Robert Coover

10/01/2020

A Literature of Ludic Limitation

To understand an aspect of Robert Coover’s work, to comprehend why it is simultaneously impressive and exhausting, we can do worse than take a commonly applied term, metafiction, and add to it one of our own: facetious fiction. Metafiction was an American movement coming out of the sixties and seventies, especially, and included John Barth’s The End of the Road, Donald Barthelme’s short stories, ‘The Indian Uprising’ and ‘Cortes and Montezuma' and Robert Coover’s ‘The Magic Poker’ and ‘The Babysitter’.  Some might see metafiction stretching much farther back and incorporating anything from Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy, and see aspects of it in modern writers from elsewhere - Borges short stories like ‘Borges and I’; Calvino’s novel, ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’. But if we were to narrow it down, its main practitioners would be Americans writing at a certain moment: Barth, Barthelme and Coover, but also William Gass, John Hawkes and William Gaddis. For facetious fiction we can think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.  Some of the practitioners of facetious fiction are seen as metafictionists (like Vonnegut) and most of the metafictionists practise facetiousness, as we will explore in Coover’s case, but perhaps what interest us most is this exhaustion that comes out of the work of certain metafictional conceits, and why it happens to be absent from other writers who might also seem to be concerned with calling into question the fictional tropes they adopt. How can we love Kundera, Perec and Borges, and find Coover, Bart and often Barthelme ‘tiresome’? Of course, metafictionally we might choose to rearrange those names so that Kundera, Barth and Barthelme are tiresome, or Perec, Coover and Borges, and so on. But what if we see the writer’s purpose residing less in the choices they give to the reader than in the demands placed upon him or her?

The work of fiction is surely the relationship between choices and demands, on both the writers and on the reader’s part. The writer realises at a certain point in writing a story that if they want the character to be an engineer then they have to go back to an earlier stage in the story where they have said he studied literature. The reader may feel that they know what the person has studied based on the clues the author provides: that they have studied literature because of the books they mention and the library the character possesses. Then we are informed he is a structural engineer. The reader makes assumptions of what they have read thus far, and if our assumption is countered it must be done plausibly. Where did the character get his interest in fiction from; where is the prior evidence that he would be a structural engineer? We don't want to exaggerate but for Coover such constraints create tedium in the way in another reader they create the necessary balance between the demands they seek from fiction and the limited number of choices the writer can generate out of that demand. For Coover, the latter leads too often to predictability. Many years ago, simultaneously reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and William Gaddis’s monumental The Recognitions, Coover found that “I really loved Augie March. The opening section, at least. But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie March and threw it across the room and that was the last I saw of it.” The choices the writer makes and the demands the reader makes upon him or her, for Coover doesn’t create a tight textual meaning but a work it would seem with a twofold predictability. The writer knows the limits placed upon him because of the reader’s expectations that the work must be coherent and consistent. Why should the writer not both study literature and work as an engineer; why can’t someone live in New York and London at the same time, both be married to a maid in Mexico and a philosopher in Paris? Some might say you can but when we say simultaneously we usually mean that the person moves between New York and London; when one says the character is both married to a maid and a philosopher that the person is a bigamist. How does a writer manage to escape such grounding necessities? 

Several answers come to mind and they have a long and various history. In 17th century philosophy, Leibniz could talk of incompossibility, in 20th-century physics W. Everett Knight suggested parallel worlds, and we, of course, have Schroedinger’s Cat - the experiment that shows the cat is in the box and not in the box simultaneously. But before saying more about Leibniz, Knight and Schroedinger we should turn to what many understandably regard as one of the great works of metafiction, and certainly one of Coover’s finest pieces: the short story, ‘The Baby Sitter’. A couple, Mr and Mrs Tucker, prepare to go out to a party while the babysitter arrives to look after their two kids, Jimmy and Bitsy. The babysitter has a boyfriend, Jack, whose friend, Mark, happens to be the son of the party's hosts. Here is the cast of characters, but in roughly a hundred and ten paragraphs the permutations are many. In one scenario the babysitter is raped by Jack and Mark; in another she enjoys a threesome; in one all the dishes are done and the place is neat and tidy when the Tuckers return home; in another Mrs Tucker realises that her husband has gone, the children have been murdered and the house is wrecked. The story suggests that out of the initial set of givens, there are numerous variations. Coover’s story is far from exhaustive as it works through a number of them, because what interests the writer isn’t the winnowing of possibilities but the acknowledgement of their multiplicity. Why should a work of fiction keep narrowing down the options instead of multiplying them? Why can’t the babysitter keep the house tidy and at the same time the house burn down? In this Coover sees himself working out of a position quite distinct from a writer whom he greatly admires, Beckett. Speaking of metafiction as opposed to various other terms often applied to his work, Coover says, “metafiction says something. It has to do with taking a large fiction itself and writing within it; that kind of self-reflecting writing that emerges from it can be thought of as metafictional. I didn’t much like surfiction or… but that idea was that there was something surrealistic about it, and it was fiction that was beyond fiction, a little bit like metafiction. Maximalism is another. I mean, I’d like to think of Beckett as being my primary inspirer, as a person, anyway, a minimalist if there ever was one. So it’s like we’re on opposite sides of that bench and whatnot.” (Believer) It is partly why we suggest ‘The Baby Sitter’ isn’t about exhausting possibilities but maximising them, while Beckett’s work often narrows down those options. As Gilles Deleuze notes, “Beckett’s characters play with the possible without realizing it; they are too involved in a possibility that is ever more restricted in its kind to care what is still happening.” Deleuze says, “in Murphy, the hero devotes himself to the combinatorial of five small biscuits, but on the condition of having vanquished all order of preference, and of having thereby conquered the hundred and twenty modes of total permutability.” (‘The Exhausted’) Facetious fiction tends toward the opposite direction of apparently infinite possibility and often simultaneous variability. Hence why we invoke Leibniz, Knight and Schroedinger. 

Again, we find Deleuze useful here,  when he speaks of Leibniz’s notion of incompossibility. “Compossibles can be called (1) the totality of converging and extensive series that constitute the world, (2) the totality of monads that convey the same world (Adam the sinner, Caesar the emperor, Christ the savior…) Incompossibles can be called (1) the series that diverge, and that from then on belong to two possible worlds, and (2) monads of which each expresses a world different from the other (…Adam the non-sinner). The eventual divergence of series is what allows for the definition of incompossibility or the relation of vice-diction [as opposed to contra-diction].” The latter posits an infinity of possible worlds, much more appealing to a writer like Coover than the Beckettian position of closing worlds down. When asked about Raymond Roussel who was such an influence on European movements that came close to coinciding with metafiction in the US, OULIPO (Queneau, Perec, Ponge etc) he was admiring but resistant. The writer Hari Kunzru asks “whether he feels his work relates to that of the French proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel, who in the years before world war one generated works such as Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa using a highly-artificial set of formal constraints based on homophonic puns. He allows that he is interested in Roussel, but was never attracted to the idea of constraints as a way of generating stories.” (Guardian) The purpose for Coover isn’t to limit the range of possibilities by logical permutation but by working with the hypothesis that there are many worlds out of which fiction isn’t obliged to choose, rather than the determined Aristotelian notion that something must be one thing or another but can’t be both at the same time. It is one of the Greek philosopher’s three laws of reason: the others being the law of the excluded middle (something can be true or false; it can’t be neither true nor false) and the law of identity which insists that it is impossible for p and not p both to be true. Yet parallel worlds, rather like a quantum version of Leibniz, suggests that p and not p can be true, that we have Adam the sinner and Adam the non-sinner simultaneously.  Such a view can create a properly maximalist universe that doesn’t only limit itself to all the logical possibilities in this world, but all the possibilities available in simultaneous worlds also. When Schroedinger proposed that the cat was both in the box and not in the box at the same time, this was based on quantum particles and maths but it allowed for the narrative conceit that the theory could be blown up to the atomic level and lead to many worlds. If Schroedinger suggested that p and not p can be possible on a quantum level, then why not propose it narratively too? 

It isn’t our place to try and understand the finer points of quantum physics, but it is at least to give some sort of background concerning the logical minimalism of Beckett and Oulipo, against the maximalist desires of Coover and others. ‘The Baby Sitter’ becomes both brilliant and arbitrary, full of invention and at the same time incapable of closure. The Tuckers could come back and find their house has been flooded, hit by an earthquake that escapes the nearby house in which the party takes place, or that the baby sitter has dismembered the children. This doesn’t quite mean anything can happen. We might feel for example that a marauding gang of bikers who take out Jack, Mark, the baby sitter and the two kids would be a little extraneous, if for no other reason than that they haven’t been part of the initial givens within the story. If incompossibility suggests both Adam the sinner and Adam the non-sinner, is this because the givens are Adam’s eating of the apple and Adam not eating the apple? Perhaps we could have Eve eating the apple or not, but could we have Cain or Abel eating the apple too? How many possibilities will depend on how many givens are introduced. Coover might see that fiction doesn’t have to play by the rules of logic, and certainly not the tighter rules minimalism demands of it as Deleuze explores in Beckett’s permutational limits. But if metafiction concerns itself so often with literature as a game then what are the rules of that game? For Coover, it rests on invention rather than constraint, hence his resistance to minimalism. When for example Oulipo proposed lipograms, palindromes, or snowballs, these were based on very deliberate constraints. A lipogram must avoid using certain letters, a palindrome works both forwards and backwards, and a snowball is a poem that uses a single word each line and then the next line adds an extra letter and so on. 

“Oulipians are into literary bondage” (Guardian), Andrew Gallix, notes. Though Coover wrote a short novel called Spanking the Maid suggesting a little sexual perversion himself, he was always more Prometheus than Masoch - someone who wondered what he could escape from rather than what he insisted on being constrained by. His epic book on the execution of the Rosenbergs, killed during the Mcarthyite witchhunts for reputedly revealing nuclear secrets to the Russians, becomes a sprawling book about Nixon’s burgeoning paranoia, devotion to Mrs Nixon, and his determination to please Uncle Sam. The sort of constraints practised by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer with their books about execution, In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, by virtue of the reality of the events the books are based on, as they became key examplars of the non-fiction novel, becomes, in Coover’s hands, a mind-bending new genre: the metafictional non-fiction novel. From a certain point of view it is unreadable, as though the constraints of reality once removed, leave us less in the world of the Rosenbergs and the case, and instead in the facetious invention of Coover as the Rosenbergs offer the writer the opportunity to show up America’s absurd value system. He doesn’t show the Rosenbergs’ execution as merely an injustice but as part of the politically surreal US mindset that gave birth to McCarthyism and laid to rest two people caught in the hysteria. Capote and Mailer would hardly be called Minimalists but they were constrained by the facts of the case. Coover refuses such limitations. When interviewer Larry McCaffery suggests the book shows patriotism meeting religion, Coover says that while this interested him he was looking for something more ambitious still. “I found it a useful metaphor for containing and organizing all the disparate elements of American mythology.” (Critique)

And yet though we have referenced Deleuze’s essay on Beckett called ‘The Exhausted’ we can all also think of John Barth’s ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, where he talks about Beckett but also and more especially Borges, a writer whom he sees capable of being brought to defend the metafictional cause. Borges is nothing if not an ostensible maximalist, and Barth discusses ‘Tlon Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius’, where “he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlon (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every aspect from its algebra to its fire.” It is a short story containing the world, and so many of Borges’ stories have stories within stories, references to numerous philosophers and writers, and are held together by metaphysical puzzles. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ a man wonders whether he has been dreamt into being; in ‘Borges and I’ the writer wonders which one is he; which the writer. In ‘Funes the Memorius’ a man has infinite memory.

One could see why maximilist metafiction might be drawn to the great Argentinean. But Beckett, who would seem more useful to the title of Barth’s piece seems to work very differently. When Barth quotes Borges speaking of the “contamination of reality by dreams”, Beckett’s are contaminated by insular nightmares. If Borges suggests metaphysical freedom; Beckett indicates metaphysical incarceration. thus it makes sense that the emphasis in Barth's essay is on Borges even if the title indicates a problem much closer to Beckett. Yet in Borges’ work he never seemed to exhaust the possible, finding constant metaphysical replenishment in the work of philosophy that gives birth to the fiction. Few of the metafictionists (though some might invoke the more essayistic William Gass) tend to be especially philosophically inclined, and so they exhaust the possible partly because there is no underlying problematic that can retain the energy involved in its invention. Even ‘The Baby Sitter’ ends as much on a joke as a problem. For all the variations Coover throws at us there isn’t any more at stake whether the house burns down or the dishes are done. The question which metafiction never quite resolved was how to make us aware of the tropes it was utilising without creating an indifference towards them due to the facetiousness of the tone. Borges did so by retaining the metaphysical proposition within the conceit, so that, even if he would hardly be called the most emotionally nuanced of writers, the questions he asked more than compensated for this ostensible limitation. But without the metaphysical and with the tone often undermining feeling, what are we left with? Coover may say in an interview with Leo J. Hertzel that “the first and primary and essential talent of the artist is to reach the emotions” (Critique), but how often was that achieved?

Like, ‘The Baby Sitter’, 'The Elevator 'works through a number of alternatives to a situation. Martin takes the self-service lift to the 14th floor where he works and, in the first of fifteen mini-chapters, and the longest, the story sets the scene for what seems a suburban story familiar to us from the work of John Cheever or Richard Yates. But instead the chapters thereafter offer variation rather progression: Martin will remain stuck in the elevator not because of any technical problem with the lift but due to the technical play with form demanded by Coover. The story is even more static than ‘The Baby Sitter’ - while the former relies on progression and variation, the latter relies only on variation. In other words while ‘The Baby Sitter’ takes place over the course of an evening and insists on moving a handful of possibilities forward (the rape of the baby sitter by the husband/the non rape of the baby sitter by the husband; Mark and Jack having sex with her; Mark and Jack not having sex with her), The Elevator only moves laterally, remaining at all times in the premise of the story rather than towards its development. 

In the fourth of ‘Seven Exemplary Tales’, ‘In A Train Station', the story is static in a different but no less clever way. The narrator tells us near the beginning of the story that though Albert has purchased a ticket at 9:27 for the 10:18 Express to Winchester it will be a train he won’t catch. By the end of the story, he won’t have caught it because of an altercation with a tall stranger on the platform that leads the station master to sever the stranger’s head. But after doing so, after the 10:18 leaves the station, the stationmaster stands on a chair and readjusts the clock so that it reads, 9:26. The story ends more or less as it began, with Albert buying a ticket for the train, no doubt the 10:18. The story utilises both prolepsis and metalepsis: it anticipates what will happen in the future by telling us he will miss the train, and creates an uncanny division between the story we are reading and the ability of the characters within the story to impact on the very form it takes. Gerard Genette provides a good and extreme form of metalepsis when giving as an example a Cortazar story ‘Final de Juego’ where a man is “assassinated by one of the characters in the novel he is reading.” (Narrative Discourse) In ‘In a Train Station’ the narrator doesn’t flashback to an hour earlier; a character just changes the clock and we are back in time. The metaleptic has a long tradition that Genette finds in Diderot, Sterne, Balzac and Proust, but the example he gives from Cortazar serves well to describe the sort of device often adopted by metafictionists. Sometimes it can be brilliantly done (as Cortazar proves) very well done (as in Coover’s story), or can leave the tale seeming to lack much relevance at all as if anything is possible. (Which some may find to be the case in Coover’s tale if you’re not too impressed by the cleverness) If Coover can find himself throwing a Bellow book across the room aware presumably that its relationship with plot, character and situation becomes too predictable then can the reverse problem present itself where the unpredictable doesn’t quite allow for the emotion that Coover acknowledges is vital to fiction? 

We wouldn’t want to dismiss Coover’s reservations about the novel form, wouldn’t wish to underestimate the range, ambition and invention many of the metafictionists put into their work in determining to find new ways in which fiction could be written. But reading through Coover’s famous collection Pricksongs and Descants (which contains ‘The Baby Sitter’, The Elevator’ and ‘In a Train Station’ ) we might wonder why so few of the stories stay with us while many a more conventional piece of fiction appears to do so. There is by a metafictional reckoning almost no invention in some marvellous stories that come after Coover, Barth and Gass, stories like Fat ‘by Raymond Carver, ‘The Grub’ by Roberto Bolano, ‘The Depressed Person ‘by David Foster Wallace. And hasn’t metafiction turned into auto-fiction, with Emmanuelle Carrere (A Russian Novel) , Knaussgard (My Struggle) and even J. M. Coetzee (Summer Time), playing with the notion of what is fact and fiction as they detail the lives of characters who in many ways are indistinguishable from the authors themselves? This often seems closer to confession than invention and while only the naive would take it as pure autobiography, to pretend that the characters are simply fictional would be no less naive. What we see in all these examples, in the stories of Carver etc, in the novels of Carrere and so on, is that literature wasn’t exhausted; it could find constantly new ways to explore the fictional without facetiously playing with time and space in the process. It doesn’t mean the writer can’t play with time and space, and however facetiously they wish, but to claim as Barth did in the early sixties that ‘conventional’ fiction was somehow used up was an argument useful for the fiction he wanted to create, but not very useful as a theoretical position on the novel. When Barth says by “‘exhaustion’ I don’t mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms, or exhaustion of certain possibilities…” it is the sort of remark giving argumentative form to Coover’s Bellow book-flinging. Indeed, Barth references Bellow when saying “art and its forms and techniques live in history and certainly do change. I sympathize with a remark attributed to Saul Bellow, that to be technically up to date is the least important attribute of a writer, though I would have to add that this least important attribute of a writer may be nevertheless essential.” (‘Literature of Exhaustion’) 

Yet while Barth seems to see that exhaustion comes out of the used-upness of fiction, Deleuze’s point is much more specific. He sees in Beckett a particular problematic concerning the exhausted as a metaphysical proposition. “Being exhausted is much more than being tired. It’s not just tiredness. I’m not just tired, in spite of the climb. The tired person no longer has any (subjective) possibility at his disposal; he therefore cannot realize the slightest (objective) possibility. But the latter remains, because one can never realize the whole of the possible; in fact one even creates the possible to the extent that one realizes it.” Deleuze reckons: “the tired person has merely exhausted the realization, whereas the exhausted person exhausts the whole of the possible.” In this sense, the metafictionists note that literature is tired and wish to find new ways of energising it, absorbing manifold narrative possibilities, a facetious tone, developments in 20th-century physics, and the literary past of Quixote and Shandy to justify it. Beckett sees an ongoing metaphysical problem that he wishes not so much to escape as delineate. If metafiction acknowledges tiredness it still finds exuberance and energy out of that apparent exhaustion, even if we may feel in that enthusiasm resides something sometimes close to Heidegger’s frenetic inertia: a kind of purposeless busyness. Beckett removes that inertial freneticism by narrowing the problem down to a minimalism which doesn’t possess the kind of kinetic bad faith that busyness contains, because the problem has become so winnowed. “Beckett’s characters play with the possible without realizing it; they are too involved in a possibility that is ever more restricted in its kind to care about what is still happening.” Deleuze sees in Beckett’s characters “a need without need”, so that many of the societal propositions still vital to the metafictionists are no longer so relevant to an exhaustion that goes much deeper. Metafictionists entertain the limits of their fictions but perhaps not the metaphysical behind their propositions. In this sense, ‘The Baby Sitter’, for example, coincides with, perhaps takes advantage of, quantum developments, but sees in them ludic possibilities rather than ontological conundrums. 

The writers have new freedoms that needn’t demand they are beholden to the necessities of cause and effect, and find their alibi in fiction from centuries earlier (Cervantes and Sterne) and scientific discovery. Coover more or less admits as much when saying in his Introduction to Exemplary Fictions: “My intention has been to set up, in the midst of our community, a billiard-table, at which everyone may amuse himself without hurt to body and soul.” Kunzru, who quotes the remark, also says: “Postmodernism, as practised by Coover, is not simply a question of pointing out (tediously) to the reader that she is reading a novel. It’s about a return to the novel’s original, scandalous ability to create realities, rather than pretending to be a mirror or a movie camera.” (Guardian) Though Coover does say to Hertzel, “I have a purpose when I write which is terribly complex. I could never really quite specify it or I would.” (Critique) Nevertheless, much of this complexity is the practicalities of the craft, of course a basic necessity for any writer, yet maybe all the more pronounced the more ludic, hypertextual and complicated the work. Nothing seems to us more demanding than Perec’s famous five thousand letter palindrome — a short story that works both backwards and forwards and proves an impossible task for a translator, who would also have to become a master of the form in translating it. We can admire Perec’s endeavour but can we put it alongside less ostensibly ingenious works like A Man Who Sleeps and Things, two novellas that, respectively, existentially reveal a consumerist couple in the sixties, and a man wandering around Paris whose interior state is devastated? In the palindrome Perec exhausts the form; in the novellas he understands the exhaustion beyond the form. This is the void that surrounds the work and finds justification for the existence of it. 

If the work lacks this surplus, this metaphysical first principle, we are in a text of ingenuity but the exhaustion felt reading it gets compensated for by the brilliance of the writing of it. But is this enough? If we think not it rests partly on the metafictionist suffering from some of the same problems as the popular novelist though for very different reasons. The popular novelist creates stock characters, situations and plots and we read well aware that the development of these aspects do not contain within them a compensatory gain beyond the plot machinations that character and situation serve. Hence the term page-turner to describe many of them.  Coover, like Barthelme, like Barth, goes far beyond such obviousness by asking us to look at the machine of fiction. According to Kunzru, “Coover has little interest in archetypal explanations of myth and folktale. He is more interested in breaking them open. As he wrote in the introduction to ‘Seven Exemplary Fictions’, ‘The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader … to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation.’” Coover also says to Hertzel, “I’m at heart a realist willing to use any imaginable narrative mode to get at the real.”

But this realism which can incorporate fantasy, myth, parallel worlds and multiple narratives, might miss the mystery that underpins the notions we earlier proposed: the incompossibility of Liebniz, Schroedinger’s Cat and the multi-worlds of Knight. Such ideas can be contained by the facetious need to remain in control of the story even if it looks like the writer has not so much abdicated responsibility for it, but found numerous ways in which to play with it. The ideas become part of the game and hence the facetiousness. If we believe that the names of Kundera, Perec and Borges aren’t interchangeable with those of Barth, Coover and Barthelme, it rests on the sense that the ludic is serving a problem greater than the puzzle. Kundera is far from averse to generating new possibilities in fictional form, but they are usually eccentric and retrospective. It took a Czech literary critic to see that The Joke was narrated chiefly by the main character (two-thirds of the novel), with the other three characters taking up the remaining third, and one character taking up 1/6th of that third, another 1/9th and the third 1/18th. None of this was intentional, and no doubt another critic would find other patterns within the material as Kundera himself has done with other books of his that he has analysed musically rather than mathematically.  Yet though such subconscious formal properties can be found in the work, they wouldn’t seem to be Kundera’s main reason for writing the novels. “All great works (precisely because they are great) contain something unachieved” (The Art of the Novel) Kundera says. Elsewhere in the book, he insists “meditative interrogation (interrogative meditation) is the basis on which all my novels are constructed”, and that it is this interrogative mode, this need to explore the nature of being in the world, that contains the formal play and any hint of facetiousness. Kundera might well agree with Coover when the latter says “I tend to think of tragedy as an adolescent response to the universe - the higher truth is a comic response”, but as Kundera explores in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, there are different modes of laughter, and the one that has always interested him is one that goes “beyond joking, jeering, ridicule”, the sort of complex humour he finds evident in Kafka. “The comic is not a counterpoint to the tragic (the tragi-comic) as in Shakespeare; it’s not there to make the tragic more bearable by lightening the tone’ it doesn’t accompany the tragic, not at all, it destroys it in the egg and thus deprives the victims of the only consolation they could hope for.” 

What we have is humour in the void and nobody understood this aspect of Kafka and others better than Maurice Blanchot. “…Literature is not only illegitimate, it is also null, and as long as this nullity is isolated in a state of purity it may constitute an extraordinary force, a marvellous force. To make literature become the exposure of this emptiness inside, to make it open up completely to its nothingness…” (‘Literature and the Right to Death’) Blanchot sees this aspect in Surrealism but also later in the essay invokes Kafka and says of literature: “it is negation, because it drives the inhuman, indeterminate side of things back into nothingness; it defines them, makes them finite, and this is the sense in which literature is really the work of death in the world.” Coover’s work suggests instead not so much the exhausted towards nothingness but the facetious towards proliferation. When  Coover admirer, Philip Stevick says that “along with the eroding of the stock of modernist forms, we have seen the vogue of Borges, the success of Gass, the transition from underground to overground of figures like Brautigan, the considerable American interest in the inimitable French Chosists, the conspicuousness of Mailer, the work of a considerable group of extraordinary journalists and virtuosi of the tape-recorder extending from Tom Wolfe to Studs Terkel to Oscar Lewis, a collection of models remarkable for the way they all stretch the boundaries of fiction” (‘Scheherezade Runs Out of Plots’) it is a maximalist claim quite at odds with Blanchot’s take on Kafka. “When writing becomes “a form of prayer,” it is implied that there are probably other forms. And even if, as a consequence of this world’s unhappiness, there were no other forms, to write is no longer from this perspective to approach the work, but rather to wait for that one moment of grace —Kafka acknowledged that he lay in wait for it — when one would have to write no longer.” (‘The Work’s Space and Its Demand’) Whether one expects literature to move towards a prayer or a game may dictate how one feels about a writer whose work is far from unimpressive, often inventive and definitely clever. Coover’s fiction is for those who we demand a lot from fiction but not too much.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Robert Coover

A Literature of Ludic Limitation

To understand an aspect of Robert Coover's work, to comprehend why it is simultaneously impressive and exhausting, we can do worse than take a commonly applied term, metafiction, and add to it one of our own: facetious fiction. Metafiction was an American movement coming out of the sixties and seventies, especially, and included John Barth's The End of the Road, Donald Barthelme's short stories, 'The Indian Uprising' and 'Cortes and Montezuma' and Robert Coover's 'The Magic Poker' and 'The Babysitter'. Some might see metafiction stretching much farther back and incorporating anything from Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy, and see aspects of it in modern writers from elsewhere - Borges short stories like 'Borges and I'; Calvino's novel, 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller'. But if we were to narrow it down, its main practitioners would be Americans writing at a certain moment: Barth, Barthelme and Coover, but also William Gass, John Hawkes and William Gaddis. For facetious fiction we can think of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat's Cradle, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Some of the practitioners of facetious fiction are seen as metafictionists (like Vonnegut) and most of the metafictionists practise facetiousness, as we will explore in Coover's case, but perhaps what interest us most is this exhaustion that comes out of the work of certain metafictional conceits, and why it happens to be absent from other writers who might also seem to be concerned with calling into question the fictional tropes they adopt. How can we love Kundera, Perec and Borges, and find Coover, Bart and often Barthelme 'tiresome'? Of course, metafictionally we might choose to rearrange those names so that Kundera, Barth and Barthelme are tiresome, or Perec, Coover and Borges, and so on. But what if we see the writer's purpose residing less in the choices they give to the reader than in the demands placed upon him or her?

The work of fiction is surely the relationship between choices and demands, on both the writers and on the reader's part. The writer realises at a certain point in writing a story that if they want the character to be an engineer then they have to go back to an earlier stage in the story where they have said he studied literature. The reader may feel that they know what the person has studied based on the clues the author provides: that they have studied literature because of the books they mention and the library the character possesses. Then we are informed he is a structural engineer. The reader makes assumptions of what they have read thus far, and if our assumption is countered it must be done plausibly. Where did the character get his interest in fiction from; where is the prior evidence that he would be a structural engineer? We don't want to exaggerate but for Coover such constraints create tedium in the way in another reader they create the necessary balance between the demands they seek from fiction and the limited number of choices the writer can generate out of that demand. For Coover, the latter leads too often to predictability. Many years ago, simultaneously reading Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and William Gaddis's monumental The Recognitions, Coover found that "I really loved Augie March. The opening section, at least. But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie March and threw it across the room and that was the last I saw of it." The choices the writer makes and the demands the reader makes upon him or her, for Coover doesn't create a tight textual meaning but a work it would seem with a twofold predictability. The writer knows the limits placed upon him because of the reader's expectations that the work must be coherent and consistent. Why should the writer not both study literature and work as an engineer; why can't someone live in New York and London at the same time, both be married to a maid in Mexico and a philosopher in Paris? Some might say you can but when we say simultaneously we usually mean that the person moves between New York and London; when one says the character is both married to a maid and a philosopher that the person is a bigamist. How does a writer manage to escape such grounding necessities?

Several answers come to mind and they have a long and various history. In 17th century philosophy, Leibniz could talk of incompossibility, in 20th-century physics W. Everett Knight suggested parallel worlds, and we, of course, have Schroedinger's Cat - the experiment that shows the cat is in the box and not in the box simultaneously. But before saying more about Leibniz, Knight and Schroedinger we should turn to what many understandably regard as one of the great works of metafiction, and certainly one of Coover's finest pieces: the short story, 'The Baby Sitter'. A couple, Mr and Mrs Tucker, prepare to go out to a party while the babysitter arrives to look after their two kids, Jimmy and Bitsy. The babysitter has a boyfriend, Jack, whose friend, Mark, happens to be the son of the party's hosts. Here is the cast of characters, but in roughly a hundred and ten paragraphs the permutations are many. In one scenario the babysitter is raped by Jack and Mark; in another she enjoys a threesome; in one all the dishes are done and the place is neat and tidy when the Tuckers return home; in another Mrs Tucker realises that her husband has gone, the children have been murdered and the house is wrecked. The story suggests that out of the initial set of givens, there are numerous variations. Coover's story is far from exhaustive as it works through a number of them, because what interests the writer isn't the winnowing of possibilities but the acknowledgement of their multiplicity. Why should a work of fiction keep narrowing down the options instead of multiplying them? Why can't the babysitter keep the house tidy and at the same time the house burn down? In this Coover sees himself working out of a position quite distinct from a writer whom he greatly admires, Beckett. Speaking of metafiction as opposed to various other terms often applied to his work, Coover says, "metafiction says something. It has to do with taking a large fiction itself and writing within it; that kind of self-reflecting writing that emerges from it can be thought of as metafictional. I didn't much like surfiction or... but that idea was that there was something surrealistic about it, and it was fiction that was beyond fiction, a little bit like metafiction. Maximalism is another. I mean, I'd like to think of Beckett as being my primary inspirer, as a person, anyway, a minimalist if there ever was one. So it's like we're on opposite sides of that bench and whatnot." (Believer) It is partly why we suggest 'The Baby Sitter' isn't about exhausting possibilities but maximising them, while Beckett's work often narrows down those options. As Gilles Deleuze notes, "Beckett's characters play with the possible without realizing it; they are too involved in a possibility that is ever more restricted in its kind to care what is still happening." Deleuze says, "in Murphy, the hero devotes himself to the combinatorial of five small biscuits, but on the condition of having vanquished all order of preference, and of having thereby conquered the hundred and twenty modes of total permutability." ('The Exhausted') Facetious fiction tends toward the opposite direction of apparently infinite possibility and often simultaneous variability. Hence why we invoke Leibniz, Knight and Schroedinger.

Again, we find Deleuze useful here, when he speaks of Leibniz's notion of incompossibility. "Compossibles can be called (1) the totality of converging and extensive series that constitute the world, (2) the totality of monads that convey the same world (Adam the sinner, Caesar the emperor, Christ the savior...) Incompossibles can be called (1) the series that diverge, and that from then on belong to two possible worlds, and (2) monads of which each expresses a world different from the other (...Adam the non-sinner). The eventual divergence of series is what allows for the definition of incompossibility or the relation of vice-diction [as opposed to contra-diction]." The latter posits an infinity of possible worlds, much more appealing to a writer like Coover than the Beckettian position of closing worlds down. When asked about Raymond Roussel who was such an influence on European movements that came close to coinciding with metafiction in the US, OULIPO (Queneau, Perec, Ponge etc) he was admiring but resistant. The writer Hari Kunzru asks "whether he feels his work relates to that of the French proto-Surrealist Raymond Roussel, who in the years before world war one generated works such as Locus Solus and Impressions of Africa using a highly-artificial set of formal constraints based on homophonic puns. He allows that he is interested in Roussel, but was never attracted to the idea of constraints as a way of generating stories." (Guardian) The purpose for Coover isn't to limit the range of possibilities by logical permutation but by working with the hypothesis that there are many worlds out of which fiction isn't obliged to choose, rather than the determined Aristotelian notion that something must be one thing or another but can't be both at the same time. It is one of the Greek philosopher's three laws of reason: the others being the law of the excluded middle (something can be true or false; it can't be neither true nor false) and the law of identity which insists that it is impossible for p and not p both to be true. Yet parallel worlds, rather like a quantum version of Leibniz, suggests that p and not p can be true, that we have Adam the sinner and Adam the non-sinner simultaneously. Such a view can create a properly maximalist universe that doesn't only limit itself to all the logical possibilities in this world, but all the possibilities available in simultaneous worlds also. When Schroedinger proposed that the cat was both in the box and not in the box at the same time, this was based on quantum particles and maths but it allowed for the narrative conceit that the theory could be blown up to the atomic level and lead to many worlds. If Schroedinger suggested that p and not p can be possible on a quantum level, then why not propose it narratively too?

It isn't our place to try and understand the finer points of quantum physics, but it is at least to give some sort of background concerning the logical minimalism of Beckett and Oulipo, against the maximalist desires of Coover and others. 'The Baby Sitter' becomes both brilliant and arbitrary, full of invention and at the same time incapable of closure. The Tuckers could come back and find their house has been flooded, hit by an earthquake that escapes the nearby house in which the party takes place, or that the baby sitter has dismembered the children. This doesn't quite mean anything can happen. We might feel for example that a marauding gang of bikers who take out Jack, Mark, the baby sitter and the two kids would be a little extraneous, if for no other reason than that they haven't been part of the initial givens within the story. If incompossibility suggests both Adam the sinner and Adam the non-sinner, is this because the givens are Adam's eating of the apple and Adam not eating the apple? Perhaps we could have Eve eating the apple or not, but could we have Cain or Abel eating the apple too? How many possibilities will depend on how many givens are introduced. Coover might see that fiction doesn't have to play by the rules of logic, and certainly not the tighter rules minimalism demands of it as Deleuze explores in Beckett's permutational limits. But if metafiction concerns itself so often with literature as a game then what are the rules of that game? For Coover, it rests on invention rather than constraint, hence his resistance to minimalism. When for example Oulipo proposed lipograms, palindromes, or snowballs, these were based on very deliberate constraints. A lipogram must avoid using certain letters, a palindrome works both forwards and backwards, and a snowball is a poem that uses a single word each line and then the next line adds an extra letter and so on.

"Oulipians are into literary bondage" (Guardian), Andrew Gallix, notes. Though Coover wrote a short novel called Spanking the Maid suggesting a little sexual perversion himself, he was always more Prometheus than Masoch - someone who wondered what he could escape from rather than what he insisted on being constrained by. His epic book on the execution of the Rosenbergs, killed during the Mcarthyite witchhunts for reputedly revealing nuclear secrets to the Russians, becomes a sprawling book about Nixon's burgeoning paranoia, devotion to Mrs Nixon, and his determination to please Uncle Sam. The sort of constraints practised by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer with their books about execution, In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song, by virtue of the reality of the events the books are based on, as they became key examplars of the non-fiction novel, becomes, in Coover's hands, a mind-bending new genre: the metafictional non-fiction novel. From a certain point of view it is unreadable, as though the constraints of reality once removed, leave us less in the world of the Rosenbergs and the case, and instead in the facetious invention of Coover as the Rosenbergs offer the writer the opportunity to show up America's absurd value system. He doesn't show the Rosenbergs' execution as merely an injustice but as part of the politically surreal US mindset that gave birth to McCarthyism and laid to rest two people caught in the hysteria. Capote and Mailer would hardly be called Minimalists but they were constrained by the facts of the case. Coover refuses such limitations. When interviewer Larry McCaffery suggests the book shows patriotism meeting religion, Coover says that while this interested him he was looking for something more ambitious still. "I found it a useful metaphor for containing and organizing all the disparate elements of American mythology." (Critique)

And yet though we have referenced Deleuze's essay on Beckett called 'The Exhausted' we can all also think of John Barth's 'The Literature of Exhaustion', where he talks about Beckett but also and more especially Borges, a writer whom he sees capable of being brought to defend the metafictional cause. Borges is nothing if not an ostensible maximalist, and Barth discusses 'Tlon Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius', where "he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlon (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every aspect from its algebra to its fire." It is a short story containing the world, and so many of Borges' stories have stories within stories, references to numerous philosophers and writers, and are held together by metaphysical puzzles. In 'The Circular Ruins' a man wonders whether he has been dreamt into being; in 'Borges and I' the writer wonders which one is he; which the writer. In 'Funes the Memorius' a man has infinite memory.

One could see why maximilist metafiction might be drawn to the great Argentinean. But Beckett, who would seem more useful to the title of Barth's piece seems to work very differently. When Barth quotes Borges speaking of the "contamination of reality by dreams", Beckett's are contaminated by insular nightmares. If Borges suggests metaphysical freedom; Beckett indicates metaphysical incarceration. thus it makes sense that the emphasis in Barth's essay is on Borges even if the title indicates a problem much closer to Beckett. Yet in Borges' work he never seemed to exhaust the possible, finding constant metaphysical replenishment in the work of philosophy that gives birth to the fiction. Few of the metafictionists (though some might invoke the more essayistic William Gass) tend to be especially philosophically inclined, and so they exhaust the possible partly because there is no underlying problematic that can retain the energy involved in its invention. Even 'The Baby Sitter' ends as much on a joke as a problem. For all the variations Coover throws at us there isn't any more at stake whether the house burns down or the dishes are done. The question which metafiction never quite resolved was how to make us aware of the tropes it was utilising without creating an indifference towards them due to the facetiousness of the tone. Borges did so by retaining the metaphysical proposition within the conceit, so that, even if he would hardly be called the most emotionally nuanced of writers, the questions he asked more than compensated for this ostensible limitation. But without the metaphysical and with the tone often undermining feeling, what are we left with? Coover may say in an interview with Leo J. Hertzel that "the first and primary and essential talent of the artist is to reach the emotions" (Critique), but how often was that achieved?

Like, 'The Baby Sitter', 'The Elevator 'works through a number of alternatives to a situation. Martin takes the self-service lift to the 14th floor where he works and, in the first of fifteen mini-chapters, and the longest, the story sets the scene for what seems a suburban story familiar to us from the work of John Cheever or Richard Yates. But instead the chapters thereafter offer variation rather progression: Martin will remain stuck in the elevator not because of any technical problem with the lift but due to the technical play with form demanded by Coover. The story is even more static than 'The Baby Sitter' - while the former relies on progression and variation, the latter relies only on variation. In other words while 'The Baby Sitter' takes place over the course of an evening and insists on moving a handful of possibilities forward (the rape of the baby sitter by the husband/the non rape of the baby sitter by the husband; Mark and Jack having sex with her; Mark and Jack not having sex with her), The Elevator only moves laterally, remaining at all times in the premise of the story rather than towards its development.

In the fourth of 'Seven Exemplary Tales', 'In A Train Station', the story is static in a different but no less clever way. The narrator tells us near the beginning of the story that though Albert has purchased a ticket at 9:27 for the 10:18 Express to Winchester it will be a train he won't catch. By the end of the story, he won't have caught it because of an altercation with a tall stranger on the platform that leads the station master to sever the stranger's head. But after doing so, after the 10:18 leaves the station, the stationmaster stands on a chair and readjusts the clock so that it reads, 9:26. The story ends more or less as it began, with Albert buying a ticket for the train, no doubt the 10:18. The story utilises both prolepsis and metalepsis: it anticipates what will happen in the future by telling us he will miss the train, and creates an uncanny division between the story we are reading and the ability of the characters within the story to impact on the very form it takes. Gerard Genette provides a good and extreme form of metalepsis when giving as an example a Cortazar story 'Final de Juego' where a man is "assassinated by one of the characters in the novel he is reading." (Narrative Discourse) In 'In a Train Station' the narrator doesn't flashback to an hour earlier; a character just changes the clock and we are back in time. The metaleptic has a long tradition that Genette finds in Diderot, Sterne, Balzac and Proust, but the example he gives from Cortazar serves well to describe the sort of device often adopted by metafictionists. Sometimes it can be brilliantly done (as Cortazar proves) very well done (as in Coover's story), or can leave the tale seeming to lack much relevance at all as if anything is possible. (Which some may find to be the case in Coover's tale if you're not too impressed by the cleverness) If Coover can find himself throwing a Bellow book across the room aware presumably that its relationship with plot, character and situation becomes too predictable then can the reverse problem present itself where the unpredictable doesn't quite allow for the emotion that Coover acknowledges is vital to fiction?

We wouldn't want to dismiss Coover's reservations about the novel form, wouldn't wish to underestimate the range, ambition and invention many of the metafictionists put into their work in determining to find new ways in which fiction could be written. But reading through Coover's famous collection Pricksongs and Descants (which contains 'The Baby Sitter', The Elevator' and 'In a Train Station' ) we might wonder why so few of the stories stay with us while many a more conventional piece of fiction appears to do so. There is by a metafictional reckoning almost no invention in some marvellous stories that come after Coover, Barth and Gass, stories like Fat 'by Raymond Carver, 'The Grub' by Roberto Bolano, 'The Depressed Person 'by David Foster Wallace. And hasn't metafiction turned into auto-fiction, with Emmanuelle Carrere (A Russian Novel) , Knaussgard (My Struggle) and even J. M. Coetzee (Summer Time), playing with the notion of what is fact and fiction as they detail the lives of characters who in many ways are indistinguishable from the authors themselves? This often seems closer to confession than invention and while only the naive would take it as pure autobiography, to pretend that the characters are simply fictional would be no less naive. What we see in all these examples, in the stories of Carver etc, in the novels of Carrere and so on, is that literature wasn't exhausted; it could find constantly new ways to explore the fictional without facetiously playing with time and space in the process. It doesn't mean the writer can't play with time and space, and however facetiously they wish, but to claim as Barth did in the early sixties that 'conventional' fiction was somehow used up was an argument useful for the fiction he wanted to create, but not very useful as a theoretical position on the novel. When Barth says by "'exhaustion' I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms, or exhaustion of certain possibilities..." it is the sort of remark giving argumentative form to Coover's Bellow book-flinging. Indeed, Barth references Bellow when saying "art and its forms and techniques live in history and certainly do change. I sympathize with a remark attributed to Saul Bellow, that to be technically up to date is the least important attribute of a writer, though I would have to add that this least important attribute of a writer may be nevertheless essential." ('Literature of Exhaustion')

Yet while Barth seems to see that exhaustion comes out of the used-upness of fiction, Deleuze's point is much more specific. He sees in Beckett a particular problematic concerning the exhausted as a metaphysical proposition. "Being exhausted is much more than being tired. It's not just tiredness. I'm not just tired, in spite of the climb. The tired person no longer has any (subjective) possibility at his disposal; he therefore cannot realize the slightest (objective) possibility. But the latter remains, because one can never realize the whole of the possible; in fact one even creates the possible to the extent that one realizes it." Deleuze reckons: "the tired person has merely exhausted the realization, whereas the exhausted person exhausts the whole of the possible." In this sense, the metafictionists note that literature is tired and wish to find new ways of energising it, absorbing manifold narrative possibilities, a facetious tone, developments in 20th-century physics, and the literary past of Quixote and Shandy to justify it. Beckett sees an ongoing metaphysical problem that he wishes not so much to escape as delineate. If metafiction acknowledges tiredness it still finds exuberance and energy out of that apparent exhaustion, even if we may feel in that enthusiasm resides something sometimes close to Heidegger's frenetic inertia: a kind of purposeless busyness. Beckett removes that inertial freneticism by narrowing the problem down to a minimalism which doesn't possess the kind of kinetic bad faith that busyness contains, because the problem has become so winnowed. "Beckett's characters play with the possible without realizing it; they are too involved in a possibility that is ever more restricted in its kind to care about what is still happening." Deleuze sees in Beckett's characters "a need without need", so that many of the societal propositions still vital to the metafictionists are no longer so relevant to an exhaustion that goes much deeper. Metafictionists entertain the limits of their fictions but perhaps not the metaphysical behind their propositions. In this sense, 'The Baby Sitter', for example, coincides with, perhaps takes advantage of, quantum developments, but sees in them ludic possibilities rather than ontological conundrums.

The writers have new freedoms that needn't demand they are beholden to the necessities of cause and effect, and find their alibi in fiction from centuries earlier (Cervantes and Sterne) and scientific discovery. Coover more or less admits as much when saying in his Introduction to Exemplary Fictions: "My intention has been to set up, in the midst of our community, a billiard-table, at which everyone may amuse himself without hurt to body and soul." Kunzru, who quotes the remark, also says: "Postmodernism, as practised by Coover, is not simply a question of pointing out (tediously) to the reader that she is reading a novel. It's about a return to the novel's original, scandalous ability to create realities, rather than pretending to be a mirror or a movie camera." (Guardian) Though Coover does say to Hertzel, "I have a purpose when I write which is terribly complex. I could never really quite specify it or I would." (Critique) Nevertheless, much of this complexity is the practicalities of the craft, of course a basic necessity for any writer, yet maybe all the more pronounced the more ludic, hypertextual and complicated the work. Nothing seems to us more demanding than Perec's famous five thousand letter palindrome a short story that works both backwards and forwards and proves an impossible task for a translator, who would also have to become a master of the form in translating it. We can admire Perec's endeavour but can we put it alongside less ostensibly ingenious works like A Man Who Sleeps and Things, two novellas that, respectively, existentially reveal a consumerist couple in the sixties, and a man wandering around Paris whose interior state is devastated? In the palindrome Perec exhausts the form; in the novellas he understands the exhaustion beyond the form. This is the void that surrounds the work and finds justification for the existence of it.

If the work lacks this surplus, this metaphysical first principle, we are in a text of ingenuity but the exhaustion felt reading it gets compensated for by the brilliance of the writing of it. But is this enough? If we think not it rests partly on the metafictionist suffering from some of the same problems as the popular novelist though for very different reasons. The popular novelist creates stock characters, situations and plots and we read well aware that the development of these aspects do not contain within them a compensatory gain beyond the plot machinations that character and situation serve. Hence the term page-turner to describe many of them. Coover, like Barthelme, like Barth, goes far beyond such obviousness by asking us to look at the machine of fiction. According to Kunzru, "Coover has little interest in archetypal explanations of myth and folktale. He is more interested in breaking them open. As he wrote in the introduction to 'Seven Exemplary Fictions', 'The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader ... to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation.'" Coover also says to Hertzel, "I'm at heart a realist willing to use any imaginable narrative mode to get at the real."

But this realism which can incorporate fantasy, myth, parallel worlds and multiple narratives, might miss the mystery that underpins the notions we earlier proposed: the incompossibility of Liebniz, Schroedinger's Cat and the multi-worlds of Knight. Such ideas can be contained by the facetious need to remain in control of the story even if it looks like the writer has not so much abdicated responsibility for it, but found numerous ways in which to play with it. The ideas become part of the game and hence the facetiousness. If we believe that the names of Kundera, Perec and Borges aren't interchangeable with those of Barth, Coover and Barthelme, it rests on the sense that the ludic is serving a problem greater than the puzzle. Kundera is far from averse to generating new possibilities in fictional form, but they are usually eccentric and retrospective. It took a Czech literary critic to see that The Joke was narrated chiefly by the main character (two-thirds of the novel), with the other three characters taking up the remaining third, and one character taking up 1/6th of that third, another 1/9th and the third 1/18th. None of this was intentional, and no doubt another critic would find other patterns within the material as Kundera himself has done with other books of his that he has analysed musically rather than mathematically. Yet though such subconscious formal properties can be found in the work, they wouldn't seem to be Kundera's main reason for writing the novels. "All great works (precisely because they are great) contain something unachieved" (The Art of the Novel) Kundera says. Elsewhere in the book, he insists "meditative interrogation (interrogative meditation) is the basis on which all my novels are constructed", and that it is this interrogative mode, this need to explore the nature of being in the world, that contains the formal play and any hint of facetiousness. Kundera might well agree with Coover when the latter says "I tend to think of tragedy as an adolescent response to the universe - the higher truth is a comic response", but as Kundera explores in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, there are different modes of laughter, and the one that has always interested him is one that goes "beyond joking, jeering, ridicule", the sort of complex humour he finds evident in Kafka. "The comic is not a counterpoint to the tragic (the tragi-comic) as in Shakespeare; it's not there to make the tragic more bearable by lightening the tone' it doesn't accompany the tragic, not at all, it destroys it in the egg and thus deprives the victims of the only consolation they could hope for."

What we have is humour in the void and nobody understood this aspect of Kafka and others better than Maurice Blanchot. "...Literature is not only illegitimate, it is also null, and as long as this nullity is isolated in a state of purity it may constitute an extraordinary force, a marvellous force. To make literature become the exposure of this emptiness inside, to make it open up completely to its nothingness..." ('Literature and the Right to Death') Blanchot sees this aspect in Surrealism but also later in the essay invokes Kafka and says of literature: "it is negation, because it drives the inhuman, indeterminate side of things back into nothingness; it defines them, makes them finite, and this is the sense in which literature is really the work of death in the world." Coover's work suggests instead not so much the exhausted towards nothingness but the facetious towards proliferation. When Coover admirer, Philip Stevick says that "along with the eroding of the stock of modernist forms, we have seen the vogue of Borges, the success of Gass, the transition from underground to overground of figures like Brautigan, the considerable American interest in the inimitable French Chosists, the conspicuousness of Mailer, the work of a considerable group of extraordinary journalists and virtuosi of the tape-recorder extending from Tom Wolfe to Studs Terkel to Oscar Lewis, a collection of models remarkable for the way they all stretch the boundaries of fiction" ('Scheherezade Runs Out of Plots') it is a maximalist claim quite at odds with Blanchot's take on Kafka. "When writing becomes "a form of prayer," it is implied that there are probably other forms. And even if, as a consequence of this world's unhappiness, there were no other forms, to write is no longer from this perspective to approach the work, but rather to wait for that one moment of grace Kafka acknowledged that he lay in wait for it when one would have to write no longer." ('The Work's Space and Its Demand') Whether one expects literature to move towards a prayer or a game may dictate how one feels about a writer whose work is far from unimpressive, often inventive and definitely clever. Coover's fiction is for those who we demand a lot from fiction but not too much.


© Tony McKibbin