Not-Knowing and the Proliferation of Plot

  On Reading "The Babysitter" for the 34th Time  


"A writer, says Karl Kraus, is a man who can make a riddle out of an answer."
--Donald Barthelme1

     For the past 30 years, I've been reading Robert Coover's story "The Babysitter" every year, or nearly so, sometimes more. Perhaps this is an excessive reading. Not a Goldilocks reading, but a papa bear reading—too big, too much. Excess suggests that it's more than I need: glut, overload, overindulgence, intemperance, immoderation, dissipation, spare parts; beyond what's proper, beyond what's socially acceptable, and beyond what's good for my health. Perhaps I should call it a lush reading instead—luxurious, lavish, and unrestrained. There's an edge to "excess," though, that these other words lack. And Coover's writing—in "The Babysitter" and elsewhere—rides that edge. Without that edge, the writing might be lush but it would be a garden in full bloom without the thorns or bees. It might be abundant but abundance by itself doesn't provide the tickle, itch, or shudder that goads us into thinking more, thinking harder, thinking deeper.

     Like a melody played against the steady beat of time, "The Babysitter" follows the events of a single evening in which our unnamed title character does or does not answer the phone, does or does not do her homework, does or does not take a bath; in which the mother of the family does or does not get greased with butter like a turkey and slipped out of her girdle; in which the babysitter gets tickled—or not—by the little boy she's minding; in which the father of the family returns home (or doesn't) to find the babysitter sitting demurely on the couch, or hiding under a blanket, or having sex with her boyfriend (or at least the boyfriend is trying!), or lolling in the bathtub; in which the babysitter gets raped by or engages in consensual sex with her boyfriend, with his friend, with the father of the children, and/or with the little boy; in which, definitely, the TV is always on although the show is constantly changing; and in which the babysitter and all the children die. Or don't.

     The events and their combinations proliferate endlessly but the story's plots and characters also call out separately: "Follow me! No, follow me! It won't be easy but once you do, you'll figure out what really happened. Believe us!" My need for order and for answers is irrepressible, no matter how very hard the text right in front of me cautions against the search—or is it enticing me to search and teasing me with order even as it jettisons both caution and order? The story's ticking clock seduces me into thinking that there can't possibly be countless plots at work but just a few, or really, maybe just one, if I can only figure it out. If I just decide which character's path to follow—the real path, the one true way—I will be able to dismiss all the others as fantasy or madness or the mutterings of the TV. Indeed, following the path of a single character through this story might be possible, but followed together, the contradictions tangle, form a dense web, and are finally impossible to tease apart.

     If we are hard-wired for narrative as some suggest, what happens to us when we encounter an excess of narratives, each with its own, contradictory pay-off? Perhaps, among other things, it disturbs our notions of time and space. If plot moves us through time, then proliferation of plot moves us through space. What kind of space? A library where Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems have intercepted each other? Our local video rental salon after an earthquake when the separate shelves devoted to action, western, noir, romantic comedy, and musical have collapsed and tumbled to the floor? The suburban home, where everyone watches their own favorite show on the TV in their bedroom—Star Trek for me, the Honeymooners for you, and Gunsmoke for you? The multi-plex where 16 versions of the American dream play out simultaneously on 16 different screens, except that the cowboy may suddenly appear in Gepetto's workshop? In Coover's story "The Phantom of the Movie Palace," the projectionist runs "two, three, even several [movies], at a time, creating his own split-screen effects, montages, superimpositions" and watches them "pale to a kind of blurred mystical affirmation of the universe."2 Or is the space more like the lobby of a one of Coover's Grand Hotels, through which we each pass on the way to our own separate dreams, forever desirable, forever—just slightly—out of reach? Befuddled, we move through these spaces, searching for answers only to find our usually trusty guides unreliable, like the chambermaids and bellhops in Grand Hotel Forgotten Game who have been instructed to ply us with false clues. And yet it's not just a mess. We don't throw up our hands and walk away: this non-binary space where and/or, some/lots, serious/funny coexist is just too intriguing.

     In what ways is it possible for the same people to experience different things in the same space at the same time? In "The Babysitter" (in the space-time of stories) this is exactly what happens, to the characters and to me. Reading, I move forward through time and repeat the same moment in time again and again, at the same time. I am in time and out of time. How can time be just beyond my grasp?

     Not-knowing is the space in which I return to this question.

     The excess of plots creates something akin to the surface tension of an abstract painting, even though I keep turning the pages, moving through time. Like persistence of vision, persistence of memory keeps me looking back even as I move forward. These contradictions are an itch that itches more the more I scratch. If that itch is ineffable, I can't know it, I certainly can't articulate it, and yet I know I know it—the name on the tip of the tongue, the not-quite memory of déjà vue, the unplaceable smell leading to a memory that's already half-forgotten.

     The babysitter takes a bath and she doesn't take a bath, or she takes a bath later or she took one last time. In any case, we love her as, I think, our parents loved us: we love her whether she takes one or not. Like the architect of the Grand Hotel Penny Arcade, our "adoration ….[goes] beyond mere aesthetics….when she is the subject… not only of form and function, …but of tenderness, generosity, pathos, sincerity, and an ineffable longing for a lost past…."3


     Perhaps I'm being sentimental about the poor foolish girl—or is she brazen instead? A sex kitten? Perhaps even a molester of little boys?

     Which of these Babysitters do you desire?

     I desire an outcome. Not only a particular outcome (please, let her be safe!) but that there be an outcome, and so the proliferation brings to light not just what we desire, but that we desire.

     The phantom projectionist plays several films through the same projector at once, then finally combines all the films in a crazy frenzy. Helplessly trapped in the films he's run together, he's killed by a guillotine. The miracle of artifice looked at too closely or for too long—can it be deadly?

     But "The Babysitter" exists in the moment before this hellish ending. Here, in a moment of tension, apprehension, and desire, when the many events that may happen are already happening, have already happened, in your head, excess has the whiff of danger, but it probably won't kill you—not yet.

     There and not-there simultaneously, moment by moment and page by page, the concrete details create the ineffable.

     As Donald Barthelme said, "What is magical about the [art] object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation."4 Coover's stories create magic through proliferations, excesses, and contradictions—a plethora of them. Here is narrative that takes narratives, story that takes all the stories of our lives, turns them upside down, and shakes them until a thousand new fictions fall out, like gold coins tumbling from our father's pants pockets. As my grandmother used to say: Too much is never enough.


1.  Donald Barthelme, "Not-Knowing," Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, Edited by Kim Herzinger (New York: Random House, 1997), 18.

2.  Robert Coover, "The Phantom of the Movie Palace, A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987) 22

3.   Robert Coover, "The Grand Hotel Penny Arcade," The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell), (Providence: Burning Deck, 2002) 15-16

4.  Barthelme, 20

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. "Not-Knowing." Not-Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthleme. Kim Herzinger, Ed. New York: Random House, 1997.

Coover, Robert. "The Babysitter." Pricksongs & Descants. New York: New American Library, 1969.

Coover, Robert. The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell). Providence: Burning Deck, 2002.

Coover, Robert. "The Phantom of the Movie Palace." A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This. New York: Collier Books, 1987.


Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies and Voices from the Blue Hotel. More recent fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, The Literarian, and Hotel Amerika. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington in Seattle.