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What Pretentious White Men Are Good For

GERALD'S PARTY
By Robert Coover
Linden Press/Simon & Schuster

In certain influential circles, Robert Coover is put forth as something like a great novelist, a master of the "metafiction" also practiced by John Barth, William Gass, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, and the list could go on. Now getting on into late middle age, these writers share another demographic, a striking one in view of their challenge to the cultural authority of slightly older Jewish novelists like Bellow and Mailer and the venerable southern grouping dominated by Faulkner: all are Wasps from the Northeast and Midwest. While this isn't enough in itself to put off many potential readers, it doesn't look good--unless you've bought pretty heavily into the academic avant-garde, it's hard to resist seeing these guys as mere mandarins. This is true even if, like me, you think most of them have done remarkable and sometimes engaging work--work that would be better served by less grandiose claims. In the end it's fairer to think of them not as standard-bearers of the fiction-making process, but as representatives of a significant subculture with a unique perspective on the world today. If we can speak of black fiction and women's fiction, surely we can speak of fiction by pretentious white American men.

"Pretentious" may seem unnecessarily snotty, especially with Bellow and Mailer huffing and puffing in the vicinity. All I can say is that I intend no pejorative; it's just that "ambitious" and "imposing" and "erudite," accurate though each is in its way, don't cut the mustard. Metafiction is narrative that means to destroy narrative's comforting delusions--its sequential logic, its omnipotent creator, its human beings made of words, its beginning and its middle and its end. It proposes to situate itself on the leading edge of avant-garde technique and then "speak eloquently to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done" (Barth on Borges), to dissolve "that simple legendary world we'd like to live in, so that new values may be voiced" (Gass on Coover), to "unravel or discover or understand the basic underlying assumptions about the world" (Coover on Coover). A writer who sets himself such nearly impossible tasks is pretentious by definition unless he should happen to bring them off, and I don't mean in theory. But we can still value the way his pretensions help him speak to us, the pressure they put on our values and assumptions, or at least our aesthetic.

In theory, Coover stretches us every time out, nowhere more thoroughly than in Gerald's Party, the fourth novel of a prolific and varied two-decade career. Coover says his latest book "contains almost all the elements of my previous novels," which is the kind of thing you might expect him to claim for his first full-length work since 1977 and is true nevertheless. Ostensibly an Americanized English murder mystery complete with shrewd sleuth and houseful of suspects, Gerald's Party reveals its recondite purposes almost as quickly as one of Coover's short "fictions," the controlled environments where he conducts his frankest experiments. Thus it's like all his novels, only more so. All of them tell a synopsizable story that parodies/subverts/exploits the folk/popular with explicit mythic/metaphoric intent; all descend from relatively calm and solid narrative into a whirlpool of violently orgiastic incident. But over the years each of these usages has shown the taste for its own tail that is to be expected from any artist with Coover's highly conscious interest in form as form. Plot--not to mention character--atrophies; folk/popular content transmutes into form; myth and metaphor parade around with their clothes off; calm seems less prelude than illusion, sex-and-violence not metaphor but the ground of all being.

In The Origin of the Brunists (1966), a superbly rendered realistic novel about a millenarian sect which draws heavily on Coover's knowledge of mining towns and newspaper work, the sex and violence are plausible outcomes of a plausible situation. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) is almost as conventional in narrative technique, only most of the action takes place in Waugh's (Jahweh's, get it?) baseball league, which by the novel's sixth or seventh inning has generated a phantasmagoric social microcosm tied by no mathematical logic to the hits-runs-and-errors of Waugh's dice, a microcosm that eventually subsumes Waugh's (and the novel's) life. The Public Burning (1977) is half-crazed from the outset, interrupting chief narrator Richard Nixon's indistinguishable facts, factoids, and fictions in re the Rosenberg case with the hornswoggling palaver and braggadocio of Uncle Sam, a mythic figure everyone can see, who ends up cornholing Nixon in the aftermath of a three-ring execution where great Americans from Karl Mundt to Marilyn Monroe take down their pants. And in Gerald's Party, the whodunit quickly disappears beneath a bacchanal of snatched conversation, theatrical ritual, and of course sex-and-violence. When it's finally "solved"--almost by the by, mostly to prick our underlying assumptions--it's impossible and probably inappropriate to care who murdered the first of the novel's numerous decedents, a nymph whose loss the male reader, at least, is inclined to mourn.

It isn't very metafictional of Coover to make Ros so lovable (for Ros is the name of this gorgeous blond actress who fucks so brilliantly, so all-embracingly). In fact, identifying with characters as if they were human beings is so frowned upon in this artistic microcosm that not just Ros but the novel's other sympathetic figures--host-cocksman-narrator Gerald, the nearest Coover's come to an autobiographical protagonist since Miller the newspaperman in The Origin of the Brunists; Gerald's flame, Alison, a paradigm of intelligent lust; painter Tania and author Vic, who philosophize with some cogency before the novel kills them--may well represent a misstep on Coover's aestheticist path. Of course, by choosing the metaphor of an arty party he's inviting identification from his arty readers, and as his partisans will no doubt huff, he's probably just testing us. Ros is a porn fantasy, Alison and Tania and Vic get theirs, and in due time the book undermines not only Gerald's credibility but the self-probing self-satisfaction that makes him sympathetic. We like Tania's or Vic's ideas, an affection artificially enhanced by the skill of Coover's dramatization, and then make the mistake of extending this affection into some illusory "personal" realm, where it's doomed to drown in the bathtub or get shot through the heart. Gerald's parties deliquesce inevitably into disaster, and his love for the ladies isn't so supreme that he can muster the wherewithal to protect Alison, who winds up getting gang-raped in the basement, or his loyal, hard-working, nameless wife, who a few hours after the cops have searched her rectum joins Gerald for a great lay and then pads off to sleep, leaving our protagonist in utter existential solitude as Ros yanks ferociously at his balls (don't worry--it's only a dream, or a rehearsal, or an image, or a mistake, or The End).

For all the telegraphic description and dependent clauses of this synopsis, it doesn't begin to suggest the novel's hectic mood. It's impossible to keep the thing straight, which is what Coover wants. There are too many characters, some of whom go the way of all flesh by hearsay only, not even bothering to show their corpses. Ros's entire acting troupe commandeer house and guests in improvised obsequies. Though the novel is mostly dialogue, no conversation proceeds uninterrupted for even a page, and Coover enjoys sticking random remarks from passing onlookers into the middle of crucial (and not so crucial) utterances and ruminations. Yet at the same time, Gerald's Party (like all of his novels) moves, something no one can claim for Hawkes's Second Skin or, God knows, Gass's Omensetter's Luck. And while Coover's transcriptions of speech aren't totally free of annoying condescension, his fascination with American idiom adds a richness of texture you won't find in Barth or Barthelme or Hawkes, who for their various reasons are all more British in diction and/or rhythm than has been common in our literature. There really is something Rabelaisian in Coover's sense of humor, and his raunch is juicy enough to alarm reviewers. So we're hit with a potent combination--a formal scheme that makes a proper metafictional mockery of teleological narratives yet doesn't disdain all the amenities we associate with them.

In theory, this is swell, but in fact, Gerald's Party is the least of Coover's novels. I suppose I prefer it personally to his most popular book, The Universal Baseball Association. ("Not to read it because you don't like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don't like boarding houses," wrote Wilfrid Sheed. Unfortunately, to read it because you do like baseball is like reading Finnegans Wake because you like funerals--or Gerald's Party because you like parties.) But the formal intensifications of Coover's latest effort sell him short. The master of rhetoric who brings forth the dazzling fictions of Pricksongs & Descants and fleshes out The Public Burning hardly pokes through the tangle of dialogue here, and the crafter of flawless descriptive prose is choked altogether. Though Coover's political ideas are marred by an elitist's japes and an exile's exaggerations, I miss the political impulses that inform much of what he's published in the last decade. And though it's unreasonable to expect stone genius of any writer, I admit that I was hoping for something on the order of The Public Burning's Nixon, a mind-boggling creation not least because his namesake's status as a historical personage confounds the kind of character-identification metafiction warns us to mistrust.

In theory, Gerald's Party is the poppest of all Coover novels; in fact--and probably as a direct consequence, given the distaste of pretentious white American men for full-fledged pop--it's the most rarefied. Though you have to hand it to Coover for continuing to produce novels in the face of the metafictional void, something only Hawkes has managed readily, Gerald's Party would seem to betray a certain groping around for material. Despite his fondness for the American idiom, Coover has spent large parts of his adult life in England and Spain, returning for the teaching jobs that now seem to have made him a permanent resident again, and his novels have manifested an accumulating distance--first a good philosophical yarn rooted in personal observation, then a more fantastic book reflecting his baseball-fan boyhood, then a researched historical novel, and finally an arty party, one thing fringe academics generally know plenty about. Considering what he's given himself to work with, it's small surprise that the non-ostensible subject of Gerald's Party turns out to be about as innovative as the wild party itself. If I'm not mistaken, it's Coover's hope to unravel or discover or understand our basic underlying assumptions about--oh dear--Time.

Maybe I'm too young to fully appreciate such things, but I've always felt that novels about Time succeed (Proust) or fail (Ada) irrespective of their metaphysical revelations. No matter what's contraindicated by subatomic physics or mystico-philosophical introspection, the vents of which almost all these novels still (ostensibly) consist take place in something like a sequential, diachronic dimension, a dimension that's physically human (mammalian, say) in scale, and the novelist is hard-pressed to dislodge them without resorting to the kind of sci-fi devices that are beneath pretentious white American men. This isn't to dismiss such excellent Time-related themes as the intransigence of death, the persistence of regret, the inadequacy of memory, the unfathomability of causation, all of which Gerald's Party does its erudite yet idiomatic bit with (while keeping its distance from their corn quotient, of course). I'll go along with Vic, for instance, when he argues that "rigidified memory, attachment of the past" is the only crime (only I wouldn't say only), and I know why Tania insists that "art's great task is to reconcile us to the true human time of the eternal present, which the child in us knows to be the real one!" But I'm afraid Tania is getting a little too close to Inspector Pardew, who posits a world in which space is fluid and time fixed and eventually concludes that Ros was done in by a satyrical dwarf who makes his entrance well after the guests notice her body on the floor. Even worse, I'm afraid Coover is setting Pardew up to do the hard part for him--to jar events into a properly metafictional dimension, to deprive us of the teleological comfort that no reader interested enough to get to the end of this book is likely to feel much need for. Maybe Pardew is just venting his anti-satyr prejudice, or maybe he knows something about the dwarf's movements that omnipotent Gerald doesn't bother to mention. Maybe he's fitting facts to theory, or maybe he's creating truth with it. It's hard to know what Coover thinks. And impossible, or inappropriate, to care.

One reason it's inappropriate is the games Coover plays with authorial authority, but nowhere is it harder to take him at his word--there's just too much self-congratulation built into metafictional practice. Consider Gerald's genius in bed. As in Hawkes's The Blood Oranges, a clearer and more disturbing book in which the narrator-protagonist is cooler about but no less possessed by his sexual prowess, it's a peachy metaphor for authorial omnipotence and--in Coover's case, not Hawkes's--its discontents. But either way it has the convenient side effect of making the author (as opposed to the narrator) look like an ass man. After all, mandarins generally think quite a lot of themselves. Just as in Beckett (a key influence on Coover, who went on to Joyce through him) the act of writing stands as a not-so-mute corrective to the nearly absolute pessimism of its (ostensible) message, so in Coover the act of showing off counteracts any pretensions to self-critical humility--which may be yet another conscious contradiction for us to chew over, and so what? It isn't Coover's doubts about his work that should impress us--we're capable of generating those all by ourselves, thank you. It's the broader humility that underlies his sizable gifts.

Coover is one of those select contemporary writers who is genuinely awestruck by the pervasive power of the tools of his trade, an honorary citizen of structuralism's vast domain. As a pretentious white American man, he has no built-in beef with American society that Richard Hofstadter didn't long ago win a Pulitzer for complaining about, and thus he's free to peer at it from outside and above, like an astronaut photographing the whole earth; he's a formalist at least partly because he was given the chance to be. Though like most formalists he's strongest when he struggles willy-nilly against formalism's confines, if you strip his ideas down you'll find a good many middlebrow commonplaces--his carefully ironized male chauvinism, his political despair, his black humor itself. So it's his focus on form, and on words themselves, that we read him for--less the way he breaks apart the comforting rigidities of conventional storytelling than the way he builds up the sharp, diverting pleasures of the other kind. Still, there's an attractive intellectual strand there, a skeptic's fascination with simple faith that's heartier and more democratic than anything comparable you can pick out in his colleagues, sort of a cosmic counterpart to his abiding passion for the words he instructs us not to believe in. If you happen not to be a convinced formalist yourself, you could even say his work has content. And maybe one way of explaining what went wrong with Gerald's Party is that his skepticism overcame his fascination and made the book brittle.

Or put it another way. I wouldn't say the best of Coover's work achieves any eternal present--that dream of synchrony is an old one among art-for-art's-sakers, obsessed as they understandably are with focusing their frustrated religious yearnings, and as Coover makes clear, it's impossible--but maybe it offers a dirty glimpse of it. And maybe in Gerald's Party Coover wants to make sure we concentrate on the window.

Voice Literary Supplement, Apr. 1986