Archive for the ‘Robert Coover’ Category

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

October 31, 2017

1968 also saw the publication of Robert Coover’s second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, 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 Doubleheader, and I’ve yet to even discover what a doubleheader is. Luckily Coover’s astonishing imagination and dynamic language were enough to carry me through, though I suspect a love of the game makes the novel an even more attractive prospect.

J. Henry Waugh is an accountant who, disenchanted with his job and perhaps his lonely life in general, has created a fantasy baseball league which he regards as his true work:

“It was true: the work, or what he called his work, though it was more than that, much more, was good for him. Thing was, nobody realised he was just four years shy of sixty. They were always shocked when he told them. It was his Association that kept him young.”

The game is played with dice, but it is more than a dice game, having a cast of characters which Waugh has created and lived with over many seasons. They don’t simply play ball – they walk, talk and feel like living individuals (Waugh has even developed two rival political parties). Indeed you might say the game is rather like a novel, as Coover proceeds to demonstrate by moving seamlessly between the two narratives: a conversation in which Waugh orders a sandwich takes place among the conversations in the stands as the game proceeds.

Presently he is relishing the excitement of a rookie player, Damon Rutherford, who is having an outstanding game:

“Henry was convinced it was Damon’s day… He laughed, almost carelessly… pitched the dice, watched Damon Rutherford mow them down. One! Two! Three! And then nonchalantly, but not arrogantly, just casually, part of any working day, walk back to the dugout. As though nothing were happening.”

Rutherford has a perfect game (though I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what that meant) and Waugh celebrates by heading to his local bar (Waugh jokingly calls the barman ‘Jake’ as he once did accidentally, mistaking him for one of his baseball players). Waugh celebrates with wine (well, beer), women (well, bar regular Hettie) and song – because his ‘game’ also contains a number of amusing songs, demonstrating that Coover’s facility with language extends to rhyme. During his amorous encounter with Hettie he insists that she call him Damon, and Coover takes great delight in describing their passion using the language of baseball:

“And…Damon Rutherford whipped off the uniform of the first lady ballplayer in Association history, and then, helping and hindering all at once, pushing and pulling, they ran the bases, pounded into first, slid into second heels high, somersaulted over third, shot home standing up, then into the box once more, swing away, and run them all again, and ‘Damon!’ she cried and ‘Damon!’”

Waugh can’t resist playing Rutherford in the next game, where he quickly nears the world record for perfect innings. Two throws of 1-1-1, however, lead him to the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart where, among the possibilities, he reads:

“Batter struck fatally by bean ball”

(A bean ball is a ball deliberately pitched to hit a batter). This eventuality would require an unlikely third throw of 1-1-1, but Rutherford is the next batter. Unfortunately he cannot find a plausible excuse to replace him, and so real is the game to him, he cannot simply do it on a whim. Of course, he throws 1-1-1:

“No one moved. All stared at the home plate. Damon lay there, on his back, gazing up at a sun he could no longer see.”

Waugh responds to Rutherford’s death as you might to the death of a loved one – in fact, his one friend at work, Lou, assumes it is someone close to him. Soon both his real life, and the Association itself, is threatened by his grief.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a novel ahead of its time in its examination of the lure of virtual reality. Waugh’s ‘in-head’ life (or online life as it would be now) comes to dominate his every waking hour making holding down either a job or a relationship problematic. Recreating that imaginary existence very much as the novel we are reading is created makes the reader complicit in Waugh’s escapism, and ultimately the novel showcases the power of the imagination to triumph over reality, for good or bad. All of this is relayed with the usual verve and humour we expect from Coover, demonstrating that a novel can also triumph over its reader’s sporting ignorance.

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Noir

January 20, 2012

After reading Pricksongs and Descants last year, I made an immediate decision to acquaint myself more thoroughly with Robert Coover’s work, a resolution I was quick to keep in the new year with the purchase of his most recent novel, Noir. As the title suggests, Noir is Coover’s playful pastiche of the hard-boiled detective genre. (Coover has spoken about “the linguistic and structural fun it offers”). Written in the second person, it casts the reader as Philip M Noir, a private investigator hired by a beautiful but mysterious woman (of course) to track down her husband’s killer (if indeed he was killed).

As you might expect from a writer who has spent years experimenting with language, the novel is pitch perfect in echoing the language of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with Coover also keen to remind us of his fascination with story-telling itself. The opening scene is set in a morgue, one of a number of locations lifted from a by-the-numbers police procedural, where the body of Noir’s client (the widow) has gone missing. Of the ‘stiffs’ he says:

“Their stories have not ended, only their own readings of them.”

This disconnect between stories and the ability to read them (that is, to follow them, to know what’s true and what isn’t, or understand how they connect) is central to the novel, as it is to any mystery:

“She reached under her black veil…and dabbed at her eyes with a white lace handkerchief. Until she did that, you believed her story because you had no reason not to. Now, it seemed as full of holes as her black veil.”

To add to this sense of disorientation (which is, of course, emphasised by the use of the second person), the story is not told in chronological order, with the murdered widow whose body Noir is hunting appearing more than once in his office.

As well as the beautiful damsel in distress, Coover offers us his version of as number of stock noir characters: the police chief, Captain Blue, who naturally dislikes Noir intensely, the night club singer, Flame, the corrupt cop, Snark, the mad homeless woman, Mad Meg, and various criminals with monikers such as Rats, Fingers, the Hammer and Mr Big. Noir also has his dependable but largely taken for granted secretary, Blanche. One of the most amusing recurring scenes in the novel is when Noir turns up at his office after a sustained beating (in an alley, down at the docks…) and Blanche has to remove and wash his clothes. All she can offer him to hide his embarrassment is her underwear:

“…a pair of pink silk panties with little flowers stitched on them. The glossy silk felt good but they were a tight fit and some of your unmentionables hung out…
If anyone asks, I’ll say I’m airing out my haemorrhoids.”

That he also manages to get a tattoo on his rear and bleached pubic hair in the course of the story all adds to the fun (and provides a way of sorting out the chronology).

And just when you think the humour and nudge-nudge wink-wink approach to genre is wearing a little thin, Coover provides an elegant solution (which I will not reveal here):

“It’s funny. While you’re working on a case every outcome seems possible. When it’s over, it’s like nothing could have happened otherwise.”

It is certainly true of Coover’s work that “every outcome seems possible”: that is exactly what makes him such a vibrant and fascinating writer.

Pricksongs and Descants

August 12, 2011

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.

Applause.”

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.