Pulp Fictions and Hypertexts with Robert Coover

04/01/2010 4:00 AM |

“You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird. Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out.” So opens Robert Coover’s latest publication, Noir: A Novel, and appropriately so: for forty-five years Coover has been inverting literary convention in works as wide-ranging as seminal experimental short story collection Pricksongs & Descants (1969), controversial Nixon psychodrama The Public Burning (1977), cubistic S&M farce Spanking the Maid (1982), irreverent Pinocchio sequel Pinocchio in Venice (1991), and kaleidoscopic small-town epic John’s Wife (1996). Originally labeled along with John Barth, William Gass and John Hawkes as a “metafictionist” for his tendency to take the very act of writing as a subject, Coover’s imagination cannot be contained: not only does he continue to expand the boundaries of fiction within the covers of his published books, but as a professor at Brown University he has also become one of the strongest advocates and teachers of the next frontier of fiction, the alinear, interactive medium known as hypertext.

The overriding theme of Coover’s work is the continual deconstruction of myth, whether that of fairy and folk tales (Sleeping Beauty in Briar Rose [1996], Hansel and Gretel in “The Gingerbread House,” a menagerie of anthropomorphic morals in “Aesop’s Forest”), religious stories and systems (the building of the ark as experienced by Noah’s unwitting sibling in “The Brother,” the growth of an apocalyptic cult in The Origin of the Brunists [1966]), sports legends (the American pastime in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. [1968]), societal rituals (the suburban parlor in Gerald’s Party), political events (A Political Fable, first published as “The Cat in the Hat for President” [1980]), and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, the movies. Throughout his career Coover has merged cinematic form with mythological content, dedicating an entire short story collection to the dark side of Hollywood’s imaginative legacy in 1987’s A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This (structured as an old-fashioned program of serials, cartoons, slapstick comedies, romances, etc., complete with intermission), dismantling the Western in Ghost Town (1998), and finishing a decades-in-the-making magnun opus, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Director’s Cut (2002), about a pornographic star in a pornographic world whose Fellini-esque existence is shaped by the female co-stars who capture his life as a hallucinatory series of film genres and modes.

The recently published Noir: A Novel (Overlook Press) is Coover’s first in eight years, but in its total cinematic immersion takes up right where Lucky Pierre left off. The protagonist is “you,” Philip M. Noir, a clumsy, forgetful, and lecherous private investigator who inhabits a permanently nocturnal labyrinthine cityscape right out of a chiaroscuroed crime thriller. Initially hired by a mysterious and beautiful veiled widow to find her husband’s killer, Noir must now find her own murderer in an underworld populated by cantankerous cops (Blue), sultry nightclub singers (Flame), and seedy criminal informants (Rats). The real investigation for Coover, however, is into his usual concerns—memory, consciousness, identity, sex, the constant flux of a deceivingly malleable “reality,” the intertwining of cinema and literature—with the dark, bawdy humor (a moll’s fading full-body tattoo, used to relay messages between rival yakuza, is described as “suffering the fate of all history, which is only corruptible memory”) and impeccable stream of consciousness prose that are his trademarks. I corresponded with Coover via email to discuss Noir, Noir, noir, and other artistic projects and ideas on which the relentless innovator has been working.

The L: The first thing that stands out in Noir is its unusual use of the second-person point of view. You’ve used second-person before, but never throughout a novel. Why here? Is there something about noir that lends itself to this literary mode of narration?

Robert Coover: The original choice was inspired by the simple desire to have an as-yet-undeveloped dockside detective story idea serve as a possible third book in a sequence which had already used first and third person narration, respectively, but then, when the book detached itself from that notion and drew closer to works more like Ghost Town, it felt right to stay with it. The second person resonates with such familiar film noir techniques as the subjective camera, voice-over monologues, cities that speak to you, the mirrored double (“You talkin’ to me?”), and it helps make the reader complicit in Noir’s quest.