Monday, June 27, 2011

Coover deconstructed

  • Hari Kunzru interviews Robert Coover in The Guardian.
But it was Pricksongs & Descants, Coover's 1969 short story collection, that cemented his reputation, standing today as one of the landmarks of postwar American fiction.

The title is a metaphor for a method that Coover has elaborated throughout his career. In manuscripts of medieval European music, the notes were physically "pricked" or marked with holes or dots. The melody (the cantus firmus) could be ornamented or counterpointed with an extemporised part, known as the descant. It's common enough for musical terms to be used to describe narrative (theme, leitmotif and so on) but Coover's usage is more precise. The collection contains his most anthologised story, "The Babysitter", which is told in a hundred or so paragraphs, each separated from its neighbours by white space. The cantus firmus is conventional. The babysitter arrives to look after two children. The parents go out. She spends the evening in their house. The parents come home. Coover's innovation is to produce descant-like variations on the possibilities of this scenario, possibilities that open up a grand guignol underworld of sex and violence beneath this suburban surface. The father fantasises about the girl. The girl's boyfriend and his buddy plan to come over and rape her. She plays with the little boy's penis as she gives him a bath. These events are not definitive. Contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously. The girl is raped and unraped. The father acts and does not act on his lascivious fantasies. The reader is expected to hold the story open, thereby exposing the mechanics of narrative for inspection. The effect is like the quantum-theoretical notion of "superposition", in which an unobserved particle exists in both of two possible states, before "collapsing" on to one or other possibility. The story ends with the mother exclaiming from the kitchen "Why, how nice! . . . The dishes are all done!" but also being told "your children are murdered, your husband gone, [there's] a corpse in your bathtub, and your house is wrecked".

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