Archive for the ‘Robert Coover’ Category

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.

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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.