For what choice do I have?
When I chose or, as I, perhaps romantically, like to view it, when this vocation chose me—for, I often wonder, did I choose this calling or did it choose me? and do I choose whose work I study or am I chosen by this work? in short, did I pick Robert Coover or did he—could he, as part of the old Don Quixote/Sancho Panza routine, perhaps?—choose… me? Sometimes, I have to admit—and here, if I may, I would like to say once and for all, please, that there is danger of an unsuspected sort to the job we, critics and analysts, do: it comes, oh boy, with a price!—that such considerations—and, pray, how, if I take this seriously, as I should (right?) and have to (for what are we speaking of in such times of crisis if not art, beauty, and, yes, excuse the French, damn it, truth!), how, then, not to consider such questions, how not to be riddled with such apprehensions at the start of yet another essay on Robert Coover's work, an essay, furthermore—my illusions are few—that from the start seems paradoxically belied by its very "subject"—so, yes, admit it I must: I sometimes get easily, too easily no doubt, spooked not just by the task ahead, but by its repercussions too, its consequences—the way, i.e., that it fares through and tampers with time—not on me only—there is very little (and I am speaking here, I think I can, on behalf of all my textmates, if they let me) professionals like us do not get used to—but on, inevitably, the objects of our studies that we so revere. It is like, uh, being chosen by a beautiful woman if you will, and learning the hard way, or not hard, harsh, more like, and awkward, too, no doubt, that you, no pun intended, are not up to it or her. OK. That may be, or make you feel, terrible, right?, but not as terrible as to, in your willingness to camouflage your impotence and save up appearances by pursuing at all costs, mess up and turn the lady into her own dead caricature, princess turned goose, as it were, or worse: turned rotting corpse—as a cautionary tale, in its exemplarity, once taught me—eyes open but glazed over, gums all dried up and pulled back from her teeth, lips black and hair resembling a urinal mop spread out to dry, mold around the nipples of her shrunken breasts, etc.1; and you pull up, try to, only to realize that this is your doing, yes, and undoing, too; God, if only…
But what to expect? critics will be critics, and that is that. Can you eschew your own calling, turn a deaf ear to your caller? Exactly.
That said, however, I, of course, somehow trying to get a sense of perspective and reassurance here, also have to admit that literature—this is no secret—has its laws, customs, reasons, and mysteries. All of which we might try, in one way or another, to understand and fathom, servants all, for better or worse, to the princess (if I may stick for a while longer to the metaphor—or it to me). Yet I, for one, have always been struck by what seems the inscrutability of how a particular text might gain, or fail to, an audience. Some pieces of work appeal to readers without their knowing and understanding exactly why, while others fail, for some time or forever, to secure readerly or critical consensus or even attention, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not, thus causing, in Melville's words, "an irreparable loss to literature." Of course, in this matter, as with all, time has its say it seems and keeps watch from the ivory tower where the princess is either detained or protected, while, now and again, a critic, a scholar, or, simply, a "reader," humbled by the task ahead, advances, armed and shielded with what few defensive weapons, if any, rest in a reader's personal arsenal—rhetoric and aplomb usually suffice to the brave; some, perhaps the foolish kind, who's to say?, go bare-handed, a parachute neatly folded in their backpack—ready to assault and ascend the tower, either to free the princess or, depending on their motives and judgments, kill the impostress. The morality here, call it that, being that time alone, or so it often seems, especially to the critic who indulges in the immediate study of the contemporary and thus lacks the necessary hindsight and distance with which, for some, criticism in any true sense should be privileged, time, yes, that "thieving bastard" as a poet once said, makes and unmakes as easily the fortune of every work of art—as well as that, concomitantly, of its defenders or enemies alike… There is of course—and I have to say I am deeply impressed by it as, I hope, it is not totally lost on me as I'm about, precisely, to meddle with time and history, the history of literature, by making what for some will undoubtedly be the unforgivable and contradictory mistake of filling in a gap left purposefully vacant—an inescapable sense of irony in it all; the crowned uncrowned, uncrowned crowned; time, its posture, posterity, its imposture…
And so it is, then, that I advance here, one careful step at a time, to address those questions and others related to them, fearful as I am, as always, of the consequences, some predictable, others not, that might be entailed in the process. I doubt that anyone reading these lines and trying to make sense of them might have recognized—how could they?—the main topic of Dr. Chen's Amazing Adventure2, a fascinating, albeit obscure, novella concerned with just such questions as literary fame and success, canonization and posterity, not to mention the relevance of art and literature in times when—while in a broader context fundamentalisms of all shapes and sizes were flowering far and wide like quitch; and who is Dr. Chen if not a fundamentalist of a sort?—the literati bespattered themselves in the useless, sterile succession wars to "postmodernism," all of them, as Dr. Chen himself has it in one of his typical rants against institutionalized writing and writers, "more or less lost and cornered in the dirty alleys of so-called 'realism.'" (6'32) If, for some, the socio-political stage, spotlit under the Ultra-Brite smile of President Reagan when Coover must3 have been at work on the novella, seemed on the verge of ushering in a new era, of conquering new frontiers while capturing the optimistic spirit of the times, a few writers in essential works that the limits of this essay do not permit to quote, true to their tribal calling—part shaman, part scapegoat—kept prodding and probing under the shiny surfaces of widespread consensus. Robert Coover is one of them and, although his work has from the start been concerned with the end and future of literature in these our post-you-name-it times, this central question may not be as vividly treated and on-target as it is in his Dr. Chen's Amazing Adventure.
Dr. Chen—I think it not superfluous, given the circumstances, to impart the readers with a few basic plot elements, while asking them for their indulgence—may be seen as one of Pinocchio's avatars or alter egos (Pinocchio in Venice, incidentally—or not—was first published in 1991, too, which somehow makes of it, as also implicitly revealed by the many resemblances between both characters, a counterpart to Dr. Chen's Amazing Adventure: to a certain extent, Pinocchio, by flying to Venice, lands in his own past, thus appearing as Chen's mirror image); Dr. Chen (regardless of the no doubt deliberate and calculated Asian ring to it, the name "Chen," along with its obvious resonances with "chain," the better to enhance the character's imprisonment within his own ideology, was probably derived from the French chêne [oak tree] as a parodic comment on the origin of Pinocchio's name) is to literature what Coover's Dr. Pinenut, a/k/a Pinocchio, is to art history—more or less. For the main difference is that if Pinocchio was supposedly twice Nobelized, Chen, a professor of literature in an obscure, small-town community college, can only dream of one day being finally seen as who he, of course, is not—the "Savior of Western Independent Letters" (an all too-obvious Cooverian anagrammatic pun turning his whole enterprise into nothing short of a S.W.Ind.Le…). Both characters indeed share their grotesque sense of self-esteem and vanity, though unlike Pinocchio, Dr. Chen remains an unpublished writer—his teaching job a mere means of subsistence—his manuscripts, which he entrusts a (literally) illiterate agent with, being each time turned down by diverse publishers: the proof, of course, he needs to convince himself that he is a writer much ahead of his time…
Given all this—the whole text seems to be told from Dr. Chen's perspective in what sounds like a long, rambling interior monologue (Coover's—if Coover's, for the quality of the tape did not really permit to authenticate his voice, though the style seems inimitable—intonations and, somehow, impersonation, are truly superb!)—the novella formally builds on a series of discrepancies and latencies, plays throughout with different ideas and elements that never totally sync (Coover revisits here, it seems, the old "pricksongs & descants" motif, paying particular heed of course to the interaction between different storylines, but also to the way they jar and never totally mesh or match); the narrative itself is told in a constant mix-up of flashbacks and flash-forwards that is key to Chen's chaotic frame of mind, torn as he irremediably is between a sense of nostalgia for a past that he is inescapably exiled from, and his fantasmic projections into a future that a spectral version of himself neither he nor anyone will recognize already paradoxically inhabits. For—longish story short, a story, too, that I could only reconstruct and piece together from various narrative fragments interspersed within Dr. Chen's monologue—Dr. Chen tells his story from an indeterminate future into which he was accidentally sent after a college colleague of his and, given Chen's execrable attitude, the closest to a friend he can claim, inadvertently pushed him into the laser beam of his so far unsuccessful time machine. In many respects, the colleague, a Dr. Gang—thus "the Chen-Gang couple," the "two pees from the same pud" or "toupees [?] on a pat"6 (7'37) much derided by the other college profs—is as much of a loser as Chen, yet unwittingly ends up revolutionizing the whole field of science, thus ironically succeeding (in theory, for of course there is a twist…) where Chen, in the field of literature, will miserably fail.
For Chen is convinced that the whole of literature or, rather, canonized literature—"ah, damn it, the canon, the canon, don't canon me with all this insanity!" says he (13'45)—is but an endless history of lies, of pilfering, of vulgarity—"the French are the worst kind, what with their Balls' Sacks [?] and their Flawed Bears [?] and their Zulus [?]!"7 (14'06)—and he deplores the utmost lack of originality in any of the canonized writers of western literature, all, in his mind's eye, but useless avatars of one another, "sanctified emanations of their sacrosanct Litter Church!" (18'14) In this respect, Dr. Chen prides himself with a sense of (no less sacred) mission and views himself as a Redeemer or "Literator" (7'52) and, not content with writing fiction of his own—his manuscripts, on many counts but one and the same which, after each new refusal, he keeps "polishing as a knight might his armor" (8'35), are all more or less grounded on his own fictionalized literary convictions—he also expresses/-d (of course the tense here is uncertain…) his views, as the audience finally understands, in the various drafts of prefatory matters he intends to attach to his novel when finally published—which, of course, it never will be…
This, to his utmost dismay, is what indeed Dr. Chen finds out when he lands in the future, his "amazing adventure" consisting in nothing more than voyaging from one library or bookshop—those, he discovers, are scarce and resemble antique shops…—to another in search of his own name on the spine of a book or other; when there are any. For of course the future holds many surprises in store, not the slightest of which, to Chen, is the discovery that "books" as he knew them are now mere fossils, what "literature" there is or remains now but consigned in artifacts that, if they look like books—the contraption is pretty hard to describe—are nothing near books in the by-now old-fashioned sense. Even the word "book," when he inquires from a librarian, has to be looked up by the latter in her "digdic"—"Let me dig my digdic, dear, I'll just be a tick away. What's the spell?" (17'43)—what Chen can only assume, afraid of making a fool of himself by asking, is a "digital dictionary." From then on, his idea is quite simple: betrayed by destiny no less than by literature itself which failed to give him a name—literature, as he is prompt to remind himself, was his only cause and he sacrificed his whole life to it—Chen is set on taking revenge in what appears to be a very Borgesian way. Chen indeed decides to read as many "books" as he can—starting with all the Nobels obviously—and learn them by heart (the future does not hold any pen for him and paper too is a thing from the past) for as long as he stays in the future; long enough, that is, or so he hopes, to be able to learn what is to be his magnum opus, yet short enough to be able to remember it when he comes back to his "present"…
And here is the rub. Dr. Chen—the outcome, though, is quite hard to ascertain, for the novella closes (given the unity throughout, I assume but may be wrong that the rendition I have is the full text) on a typical Cooverian collapse of boundaries and the resulting mix of dream imagery, character fantasies and projections, the whole grafted onto fragments of displaced reality—seems bound to remain where he is, locked up in a future in which "the man ahead of his time" (11'34) now appears as an antiquated relic, "not so much the boon [he ultimately realizes] as the discarded bone, not to say the bane of history (…)." (27'24) Chen was indeed too much absorbed in his own project—or, given the problematic timeline, his "deject" rather, as he jocosely puts it (23'04), a pun that starts a whole hilarious8 pseudo-philosophical discussion spanning several minutes (roughly 23'-26') on the relationship between creation and digestion with a particular emphasis on any writer's bowel movements as key to his (Chen is of course misogynistic) "so-called" creativity or "inspoohration" (25'44)…—to register fully that a/ if he did travel to the future from the past, then b/ Dr. Gang is a genius who c/ not only did revolutionize science and man's conception of space, time, and matter, but c/i) also changed the course of history and c/ii) man's position within the universe… In other words, Chen ends up realizing that "by now" time travel should no longer be a mystery and that, consequently, someone somewhere should be able to send him back into the past where he belongs… Chen, once convinced that he is in possession of "his" masterpiece (the irony, of course, being that if Chen so far has failed to author the books he wrote, he hopes to become the author of books he didn't write… Coover is here reworking Borges' scenario in "Pierre Ménard" by having Dr. Chen rewrite a not-yet existing work: the idea, i.e., is not to recreate a canonized text word for word, so much as to canonize a text-to-come9…), thus runs to the science department in the university next-door only to realize—time travelling into the future, this he only grasps by then, has had consequences on his own body appearance and physiology—that if he pursues his inquiry he risks being taken to the loony-bin: "Umm, Professor? We kinda have a problem here… There's Einstein here says he comes from the quote-unquote past to have a word with you—fuck me if you believe this!" (29'12)
Discomfited and dismayed, Chen runs away to the only place he feels safe in: the library. There, he finally remembers his former friend and colleague whose book—Time Is Of the Essence; Or, the Rip & Wrinkle (of Time) (if I got this right)—he had haphazardly found out on a dusty shelf but contemptuously rejected after landing on the "Acknowledgements" page and seeing that his name was not even mentioned: "Ah, of course! Ambition's dominion… You too, my friend, have been eaten away by the monster! Yet who would you be you miserable piece of shit if I—if I had not stepped into the laser beam of His-, or should I say Your-story?" (11'53) Now, of course, and of course too late, Chen is having second thoughts and understands that Gang never managed to fix his contraption and/or be taken seriously; the book was a book addressed to him and him only, the only book, he realizes, he failed to read; the only book he cannot read… For the book by now is nowhere to be found and it is not quite clear whether the book exists only in Chen's troubled imagination, a figment of sorts, or simply disappeared mysteriously. What remains is but the mere title of a book that may never have been written.
This is when the audience fully registers the extent of Chen's vanity, his "adventure" having consisted in a total abstraction from the world, the "amazing" nature of which being ultimately revealed to be utterly ironical. Chen is not unaware of this and slowly, painfully comes to a realization, an understanding of sorts, not to say a revelation of the inanity of his whole enterprise and the meaninglessness of his and, ultimately, of all existence, as the novella, in Coover's slowing cadences, zooms in on its ending: "ah, the worthlessness, meaninglessness, emptiness, nothingness, the… the [the blank here drawn out in a quasi religious silence]… the un-ness of it all!" (33'33) Chen thus ends up cornered in what he sees is a "black or loop hole in the history of literature" (32'04), completely lost and forgotten in the stories of others that, ironically, do not exist.
Of course this position is neatly and grotesquely embodied in Dr. Chen who, as reader, cannot help but distort the texts he reads (whether the canonized texts from the past he shamelessly misreads, or those he comes across in the future, learning them approximately only—changing, and it's difficult to know whether he does so willingly or not, a few elements here or there, or getting a word mixed up with another), forever failing to take them for what they are and always reading them for what they are not… In this regard, what Dr. Chen's Amazing Adventure exemplifies might be none other than the very impossibility of reading as such, not to say—I'm afraid; but, alas, what else is there for me to say at the end of the day? I know I've been fighting with the wrong weapons here: you don't climb a tower with a parachute, even if it proves handy when it comes to pillowing your fall—the absolute irrelevance and inappropriateness of criticism as such. In a rare, insightful show of acumen, Chen—whose name can translate into English as "dust," thus recalling us to the vanity of the enterprise, of the attempt to enshrine works of art in a "history" that can only stiffen and stifle them; absurd as Chen's premise might be, there could be some ring of truth, or validity, to it after all—concludes his long monologue on these all too ambiguous words, proving, yet at the same time invalidating, his own point somehow: "It's an old truth that writers, theorizing on the state of their form, tend to talk mainly about or to themselves. Walled in by their own despotic metaphors and scruffy unwashed visions, barely able to glimpse beyond them the light of day (is it day?), what else after all can they do? Which may, indeed, account for the general irrelevance of most literary critics; the body of work to which their judgments and speculations must in reality apply is missing." (29'57)
1. See Robert Coover's "The Marker" from Pricksongs & Descants (New York: Grove Press, 1998).
2. All quotes from my own transcription of a rare, bootlegged audio recording, dated circa 1991/92, of Coover (presumably) reading the text (or part of it) which I was lucky enough to acquire recently in costly and, I have to say, quite mysterious ways that I'd rather not go into, partly because I'm still at a loss to comprehend them fully and, for the time being at least, as I'm still puzzling over what this whole enterprise might involve, I feel the brunt of it all has to be borne by myself alone. .
3. Robert Coover has always been kind and patient enough to try and provide replies to most of the questions I may have addressed him in the course of my research on his work; however, and although I doubt that it can be of any interest, I wish to add, as is usually said in such circumstances, "for the record," that on the rare occasions I threw some feelers his way about Dr. Chen's Amazing Adventure, he made it a rule to ignore my queries. Although nonplussed at first, I quickly came to understand why he chose to do so; his reasons—however, what follows should be considered for what it is: critical assumptions only—might hopefully appear clearly in the following.
5. And that the story reached me more than twenty years later will escape no one's notice.
6. Tentative transcription: this whole passage is pretty hard to follow due to the laughter that covers Coover's voice throughout.
8. The laughter again, though contagious, makes it difficult to follow the whole passage.
9. Of course, the mode of oral delivery chosen by Coover, not his first trick—one might recall that Noir was initially published in French in 2008 before the "original" English version, thus appearing as a mere translation, came out two years later—is here highly mimetic and performative, turning Dr Chen's Amazing Adventure into a text forever-to-come(-back)…
10. This is where you were and might want to come back after reading the following.
11. You may skip the part starting here, preferably when coming across it the second time, and jump to ?.
12. If necessary, but in no way compulsory, you might want to go back to ☞ if you wish to retrieve the thread; which, I guess, and I'm sorry, means that I lied when I said that the beginning of a clause or sentence in the course of reading—and this is the advantage of reading over listening—is irretrievable; yet, of course, once "retrieved," it may not be completely the same as when you left it, departing from it without even a backward, thankful glance. (Chen himself, towards the end of the novella, suffers such a nostalgic and humbling bout when he realizes that all he ever ranted against may be forever lost to him.) Reading, I guess, may not always be a civil activity: you have to hierarchize. Well, since I'm off onto a more or less personal note (and who still reads footnotes nowadays?? Anyone here? Hello—?!), a note, i.e. (here it comes, did I not say as much?!) subordinated from the rest of the text, I may as well insubordinate it somehow, to make a point or other (I know, I know: I too contain multitudes—there, said it!); for instance, I know that I should apologize—and some modest part of me (the other one, i.e., the other "me," whoever the bastard thinks he is) wants to—for putting the reader at pains to follow the vain meandering of the sentence (call it that) to which this note is—quite unaesthetically, granted—attached. However, and if I may—and if not, I must—I would like to plead for, and perhaps here more than anywhere else (for my subject matter again demands it), the malleability and elasticity of the syntax: syntax is time, goddamn it, you anticipate it but don't always see it coming, you think it's in your hands but it slips through your fingers, always, you lose it or it loses you, you forget it, get carried away, yet there you are, again, back to where you started, all such a waste; right?… So let's just stop pretending, please, that the arrow always points in the same direction or that it cannot split mid-flight, fall onto the ground in pieces, and those, or some of them, be recast in whatever directions the winds might blow.
Stéphane Vanderhaeghe's "The End at Last" can be found elsewhere in this issue of FlashPøint.