An Interview with Robert Coover
Robert Coover’s fiction has been defying convention and courting controversy ever since the publication of his debut novel The Origin of The Brunists in 1966. Whether he is satirizing the strictures of the picture-perfect small town and its residents in John’s Wife (1996), or epically reinventing a controversial episode in American history in The Public Burning (1977), Coover’s career has been a long engagement with the mythical tales and rituals that serve as storytelling’s primordial ooze. While he may be best known for lifting the scrim behind fairy tales and other “exemplary ancient fictions” in such works as Pricksongs & Descants (1969), Pinocchio in Venice (1991) and Briar Rose (1996), he has also been parodying and subverting contemporary genres of fiction. Gerald’s Party (1985) may best be described as a parlor mystery run amok, while Ghost Town (1998) upends the traditional tenets and iconic imagery of the American Western.
Noir, published by The Overlook Press, is Coover’s latest foray into this realm. Written from the second person perspective (“You are at the morgue.”), the reader is instantly immersed in the world of Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator, who has been hired by The Black Widow to unearth the truth behind her husband’s death. Replete with hardboiled elements and infused with Coover’s trademark metafictional conceits, Noir propels our intrepid hero through the various strata of The City while he attempts to survive, in spite of himself, and ultimately unravel The Case of The Vanishing Black Widow -- if, in fact, it is a case at all.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in late January and early February, 2010.
What attracted you to explore and interpret the tenets of noir? Why do you think the genre is so inviting for writers to gloss on and reinvent? Can you tell me more about the decision to initially publish the book in France, the birthplace of noir?
An author’s books are in part conversations with the self and sometimes the conversations are extended over several books. This one continues several such, beginning with my earliest thoughts about writing. I felt myself imbedded then in a lot of mythic debris from the past, stories dreamt up by others and in whose dreams -- often infantile dreams -- we were now living, and I wanted to engage with all that, invade it, confront it on its own turf, disrupt it at the core. Which I’ve mostly done, am doing. A character in my most recent book, as yet unpublished, calls it oneirophagy: dream-eating. And among the mythic materials that environ us are the genres, so-called, derivations of the ancient folktale. A few years ago I published a short comic novel called Ghost Town, in which I took on, not for the first time, the American Western myth, and as soon as it was done, I wanted to partner it with a similar sort of treatment of the national urban myth, as represented by “crime fiction” and the “private eye.” There are many reasons for the contemporary popularity of this character, not least the linguistic and structural fun it offers, but what’s maybe its most essential characteristic is its enactment of the drama of cognition -- which Blanche, in the novel, satirizes as the “melodrama of cognition.” Both genres tend to feature heroic loners -- the romantic folkloric quester -- and as Ghost Town began with the image of a lone rider on the empty desert chasing a retreating town, this one began with an isolate dockside detective in pursuit of something illusive like truth, beauty, the ineffable, through the dark inscrutable streets of the generic urban nightmare.
Shortly after finishing it, I was in Paris reading from it at a meeting of ODELA, l’Observatoire de la Littérature Américaine. My French translator was there, my agent, my publisher. It was, as you suggest, the French who identified and named this bleak existentialist American genre of the 1940s and 1950s, so, quite on the spot, we got up the idea of publishing it first in France to acknowledge that. And just for the fun of it.
Noir uses second person narration as opposed to the first person, a prevalent trait in hardboiled fiction. Was this decision a way to not only immediately envelop the reader in the murky world of our titular hero, Philip M. Noir, but to also subtly subvert the expectations of the reader?
Another part of that ongoing conversation was the 1980s/1990s Gerald’s Party/John’s Wife sequence. While the idea for Noir was still germinating, before it had partnered up with the as yet unwritten Ghost Town, I saw it vaguely as a possible third book of a trilogy, and as Gerald’s Party is in first person and John’s Wife in third, the idea of using the second person in the third story naturally occurred to me. But that was only a trivial formal reason that provoked a few lines and set the tone, and the use of it as part of a trilogy was soon abandoned. But the second person narrative idea stuck. Even if it’s only Noir talking to himself, the second person creates a compelling immediacy, a being-thereness that blurs the distance between narrator and reader, and I found that appealing and sometimes usefully disturbing. Noir looks out on the world -- seeking answers, understanding, needing to know -- through your eyes, and you, also a quester, look out through his. Somewhat like the occasional use of the subjective camera in noir movies, and it resonates with those movies’ frequent voice-over monologues.
Time has a very elastic quality in Noir. While The Case of The Vanishing Black Widow evolves over the course of five days on the surface, there is a discursiveness to the narrative, usually occasioned by Philip's recollections, that offer an almost languid juxtaposition to the violence punctuated episodes of the case in question. How does this technique skewer the traditionally tightly plotted medium? Or does it instead offer a depth that is normally absent from the form?
Actually at least seven days, I think, possibly more depending on how much time is spent in the underground labyrinth, though otherwise a fair description. That such calculations are possible does in turn suggest traditional tight plotting, even if it is somewhat muddied by the labyrinthine play with narrative time, a temporal complement to the alley maze and the smugglers’ tunnels. So, if elastic, tautly stretched. In fact, it could be said that time, in its ineluctable passage, no matter how revealed in thought, is the only stable and “realistic” element here. The flashback is a familiar characteristic of hard-boiled fiction and noir movies, which often begin with a crime and then work backwards to figure it out; thus, here we start with the body of a presumed client, then back up and get her story in several past-tense installments, broken up and scattered amid the segments of the continuing present-tense search for the body. To complicate it further, not only did I dip into Noir’s deeper past with several little anecdotes that predate the widow’s first appearance, I also left gaps in the present-tense narrative as I went along, allowing Noir to return to them later in flashbacks that recover moments that have been missed in the present-tense tale. But that also happens in some fictions and films, as when the P.I. casts his eye back on some earlier scene and discovers there details not noticed before. The genre, in its drama-of-cognition enactment, often creates puzzles like these, not only for the detective, but for the reader or viewer as well, and typically some of them are left unsolved.
Duality is a hallmark theme of noir. While the majority of the characters in your book are morally ambiguous the identity of The Black Widow, especially after her disappearance, haunts your protagonist. How does his search for the "truth" about her past, not to mention its and her escalating mutability, conform and contest this idea?
Indeed, doubles or seeming doubles, mirrors, windows, clock faces, uncanny echoes abound in fictions and films of this type, and they are to be found here. Mostly used for comic or ironic purposes. Parodic place-markers in a narrative meant to undermine with comedy the inherent romanticism of the genre.
Noir is a term intrinsic to film; a subject you previously explored in your story collection A Night At The Movies, or, You Must Remember This, as well as the legendary The Adventures of Lucky Pierre; a book structured in nine reels and set in Cinecity. Why has this medium so influenced your fiction making process?
As the novel was the distinctive narrative form of the 19th century, cinema became the distinctive mode of the 20th. Lucky Pierre in fact attempts, behind the scenes, a kind of history of the filmic century as seen via the differing techniques and notions of the nine women filmmakers, an idea underlined by the book’s dedication to three great filmmakers from three different cinematic eras. Film is a powerful mythmaking tool. Taking on the tribal myths in the late 20th century (whatever the “tribe” was by then) meant taking on the movies as well. And again the same principle: on their own turf.
Also, there is a fascinating crossover between the grammars of fiction and film, something I began to play with in my very earliest short narratives back in the late 1950s, early 1960s, in a group I was then calling “sentient lens” stories. All subsequent engagements with this form have their roots in those early experiments.
The characters in your work have the remarkable ability to exemplify yet transcend their type and expected behavior. How do the denizens of Noir adhere to their roles yet also rebel against the reader’s assumptions?
Have to leave that to the interpretations of others, I think. Though my central characters do often transcend their assigned roles, they frequently have to contend with characters who do not or cannot.
You spoke earlier about disrupting myth at its core. Why do you think we are so captivated or ensnared by these primeval tales? Do you think that rewriting and exploding these myths have the potential to create new genres that are then open for interpretation, i.e. the surrealist western or postmodern detective story?
I have essayed frequently on this topic, distinguishing between myth and tale as between the sacred and the profane -- sky-writing and earth-writing -- but judging them both to be conservative forms, content to remain close to the comforting mental habits of the past. People, fearing their own extinction, are willing to accept and perpetuate hand-me-down answers to the meaning of life and death; and, fearing a weakening of the tribal structures that sustain them, reinforce with their tales the conventional notions of justice, freedom, law and order, nature, family, etc. The writer, lone rider, has the power, if not always the skills, wisdom, or desire, to disturb this false contentment.
One of the pitfalls of political fiction is the descent into polemic and cant. Whether it is the carnivalesque atmosphere of The Public Burning or more compressed satirical works like A Political Fable or Whatever Happened To Gloomy Gus of The Chicago Bears? you were able to marry two disparate fields and create a rich fictional tapestry. Why do you think fiction is so reluctant to joust in the political arena? Has the absurdity of politics made effective satire more difficult?
Most fictions are in some manner political, even if only through acquiescence to traditional forms, helping thereby to preserve the status quo. And a great many fictions and films do engage at some level with history, which is always a political act. Narrative art, unlike historical analysis, achieves its aims through the exploration of metaphors, and such metaphors rarely lead the artist into everyday contemporary political issues -- like health reform, for example, or economic recovery programs -- but instead draw the artist toward the more universal love-and-death themes, making the political nature of their work less obvious on the surface. There is also probably an inherent distance between writers, who are rarely politicians except as dissidents, and politicians, who rarely read fiction or poetry. The absurdity of politics is not new. Satire is always possible. The execution of satirists by enraged politicians is also always possible.
As one of the founders of The Electronic Literature Organization, how do you feel about the rise of electronic reading devices? What sort of opportunities do these platforms present for the expansion and dissemination of innovative electronic literature?
All I knew for certain at the end of the 1980s was that we were headed for an irreversible revolution in modes of communication, a revolution that would radically transform human discourse for all time. I was -- and still am -- somewhat skeptical of platforms that merely imitate, with a few insignificant enhancements, the old technology -- in this case, that of the bound, more or less linear, page-turning book. But as a transitional tool, electronic reading devices are becoming more sophisticated and flexible, and can prepare the reader for more substantial changes yet to come. So far, the creators and users of these devices are not very interested in innovative electronic literature, or indeed innovative literature of any kind, but there is nothing about the devices that prohibits their use by digital artists. And, if not prohibited, they will surely use them and subvert them to their own purposes.
I understand that you are working on a sequel to your debut novel The Origin of The Brunists. What compelled you to return to the landscape of this book after so many years? When will we see its publication?
Origin chronicles the rise of an evangelical chiliastic cult following a mine disaster and a failed prophecy of the end of the world and Second Coming of Christ. Well before it was published I had started gathering notes for a sequel, and I worked on it in a desultory fashion over the decades, but more adventurous and pleasurable projects continually interfered with getting on with it. Might have gone on like that, but the election of young Bush and the rise of the fundamentalists at the turn of the millennium inspired a determined return to the project. It grew in size, complexity, and ambition, with the consequence that Bush came and went before I could finish it. But the zealots have not retreated into their caves, so it should still be relevant. Not sure yet about publication. Perhaps in 2011.