Robert Coover


March 25-27, 2009

Robert Coover is the author of over twenty books, his most recent being Stepmother (McSweeney’s), A Child Again (McSweeney’s), and Noir (Overlook). He is a key figure in the development of the postmodern novel and a leading proponent of hypertext fiction and other forms of electronic writing. As the T.B. Stowell Adjunct Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University, Robert Coover is currently exploring the immersive virtual reality environments of "CaveWriting.” He is a founder of both the Electronic Literature Organization and Brown's Freedom to Write Program.


I want to thank you all for coming this evening for this very special event with renowned, cutting edge novelist, short story writer, critic, and playwright, Robert Coover. He is the author of over twenty books—many of them controversial, all of them thought provoking—such as The Public Burning, The Origin of the Brunists, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Director’s Cut, Pricksongs and Descants, and most recently, Stepmother and A Child Again. Described by the New York Times as, "one of America's quirkiest writers, if by 'quirky' we mean an unwillingness to abide by ordinary fictional rules,” Coover’s fiction often examines darkly laughable elements of the human experience, drawing upon fairy tales, the history of baseball, religious cults, and perhaps most famously, the presidency of Richard Nixon and the Rosenberg trials. He is a key figure in the development of the postmodern novel, a pioneer in the realm of hypertext fiction and more recently the virtual reality immersive environments known as CAVE writing, and his fiction—described (almost competitively by reviewers who try to match his complex word pranks themselves) as subversive, comic, grotesque, scabrous, lewd, legendary, explosive, revolutionary, cheeky, dark, and well, deadly serious and deadly funny—is absolutely core to understanding developments in the contemporary American novel.

This evening’s fiction reading could not have taken place without a grant from the Morris Visiting Artist Residency Program at the University of Buffalo which enabled us to invite Robert Coover to campus for an extended visit to speak on a range of several interconnected topics, giving them breadth and depth, and enlivening, at a rigorous level, many important literary and cultural questions that are with us at this moment: the relationship between electronic and print media—where writing has been, its origins and development—and where it’s going in the present (I’m speaking to those of you who may be texting or tweeting right now: is that writing? Something else?); but, most of all, what role fiction and fictional language may play in these new developing scenarios. I want to be sure we thank them for that significant opportunity and to the Albright Knox Gallery for hosting this collaborative event tonight.

Since the 1966 publication of The Origin of the Brunists (which won the William Faulkner Award for “Best First Novel”), Robert Coover has been a one man fictional tour-de-force, negotiating the elusive boundary between the real and the illusory with intrepid, unerring vision. He has played many roles in his many, varied books: author, ringmaster, wizard behind the curtain. Coover’s work relishes in mythmaking with none of the avuncular simplicity that tends to accompany washed up notions of the surreal that dominate the present moment. In his world, the imagination is perilous and heady, the origin of infinite creation, and therefore the source of all downfall; a place of fetish as much as fantasy. Yet Coover is not so much a master of illusion, as its willing servant, lavishing its many secret nooks with an elegant hand and a cheeky slap. He is a fabulist, an explorer of apocryphal history, creative anachronism, and historical fantasy. From Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Richard Nixon, Pinocchio to Briar Rose, he takes us into the dark areas of history and legend: we become eavesdroppers into our most private places (as it were), the moment secret history enters the public sphere, where myths and fable become real.

Often grouped with the Postmodern metafiction-eers, Coover’s writing shows us that metafiction is not simply a literary guise, but rather a mode of narrating our lives, of harrowing the ghosts among us. The voices in his fiction are at times rollicking and generous, other times bossy and God-like. They are always in flux, from an Uncle Sam in The Public Burning who plucks Nixon from the presidential election’s primary and bestows on him the presidency, to the lurid eye of the camera in The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.

Coover revels in ancient folk tales and sagas as much as contemporary art, marrying the myth of the past to pop art, of photorealism to experimental cinema. What may seem a pastiche of past styles built into each novel’s fabric is reconceived as the material of our lives cast through a narrative eye that is wholly aware that technology changes perspective. In Lucky Pierre, for instance, a nostalgic recasting of 20th century pornographic film culture ends when his porno star enters a virtual reality cave (not unlike like the one Coover employs in his own digital writing classes). There, the reader is confronted with what it means when old content, say prohibition-era pornography, is simulated in a virtual reality electronic simulator, and dramatized in a novel. In this sense, Coover writes what Mario Vargas Llosa calls the “total novel.” Anything can fall into such a fiction: taboos, anachronisms, superstitions, technology, pornography, and so on. In other words, history can be imaginary; creative writing, the source of a host of discoveries.

It’s all ransackable material. Perhaps it’s of no surprise, then, that so much of Robert Coover’s material takes place in the sack—demonstrating an evolution of thinking on American culture and its attitudes toward sex, from the Puritans to the prurient. J.G. Ballard once lamented that the “kineasthetic language” of the sex act is poor when compared to ballet, gymnastics or American football, and that this leaves us in the position of an unqualified observer viewing a brain surgery.

Coover’s writing over a trajectory of 30 odd years has elaborated this so-called kinaesthetic language, a language of playfulness, open-endedness, and reflection on sex as a driver for creativity. As Lucky Pierre reflects, for instance:

“In those days, he still taught words everyone knew, yet somehow didn’t know, deliciously new with each utterance. There weren’t many of them. And not actual uttering, of course, not back then. Gesture was everything, or almost everything. A maiden, looking up at him in troubled innocence and awakening desire, her lips kissing in a plosive and then parting so that her white teeth and the wet tip of her tongue showed…lips would form dentals, gutturals, labials, and sibilants, imitated perhaps on the electric organ, hands and eyes and mouths doing what no spoken language could ever displace, moving ineluctably toward the climactic fricatives.” No other novelist of the period has grappled in such devoted terms to movements in art, technology and media, considered in such depth the range of emotions and desires which constrain and express our notions of sexuality, and represented these in such compelling works of fiction.

Edmund White has called Robert Coover, “ a one-man Big Bang of exploding creative force”; Ben Marcus, “a brilliant mythmaker, a potty-mouthed Svengali, and an evil technician of metaphors”; and Michiko Kakutani, “the funniest and most malicious,” of American postmodern writers, “mixing up broad social and political satire with vaudeville turns, lewd pratfalls and clever word plays that make us rethink both the mechanics of the world and our relationship to it."

Please welcome Robert Coover.

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