepest thing in man is the skin. ("The Photographer") Indeed. And Giovanni Bruno is no exception to the rule, whose neurosis is displayed, inscribed on his scarred flesh: Happy [Bottom]'s description of Giovanni's abdominal scars had rung some kind of bell in [Miller's] mind. She'd said they were all horizontal or vertical, but, though intricate, had no apparent design to them. It made him think of cracked wood and that made him think of the wooden statue of Saint Stephen in the local Catholic Church—its patron. [ . . . ] Torso writhing, eyes turned inward to confront death, arms twisted up over his head, the boy was naked but for the usual loincloth [ . . . ], the boy's body was finely cracked, paint chipping off, joints separating. After Happy had tipped him off, he'd made a trip back to the Cathedral to see for himself: yes, the belly was that abstract fretwork of tiny scars she had described. Happy, when he took her there, had not only confirmed it, but located a kind of "LOF" in the right groin that had caused all the girls at the hospital to wonder if it stood for "love" or "laugh." (300) And this disease of the skin is a contagious one; for Miller, who at times forgets that the world around him is "insensate"—as when he visits the mine after the accident, the proliferation of the religious vocabulary but one symptom: Tiger Miller suffered for one febrile moment the leap and joy and glory of the state basketball championships—bright flash of meaning, a possible faith in a possible thing: that they could win! and there were [ . . . ] patterns that worked, challenge, rescue, always a resolution, redemptions tested and proved in the scoring columns . . . a grace on him. Standing straight, he knocked his helmet against the roof: drums rolled funereally, blunt reminder, from the insensate earth, of the real. (137)—Miller cannot help but retrace the lead offered him by Happy, all the way back to its origin (he'd made a trip back to the Cathedral to see for himself), while as for the nurses, they keep reading, projecting, fashioning some sense ("love" or "laugh") where, spreading haphazardly on Bruno's abdomen, there isn't any (LOF).
And so perhaps any text is or acts as a prophecy in the end, announcing something it cannot reach while focusing your attention on the imminence of a revelation that is not, cannot be, will not be produced, its "aesthetic event." And so it might be, yes, that reading is in this regard a form of anguish—In the legendary House of Anxiety, recalls the narrative voice of "Playing House," there was nothing to read (A Child Again, 67)—because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it may be (and the more engaging it seems to be), is empty—at bottom it does not exist; you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not understand. Understand what? That there might be nothing to understand, that understanding is overrated, that your eagerness and zeal to make the "insensate real" around you significant is a disease, disease of your western mind. In this light, of course the writer appears for what he or she is—a physician, of him-/herself, of the world. You have to jump to regain your sanity, jump into the void of existence—shoot yourself in order to get started—jump into the text, its very textuality, let yourself drop into language, like this fallguy from A Child Again, in order to remind yourself, again and again, that in the beginning was the gesture; all else a figment and a haunting (Ghost Town, 147), mere illusions of sense in the absence of any. The ultimate alternative, in the end, might indeed be "love" or "laugh" and, at this game, the authentic figure of the writer in The Origin of the Brunists is not so much Justin Miller—who, caricatured, might eventually be no better, at bottom, than all the others—nor Giovanni Bruno—its grotesque parody—as, in the absence of physician proper, the nurse herself, "Happy Bottom."
As predicted, then, your only choice—which is also literally Miller's in The Origin of the Brunists or Nixon's in The Public Burning; the Fairy's "Parable of the Two Houses" in Pinocchio in Venice, between the pretty little white house and the nasty little brown one (116) redoubles this choice—can only be between a goat's ass and the face of the god, between sorcerers and priests. Happy Bottom, a purely Dionysian figure who has no other name than the moniker given to her by Miller, thus offers an alternative to the paranoid body of the despot-god—Domiron—that supposedly speaks through Bruno at the center of the temple; not a local girl (146), she is, as her nickname indicates, a counter-body of sorts opposed to Bruno's body of signification. By choosing her at the end of the novel, Miller thus finds his "redemption." For as often throughout Coover's fiction, it is a woman who is cast into the positive role. Female characters, insofar as they seem to understand and be aware of what is going on at all times, are indeed usually seen in more positive, radiant light than male ones; they often pull the strings, script everything, and are magnified by the violence they may go through, like Ethel Rosenberg in The Public Burning: Ethel Rosenberg's body, held only at head, groin, and one leg, is whipped like a sail in a high wind, flapping out at the people like one of those trick images in a 3-D movie, making them scream and duck and pray for deliverance. Her body, sizzling and popping like firecrackers, lights up with the force of the current, casting a flickering radiance on all those around her, and so she burns—and burns—and burns—as though held aloft by her own incandescent will and haloed about by all the gleaming great of the nation— (517) But would the so-called "great of the nation" be that "gleaming" or so "great" were it not for Ethel's "radiance"? Ethel Rosenberg: the literal (scape)goat whose ass Nixon keeps fantasizing about, though unwilling, unlike Miller in The Origin of the Brunists, to choose her over his despot-god, Uncle Sam, at the center of the American temple.
Although she seems reduced to two-dimensionality by her lack of name, Happy Bottom nevertheless appears as an authentic prophet of the writing to come, the guarantor of the health and sanity of the world. Pregnant by the end of the novel, she literally carries in her counter-body the possibility of a new start; in her might be embodied, or counter-embodied, this new writing, writing to come that foils all attempts at criticism, that is, at arresting meaning onto an ultimate, stable, unchanging, and absolute signification—writing to come, finally to have done with judgment, as exemplified by the series of letters she sends to Miller, working parodic variations on the "Last Judgment" which undermine any conception of the text grounded in a loosely apocalyptic paradigm, that is the closure of a total, complete, unified text working towards the sense of an ending from which it becomes meaningful, from which it can make sense. In her bitingly irreverent parodies, Happy Bottom undercuts Biblical (patriarchal) authority by inviting her reader, Miller, and you through him, of course, to free himself from all t(h)eleological thinking, a step he at first remains incapable of taking: [Miller] realized that his own mind had also been, subtly, geared for an end tomorrow: Monday had been and still was an unreality. Projects always did that. They set up something that looked hard and real, something to aim at, but they always concealed then the thick tangle of endless ambiguities that were the one true thing of this world. For Miller, there was nothing worse than the end of a project: cold sweat, nausea, couldn't eat—like shaking a habit. Even knowing that though, he could never resist launching new ones. The reason was: it was that or nothing, and nothing was not good at all. (385-6)
Nothing can lift the ambiguities, or resolve the mysteries of sense—writing is without end. To keep changing direction, to set off as if by chance and shun any goal, by a movement of pleasant distraction, of blissful happiness; that might be, in the end, the justification for writing provided by Happy's example. To make a game of human time, and of the game a free occupation, stripped of any immediate interest and usefulness, essentially superficial, yet capable for all that, by this surface movement, to absorb Miller's entire being, and yours too. If the choice, as conceived by Miller in The Origin of the Brunists, is between the projection of an "end," so temporary and factitious it might be, and nothing, then one/you should be able to choose nothing, the "reality of nothing," to jump over the abyss offered by all literary experiences: At one point during the Last Judgment, at a particular tense and difficult moment, someone present released a thundering, monumental—if not indeed mystical—fart. It was not, however, as efficacious as its historic reputation might have led one to expect. [ . . . ] In short, nothing happened at all. Nevertheless, one should not lose sight of the reality of it . . . (437)
What if this, you ponder, actually was what literature, what writing was all about? A wish to aim at nothing and to lead to nothing, the reality of it, like a fart in the face of gods . . . ? In which case, of course, nothing ever happens at all—a thunderous, monumental nothing in all its inefficacious splendor, all the more real and devastating for all that as it emancipates from the thought and sense of an absolute, final ending it would "comment"—this commentary, if it was that, on Divine Justice—a nothing that produces nothing, nothing that could arouse the wrath of God, nor any reaction whatsoever: The Divine Judge did not disappear in a cloud of crimson smoke, nor did His Judgments reflect increasing or diminishing wrath or benevolence [ . . . ]. (437) Nothing can logically follow from it and no judgment can logically be proclaimed—no meaning given to this gesture, to what has not happened and, not happening, produces, against all expectations (as its historic reputation might have led one to expect), nothing—yet changes everything.
The (f-)art of writing.
To the cold, scarred, gaunt, sick body of significance—Giovanni Bruno's, or his sister's, Marcella, too; also, perhaps, Pinocchio's in Pinocchio in Venice, he whose frantic quest for an ending, a last metaphor for the last chapter of the last book of his last life, is doubled by slow, painful lignification—Happy Bottom and all her likes disseminated throughout Coover's work (and often more closely related to a literal role of scapegoat or sacrificial victim: Ros in Gerald's Party, Ethel Rosenberg in The Public Burning, Pauline in John's Wife, or, differently, the maid in Spanking the Maid . . . ), oppose the possibility of an a-signifying counter-body, irreverent, and sensual.
The counter-body, in that sense, might be an utter, symbolic rejection of all apocalyptic thinking and its reliance on a linear conception of time authorizing "judgment," that is the closure of sense. For through it, or so it seems, lines of flight proliferate, disjunctions and new connections relaunch, recharge, and erratically prolong the movement of the writing in no specific direction; in it, too, that is in the threat of its own exhaustion, the writing forever perpetuates itself. If Happy, as the counter-body opposed to the signifying regime defended by most characters in The Origin of the Brunists—from the Brunists themselves to their fundamentalist opponents and the members of the Common Sense Committee, eager to protect the town's image and guarantee the economic fallout of the events—can stand as a metaphor or symbol of Coover's writing, it might be due to her characterization (or lack thereof) as a sexual object: "object," because the text, never naming her and barely describing her—sandy-haired Tucker City girl, [ . . . ] family a mixture of immigrant Englishmen and East Europeans, [ . . . ] bright-eyed and quick to banter. Mainly it was her long slim waist and plump butt that had drawn and kept his eye (142)—endeavors never to turn her into a "subject" (she never serves as a focalizer in the narration); "sexual," then, not only because most scenes in which she features are erotic scenes with Miller, but also insofar as the sexual may denote the life of forces and of flows traversing the character and, through her, the writing itself.
As a somewhat conventional metaphor of all narrative practices—the archetype of all fiction might well be the sexual act itself in its fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation—sex is a privileged symbol of Coover's writing; not a fixed symbol in the regular sense, though, but rather a dynamic, matricial symbol, defined as the vibrant thought of recombinant flows which destabilizes and reorganizes everything all the time; symbol as process, which in itself means nothing and has neither to be explained nor interpreted, through which connections and disjunctions are established without end, as between sex and sports (Henry and Hettie in The Universal Baseball Association, or Gloomy Gus's confusion of both in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?), sex and theater (Gerald's Party), sex and politics (The Public Burning), sex and religion ("A Theological Position"), sex and cinema (The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, "You Must Remember This") . . .
However, as a symbol, in that sense, of Coover's writing, sex is detached from its usual linear pattern of tension and resolution, its teleological, apocalyptic march forward towards climax and consummation. In The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, the rhythmic pattern of tumescence / detumescence of the hero is telltale of the narrative strategies involved, which play linearity against itself. The point might not be to delay climax and resolution indefinitely, so much as to instantiate or repeat it on a regular basis, thus to question the possibility and validity of closure, implementing parodic or ironical "endings" throughout to displace and invalidate "the end" proper. If a story like "Heart Suit" from A Child Again—written on the back of playing cards to be (re)shuffled—fixes its "first" and "last" card, always the same, these do not mark a beginning and an ending conceived of in absolute terms but are rather always-already caught in an endless process of repetition and rehearsal, in a constant flux that undercuts their very status; the so-called "last" card in the process (the Joker), looping back onto the so-called "first" one, unavoidably feeds back onto it, thus appearing as the necessary "first" step towards the story's permanent (re)instantiation: "Round up the suspects and send them shuffling through here again! This is not over! Justice must be done!" (A Child Again)
As such, the "climax" towards which the texts seem to progress linearly—the apocalyptic endings of novels like The Origin of the Brunists, A Political Fable, The Public Burning, or John's Wife; Gerald's Party ends on Gerald's having sex (finally) with his wife—may not denote an end or consummation so much as the exhaustion of a writing dynamic or motion into its own, one of them, actualization, its, as it were, crystallization, itself already the potential sign or step towards a new process. Most texts thus deliberately retain a certain linearity and, as such, never depart from their narrative dimension, not because they develop organically following a plot that would obey the laws of narrative consequence, but because they are built on juxtapositions, and result from collages or montages governed by the potentialities of sequence. If, then, Coover's—independently of its pornographic propensity, which merely redoubles thematically what the texts achieve formally—is an eminently erotic or sexual writing, it is in terms close to the description of Cassie's filmic aesthetic in The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Cassie's films have no stories. Stories have endings. He doesn't need endings. Ceaseless flow, that's the ticket. Even if of nothing but emptiness. She's often faulted for this. Movies are about foreplay leading to orgasm, she's told. She only smiles. For Cassie, orgasm is not a final explosive objective but a constant beatific state to be achieved. His experience of orgasm is more rough-and-tumble than that, but he envies her her purity and enjoys sharing her mystical devotions. She always brings him off in ecstatic ways, even if his coming disappoints her. Maybe he should have paid more attention. A final fuck would not be so bad if it never ended. (390) The point of it all—of course, there is no "point," cannot be any, denied by the aesthetic as such—is not to move the text forward towards its own climactic conclusion or completion—Of course, the greatest story would have to remain untold. (The Origin of the Brunists, 300)—but to make of the end an immanent condition, turn the end, the end-ing, into an endless process, liberating it from any sense of finality, for, as stated in Pinocchio in Venice: There are always endings, but there are not always conclusions. (45) Writing, then, as its own orgasmic explosion, without end, without beginning, reaching out of itself, dying eternally of its own catastrophe, in its own apocalypse—blissfully. And is she doing something with his nose? Ah . . . Yes . . . Good . . .
Love or death, in the end; in the end, the throes of desire, spent disaster, the abyss of bliss—to jump; and a threshold to cross, still, and again; a door slamming shut on your consciousness, obstructing all perspectives----
Marcella, in The Origin of the Brunists, chooses death though she thinks she has found love—Love, she instructs her needle, never ends. (299) Miller chooses love though he thinks he has met death—"I thought I died," he said (431).
Happy Bottom is the one who chooses not; the one for whom death or love are their own reciprocal threat, their joint possibility.
Happy, or time without crisis—Happy, or the text without criticism, the thought without judgment—Happy, or the discontinuous without interruption. Happy, or the purity of bliss; the bliss of time in the everlasting time of bliss. As for Happy Bottom, well, she was impatient and surely she tempted [Miller], but he just didn't have the time free. Trouble with that girl was that the act was no five-minute project with her, it was an epoch. Sometimes it almost seemed to him there was something suicidal about her leap into bed: a hot mole. (247) To make love with Happy is, for Miller, to renounce his "projects," to eschew the projection, in the rationality, the countability of time, of an end to reach; to put an end to the end. To make love with Happy is to take the leap, to jump without "dropping," without taking the "fall," the fatal outcome of all projects: he preferred to take a lot of short hard falls than one long sickening and endless drop. (386) To make love with Happy is, for Miller, to place himself in the interval, to dive again into the bowels of the earth (a hot mole), to come out again, without ever coming out, of the mine. Yes, there was that. Miller, back from the dead, understands it at last: Not the void within and ahead, but the immediate living space between two. (435) The space between, the immediacy of life, of love, the middle, pure middle, disconnected from origins and ends—the endless intermission of a novel like Gerald's Party, or the epoche of pleasure, of love (it was an epoche of pleasure, thinks Miller), where the novel thrives, prophesying its coming in its own renunciation. Its orgasmic explosion.
As though, in the end, the interval had to be purged of simple chronicity, of the emptiness of tock-tick, humanly uninteresting successiveness, to become a kairós poised between beginning and end, past and future. The Origin of the Brunists, perhaps more subtly—mainly through its fragmentary, jolting organization—does what Gerald's Party or "You Must Remember This," along with the whole collection A Night at the Movies, do too; focus almost exclusively on the interval—the "death cunt" they dive into, penetrate with their "prick songs"—the gap, unfathomable, separating, dislocating, the tock from the tick, the dark absences around two filmic frames, or the blank vacancies between sequences of text, without which there would or could be no motion at all, no flow, no flux. And there, in the end, that is in-between, the kairós remains meaningless, meaning everything; and there, in the end, that is in-between, memory and prophecy cancel each other out in an endless, intransitive wait for nothing. The reality of it.
Meanwhile, Miller, somewhere, pursues his own reflection on his fascination with the nature of all projects: Did Happy guess this? Did she see that Monday must come? It didn't matter; forget it. Indeed. It is to be forgotten in the epoch of his pleasure to come. For history, you recall, is not, as the dominant ideology would have it—the ideology most characters bend to in The Origin of the Brunists—history is not man's servitude to continuous linear time, but man's liberation from it: the time of history and the kairós in which man, by his initiative, grasps favorable opportunity and chooses his own freedom in the moment. Miller eventually grasps his—He tossed the paper in the trash barrel and went home, there to crawl in a white hole with a great white mole, split white thighs and sleep a white sleep. (386) As though to say to hell with "history" and all records of passing time. Forget it, forget it all.
Then the novel, still to come, always, again, dead since ever of an immemorial, forgotten, white death, a death it forever relives and cherishes in the contemplation of its suicidal leap—its exhaustion, its explosion, its death-semination—the novel, the writing of the novel, forever remains, at bottom, white writing (as you would speak of white noise), happy and blissful. Then the novel, still to come back, always, carries within itself, at its core, a force of oblivion. Of erasure. Oblivion as a practice—the practice of writing that prophesies because it is enacted by the utter renunciation of everything: to announce is perhaps to renounce.
Renounce, then. Go on, that is, you know—no. Yes, the N, the O . . .
And in the distance, in the end, a far-off echo of a call to be answered (No!) now. From another time, another mode of temporality that no longer lets you be your own contemporary. And the answer to this call resounding on the walls of a mine is always-already interrupted, broken off, dying out on itself, necessarily silent, deprived of all propriety, of all property—this answer, at any rate, is not, cannot properly be yours . . . —deprived of inadequacy. The echo, mere echo, of a language of explosion.
The explosion of language in a book. A "first" book.
The mine is silent, except for . . .
To write: not to write . . .
. . . like shaking a habit . . .
[To read, not to read . . . ]
"Perhaps, today then . . . at last!"
Yes, a world at an end, in spite of appearances . . .
Stéphane Vanderhaeghe teaches American literature and translation at Université Paris 8 – Vincennes-Saint-Denis. His research focuses on contemporary American fiction—he is the author of Robert Coover & The Generosity of the Pages, published by Dalkey Archive Press — of which this essay is one chapter — and edited an issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction on the work of Robert Coover. Along with Coover's work and among others, he also devoted essays to the works of Shelley Jackson or Ben Marcus.
His "RCDC: Robert Coover & the Strange Case of Dr. Chen" can be found elsewhere in this issue of FlashPøint.