Casey Back at the Bat

August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

Reading next: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Don’t we all find the postmodern retelling of the classic tale a little played out by now?  Aren’t we more or less sick of old stories from new perspectives (as my wife Jaime says, books following the The [insert traditionally male occupation]’s Wife/Maid/Daughter template have truly reached the saturation/nauseatingly trite level), contemporary retellings of “timeless” legends, extensions and expansions of bare-bones myths and folktales?  Or is it just me?  Is this, in fact, Barth’s “literature of exhaustion,” or is it me that’s exhausted?

Actually, though, to be honest, I’m more often exhausted by the idea than I am by the stories themselves.  I like this stuff — I like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gardner, all those scavenger-sorcerers digesting and regurgitating literary history.  (Did I just admit to liking literary vomit?  I guess I did.)  Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber might be my favorite example, but there are many, many others.

Coover has seemed exhausted a few times so far in this collection — especially the first story, “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee,” a little metafiction about Puff the Magic Dragon, which dragged on and on.  But other times he’s been in fine form; enough that I’ll probably have to do a little top-5 recap to cover all the stories I really liked here once I’m done.  I’m surprised that I bought this a few years back, and a little surprised I still wanted to read it: it contains a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, for chrissakes, which I really felt no need to read another version of after reading Angela Carter.  Also a ribald version of Snow White.  I have never said to myself, “Someone needs to write a ribald retelling of Snow White.”

And yet I’m still reading.  The story that kept me reading was “Playing House,” mysterious and wonderful and sinister.  The story that showed me something I didn’t know (or remember) about Coover was “The Return of the Dark Children,” which is a straight-up awesome horror story that happens to also build on the Pied Piper tale.  (This story could easily be a J-Horror blockbuster at a cineplex near you.)  And the story that crystallized for me why I’m still reading is “McDuff on the Mound,” which is “Casey at the Bat” from the pitcher’s point of view.

I value a story like this because it exists to make you think about why it was written, and why you are reading it.  It’s a kind of literary riddle, or postmodern thriller (which there is an actual riddle-story in this collection, too): the suspense builds from all the wrong angles, as you try to guess why it was written, and what the author will do with it.  Instead of absorbing you in the details of the plot, it absorbs you in the mind of the author, and in your own ideas about what literature is for, and why you value it.

In “McDuff on the Mound,” you get strangely sucked into the buildup of Mudville’s bottom of the ninth; McDuff, utterly fatalistic, feels wrapped up in a system beyond his control as two horrible hitters make it on base.  He feels the inevitability of having to face mighty Casey.  Astonishingly, even though you know exactly how the story has ended, you realize that you do not know that that is how Coover will choose to end it here; every retelling is an opportunity to rewrite, to find the recessive genes that were hidden within the DNA of the story.  (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most incredible thing about Inglourious Basterds, which I just saw last week.  Do you anticipate the audacity of rewriting history — of showing a revision of the world, in all its gory detail?  I found myself flabbergasted at the scene in the theater — still do, actually.)

Or not; it may be that the story exists to more fully map the story’s DNA, but not to change its ultimate expression.  And this is the true subject of these retellings: you and the author, thinking about why stories work the way they do, and what you want out of them.

Me, I suspect Coover began this story with (or perhaps wrote this story as an excuse to include) this kick-ass exegesis of the name Casey; certainly the slapstick passages earlier in the story feel like padding compared to the energy and enthusiasm in this paragraph:

And Casey: who was Casey?  A Hero, to be sure.  A Giant.  A figure of grace and power, yes, but wasn’t he more than that?  He was tall and mighty (omnipotent, some claimed, though perhaps, like all fans, they’d got a bit carried away), with a great mustache and a merry knowing twinkle in his eye.  Was he, as had been suggested, the One True Thing?  McDuff shook to watch him.  He was ageless, older than Mudville certainly, though Mudville claimed him as their own.  Some believed that “Casey” was a transliteration of the initials “K.C.” and stood for King Christ.  Others, of a similar but simpler school, opted for King Corn, while another group believed it to be a barbarism for Krishna.  Some, rightly observing that “case” meant “event,” pursued this meaning back to its primitive root, “to fall,” and thus saw in Casey (for a case was also a container) the whole history and condition of man, a history perhaps as yet incomplete.  On the other hand, a case was also an oddity, was it not, and a medical patient, and maybe, said some, mighty Casey was the sickest of them all.  Yet a case was an example, cried others, plight, the actual state of things, while a good many thought all such mystification was so much crap, and Casey was simply a good ballplayer….

So what do you think, with that setup in mind?  Knowing what you know (or don’t know) about Robert Coover, what’s he do with this story?  What do you want him to do?

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