Pushcart XLIII: Robert Coover, “The Wall” from Conjunctions #68

1879 etching of Pyramus and Thisbe by Max Klinger

1879 etching of Pyramus and Thisbe by Max Klinger

Once, there were two lovers, separated by a wall that divided their city, a wall they had helped to build, recruited by the warring city fathers, who declared that only a wall would ensure their freedom. It was across the wall, trowels in their hands, that they first saw each other, lovestruck as soon as seeing. Such amorous gazes between separated wall builders were not rare, but soon were outlawed, stolen glances being treated like common theft and punished with solitary confinement or, when those found guilty were deemed incorrigible, blinding. Looking away became a way of looking, a trowel’s clicks a code, the placing of a brick a form of erotic suggestion.

Complete story available online at Conjunctions

The issue of Conjunctions whence this story comes is themed: “Inside Out: Architectures of Experience investigates the vast range of architectures crucial to our being: stories, poems, and essays that center around a pivotal architectural structure or space.” It’s not surprising the subject of a wall cropped up. But the story goes well beyond the current discussion of wall building, using as its starting point a familiar situation: two lovers separated by a wall between their communities. I’m very grateful to Jake Weber for his post naming Pyramus and Thisbe as the seminal legend using this trope; I couldn’t come up with it, kept getting stuck on Heloise and Abelard (no, no, no).

Coover abandons the ancient myth early on, however, and moves in a very different direction: the interplay of freedom and constraints. This happens to interest me very much, since it’s a popular theme in philosophy. We can start with Hobbes’ social contract theory (unless you want to go back to Confucius and Mozi, who also used elements of sacrificing freedom for social harmony and security, resulting in more freedom) who saw life in the state of nature as being absolutely free, but also, “nasty, brutish, and short”, requiring a sovereign to impose constraints that improved communal living, which led to Locke’s ideas of consent to governance. Or we can look to Kant’s categorical imperative, which constrains absolute freedom based on rational considerations, and leads to the idea that freedom is only attained within constraints. I recently took a mooc that examined free will, and outlined how constraints – such as the discipline to learn to play a musical instrument or a sport at a high level – then creates freedom within that arena, as constraints become automatic and allow expression and innovation rather than adherence. Applied to writing: once syntax, vocabulary, and enough experience to provide content are acquired, writing is not about remembering rules but about creating something new, something unique

I’m not sure if Coover had these, or anything like these ideas, in mind when he wrote the story, but it follows an interesting course: when the wall is finally defeated, there’s a honeymoon period of joy, but that soon turns to discontent.

Then, as time passed, the two lovers, along with many others who had lived through the construction and fall of the wall, found that they missed it. They studied old maps, took walks along its buried contours. Sections of the wall were said to exist still; they searched for them, getting lost from one another as they did. They accepted that, discovering that the wall had been a barrier to their desires, and a stimulus to them, but freedom had deprived them of their intensity, provided other options.

Another idea at play here, a bit more subtle but still present, is that of the human need to struggle, to work, to overcome obstacles. Once the wall is down – or the journey is complete, or the question is answered, or the skill is acquired – we don’t typically sit around and enjoy the achievement for very long. A new goal presents itself, a new question, a new exploration, a new war. This is an evolutionary advantage, by the way; without this drive, we’d still be sitting around various fires in isolated clans, saying “Hey, look what we did.” So I wonder: is it that the people miss the wall, or that they miss the struggle to dismantle it?

In any event, the wall is recreated, though not literally, but in the form of personal boundaries:

And meanwhile, slowly, though none knew how, the myth of the “city fathers” having crumbled with the wall, the wall itself, as if seeded by the chips of bricks that had been left behind, did indeed return, or seemed to, seen by some, if not by all. A kind of personal choice as with all perceptions of reality, though it did not feel like choice. Perhaps its reappearance, to those who witnessed and acknowledged it, was provoked by that longing for a significant life the estranged lovers felt, for there they were, gazing at each other across the wall, real or imaginary. They nodded curtly to each other, looked away. They could have stepped over this young wall, but did not, for their separation had seemed permanent and desirable.

Psychology is full of the need for personal boundaries, for every individual to have a clear understanding of where “you” end and “I” begin, an understanding that begins in infancy and continues throughout a lifetime. The story’s metaphor gets a bit stretched here, but it’s very true that removing physical boundaries can intensify anxiety about psychological boundaries; ask any newlywed. But personal boundaries are not in themselves destructive; in fact, it’s the lack of boundaries that leads to dysfunction. Just ask anyone who’s ever lived with someone with borderline personality disorder.

The final line has such a peculiar syntax, I wonder if ambiguity is intended:

They turned away, aware that the loneliness they felt was in effect that freedom they’d been promised when citizen bricklayers still, and sadly they wished it so.

Here’s where C. S. Lewis comes in: “One doesn’t realise in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy one must be tied.” But he was talking about personal ties, and by extension, ties to the deity, the separation from which is a kind of loneliness so extreme as to be alienation from all that exists.

With such a wealth of ideas playing, it seems ridiculous to throw in another one, but it’s something I’ve been pondering for a while: freedom and constraints in creativity, in arts. Recently I’ve been emailing Patrick Gillespie, a Vermont poet whose blog I discovered last year, about poetic forms and how they contribute to meaning, and how some poems seem to resist formal analysis; I even threw in the Frost thing about free verse being like playing tennis without a net. As poetry, and other arts, have moved towards greater freedom – throwing off constraints of meter, rhyme, length, subject, adherence to reality itself – it’s true there’s a much wider spread of art, but it’s also true that other constraints have been substituted. To deny rhyme and meter is itself a constraint, particularly to someone who has an ear for such things. Oulipo exists as a way to allow writers to create their own restraints as creative exercises. Technology and business recognize the creative spark only constraints can give, typified by the motto “think inside the box”. In the 60s, the nonconformist impulse was summed up by the ironic statement, “I want to be different, like all my friends.”

If we are denied external constraints, do we automatically create internal constraints? Is this a bad thing? And to get back to Kant and Hobbes, can we exist as a social community if we all have our own individual constraints, rather than common constraints imposed by consensus and consent?

I’m a big fan of Coover, but one of the anxieties I always face is, am I getting it right? And this is the constraint I force upon myself, even here, where there are no external requirements – no professor imposing a particular length or academic style or stamping this post with a grade – I create my own constraint, to figure out what the writer meant. Maybe it’s enough to use these pieces as a way to explore what is possible, rather than looking for what is right.

Pushcart 2014: Robert Coover, “The Reader” from Conjunctions, Fall 2012

M. C. Escher, "Drawing Hands" 1948

M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands” 1948

Without a reader of his own, he creates one in a story he calls “The Reader.”

The permeable boundaries between character, narrator, writer, reader; character’s inner world, narrator’s inner thoughts, writer’s subtext, reader’s filter; and elements I haven’t thought of or don’t (yet) know how to recognize or name: what better re-entry into the Pushcart read than Robert Coover. In one 1500-word paragraph (available online, thank you Conjunctions), he creates more tunnels and bridges between word-on-page and “reality” than most full-length novels could handle.

It’s a story of a writer getting lost in his own writing, the reader who gets lost with him, and the real-life reader (maybe?) who tries to follow. I’ve tried color-coding which writer is speaking/thinking at a given time, which reader, but it’s a lot more fun to just take the ride: not only does he burrow down a level, but he also looks up to wonder if he is himself someone else’s “down a level” reality. This is shifting POV to the ultimate: how many writers, how many readers, are there? On the most literal level, there’s a real reader/writer pair in the intermediate layer, a fictional reader/writer pair below that in the world created by the writer, and, potentially, a reader/writer pair at a higher level, writing and reading this story (the reader – me, you – being implicit rather than explicit).

Which, of course, is exactly the case: this is a story about a character who is a writer who creates a world (and sometimes gets lost in it) but it’s also the fictional world created by a writer, Coover, and read by me (among others). The story is what the story says. This is a pipe.

This is how a story ought to end.


Robert Coover: “The Frog Prince” from TNY 1/27/13

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled the frog, wishing for more, and — presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.

At first I thought: This is the kind of story that couldn’t get published in the East Podunk Online Quarterly Frogblog if it didn’t have Coover’s name on it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you understand; I think restating the obvious in an interesting, highly entertaining way is underrated. The obvious in this case is that love, sexual obsession, is an addictive drug, and, like any addictive drug, will lead you to self-destruct as you pursue it. Anyone heretofore unaware of this hasn’t been paying attention to his or her own behavior (or perhaps to his or her own genitals).

But then I considered the twist:

…[B]ut she understood now, as she should have understood then, that he had been not an enchanted prince turned into a frog but a frog turned into a prince, and all he’d wanted was to be a frog again.

Initially, the woman in the story is the addict, willing to put up with all the disadvantages of her drug of choice. Depending on your addiction, you know what those are: financial cost, physical risk, personal degradation to degrees previously considered unthinkable. This single sentence recasts the relationship, the narrative itself, in a somewhat different mold: the frog in captivity, a golden cage. This is the story he will tell his frog buddies back in the pond, the account of his exile, escape, return. This becomes his story; the woman is reduced to an observer in the narrative, or perhaps, if we wish to give her more politically correct power, a captor.

Every relationship requires the parties meet somewhere outside themselves. Some relationships involve only small mutual corrections to allow for enough intersection to satisfy; others, less healthy ones perhaps, force one partner to leap into a new universe, and depend on the relationship to make up for what is left behind. Sometimes a frog just wants to be a frog. And, by the way, there’s no such thing as an enchanted prince, but if you’re lucky, you can find that out before you destroy your life trying to make one out of the next frog you meet.

In the end, it’s still a story no one would publish without Coover’s name attached to it. Me, I’m a Coover fan; I cut him a lot of slack, and I’m willing to work for his stories.

Robert Coover: “The Colonel’s Daughter” from TNY, 9/2/13

TNY Illustration by Scott  McKowan

TNY Illustration by Scott McKowan

The conspirators sit smoking thoughtfully, sipping brandy, around the fire in the Colonel’s den. The decision has been made. They have each entered here in uncertain pursuit of some vague enthusiasm and, looking behind them, they have seen that what they passed through was a doorway into history. Soon there will be no turning back. Probably there is already no turning back. They have been chosen by the Colonel. They do not all know one another well, and are not sure they trust one another. They murmur softly, chuckle self-consciously, toast to their luck in the coming adventure, but remain watchful.

It’s a political thriller, I thought; as I read (you can, too; it’s available online), I was surprised at how stereotypical the characters seemed: the merchant looking for the profit angle, the academic feeling intellectually superior, the Minister of the Interior ready to just execute all dissenters and be done with it, the “dashing young biplane pilot” – can’t you just see him (think Han Solo), thick hair tossed back, an easy grin, restless while sitting indoors – not exactly sure about the fine details of the revolutionary conspiracy but hoping to get some adventure out of whatever it is. It’s like an MGM cast meeting for a WWII B-movie.

I was a bit surprised by Coover’s use of these stereotypical characters, as well as by the linear narrative movement of the story; the two stories of his I’d already read followed a less traditional path. It wasn’t until the last few paragraphs that I was reassured: this was still Coover.

Then there’s the Colonel’s Daughter, acting as servant; she never speaks, nor are we privy to her thoughts as we are to the other characters:

When the Colonel’s daughter approaches the department-store magnate to refill his glass, he grasps her hand-woven apron and brings it close to the rimless spectacles perched on the end of his bulbous red nose. Blushing, she unties the apron and backs away, leaving it in his hands—and after a moment’s study he identifies not only the village whence it came but the probable weaver, impressing everyone with his expertise.

In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, Coover explains he was thinking of a cinematographic fairy tale; hence the archetypal characters (I was thinking stereotype, but he’s right, archetype is closer).

I suspect men and women will react very differently to this story, that men will see primarily the puzzle: who is the traitor? For me, I saw a woman being stripped by a roomful of men while her father looks on, a father who views her as merely a measuring device for ferreting out the traitor. I don’t care who the traitor is. Furthermore, I don’t think it matters; a year, a decade, a century from now, a similar cluster of men will gather in a room and plan another conspiracy. I want to know what the Colonel’s Daughter (who is, by the way, the title character if that’s any help) is thinking.

But she, too, is an archetype, I suspect, a stand-in for the country being exploited by the merchants, the military, the intellectuals, all the other archetypes, in the interests of power, greed, or glory. Which makes it all the more important to know what she is thinking, especially now.

While reading this, I was reminded again of the importance of context in reading, something I just experienced a few months ago when reading Light in August (for a class) against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of voting rights protection and the Trayvon Martin verdict. With Coover’s story, I’m sure the tension of the imminent attack against Syria acted as an intensifier for this story. And it goes both ways: come on, would you be more or less likely to favor an attack if you knew the rebels were like the guys in the story? Of course, TNY couldn’t possibly have slated this story to fit this particular crisis; they were probably thinking of last week’s Middle East crisis in Egypt. For my part, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rise above the real-life gloom to fully examine this as a story; it seemed like a powerful but unoriginal parable for someone of Coover’s talents. Maybe this story will read differently when it isn’t quite so immediate.

Robert Coover: “Matinee” from The New Yorker, 7/25/2011

Illustration by Jorge Arevalo

Illustration by Jorge Arevalo

“Sometimes I feel like my whole life is just a movie I’m in.” she says, somewhat tearfully, “and I don’t even have the best part.” “Or two movies,” he says, “or more. All happening” – “I adore you,” she whispers, kissing his speaking lips – “at the same time, like some kind of montage.” “Yes, fraught moments like these are like that,” she replies in her deepening melancholy, “but” – “I feel like I’ve always loved you,” he murmurs, nibbling her earlobe – “it’s an illusion.”

To those who scoff at the guardians of proper punctuation – those of us who rant against apostrophes in plurals, or who want the old Oxford comma back in these days of measured keystrokes – the above paragraph shows just how much fun you can have with appropriate punctuation. But, like children who must eat their vegetables before they get dessert, you have to master semicolons and commas first. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, there’s the proof, right there. No dessert for you.

I loved Coover’s “Going For a Beer” from last March, and I’m just as thrilled with this piece. We start with a young woman watching a movie, then to a movie about a woman watching a movie, and to a man watching a movie about a woman watching a movie… Reality keeps swapping itself out, and we’re never sure if we’re in a movie or in someone’s reality – or if there is, ultimately, any reality. The characters aren’t sure, either. It’s incredibly well-done. Look at the passage above. There are two scenes (maybe they are movies, maybe one is a movie) playing out at the same time: in one, they are talking about life being like a movie, and in another they are kissing.

In his Book Bench interview online, Coover talks about his love of movies. It shows here. The movies are never quite exactly what they seem to be: Brief Encounter, sort of, La Belle Jour definitely, but not necessarily, it’s all very smoothly woven together so even if you can’t identify the movies, you recognize the archetypes: the hopeless romances, the almost-loves, the stories we’ve been raised on since people could tell stories, and it’s all here, in this story he tells us.

Or, it’s just a really fun story.

Robert Coover: “Going for a Beer” from The New Yorker, 3/15/11

"Harold Angel" by Davis & Davis

"Harold Angel" by Davis & Davis

Time loops and spins in this very short story, available online, which begins: “He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one.” I love this sort of thing.

In his interview, the author admits “sometimes anticipation follows event” – (aha! The Twin Photons of Geneva and subsequent experiments where effect preceded cause, and now anticipation follows event, quantum mechanics brought to life! [please do not confuse me with someone who knows what she is talking about when it comes to quantum theory, I only understand the broadest strokes and even them very vaguely]) and that “The play with time”‘s the thing. He also declines to discuss the story – “To expand on a story shaped by such contraction is to undo the story itself, not explain or clarify it, so I pass. But, yes, all our lives can (and mostly do) shrink to a few words. Ask anyone on his or her deathbed: How did I get here so fast? I’ve only just begun!” – and I’m wondering about such churlish interviews. Though I can see his point: this story is simple. As he says later, “It’s not the joke, but how you tell it.”

The story itself is very simple: engaged man picks up Kewpie Doll lover in a bar, marries her, endures some discomfort at work where his first fiancee also worked, has children, gets old, dies. I think it might’ve helped if this “joke” was a little more interesting, but how he told it is pretty good. I enjoy time paradoxes, folded-over timelines (as long as they are deliberate and not mistakes), obscured sequences, a la Heinlein, Asimov, and even Ishiguro (I still say The Unconsoled was a life-flashing-before-his-eyes deathbed scene, but I’ve been shouted down and outright laughed at for my naivete on that one).

The fun here is in how we think about something, we know it’s probably not a good idea, and we do it anyway. Sometimes it works out, though you can’t remember if you enjoyed the orgasm or not. Sometimes you end up surrounded by beheaded and dismembered kewpie dolls. Either way, you die in the end. Because that’s what we all do – remember that amazing early-on flash, “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood? “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” Others have recalled Cheever’s “The Swimmer” though I can’t think of that without bringing on nightmares about Burt Lancaster, thanks to a high school teacher who foolishly decided that students would respond more favorably to a movie than to actual words on a page. A later high school teacher thought the same thing about True Grit, ignoring the truism that when you throw John Wayne and Glen Campbell into the mix, you end up with something totally different from what you started with.

But back to “Going For a Beer.” I seem to have trouble staying on track; it’s a story that has to be read, because that’s where the fun is, not in a summary or analysis. It was a fun read. I enjoyed it. If it had been twice as long, I would’ve enjoyed it half as much.