Two Bluebeards, Four Passages

September 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: A Child Again.

Well, I had grand plans to do a whole comparison of Coover’s Bluebeard retelling, “The Last One,” with Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”  It’s interesting how Coover chose to use the first-person perspective of Bluebeard himself, while the child bride narrates Carter’s early-twentieth-century update; and the treatment of Bluebeard’s twisted psychology in each is worth considering, and their varying depictions of sex and sexuality; and their endings differ in useful ways, pedagogically speaking; but I find it hard to compare anything to Angela Carter.  It’s not really Coover’s fault — just about any other retelling would seem facile by comparison.

So I’ll just say: read “The Bloody Chamber.”  And if you’re going to pick up A Child Again, here were my four favorite stories (besides “McDuff on the Mound,” discussed previously), with favorite passages from each:

-“Punch.”  Yes, narrated by Punch the puppet, going through his show.

It’s not that easy, you villain, says the hangman with a cruel laugh.  Prepare to meet your Maker.  I already know him, says I.  He’s a drunken wanker.  That’s enough now, Mister Punch, just put your head in here.  I’ve never done this before, says I.  I don’t know how.  Show me.  He does and I jerk the rope and hang him.  There’s nothing to it.  He’s dancing on air.  I whistle a little tune.  The mob loves me for it.  I’m a fucking hero.

-“Playing House.”  Which is creepily reminiscent of House of Leaves, and also its own very strange thing, about dark and light, story and reality.

Once there was a house, goes another story we have heard, called the House of Anxiety, in which the corridors all led onto other corridors, provoking ceaseless motion without respite, the rooms all trapped somehow between, if in fact there were any.  The story says there were, but how can a story know?  We suppose these rooms exist in a story where they do not exist simply because a house qua house is unimaginable without them.  We call it the Fallacy of A Priori Judgment.  Still naming things.

-“The Return of the Dark Children,” which I’ve mentioned before: a great story, a perfectly timely sequel to the Pied Piper tale.

And at home, in their rooms, when the children played with their dolls and soldiers and toy castles, the dark children with their mysterious ways now always played a part in their little dramas.  One could hear them talking to the dark children, the dark children speaking back in funny squeaky voices that quavered like a ghost’s.  Even if it was entirely invented, an imaginary world made out of scraps overheard from parents and teachers, it was the world they chose to live in now, rather than the one provided by their loving families, which was, their parents often felt, a kind of betrayal, lack of gratitude, lost trust.

-“Suburban Jigsaw,” a puzzle-story about serial fornication in the suburbs (if you’re going to write about this, might as well make a game of it).

Capricious.  Malicious.  Vicious.  Delicious.  Perverse.  Curse.  Verse.  Or worse.  Gross.  Eros.  Is that a rhyme?  Hmm.  A dose is.  Verbose.  No, she is not verbose.  She’s ribald.  He scribbled.  Improper.  A showstopper.  A whirly girly.  Illicit.  So, kiss it.  Don’t miss it.  Obscene Irene.  Lean and mean.  She’s offbeat.  Indiscreet.  Street meat in heat.  Rick is sitting all alone beside Lily’s pool like the period at the end of a sentence, tripping (ripping? flipping?) on her little pills and searching for the right words (it’s easy, they’re flying all about him) to describe the crazy creature from the corner bar for a lyric he is writing, probably not for the Sunday supplement.

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?

Paper Matters

August 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

I’m going to pick a nit today, because what good is having a blog if you can’t pick a nit now and then?

This is a McSweeney’s book, and as such a good deal of thought has been given to the book’s design: it’s a nice size, with cover art (no jacket, so hot right now, a trend started by McSweeney’s) that hearkens back to mid-century children’s literature.  There’s also a pocket on the back cover for a hypertext-y story on oversized playing cards.

So all I’m saying is, they put a lot of thought and effort into this book, as the folks there seem to do with most all of their productions.  As a matter of fact, I heard Eli Horowitz, publisher and managing editor for McSweeney’s, speak at a conference this summer, where he said in no uncertain terms that he feels that there has to be a reason to publish something in paper rather than online; that there has to be a reason to make a book of it.  The onus is now on the printed book, in other words, to justify its existence: by being beautiful, being cool, being interesting to look at and hold and read.

So what the hell’s up with the paper, here?  I am not a bibliographer; I am not a bibliophile of the kind that obsesses over the details of bookmaking materials (and yes, they are out there); I am not even all that picky, really, most of the time, when it comes to this sort of thing.  I read crappy paperbacks and books bound in library buckram all the time.  But the paper on which this book is printed is way too white.  Blindingly bright.  And there’s something about the feel of it, combined with the font (which seems to be the standard McS font, which I should know but do not — someone help me out here), which makes reading this book feel like reading a very nicely bound bundle of computer printouts.

Maybe it was just a mistake.  I don’t know.  Or maybe costs have to be cut somewhere when you’re paying for nice cover design and a pocket so Coover can have his crazy card-story.  Or — I wouldn’t put it by them — maybe McSweeney’s decided to include a wider variety of paper brightnesses and colors in their never-ending quest to invigorate American letters.  Whatever the case, it’s amazing how glaringly obvious an inappropriate book paper is.  A good paper, easy on the eyes, is one of those things you take for granted until it’s not there anymore.

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