Reviews — From the July 2014 issue

Strange Loop

Robert Coover returns to realism

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Robert Lowell Coover grew up in the I section of the national bookshelf: Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. His grandfather was a traveling Methodist preacher, his father a choir director. As an adolescent, Coover awoke to the existence of godlessness only when, one Sunday, a man sitting next to him in church refused to take communion. He asked the man why. The man responded: “Oh, I don’t believe any of this stuff. I just come here because I like to sing.”

Coover’s agnosticism slowly crystalized into atheism as he floated through one college and the next, trying his hand at zoology and psychology before finally graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Slavic studies. He enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, and was sent to Germany, where he worked in cryptography. His mission was to transcribe and decode Soviet radio messages. It was hopeless work: the codes were mechanically set and automatically shifted every day, making for months of Hellerian absurdity. Instead of transcribing the intercepted messages, bored officers would sometimes listen to country music and simply jot down letters at random.

In the library of his naval base in Bremerhaven, Coover discovered the four horsemen of postmodern fiction — Beckett, Borges, Cervantes, and Kafka — and resolved to become a writer. In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island on a lake in Canada. (He would later write a short story for this magazine, called “Beginnings,” that began: “In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself.” Tom Wolfe would cite that line as the epitome of all that was wrong with contemporary fiction.) Among Coover’s scant belongings were a Bible and a pile of Beckett, which he read from Genesis to Revelation, Murphy to Molloy. He chose his reading list carefully. Two distinct questions gnawed at him. The first was the paradox of biblical belief — its pervasiveness despite its apparent falsifiability. The second was how to write a new kind of fiction. To him, these problems were inextricable.

Though he was no longer a believer, Coover found the Bible’s mythic residue, as he would later come to call it, impervious to rational argument; it had wormed down too deep into the language and the culture. Drawing on the philosopher Karl Jaspers’s assertion that myth must be confronted on myth’s own ground, Coover began prying at Christian lore from within. In Beckett he had found a new voice, fractured and absurd, which he began using to rewrite biblical narratives. He wrote a story about the Flood told from the perspective of Noah’s brother, who is cruelly left behind as the waters rise.

I’m figurin maybe I got a day left if the rain keeps comin and it don’t show no signs of stoppin and I can’t see my brother’s boat no more gone just water how how did he know? that bastard . . .

He wrote another about a profoundly sexually frustrated Joseph, who dies in a tavern when a laugh curdles into “a fit of consumptive coughing.” In “Beginnings,” the protagonist begins (but presumably never finishes) a story about Lazarus

in which Jesus, having had the dead man dragged from the tomb and unwrapped, couldn’t seem to get the hang of bringing him around. There was an awful stink, the Jews crowding around were getting sick, and Jesus, sweating, was saying: Heh heh, bear with me, folks! Won’t be a minute! If I can just get it started, the rest’ll come easy!

The first of Coover’s stories to be published, however, was one he’d penned years earlier, as an undergraduate at Indiana University, called “Blackdamp.” It describes a coal-mining disaster as witnessed by a woman whose boorish husband is trapped inside. Coover sent the story off to Saul Bellow’s new literary magazine, The Noble Savage. It was published in the fourth issue. Encouraged, he sent the editors some of his more experimental stories. Bellow and his co-editors rejected them, finding them “sensationalist” and lacking in the “human content of art.” Other editors had a similar reaction; Coover was asked repeatedly whether he had another story like that one about the coal mine.

“So I began to invent one,” Coover later told an interviewer, “and that’s how The Origin of the Brunists was born.”

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lives in British Columbia and New York City. He is writing a book of essays about trails, due out next year from Simon & Schuster.

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