Pricksongs and Descants

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Robert Coover

The final story in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, ‘The Hat Act’, is structured around a magic trick:

“A man enters, dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk hat. Doffs hat in wide sweep to audience, bows elegantly.


As the story progresses, the man proceeds to pull various objects from the hat. He begins, of course, with a rabbit, then a series of hats, then a series of rabbits from the hats. Having exhausted this trick to diminishing returns (“Light applause”), he then transfers himself from one hat to another, his legs disappearing into one hat as his head reappears from another. Now the ordinary paraphernalia of magicians won’t do (rabbits, doves) – he tosses them into the wings and produces instead a glamorous assistant (“tight green halter, little green shorts, black net stockings”). The hat becomes stuck to his head. He requests two volunteers from the audience to remove it: one man grasps the hat, the other the magician’s legs:

“Magician’s neck stretches, snaps in two: POP! Large men tumble apart, rolling to opposite sides of the stage, one with body, other with hat containing magician’s severed head.”

The performance has only begun, but already we have learned a lot about the ways in which Coover works in this famous volume of short stories. The comparison with a magic trick is telling: the author is a magician anxious to surprise and shock his audience. Audience reaction plays a large part in this story with the narrative written as stage directions and the audience reaction following. Like the magician, Coover often begins with what we recognise, frequently fairy tales in this volume, and then takes us on surprising and unexpected detours. These detours often involve sex (the glamorous assistant) and sudden violence (the severed head).

‘The Gingerbread House’, for example, begins in the traditional manner, but quickly becomes a story of sexual awakening symbolised by a dove, lured by the bread crumbs, which the boy and girl fight over:

“Both children are weeping, the boy of anger and frustration, the girl of pain and pity and a bruised heart.”

She hides the dove beneath her skirt, “nestled in her small round thighs.” Later, the witch seduces the boy with the “burnished cherry-red heart of a dove”; the door to her cottage is also heart shaped, “shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, and pulsing softly, radiantly.” This symbolism may seem heavy handed when excised from the story, but, like many of the stories, ‘The Gingerbread House’ is written in short numbered sections, like a story board from a film, flitting from scene to scene without any linking narrative.

This style is used most effectively in ‘The Babysitter’, where sexual desire is also to the forefront. Here, a teenage babysitter is the focus of attention from her boyfriend, Jack, his friend, Mark, the young boy she is babysitting, and the boy’s father, Harry. Beginning with a scenario familiar from pornography (and horror films), Coover creates a maelstrom of lust where short scenes reveal various possibilities. In some she convinces Jack not to come round; in others Jack and Mark rape her. How much of it is male fantasy, how much is actually ‘happening’? The style makes the (male) reader complicit as the sexual elements of the narrative are the more dramatic and therefore the more appealing.

Coover is interested in his (male) characters becoming “drugged by the fantasy of the moment.” While this is largely sexual, we also see it in revenge story ‘The Elevator’. The preponderance of young girls and older men may now seem not so much shocking as dated, but Coover captures the way in which men can be slaves to passion, his sympathies seemingly lying with the difficulty of resisting desire. For example, in his Tempest re-write ‘The Magic Poker’ there is only Caliban:

“It is one thing to discover the shag of hair between my buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the tight gold pants off Karen’s sister. Or perhaps it is the same thing, yet troubling in either case.”

In ‘Morris in Chains’ our sympathies lie with the captured Pan, Morris. Whatever his subject, however, what is undeniable is that Coover is an original writer who deserves to be read.

Danger rating: quick cutting style and belief that characters are driven by their more basic impulses may not be to everyone’s taste, but the recent re-release of three of his books as Penguin Classics provides a great opportunity to get to know this writer better.


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2 Responses to “Pricksongs and Descants”

  1. Noir « 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] reading Pricksongs and Descants last year, I made an immediate decision to acquaint myself more thoroughly with Robert Coover’s […]

  2. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Inc., J. Waugh, Prop. Coover, at least, is a writer I have previously enjoyed in the form of Pricksongs & Descants and Noir; on the other hand, my knowledge of baseball is entirely limited to the Dan Bern album […]

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