Anything Can Happen: Robert Coover's Playful Metafiction

Robert Coover has, without a doubt, influenced me more than any other author. His writing is dazzlingly inventive and wickedly funny. Pricksongs and Descants, his 1969 short story collection, is a pioneering work of metafiction. He often self-consciously inserts himself into the stories, as he does quite deliberately with “The Magic Poker:” I wander the island inventing it...I impose a midday silence, a profound and heavy stillness. But anything can happen.

“Anything can happen” seems to be the motto of all these stories, which are written with a sense of gleeful play, unfurling climaxes and twists and alternate endings as adroitly as a child building Lego towers. Some stories begin plausibly and gradually descend into absurdity, while others are absurd all the way through, such as “A Pedestrian Accident,” which is narrated by a man who’s pinned under the wheels of a large truck and is trying to figure out who’s at fault for hitting him.

My favorite story in the collection, though, is “The Babysitter.” It falls into the former category, beginning on an ordinary note. A teenage girl arrives at The Tucker’s house to babysit for the evening as they get ready to go to a friend’s party. The events of the night soon become unsettling and then terrifying, though punctuated with moments of normalcy.

The way the story is structured, alternating between different points of view in brief paragraphs, gives it a feverish intensity. The babysitter wishes the kids would go to sleep so she could watch TV in peace, Mr. Tucker (Harry) fantasizes about the babysitter and has “vague remembrances of football rallies and movie balconies,” his wife Dolly fears that her kids will someday put her in a nursing home, and the babysitter’s boyfriend Jack hopes he can get some alone time with her after the kids are in bed but is insecure about his lack of sexual experience.

When arranging the scenes in a sequence, Coover seems more interested in rhythm than linearity. For instance, a violent struggle between the babysitter and the children is followed by a scene with Jack ramming his weight against the pinball machine, trying to get the ball to conform to his will. Coover also juxtaposes scenes from a brutal western on the Tucker’s TV screen with the babysitter wrestling with the rambunctious daughter, trying to give her a bath:

“Bitsy...!” the babysitter threatens. Artificial reds and greens and purples flicker over the child’s wet body, as hooves clatter, guns crackle, and stagecoach wheels thunder over rugged terrain...She grabs the girl scampering by, carries her struggling to the bathroom, and with a smart crack on her glistening bottom, pops her into back into the tub. In spite, Bitsy peepees in the bathwater.

What lends the story its nightmarish quality, though, is not the violence but rather the moments of vivid humiliation as characters are caught in compromising positions, both literally and emotionally naked. We’re embarrassed for the characters and yet in horrified fascination we can’t stop reading. As twisted as these scenes are, they’re also super funny.

Although the humor comes at the characters’ expense, it never feels mean-spirited. Coover manages to make their yearnings ridiculous and yet poignant at the same time. As they arrive at the party, Dolly laments: He loves her. She loves him. And then the babies come. And dirty diapers and one goddamn meal after another. Dishes. Noise. Clutter. And fat. Not just tight, her girdle actually hurts. Somewhere recently she’s read about women getting heart attacks or cancer or something from too-tight girdles.

Throughout the story, Coover toys with the tension between fantasy and reality, the lines becoming increasingly blurred. One storyline revolves entirely around the movies playing on the Tucker’s TV screen, with a scene told through the eyes of the sheriff in a western. Soon the storylines occuring on TV and those experienced by the characters become indistinguishable. This in turn causes us to question the story’s universe, removing the suspension of disbelief that typically occurs when we read fiction.

Are any of the scenes “actually” happening or are they all fantasy sequences? Reality is further distorted when multiple versions play out of the same scenario, sort of like a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” This reminds us that anything that happens in a story is a matter of authorial choice. There’s no universal law that determines why a story turns out one way and not another. That’s one of the joys of reading (and writing) fiction.

Which scene is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below.

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