An Interview with Robert Coover

Ever nipping at the margins of taste, Robert Coover’s work is a carnival of carnal extremes, saucy surrealism, and devilish narrative delight. In the introduction to the 2011 reprint of Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Kate Atkinson writes: “Coover, the author, inhabits a disturbingly capricious world dominated by sex and violence, predicated on grotesque and bleak absurdism, but it is also an inherently ludic place….” Carrying this further, it might even be said that Coover locates the bizarre mirth found only in absurdity and taps into it like a cartoon mosquito drawing blood from the pages of a girlie magazine.

But, then again, that might be putting it rather politely.

Robert Coover is the author of over twenty highly acclaimed works of fiction including novels, plays, and short story collections, his most recent being A Child Again (2005) and Noir (2010). Along with a catalogue of publications, periodicals, and productions spanning almost 50 years, Coover has been awarded an astounding array of prestigious literary awards including the William Faulkner Award, the Rea Lifetime Achievement Award, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, as well as Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Lannan Foundation, and DAAD fellowships. He is currently engaged in writing a follow-up to his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, and is actively involved in the literary arts program at Brown University where he teaches “Cave Writing,” a creative writing workshop combining experimental narrative and immersive virtual reality.

Michael Heitkemper-Yates: There’s this tension between sexuality and violence…

Robert Coover: There is indeed! (Laughs.) Everywhere!

MHY: …and it seems to be a great comedic source for much of your writing. Yet, at the same time, you manage to keep your stories from becoming too politically sexualized. How do your own views on sex inform your writing?

RC: A writer’s engagement with the world, with things as they are, has to take into account all aspects of human behaviour, which include sex and violence, topics that were once avoided as inappropriate to public discourse, but in our more indecorous times are not. Though the language itself has not changed much over the recent centuries, it has moved from private to public usage. This public language becomes part of our normal contemporary existence and is necessarily reflected in our stories.

MHY: So you’ve never felt like you’ve had to pull any punches because sexuality is already so public?

RC: No, pulling punches is a way of dodging reality. I learned this, if I needed teaching, from such writers as Burroughs and Miller and Lawrence, and others who had been censored and kept under wraps. Joyce, not least of all. On my first trip to Paris I bought several of those little green-clad Olympia books that you couldn’t get in the States, curious to know what was so outrageous about them that whole countries said you couldn’t read them. Mostly had to do with outmoded language taboos and Judaeo-Christian guilt-ridden anxieties about sexuality as embodied in its creation myths. The sort of thing still stifling primitive fundamentalist regimes around the world. If I’d had any resistance to the idea of combating censorship, it disappeared instantly when I read those works.

MHY: As sexual and cultural taboos are defused and language becomes more public, does parody become more difficult to electrify and/or sustain?

RC: Everything is parody in a sense. We’ve got one story and we tell it over and over. So we unavoidably parody even as we try not to parody. But I never think of what I do as parody, at least not in any programmatic or satirical sense. I tend to start with a metaphor and this metaphor contains a parcel of imagery that needs to be unpacked. Sometimes something like a pre-existent form seems to open up as a kind of container for it, bringing with it other elements with which to play. Rather than consciously parodying another form, one discovers oneself embraced by it. And trying not to be engulfed.

MHY: You worked as part of a naval intelligence unit in Europe after University. What was that like?

RC: We were attempting to decode Soviet radio messages. Everything was mechanically coded in those days on both sides, with the code changing randomly every day, so, short of stealing the coding apparatus, there was no way to break it. Out of boredom, the sailors recording the broadcasts would often listen to music instead, while still writing strings of letters down as though that was what they were hearing, adding to the absurdity of the exercise. The one thing we could do was read the patterns in messages, allowing one to guess then at their general nature. Aircraft were sent into enemy territory, for example, triggering the scrambling of jets on the other side, and we could follow the short urgent broadcasts that followed. And also locate them geographically. Monitoring traffic rather than breaking code. All of minimal practical value, and at a cost of millions, of course.

MHY: That experience must have given you a new perspective on the world.

RC: Well, Europe did. Being from a lower middleclass Midwestern family, I really hadn’t had a chance to see much of the world. Now I was suddenly abroad with time on my hands. In my free time, I travelled around Europe as much as I could, and while on duty explored thoroughly the base library. I thought of myself as a writer, as I had most of my life, but I was still looking for a focus beyond the world of commercial conventions, and the reading proved a helpful guide. I read a lot of the classics I’d missed in my scattershot university life, did some serious sustained reading in philosophy, revisited the Russian masters I’d encountered as an undergrad, discovered the likes of Kafka and Joyce. Eventually I was assigned to the Admiral’s staff in the Mediterranean for ten months, where I had a senior officer whose family was with him in our home port on the Riviera. He told me that if I could take the duty there, he’d let me off at all the other ports, having no interest in other cultures. So, every port we hit, I was off the ship as soon as we were docked and back on just as they clanged the bell.

MHY: The whole time that you were engaged in that intensive reading, were you also producing any writing?

RC: Sure, but it wasn’t anything you’d want to hear about. I was mostly just trying my hand at different prose forms, doing character studies, etc. But, once out of uniform and on my way to grad school at Chicago, I retreated first to a primitive little cabin just over the Minnesota border in Canada. I’d discovered Samuel Beckett in the meantime, and I took all of his writing that was available at the time and the Bible, reading them both cover to cover. Also some philosophers and absurdist playwrights. A rich transformative period that confirmed for me my vocation as a writer.

MHY: Did this episode in the woods with Beckett and the Bible have any influence on the writing of your first novel, The Origin of the Brunists?

RC: No doubt, though so too did my preacher grandfather, my conventional Protestant upbringing, my Midwestern childhood, my teenage newspaper work. But I had no intention at the time to write such a novel, being already deep into my more adventurous Pricksongs & Descants mode. The history of the form was what fascinated me. At Chicago, I encountered a classics and philosophy professor who ran a yearlong series of courses he called “Ideas and Methods,” and he proved the ideal mentor for me. He had reduced all human discourse to a workable matrix, based primarily on the Greeks, and the fundamental questions that differentiated them. Chicago was on the trimester system, and he divided his course in an Aristotelian way into the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, so not much was left out. The class met once a week, but we students recorded the sessions and held additional gatherings throughout the week, going over his lectures in argumentative detail. For me, the experience was exhilarating. I later dedicated my first book to him.

MHY: Throughout your works there is a unifying sense of interiority, of seeing things from the inside out, and in readings and interviews you often refer to the importance of “getting inside” narrative. In your opinion, what is the importance of such narrative immersion?

RC: Narrative, it seems to me, is by nature immersive, both for the writer and for the reader. You may stay on the surface of a text in the sciences, or in scholarship generally, but story is meant to draw you inside. From the oral taletellers to the present time, the artist’s task and reader’s joy is this absorption in story. It’s why we laugh aloud while reading, why we cry at the movies. And it’s what we fear to lose in the more restless digital world.

MHY: So, it’s really a matter of the narrative voice… and the storytelling mechanism of getting “you,” the listener or reader, into a certain environment?

RC: I used to listen to the radio a lot when I was a kid. This was before TV, and the movies cost money which was not always available. But everyone had a radio, and all the mysteries, adventure stories, soap operas were on it, meaning you had to use your own imagination to convert mere audio into a full visual and sensory experience. Even in oral taletelling, you have the expressions and movements of the teller, but here you had only voice, sound. Yet, as soon as they opened the creaking door, you were dragged wholly into another world.

MHY: Is this what you mean by “the drama of cognition”?

RC: The drama of cognition belongs to all forms of mental acts, including those of scholarship and research—indeed that of growing up itself—though in its more dramatic forms, it is especially relevant to storytelling. It is a going from unknowing to knowing, and this process is often what shapes plots. Certainly it’s how jokes work. My personal such drama lies always in the effort, through immersion in the central metaphor, to grasp a story’s full potential. What is often seen as hypertextual or nonlinear in my writing is this effort to explore the whole.

MHY: Do you think that your involvement in the CAVE writing program at Brown University has influenced this emphasis on narrative immersion and complete sensual experience? Or is it the other way around?

RC: Neither is likely, though they certainly both involve narrative immersion. I was drawn to the CAVE program in part because of a childhood fascination with 3D. I made my own 3D comics, using blue and red lenses and blue and red ink, and was a fan of the early 3D movies. In fact, I used one of them in The Public Burning. All narrative, including history and the daily newspaper, is a kind of virtual reality, and the same could be said of memory.

MHY: Can you discern any progression from your early work in military coding and decoding, into your experiments with computer card narratives, and then into hypertext?

RC: I don’t think so. It was just one thing after another. It all had to do with puzzling out the world, testing the imagination, capturing story as a whole, not a line.