Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Vince Levy's introduction to Robert Coover

It takes a course like the Writers House Fellows seminar to discover a favorite last-line author, and after a month spent reading his works I found one in Robert Coover. The transparent protagonist of his short story ‘The Invisible Man’ is left with the understanding that “The future was no easier to see than he was.” In “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee”, a sequel to the Puff the Magic Dragon story, an elderly Sir-John faces another chapter of adventure with the conceit that “If he joined the heroes he would probably be spared to live another day. But what use would that be if the dragon in him were no more?”

I’ve also discovered that the last line of Coover's stories are rarely their end. While first reads gratify with spot-on pastiches of Americana and a harmony of language that makes it feel as though we should be reading Coover in stanzas and not by the page, the meanings of these stories proliferate beyond their conclusions.

Often in class our group would only locate these meanings after balancing our reading experience with a measure of the book’s conceptual project. For we Coovarians - as Al now starts his emails to our group - have come to consensus, the common project across Coover’s career is the use of experimental narrative forms that call attention to the constraints of conventional fictions and raise questions about the stories we tell each other. In class discussions we’ve had to remind ourselves that Coover’s hand is ever-present in his work, whether it’s the hand that vantriliquizes Richard Nixon in the Public Burning, the hand that writes J Henry Waugh write the Universal Baseball association, or the hand that stacks a deck of 13 cards for the reader to shuffle and read in any order in the short story ‘Hearts Suit.’

Part of what’s been so rewarding about reading Coover has been training ourselves to read in two-modes simultaneously – for the sheer pleasure of the linguistic surface and for a richer understanding of the narrative possibilities that operate below.

I’ve met many authors who work to pull their readers into their stories but few who can keep them inside and out, as Coover does, at once. As a result, Coover’s authorship is inseparable from the meanings assemble of his tales, and the metafictional questions Coover raises reminds us constantly of the author who has put this story to paper, to type, or to the electronic screen.

We should add a forth dimension to this chain of writing modes thanks to Coover as well - the story put to Cave. Two weeks back I visited Professor Coover at Brown University and explored his electronic writing program, the centerpiece of which is a 3D simulator called the Cave where stories are told through words, images and sounds that leave the screen and travel in three dimensions across an x-y-z axis. We’ve all seen the golden scrolling intro texts to the Star Wars movies – imagine standing inside the stream of words and you have a bit of an idea of what the Cave can do. In one simulation Coover put me on I soared through a medieval castle and braced myself for impact as the Cave propelled me through a wooden gate; Coover, standing by my side, chuckled at the effect.

Reading Coover in the classroom has been much the same – startling forms sprung forth from the page, and always the hint of the magician beside you grinning. So while I will ask you now to welcome tonight’s speaker for his first visit to the Kelley Writers House, really he’s been here all along. Ladies and gentleman I give you the first Writers House Fellow of 2009, Robert Coover.

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