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Journal ArticleDOI

Fictional self-consciousness in Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants

30 Nov 1995-Iss: 8, pp 123-137

AbstractThis essay reads Robert Coover's novel Pricksongs and Descants as an instance of the interchange between mimetic representation and literary self-reflexivity characteristic of postmodern novelists such as Vladimir Nabokov or John Barth. It analyses some of the short stories collected in this volume as examples of Coover's ongoing concern with the interchange between (1) our perception of the real, (2) the systems of thought by means of which we account for the flux of reality, and (3) the epistemological nature and function of literature as a vehicle for modern self-understanding. The result is not only a (literary) experiment in which the structures of the traditional, linear novel are relentlessly questioned, but also an inquiry into the possibility of tracing a clear-cut distinction between fiction and reality and, subsequently, between art and life.

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Journal ArticleDOI
Abstract: The situation of the narrator in Robert Coover's first volume of short fiction, Pricksongs & Descants, is as comically dire as that of L. Frank Baum's defrocked wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Near the end of Baum's book the wizard is caught backstage in the act of operating the devices that make him so falsely awesome, a rude unveiling that forces him to explain to a chagrined Dorothy that he is not the expected deus ex machina. He is instead a mere ventriloquist from prosaic Omaha whose self-created legends and myths are little more than defensive strategies, barriers of artifice set forth to confound the real terrors of his existence. Coover similarly strips away the surface of character and event in his stories to reveal the generative discourse of harried narrators, the writer as wizard pumping away on his pedals, pulling switches, turning words into symbols; but in Coover's fiction there is no genial restoration of the wizard/writer's raison d'etre, no subsequent conferral of the real thing, veritable hearts and brains. The narrator is relentlessly manifest. His voice, throwing other voices, even the wind in the trees, is all that remains, and what he stresses in his narrative is primarily its contrivance. "I wander the island, inventing it," the narrator of "The Magic Poker" begins. "I make a sun for it, and trees-pines and birch and dogwood and firs-and cause the water to lap the pebbles of its abandoned shores" (p. 20).1 There is no exit from the world he predicates. The island becomes a metaphor that envelops him: he is that surrounded self, this nature in which Caliban (the Caretaker's Son) lurks and a pipe-smoking Prince Prospero meditates. For Coover the presence of this demystified narrator (I invent, I make, I cause) is invariably comic; he is Prospero in a blazer and ascot, a fumbling magician, the tyrannical moderator of a TV panel show. He is also Coover's fate and that recognition often makes the comedy desperate. In Pricksongs & Descants, his most representative work to date, he writes variously in both moods and reveals at every turn the paradoxical nature of this particular approach to fiction. In such metafictive art, Fredric Jameson notes, "it is wrong to want to decide, to want to resolve a difficulty." What is exhibited is not objective content but a "mental procedure which suddenly shifts gears, which throws everything in an inextricable tangle one floor higher, and turns the very problem itself (the obscurity of this sentence) into its own solution (the

4 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
Abstract: OBERT coover's Pricksongs and Descants (1969) is not only a »superb short story collection but a work that attempts to destroy the myths of contemporary literature and to examine the very nature of the writing process. Despite lavish talents, Coover has been a neglected figure on the American literary scene because his prose consistently investigates the conflicts that beset modernist writing as well as the act of composing that produces them. Frequently regarded as a precocious metafictionist, a lesser Barth or Pynchon, whose prose puzzles recall experimental American writing of the late sixties at its most synthetic, Coover is actually a highly poetic, extremely sophisticated prose philosopher whose fictions have always questioned the self-reflexivity of the American metafictionist movement. He has much in common with the anti-mythological writer that Roland Barthes sought in his 1957 essay "Myth Today," the one who would produce what Barthes calls writing degree zero, language that assiduously attempts to extract all its false, mythic content.1 In paralleling Barthes' program, Coover's stories attain a sparsity, purity, and elegance that signifies far more than Coover's declaration of his own presence in the text. Rather, these stories reflect the presence of a tough-minded yet supple intelligence in their analyses of many myths, including what Barthes considers one of the most dubious myths of literature: the literary mythos itself, the belief that literature must exclusively concern itself with the dissemination of ideas or feeling,

1 citations